For decades and for generations past, there has always been one question that pops up quite consistently, albeit in different generational slang, during this time of the year amongst Sikh circles in Malaysia.
“You going to Samelan this year or not?”
I personally should know. I’ve been going religiously (no pun intended) since I was a kid in primary school.
Never mind that the reasons why my parents packed me up to be at these Samelans (Gurmat camps often simply referred to as Samelans in this part of the world), away from home for a good long week, were of noble intentions. Intentions like, you know, to introduce me to Sikhism, to get rid of me and my irritating behavior for one week, to learn about doing Paath, etc.
But I must confess, although my first couple of Samelans attended were akin to fish being out of water, me being fish, water being everything in my life, these Samelans were most memorable ones.
Allow me to walk you down my memory lane, and you’ll see why.
As I said, I was thrown into an environment completely alien to me. Growing up in a mixed-race family, I was brought up in a neutral place where I wasn’t really exposed to either side of the wall. I wasn’t as Chinese any more than I was as Punjabi at any time. To suddenly get thrown into a hostel with full blown Punjabi and Sikh boys was a shock to the system. And I stuck out like a sore thumb.
And then, from the comfort of my own bed, in my own room at home, to a measly rug, with my hand luggage bag propped up as my pillow, I felt like was a prisoner of war in the Hollywood versions of the Vietnam war.
From Mom’s home cooked chicken of many Chinese Punjabi fusion styles, with dessert every night, to the daily vegetarian roti dhall with some variety of sabdji, the imagery of the pathetic prisoner is complete.
I never shed a tear because the boredom in class, lectured in Punjabi mostly, pretty much dulled the pain and the emotions. Plus, waking up at five in the morning after a couple of sleepless nights trying to adjust to the cold of the dorm and the hard surfaces of the cement floor, I was zombified.
But suddenly by mid-week, I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt isolated and wanted to recreate the Great Escape scene. There were many like me, all with their forlorn looks, all eager to reach out to share their pain. And just like that, suddenly I had comrades in arms. We suffered, but we suffered together. And because we were together, we could now laugh loudly together. It was us against the Samelan Sewadars and lecturers. It was us against the world, or so it seemed.
The body adjusted and adapted, and now sleeping was a breeze. Lights off and we naturally passed out due to tiredness. In our deep slumber, we were introduced to the Colgate menace. Boys who have experienced a few Samelans more than us took advantage of their seniority. We woke up to the rude burning sensations of exposed toothpaste cream on many parts of our bodies, even testicles were not spared. But we took this as challenge and planned our revenge. The triumph and the suspense the following night of exacting our revenge made us laugh even more. By then the posse grew bigger. Soon, we were a sizable crew that gathered back from our classes into the Langgar Hall for lunch, dinner and the nightly Milo. The food tasted better, many of us graduated to having second helpings.
As the week approached its end rapidly, like all times when having fun, the sing along sessions of holy hymns wasn’t so bad after all. We were comfortable in the Darbar Hall now, with the elder sewadars (camp volunteer facilitators) friendly with us. They joked more and made our laughs louder. More friendships were forged.
That girl, with the dimples, was more attentive of my laughs, and of my posse of brothers. She seemed to smile more when we made fun of her. And I swear there was a twinkle in her eye when my friends made fun of me having a crush on her. I had to see her one last time, but the bus had arrived. Suddenly, I’m looking out the window of the bus trying to recollect what an experience I had, what I could tell my parents and what I couldn’t.
The memory of being the zombie prisoner became hazy, overpowered by memories of laughter and fun with my new brothers and a couple of sisters. And because we became friends with the sewadars, they were cool enough to become role models. I was even surprised to entertain the idea of keeping my hair from being cut, to maybe adorn a turban, much like the sewadars. And I did pick up some Punjabi words, some hymns to sing, some prayers to recite.
I missed my brothers so much that I vowed to meet them again at the next Samelan. We didn’t have emails to exchange back then, nor Facebook friendships to make, nor personal mobile phone numbers to exchange for WhatsApp. We just had each other’s word that we will be at the next Samelan for more laughter, and maybe do a Colgate raid on newer participants, then recruiting these new boys into our fold.
As years go by, the posse shrank, but we made newer friends, some found their life long partners, but the friendships lasted a lifetime. As it should.
[Jagdesh Singh was a participant, and now an active volunteer, at the Gurmat camps organised by Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia, SNSM. The next Annual Gurmat Parchaar Samelan will be held at Khalsa Land at Kuala Kubu Bharu, Selangor, from 17-23 December 2017]
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
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