December 6, 2020


(c) J. Singh, 2016

Narinder Singh was feeling glad that he had completed his Nitnem, the daily practice prescribed for every Sikh. Today, he was especially glad. After dinner, he called his mother on the phone, even though it was very late. But Narinder’s story doesn’t begin there. It all starts in the early hours of the morning, before the first wisps of dawn have broken, when everything is still quiet, still peaceful, still dark.

Narinders phone started beeping at 4:30 a.m. It was the alarm he had ambitiously set for himself the night before. Groaning, he reached out a hand and fumbled with the phone. In the old days, all he would have had to do would be to hit the snooze button on the clock. A real, physical, tangible button that could be touched, pressed or slammed with a fist. But these days, everything was displayed on the smartphone screen. Even the snooze button was a widget or image or some other touch-sensitive icon. This forced him to open his eyes, adjust his focus, and actually look at the phone screen to locate the snooze button. And by that time, he was already properly awake.

He yawned as he stared at the phone. It was 4:32 a.m. He realized that he had finally woken up at the time he always promised himself he would — Amrit Vela. That ambrosial time in the pre-dawn hours when everything was most serene and peaceful, the ideal time to connect with Vaheguroo, the Creator. Even as he lay there, contemplating whether he wanted to get out of the cozy, comfortable, warm bed, his eyelids began to droop and the familiar lull of sleep called to him, making him feel drowsy.

He struggled, trying to decide whether to jump out of bed or to let sleep claim him for another few hours. Logic and arguments swirled in his brain, vying for supremacy, while his eyes were slowly closing. His thoughts began to fade as he dozed off, phone still in hand.

But then another beeping sound woke him up again. He glanced at the time, 4:41 a.m. He was running behind his predicted schedule. This time, though, he was determined. He had slept in on too many occasions, and he finally wanted to make a real change. This time, he had vowed that it would be different. He threw off the covers and literally jumped out of bed. The first few steps were still a little wobbly, but by the time he reached the bathroom, he was wide awake and feeling fresh.

He looked at himself in the mirror and smiled.

“You did it, Lucky,” he said to himself, using his nick-name. “You are the man!”

He used the toilet, brushed and showered, then combed his hair neatly into a joora atop his head, tied his turban and styled his long flowing beard with some hair gel so it would look neat and clean, with no stray hairs. Finally, after dressing, he gave himself a final self-inspection in the mirror.

“Narinder Singh Channi,” he declared, “all systems green!”

The living room was empty and dark. Narinder found a spot in the middle and sat down with his smartphone. The soft white glow of the smartphone screen cast a pale light onto his face as he read the prayers on his phone, silently mouthing the words. An hour later, when he finished the last prayer, it was daylight.

He rose from his prayers feeling refreshed and invigorated. He was finally starting his day the right way. He felt a surge of energy, “like my batteries have been recharged,” he would later explain to his room-mate, Michael Chen, who was still sleeping soundly in his bedroom.

Narinder had enough time to prepare breakfast — toast and hot tea — and actually sit down and eat while he watched the morning news on the television. This was not like his usual routine where he’d be rushing out the door, hastily dressed, carrying his laptop bag in one hand and the cup of tea in the other. Today, he had ample time and he savored eating his breakfast at the table peacefully.

Just as he was heading out the door, Michael stepped out of his bedroom, yawning and just barely awake.

“Good morning!” Narinder said cheerfully. “I made some breakfast, there’s some extra pieces of toast for you and some tea. I’m off to work!”

“Whoa, you’re up early,” Michael stared at him in disbelief.

“Yep, I did it. Four forty-five!” Narinder beamed, then waved and stepped out the door.

The rest of the day went smoothly for Narinder, he felt buoyed by his success at rising early and he was energized and smiling the whole day. His colleagues noticed his enthusiasm and some even commented on it.

“Do you have any good news to share with us?” one of them ventured.

“No, no big news announcement,” Narinder replied, laughing. “Just feeling good today, got up on the right side of the bed, I suppose.”

“I want what he’s having,” another co-worker replied, taking another drink of coffee, “I need all this coffee just to stay awake!”

By the time Narinder returned home, it was getting dark. Michael Chen had already returned from his job, and was seated lazily in front of the television, watching a sitcom.

“Hey Lucky, what you doing for dinner?” Michael called out to Narinder as he stepped inside the apartment.

“I dunno, what you thinking?” asked Narinder.

Michael shrugged. “We could do pizza,” he offered.

“We had pizza last night, and the night before. Aren’t you getting sick of it?”

“Alright then, what else?”

“There’s that new fusion place on the corner, we haven’t tried it yet.”

“Oh yea, it’s been there a couple of months now. I guess they can’t be too bad, since they’re still in business.”

“Order some take-out, I’ll go get it.”

Michael pulled out his iPhone and quickly found the number. He spent a few minutes talking with the girl who answered the phone about what they had on the menu, and was especially careful to ask for vegetarian-only dishes. That meant that he had to specifically say “No eggs, no meat, no chicken, no fish.” It sounded absurd every time he said it, but he had gotten used to it. Narinder was a strict vegetarian, and Michael didn’t really care much for meat anyway, so he found it easier just to order vegetarian dishes when they were eating together.

“Twenty minutes,” he announced after he had placed the order and hung up the phone.

Narinder shouted an acknowledgment from his bedroom. A few minutes later, he emerged with his jacket on.

“Be back in a bit,” he said, zipping up his jacket, “find something interesting to watch.”

The restaurant was not far from their apartment, so Narinder decided to walk. There was a cool breeze blowing in the crisp night air, and Narinder took deep breaths as he walked, feeling refreshed. The lights in the windows, people walking by, the smell of spices and freshly cooked dishes from the restaurants he passed, and sound of music floating into the night air, all made for a pleasant atmosphere. Narinder enjoyed living in this part of town, it was always so lively and energetic.

As he walked, he began reciting his evening prayers silently. In addition to the happiness he already felt, a feeling of contentment and peace enveloped him. He couldn’t help but smile.

He reached the restaurant just as he was finishing his prayers. What perfect timing, he thought to himself, as he opened the door and walked in.

“Good evening Sir!” the girl standing behind the counter said perkily, “Will this be for here or to-go?”

“To-go, it’s already ordered,” Narinder replied, “Just here to pick it up.”

“Sure, what’s the name?”

“Chen,” Narinder answered, pulling out his wallet.

“It’ll be ready in just a few minutes,” she said, glancing back into the kitchen.

Narinder paid for the dinner, then took a seat in the row of chairs that had been placed at the front of the restaurant. It seemed like it was quite busy, there wasn’t even one table empty. The food must be good, thought Narinder, noticing all of the smiling faces and happy customers.

Inside the hot kitchen, the chef and his assistants were busy preparing all the dishes that had been ordered. It was a typical night, and they were all sweating and tired. The chef looked up and peeked out of the narrow opening that afforded him a view outside the kitchen. He saw Narinder seated in the row of chairs in the front, facing the counter and looking down at his phone. The chef scowled when he saw the turban and beard. Feelings of hatred, spite and malice welled up in him. He felt compelled to act.

He scanned the orders quickly, trying to spot the type of name he was looking for. But he couldn’t find any unusual name. He snorted, and went back to work.

But then, one of his assistants finished packing two to-go boxes and placed them on the table next to him. Narinder was the only one waiting for a to-go order. The chef glanced around quickly to make sure that all his assistants were busy. No one was watching him. He opened the to-go boxes and placed them on the table in front of him. Vegetarian dish. The chef casually walked over to the garbage and fished out some scraps, and some rotting vegetables that had been thrown out. He shoved them into the to-go boxes, disguising them so that they would not be easily noticeable. As a final touch, he spat in the food and mixed it in by adding more sauce.

Feeling quite satisfied, and with a smirk on his face, he closed the to-go boxes, put them in a plastic bag, and set them on the counter for pickup.

A minute later, the girl behind the counter walked in and picked up the bag. She took it out and handed it to Narinder, smiling and wishing him a pleasant evening. The chef watched as Narinder walked out of the restaurant with the bag, not suspecting a thing.

On the walk back to his apartment, Narinder was feeling happy. Today had been a great day, one of the best days in a long time. He had finally been able to wake up at Amrit Vela and recite the daily prayers in the morning and the evening. This should be his daily routine and schedule, he thought to himself. It felt wonderful and it gave him so much energy. His day had been perfectly balanced. He was neither upset nor excited — he felt calm and serene. He loved this feeling, and he wanted more of it. He resolved that he should make this routine a part of his daily life. Since he had a few more minutes before he reached his apartment, he decided to recite another short prayer as he walked. He immediately felt grateful that his grandmother had taught him to memorize these prayers when he was a boy. Today was a day filled with gratitude, he reflected.

Michael was ready with the plates and knives and forks already set out on the kitchen counter.

“You should have drove, Lucky,” he said, when Narinder entered the apartment. “Mmm, smells good!”

“Yep, the place was full, so the food must be good.”

“Yeah, let’s eat! There’s some new movies on Netflix, there’s also this documentary on the economy and Europe’s debt problems. What are you in the mood for, mindless entertainment, or questionable education?”

“Questionable education, of course,” replied Narinder, and headed to the kitchen with the bag of take-out food.

He pulled out the to-go boxes and set them on the counter, while Michael selected the documentary and started playing it. Narinder opened each of the boxes, the smell and flavor of fresh vegetables wafting out into the kitchen and living room.

The food was steaming hot and looked delicious. Narinder portioned it out on the plates, and then added the rice from the other boxes. There were fresh vegetables broccoli, cabbage, carrots, zucchini, and tofu all cooked in a delicious sauce. It was perfectly cooked and all the ingredients were clean and fresh.

This was everything that they had ordered. And there was one more small container that Narinder noticed in the bag. He picked it up and opened it, then stood there with a puzzled expression on his face.

Michael showed up in the kitchen.

“What’s taking so long, Lucky?” he asked, “Food ready?”

“Yea,” Narinder responded absent-mindedly, his attention still on the container in front of him.

“What is that? You get some dessert also?” Michael asked, picking up his plate.

“You didn’t order it. You couldn’t have. It’s karah parshad.”

“Isn’t that what you get at your temple?”

“At the Gurudwara, yea.”

“So why are they serving it at this restaurant?”

“They’re not. I don’t know how it got in here.”

Michael shrugged and returned to the documentary with his plate of food.

Narinder stared at the karah parshad, thinking and trying to understand how it got here. He was certain that the restaurant didn’t make any type of dessert or any other item that even resembled parshad. Also, he was sure that this small container was not in the bag when he received it from the girl at the restaurant. There had only been two boxes. And he had not stopped anywhere on the way back home. So how did it get here? He was baffled. He stood staring at it, his brain trying to understand the unfathomable.

Something had happened, he could feel it. But the meaning and the mechanism eluded him, hovering just outside the boundaries of his capability to understand, just outside his awareness. But his intuition was indicating to him that something had happened. He just didn’t know what it was.

Finally, after several minutes of his mind grappling with this, he gave up. He decided that he had had a good day, and this was a mysterious blessing that he didn’t understand, but one that he shouldn’t ignore. He took a portion out for himself, and some for Michael, and went to sit down and watch the documentary.
Later, after dinner, he called his mother on the phone, and explained what had happened to her. She listened to his story and then advised him to continue his Nitnem as a daily practice. “Son,” she said, “it is like a blanket of protection over you. Now you have an experience in your own life as confirmation. Imagine how life would be if you were doing your Nitnem every day.”