Monday, November 14, 2011

Surinder Kaur Khalsa Ji

You never know. I once knew an old lady, a "pendu" they called her, uneducated, dull, stupid. She helped her daughter in law babysit children. The kids watched Sesame Street. So did she. She saw other TV shows in English. She told no one, but very soon, she could read and understand English. She still told no one and no one guessed because she was an illiterate, dull stupid pendu...There is much more to her story...

When I first met her, I could not see her;  her jyot was too bright for me to see through.  She must have noticed that I was blinking and had to look away because when I looked back, I saw only a withered old Sikh lady walking with a cane, welcoming me, whom she had never seen before, as if I were a long-lost sister.  She understood no English and couldn't understand my form of Punjabi.  Nonetheless we became friends and often went on walks together and watched broadcasts from Darbar Sahib Amritsar on her TV.  I often saw her looking at the pictures in the TIME magazines sitting around her home, bought I suppose by her son and his family.  Somewhere along the line it seemed to me she was spending an awfully long time looking at one picture when I saw her eyes moving and realised that she was reading.  Not only was this illiterate woman reading, she was reading in English.  It occurred to me that she understood every word I said to her in English.  For a time, I kept this knowledge to myself.

One day, though, I was with her alone, with the rest of the family gone somewhere and I asked her.  She smiled a sly smile and said, "Haanji!"  An interesting situation.  She could read and understand English, but had never spoken it and didn't know how to make the sounds.  Likewise, she could read, but not write, having never held a pen.  After that, whenever we were alone, I helped her with pronunciation.  We never did get to writing because that would leave evidence and she didn't want the others to know or guess the extent of her self-education.

I became ill and didn't go out for several weeks.  When I was able to go see her, her grandson told me she had returned to India.  I haven't had word of her since then.  I know this account raises more questions than it answers, but I think I made my point.

You never know the extent of another's knowledge or education unless they choose to share it with you.  And be very careful about looking down on the lowly pendu mai.  You never know.


  1. This is so very beautiful... the stuff that's 'tears of joy'.
    One thing though: Why Surinder Kaur Khalsa Ji and NOT Surinder Kaur ji Khalsa?

  2. Thanks, Harry. She was/is a remarkable woman. She taught me the value of just being with someone who was so far advanced beyond me. I wish Dad could have known her.

    As for your question: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    OK, I don't have cause to be smart alecky. Actually I never called her by her name. I always called her Khalsa Ji, much to the amusement of her family, who had no idea that the simple-minded old lady was a General in Guru Khalsa Panth. Even now, it seems a bit odd to me to call her by a name; to me she will always be the title she had earned, Khalsa Ji, not Khalsa. Perhaps I should have written
    Surinder Kaur, Khalsa Ji, but that would have confused everyone.


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