December 4, 2020


(c) J. Singh, 2016

Raman Kaur adjusted her chunni to make sure that her head was covered. She was sitting in the darbar at the local Gurudwara, listening to the keertan by the ragi jatha. To their right was the grand dais upon which the eternal Guru of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, rested. A sevadar sat behind and ceremoniously waved a chaur over the Guru Granth Sahib. The sangat sat listening to the soulful sounds emanating from the instruments and melodious voices of the ragi jatha as they sang a composition from the Guru Granth Sahib. Overhead, two large projector screens displayed the shabad in its original Gurmukhi script, as well as English transliteration and translation. It was a calming and serene atmosphere in the Gurudwara.

Raman glanced up occasionally to read the lines and then turned her attention back to the keertan. It was not easy to concentrate with all the distractions. Somewhere behind her, an infant kept crying while his mother made futile attempts to soothe and quiet him. Other children of varying ages surrounded her, some couldn't sit still, fidgeting in their mothers' laps, while others ran to and fro, with no particular aim in mind. People kept getting up, sitting down, moving around, and shifting about. The visual distractions alone were enough to completely shatter Raman's feeble attempts at concentrating. And then there was the constant stream of people coming in to do matha tek - to pay obeisance to the Guru and provide an offering - before taking their seat in the darbar among the sangat.

This was probably the most distracting thing. It obscured her view of the ragi jatha, especially when so many people came in that lines began to form. Raman finally sighed in resignation and gave up. It was too difficult to concentrate. She felt herself relaxing as she let her mind wander. This was a lot easier than trying to focus and concentrate on the shabad. The words and music faded into the background as she let her mind drift and dwell on other things of its own choosing.

She found herself watching the members of the sangat as they did matha tek. At the front of the line stood a frail old woman, eyes closed and hands clasped together in prayer. Behind her, a line had begun to form. She took her time saying her prayer, and then, very slowly, leaned down to place her offering in the golak. Then, she gradually lowered herself to the ground and bowed, placing her forehead on the floor. It took her another several minutes to raise herself back up to a standing position, after which she ambled to the side of the hall and found a place to sit.

Raman's thoughts were focused on the old woman. She had noticed that the old woman had dropped a single coin in the golak, while nearly everyone else, including children, had given paper currency. Most people were offering the standard one dollar bill, but she had seen many others put in five dollar bills, and even a few giving twenty dollar bills. One extraordinary man had donated a hundred dollar bill. Some of them would fold up the money in an attempt to conceal the amount being given. Raman wondered why the old woman had only donated one single coin, when almost everyone else had donated larger amounts. It couldn't have been due to any financial hardship on her part, surely, since she seemed so well dressed. After all, she did have gold earrings on, and a gold necklace around her neck. And her suit was well stitched, made from fine cloth. It was clear that she was from a well-to-do family. She didn't appear to be in any financial hardship. Maybe, thought Raman, she was just a cheapskate. But this was the Gurudwara, she thought, and this certainly was not the place to be stingy. Feelings of dislike and repulsion surfaced in her consciousness, threatening to take over her entire thought process.

She glanced over at the old woman a few times, unable to shake the unsettling feeling she was getting. The old woman was sitting quietly with her eyes closed, listening to the keertan. Raman made a mental note that not a single person after the old woman had offered coins. They had all offered paper currency for their donation. "She really should have given more than one single coin," Raman found herself thinking, not being able to shift her mind to other thoughts.

The service concluded soon afterwards. The Ardas was performed, and after a reading of the Hukamnama from the Guru Granth Sahib, the karah parshad was distributed to the entire sangat. After eating her portion, Raman stood up to head to the langar hall for a meal. But suddenly, she felt someone tugging at her kameez. She looked down and saw a little girl staring up at her with a wide toothy grin.

"Uncleji is calling you," she said, pointing, "to help with golak seva."

Raman looked to see where the child was pointing. A small group of the sangat had formed a circle, seated on the ground. Two men were lifting the golak box and taking it to them. They would be counting the offerings and needed volunteers. After counting all the donations, the treasurer would record the amount in the Gurudwara ledger for the official record.

Raman sighed and walked over to the group. She would have to wait for langar, but she couldn't really say no to any call for seva. Her parents had repeatedly taught her this lesson while she was growing up, and it was now ingrained in her.

She smiled briefly and nodded at the Uncleji who had summoned her, then sat down in the remaining open spot in the circle. The Uncleji smiled and chatted happily with the sangat members. He wore thick spectacles and had a long white beard. He seemed to be quite happy and content, as if he had not a care in the world.

The golak was opened, and all the donations poured out into a huge pile of cash in the middle of the circle. The Uncleji gave directions to everyone and then instructed them to begin counting. "Collect one dollar bills into groups of ten, and set them down to that side. For ten dollar bills, collect them in groups of ten, and twenty dollar bills into groups of five. Set them down on the opposite side. Any bills larger than twenty should be put over here on this side. Bhai Manpreet Singh ji will tally the totals. Any questions? Ok, let's go!"

The task took more concentration than Raman had realized. A few times, she had to recount the bills to ensure that she had gotten it right. But eventually, she got the hang of it. Everyone surrounding her was busy leafing through the dollar bills, silently counting, collating, and then carefully placing the stack of bills in a neat row before starting on the next round. It almost felt like she was in an accountant''s office.

The Uncleji was all smiles, watching everyone earnestly at work. Every once in a while, someone came across a fifty dollar bill, or some other denomination that did not fit neatly into the one, ten, or twenty category, and handed it to him. He would verify the amount and then place it neatly in a row to his right side with all the other misfit categories.

"Oh, Uncleji, I found this," a little girl handed him a coin.

Raman looked up, losing her place in her counting. It was the coin from the old lady. Uncleji took the coin and studied it with furrowed brows.

"Hmm," he said, lost in thought. He stared at it for a few moments, turned it over, and then stared at it some more.

"Well," he said, finally, "this is not US currency. Wait here, let me fetch Bhai Parampreet ji, he has a better knowledge of these things."

Uncleji was not gone for long. When he returned with Bhai Parampreet ji, a tall, lanky man with a thin, gray beard, they both seemed to be quite preoccupied with the coin.

Finally the little girl asked, "Uncleji, what is it?"

"Oh, we both examined it," said Uncleji, "Bhai Parampreet ji and myself both agree, this is something very special. It is a rare coin, it's very, very old. Not from any modern currency, that's for sure. And it's pure gold."

"Wow!" the little girl made no attempt to conceal her excitement. By now, everyone had stopped counting and their attention was fixed on Uncleji and the coin.

"What's it worth, Uncleji?" Raman asked, curiosity beginning to stir inside her.

"Well, I'm no expert," Uncleji replied, "but I have some experience in valuation of these kinds of things, and Bhai Parampreet ji also agrees with my assessment. If I were to guess, I might say that this particular coin is worth probably around one hundred fifty, maybe one hundred sixty thousand dollars."

There was a collective gasp of astonishment, and then silence.

Uncleji took off his glasses and sighed with emotion. "This is a huge donation to the Gurudwara. I am really humbled to see this sharda. May Vahegurooji bless that wonderful soul who gave so openly and freely."

Raman started to get a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Sudden realization dawned on her that she had completely misjudged the old woman. She felt guilty and ashamed at how she had assumed that the woman was not donating enough. She looked around the hall, desperately hoping to see the old woman, hoping she might be able to speak with her and apologize, but she was gone. Later, she searched for her in the langar hall, outside in the parking lot, and in the restrooms. But she did not find her.

Several days later, Raman found herself back at the Gurudwara, standing in line waiting for her turn to matha tek and pay her obeisance to the Guru. She folded her hands, and bowed her head, but the dollar bill clasped in between her hands felt like a farce, a wholly inadequate offering, a mere gesture. Hollow, with no heart or meaning. Devoid of any love or connection. An empty platitude.

The memory of the old woman and the gold coin was fresh in her mind, and it would always remain with her. And the remorse of judging another was also present in her thoughts and feelings, and it weighed heavily on her conscience. Her turn came, and she stood trembling before the Guru, feeling remorse and guilt and desperately hoping for absolution.

She couldn't bring herself to place the single dollar bill into the golak. As she stood there, uncertain and confused, she could feel a line forming behind her. ""I am sorry," she whispered under her breath, "please, forgive me and bless me with higher understanding in the future." And before she knelt down, she opened her purse, took out all the money she had, even the coins, and placed them all in the golak with both hands. As she bowed and placed her head on the ground, her prayer was one that begged for forgiveness and mercy. But it was also one of heartfelt gratitude.