You can tell a lot about a book by its book launch. The gathering in the Jubilee Room at the House of Commons for the launch of In The Master's Presence, a book by our friends Nidar Singh Nihang and Parmjit Singh indeed omens well for its future.
Although I was only able to glance through the sample copy briefly it was enough to know that the superbly selected, and abundant use of, illustrations alone gives this book a very special place in the annals of Sikh History. It has a quality about it, not only in the production which is superb, but also in the depth and calibre of its authors, men both of high integrity and standards of excellence
As Nidar Singh Nihang put it, this book gives an alternative view on our history. Drawing on sources in Hazoor Sahib, Maharastra, it conveys the vision of Sikhism untainted by its reformation in the Northern States. There's bound to be some controversy here, but without that this book would have risked becoming yet another of those run-of-the-mill histories. I'm quite sure that the ten years of research which these two mighty men put into the writing of this beautiful book was methodical and meticulous. I look forward to being able to learn more and enjoying the forthcoming discussions about such an important aspect of our past. Parmjit's previous books include the wonderful Warrior Saints, which shows the three hundred year history of Nihang Singhs, one of the most treasured books we have.
So to the evening itself which without doubt reflected the book and its personality. A group of children played the most beautiful shabd (hymn) for us whose sound current literally lulled us into another world, a world where integrity stands for everything, and honour is all. I've been in this room several times , but I've never seen it blanketed in bliss like that before.
The warm welcome by Anne Keen MP, one of the many eminent MPs who were present and also those who are so keenly supportive of our Sikh way of life in this country, was genuinely heartfelt. Her delight in being able to return the abundant hospitality she and her fellow MPs have received from Sikh communities, and her emphasis that we are known for always having food to share, was welcome news to all the guests that this occasion was to not be an exception.
Before the division bell rang calling the Right Honourable Members to vote in the Chamber of the House of Commons, I was able to catch up with a couple of MPs including Rob Marris MP, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sikhs (and was also voted Backbencher of the Year for his outstanding work). When I asked them what the Sikhs in their constituencies brought to the local communities the reply was unequivocally their generosity of community spirit and their strong work ethic.
These last few months have also seen the celebration of the 300th anniversary since the inauguration of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. To call this tome a Holy Book is somehow to miss the point. It is indeed a book of 1430 pages, revered by Sikhs as the living embodiment and experience of Sikhism. It is a universally accessible collection of hymns, wisdom and guidance. When Guru Gobind Singh died 300 years ago in Hazoor Sahib he decreed that he would be the last living Guru, and that the Siri Guru Granth Sahib would be the next Guru of the Sikhs. Kiran Rana gave us the most excellent description of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib highlighting that it was indeed a work of enlightened reflection rather than revelation. As such, it demonstrates the accessibility of spiritual attainment. As Guru Gobind Singh declared:
‘Those with disciplined minds
Kiran chose one particular phrase from the Siri Guru Grandth Sahib which for me perfectly sum up the Way of Life that Sikhism is:
‘The truly enlightened ones are those who neither incite fear in others
Susan Stronge, Senior Curator of the Asian Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, who was behind the Art of the Sikhs Exhibition at the V&A, spoke sincerely about In the Master's Presence. She highlighted that this remarkably is the first ever study that has been written of the shrine of Guru Gobind Singh in present day Maharashtra. I know that when Susan says that it is written in a very accessible style, that it's an extremely readable book and that she highly recommends it she means it. What touched me most about Susan's speech was looking at Nidar Singh Nihang's and Parmjit's faces while she spoke. Their radiance that their work had been so acknowledged by such an authority as Susan Stronge herself said a thousand words, they knew and she knew they knew how important this book is and that they had honoured their subject most fittingly.
It was Nidar Singh Nihang whom my husband, the photographer Nick Fleming, met before going to do his first photographic assignment living with the Nihang Singhs in Punjab, and therefore has always had a very special place in my heart even though, till now, I had not met him.
Nidar Singh Nihang is an imposing figure, who looks as though he's just sauntered out of some eighteenth century military camp in the middle of nowhere and just happened upon the bastion of British Democracy for a cup of chai. He exudes an air of being so at ease with himself that being around him everyone relaxes visibly. Which may seem odd to you: a man in a dress with calf muscles David Beckham would die for, a wornout anorak barely hidding the large kirpan (symbolic knife) tucked into his waistband standing in the hallowed sanctuary of the British Establishment. To the contrary, it just seemed the most natrual thing in the world.
He is the embodiment of the spirit of what he writes about in his book. He brings it to life, makes history happen in this moment. As I looked again around the room at all the smiling faces it dawned on me how happy everyone was, how friendly and caring, how we all were part of one huge global family, how everyone felt taken care of.
As Anne had hinted, this event would not have been complete without food. Discreetly, Parmjit had quietly gone to bring up the food while his co-author held us in awe. That humility and service summed up the occasion and I'm sure the whole atmosphere in the book itself.