Several years passed until I finally had a chance to visit Salim Uncle in Southall.
He insisted I stay in my old room where I used to live with him and his wife when I attended Drayton Manor Grammar School. To celebrate our reunion, he took me to Kwality Sweetmart which he insisted served the best gulab jaman in Southall. We sat down in the overcrowded Indian sweet vendor shop and each dug into our sweet, soggy and syrupy gulab jaman.
‘You know Salim uncle,” I ventured, “I figured out something about you – you’re a trickster!”
He smiled at me mischievously and he winked.
“Yes,” he finally admitted.
I knew it!
In his book about tricksters entitled Trickster Makes This World, the author Lewis Hyde writes:
“In India, when the god Krishna is a baby, he is known for stealing butter, then lying about what he’s done. Whenever his mother leaves the house she tells her son to stay out of the larder where the butter urns are stored. Later she always finds him sitting on the larder floor, the white butter smeared over his dark and smiling face. “I didn’t steal the butter, Ma,” he says when she scolds him, sometimes adding, “besides, doesn’t everything in the house belong to us?”
In the Hindu stories, Krishna has come to earth to remind the human race that everything belongs to god. His mother does not know that yet, but her child’s mundane lies point her toward the higher truth.
All tricksters do this:
They lie in a way that upsets our very sense of what is true and what is false, and therefore help us reimagine this world.”
That is precisely what Salim Uncle did to me: he tricked me into re-imagining this world.
It happened this way:
After I left school at 16, I was sitting gloomily one morning at the kitchen table when Salim Uncle comes up to join me for a cup of tea.
Uncle Salim then asks me a question:
“Now, papu – what is the book that you won for a prize that time, you remember some years ago, the one you got for writing the poem on the anteater, isn’t it?”
“Yes, of course I remember Salim Uncle, it was called The Gulag Archipelago.“
“The Gulab Archipelago? You mean to say it is a whole book about an archipelago of gulab jaman? Kamal, kamal! You mean to say there are all these gulabs swimming in the sea of syrup like little-little islands, isn’t it?”
“No, no! That is not what it means, it means…”
“… so you mean you are to be fantasizing about a sea of syrup and then swimming from one gulab island to another gulab island, isn’t it? An archipelago of gulabs? Kamal, kamal!”
It was pointless.
All of a sudden the absurdist vision being presented by Salim Uncle of a syrupy sea populated by an archipelago of gulab jaman over flooded my mind and I began to laugh so hard and laugh uncontrollably. It was too ridiculously funny and I laughed and I laughed until all the sadness and all the despair that I had felt after reading The Gulag Archipelago poured out of me in tears of joyous laughter.
I felt cleansed and purified; a heavy dark cloud lifted from me once the laughter subsided.
My dark night of the soul had been spent and a bright new day had dawned.
Now, all these years later, I asked Salim Uncle the question I had always wondered about.
“So, you knew what a gulag meant didn’t you, Salim Uncle?” I asked him, “you knew that it meant a labor camp or even a concentration camp, a death camp?”
“Yes, papu, of course I knew,” he sighed, gravely.
“Then why did you trick me? Why did you deliberately pretend to misunderstand and pretend to think gulag meant gulab jaman?”
He explained to me that he had to break the mesmerism of my despair. That for centuries in Indian culture, tricksters play a vital role in turning our reality upside down so that we see everything from a new viewpoint and re-imagine our place in the Universe.
That Lord Krishna, the butter thief, had been a trickster. That Lord Vishnu, appearing as the incarnation of a dwarf to the demon Baali, was a trickster.
Tricksters were part of the spiritual fabric of Indian culture and Indian mythology.
“You see papu, I had to break through that dark cloud you were in after reading this Russian gulab book, isn’t it? Now, tonight we have early night and then tomorrow we get up 5am because I want you to meet my morning manager, Mr. Burbidge, then I take you Heathrow Airport, isn’t it? Now this Burbidge I tell you, he is too good worker. Topping chap!”
That night I thought to myself how deserving uncle Salim was to be known as Sadhu of Southall.
There was not a touch of cynicism or negativity in his being. He was always seeing the good in anyone. I felt that my education was incomplete until I learned more lessons from this humble shopkeeper who was the salt of the earth.
Just as Salim Uncle had been a mentor and a beacon of light to me, I knew that he himself had a dear friend, a venerable and wise elderly Sikh gentleman, who had been a mentor and a guide to uncle Salim for many years. Salim Uncle addressed this elderly gentleman simply as “Mr. Singh”.
Mr. Singh often visited the Southall shop of uncle Salim. Sometimes, he would come by on a Sunday morning to pick up Salim Uncle and take him for the morning prayers and the langar (feasting) at the local Sikh temple, or gurdwar, in Southall. Uncle Salim would rely upon me to man the shop for him whenever he went to the Sikh temple with Mr. Singh.
Salim Uncle had Hindu friends as well, with whom he often attended the local Hindu temples. He also attended the prayers at Friday mosque with his Muslim friends.
Uncle Salim awoke me just before 5am with a large, piping hot mug of tea.
I had a flight out that morning and Salim Uncle – thanks to his new morning manager Mr. Burbidge – was free to take me to the airport since he did not have to work in his shop.
“Now papu,” he began, while we walked to the kitchen table to drink our tea together, “What all we have learned from Ghandiji and from Lord Vishnu? Tell me what all we learned?”
“Um, well,” I ventured somewhat sleepily, “Gandhiji said ‘when I despair I remember that all through history the ways of Truth and Love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers but eventually they always fall’.”
“Good, good,” said the Sadhu of Southall approvingly. “So lesson is what? Power is where?”
“Eh… in Truth and Love.”
“Good, good,” said the Sadhu of Southall once more, “Now, Vishnu what all he did to Baali?
“Vishnu conquered Baali through a perspective of Time and Space – through imagination.”
“Good, good,” said Salim Uncle, “So you see now these are four things you must to remember, isn’t it? Truth and Love and then also Time and Space. Four things.”
“Yes,” I acknowledged, “I understand. Four things.”
“Now final question it is this,” said uncle Salim: “What happens to Baali when Vishnu conquers him? What happens to the tyrants after they fall, like Ghandiji says they must always to fall?”
“They just disappear, don’t they?”
“No, no! How they can just disappear, isn’t it? They cannot to just to disappear. Only the bad inside them disappears. Then they become new people. Good people. Like Lord Ashoka.”
He was referring to the conversion of the warrior Lord Ashoka who, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, has an epiphany and transforms his character and devotes himself to good works.
What was my uncle Salim on about?
Why all these questions?
“Come, come, papu,” beckoned Uncle Salim, “Let us to go downstairs to shop now and meet Mr. Burbidge. You must to meet Graham, isn’t. My morning manager.”
As soon as I arrived at the bottom of the stairwell, I felt the familiar atmosphere of paperboys sorting the newspapers. I could smell the fresh newsprint and saw the darkened smudges on the fingers of the paperboys as they sorted and counted through the newspaper stacks. There were mugs of hot tea everywhere with the steamy puffs swirling up in the air in the cold early morning air of the unheated shop.
As I entered the shop from the stairwell I saw the back of a large man conducting the paperboys in a methodical and organized fashion.
This man, I assumed, was my uncle Salim’s beloved new morning manager, Mr. Burbidge.
My uncle Salim tapped the man on the shoulder and said:
“Graham, I want you to say hello to my nephew.”
I put out my hand to Graham Burbidge as he put out his hand to mine and we shook hands. He had a firm and strong handshake.
Graham Burbidge looked at me with a faint recognition but then had to turn away distractedly as one of the paperboys was calling his attention. Then, he went back to work.
That was that.
It was just a momentary instance but I recognized Graham Burbidge in that split second when our eyes met: Graham Burbidge’s nickname used to be Grubs.
He had been the skinhead leader of the Hanwell Bootboys, the one who had severely Paki-bashed me all those years ago.
I could still hear the muffled thud of his punches on my face. I could still recall reeling and falling into a heap on the pavement and him inflicting one last hard kick into my stomach as I doubled over writhing on the ground. The last time I saw Grubs, I was on the pavement peering at him from a half open black eye as he towered above me, sneering and spitting.
The last thing I recalled about Grubs were his heavy skinhead bootboy boots, which were planted just inches from my battered face on the ground.
The sight of Grubs’ skinhead boots on the ground still haunted me.
Now standing in the shop next Grubs, next to Graham Burbidge the morning manager, I at last understood why my uncle Salim had wanted me to meet Grubs again.
Now, finally, it made sense to me why earlier this morning he kept reminding me of the ‘four things’: Truth and Love, Time and Space.
Now it became clear why he insisted that tyrants don’t just ‘disappear’, but that it is only the ‘bad’, the evil in them that disappears, and the ‘good’ remains.
Now at last it became clear to me why Salim Uncle was referring to the ruthless warrior Lord Ashoka, who, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, has an epiphany and transforms his character and then devotes himself to good works.
I had advanced degrees from MIT and Harvard, but here in Salim Uncle’s shop in Southall was something that none of the erudite and educated could ever teach me.
Here, in Salim Uncle’s shop in Southall was my finishing school.
Here, in the presence of the Sadhu of Southall, was the most distinguished graduation ceremony I could ever conceive. Here at last, within the colorless formica walls and fluorescent light of the Academy of the Sadhu of Southall, amongst the newspapers and Cadbury’s chocolates and boiled sweets and cough drops and throat lozenges, was a lesson in humanity, a Humanities Course, that I could not ever learn in any of the finest universities in the world.
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
– William Shakespeare
On the drive to the airport that same morning Salim Uncle explained to me how he had first encountered Grubs long after I had left for America.
He had gone one Sunday, while his wife tended to the shop, to gurdwar with his friend, Mr. Singh. The Sikh temples have a tradition of langar, a volunteer serving of free freshly cooked food from a kitchen adjoining the gurdwara to all visitors regardless of race or creed.
Since the food was free to all, it was not unusual to see those residents of Southall that were unemployed and on the dole to come over to the langar and have a freshly cooked meal. Ironically, some of these visitors included skinheads who were on the dole, and who needed a decent meal which they could not otherwise afford. So enlightened was this tradition of langar at the Sikh temple, that it did not discriminate against any visitors and all were graciously offered a beautifully prepared meal as a gift of goodwill and a peace-offering. This courtesy was even extended to those, such as the white supremacist skinheads, who, in their spare time, beat up Asians, including Sikhs.
As open minded as progressive as Salim Uncle was, he had difficulty seeing the skinheads feasting on delicious food provided by the generous hospitality of the Sikh community.
As Salim Uncle explained it to me as he drove me to Heathrow Airport, he and Mr. Singh were sitting upon a bench in the large courtyard outside the Sikh temple and discussing this idea of offering hospitality and graciousness to those, such as these white supremacist skinheads, who were considered adversaries and tyrants by the Asian community in Southall.
“But Mr. Singh!” protested Salim Uncle exasperatedly as they both sat on the bench outside the temple, “Why to let these scoundrel skinheads to eat here bhai? This is not correct, isn’t?’
Mr. Singh sat silently for a long time before he responded in a calm voice to Salim Uncle:
“Let me tell you a story, Salim Bhai, of when I was just a nine year old boy.”
When Mr. Singh was just nine years old, he witnessed his parents and his three siblings massacred and murdered before his eyes in one of the bloodiest episodes in the British Indian Imperial history: the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Massacre of Amritsar.
Peaceful, non-violent protestors of the British Raj, followers of Ghandi’s satyagraha movement of non-cooperation against British Imperialism, gathered for discussions out in the open air Jallianwala Bagh garden in Amristar.
British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his brutal army of fifty mercenary Gurkhas and Indian and British troops to fire at the thickest part of the gathering of peaceful Sikhs in Jallianwala Bagh garden and then point their guns at the exits from which the bloodied crowd tried to escape the relentless gunfire directed toward innocent men, women and children.
About 1,000 innocent and unarmed Sikhs were brutally murdered in just ten minutes by General Dyer’s thugs. Hundred of others were severely injured, including the nine year old Mr. Singh who had a bullet wound in his arm. The initial response from the British House of Lords was to heap accolades of praise and good cheer upon the personage of General Reginald E. H. Dyer.
“I have tried to hate,” sighed Mr Singh softly, “Salim Bhai, hatred and revenge poison the soul. And they come to no good, bhai. There is only one path forward in this life …”
“Truth and Love,” suggested Salim Uncle.
“Truth and Love,” confirmed Mr. Singh.
They sat quietly again, and then Mr. Singh spoke quietly once more.
“Salim Bhai, we must rewrite our own history,” began Mr. Singh, “Always to remember please the saying of Guru Nanak…”.
Mr. Singh then recited to Salim Uncle a saying by the founder of Sikhism:
“Burn worldly love,
rub the ashes and make ink of it,
make the heart the pen,
the intellect the writer,
write that which has no end or limit.”
– Guru Nanak (1469-1538)
As they sat there quietly outside the Sikh temple in Southall, watching the visitors help themselves to the feast of the langar; visitors of all races and creeds, suddenly Salim Uncle recognized a skinhead in the queue of visitors helping themselves to the food.
It was Grubs!
I had pointed out Grubs to Salim Uncle many years ago when I was a teenager and so he recognized Grubs immediately when he saw him in the line-up in the langar.
Salim Uncle explained the presence of Grubs to Mr. Singh. Salim Uncle explained who Grubs was – how he had Paki-bashed his nephew. Once again, Mr. Singh sat silently for a long time before he responded in a calm and quiet voice to Salim Uncle:
“You know, Salim Bhai, I am a very old man. I have many years to think about these Britishers and this is what I have been asking myself: Why these Britishers came to India and stayed for 300 years? Why they visited us for 300 years and ate our food and drank our tea?”
“I don’t know,” replied my uncle Salim.
“Why,” continued Mr. Singh, “Why they visited us for 300 years and ate our food and drank our tea? Why this young man Grubs is visiting this gurdwara and why is he being with us Asians and eating our food and drinking our tea?”
“I don’t know,” replied my uncle Salim, “Do you know why?”
“Yes, I think so,” replied Mr. Singh, “I think they come to visit us because deep down they wish to learn a lesson from us. They want us to teach them a lesson. That is what I think. You see, we are their teachers. They are our students. We need to teach them a lesson.”
“I see,” replied my uncle Salim.
“This life, Salim Bhai, it is a classroom. Remember the Upanishads: learning and teaching, teaching and learning; that is the circle of life eternal, isn’t it?”
What is needed in this classroom of Life?
Teaching and Learning.
Learning and Teaching.
– Taittiriya Upanishad, 7th Century BC
“Yes,” replied my uncle Salim.
“So, now Salim Bhai, tell me now, young man, what lesson do we know, what is the only lesson we know? When we shut down our shop for very last day of this lifetime, when we do our final accounting of all the selling and buying and the debits and the credits; after all has been balanced in our books, what lesson do we take with us into Eternity? What is the only possession that we do not leave behind upon this earth because it cannot perish, because it is imperishable and cannot decay nor can it ever die no matter what tried to destroy the lesson or to bury the lesson? What is the Eternal Lesson that is indestructible and imperishable ?”
“Truth and Love,” replied my uncle Salim.
“Truth and Love,” repeated Mr. Singh with a smile, and then he said:
“So now, Salim Bhai, today is your good fortune, because today you can go and practice the meaning of Truth and Love with this young man, Grubs. Stand up now, Salim Bhai, stand tall, and go and introduce yourself to Mr. Grubs. Sit down and share the feast of langar with Mr. Grubs in this holy garden of the gurdwara. Practice peace and Mr. Grubs will learn the lesson of Truth and Love. This Mr. Grubs has come to this holy gurdwara to digest more than food and drink for his stomach. He has come to digest nourishment for his soul. His soul is parched, Salim Bhai, and you are blessed to know the lessons of Life. So share with him. Do not be stingy. Break bread with Mr. Grubs.”
Salim uncle nodded to Mr. Singh, he stood up, walked over to Grubs and introduced himself.
He and Grubs sat down on a nearby bench and shared a Punjabi meal together and drank some milky, sugary tea together. They talked, they joked, they laughed. They talked.
Mr. Singh looked on from a distance.
Mr. Singh said later that day to Salim Uncle that the sight of ‘Salim Bhai and Mr. Grubs’ dining together brought peace to his heart and hope to his soul.
It made him happy.
From the time of that Sunday langar at the gurdwara in Southall, ‘Salim Bhai and Mr. Grubs’ became better and better friends. Eventually, Salim Uncle got Grubs a job as a paperboy at his shop.
Grubs worked hard, was always on time and on task and worked his way up the ranks. He also helped Uncle Salim out in the shop after the newspaper deliveries were done. Gradually, Grubs worked his way up the ranks and became the trusted morning manager of Salim Uncle, which enabled my uncle to focus more on his community service activities as the unofficial mayor of the Asian community in Southall, or, as he was affectionately known, the Sadhu of Southall.
Coming back to Southall after all these years, meeting with my uncle Salim and his morning manager Graham Burbidge, I realized that the ‘innocence’ I thought I had lost from those magical childhood days in Mr. Patel’s shop on Ngara Road were neither lost, nor adulterated.
Innocence does not disappear or become lost or sullied.
Innocence, even the pure innocence of childhood, evolves, matures into another word.
A deeper word. A word that is more reliable and enduring than innocence can ever be:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Elliot