On the outskirts of Amritsar, away from the clamor and din of life around the Golden Temple, tucked into a little suburb called Sandhu colony, is an enclave of houses frequented by western Sikhs. They all come here, as I did, to study with a great master of Raag and life named Ustaad Narinder Singh Sandhu, lovingly called Ustaad-ji. They are usually all musicians, mostly singers with albums of Western-style chant music, or devoted Sikhs who come to connect with the shabad guru, the teacher in the song. Me? I can play piano, or I did in high school. I do not, however, have any apparent vocal talent.
Here is where you say, “Oh, she’s just being modest.” Everyone says that. They say the best singers always say they are the worst. They say I’m just being self-deprecating. Maybe I am being self-deprecating, but I’m not being modest. I’m not good.
When Ustaad-ji sings, he whirls up and down the scales, rolling notes and half notes and quarter notes and sixteenth notes around and around his velvety throat. The class follows, half of them crying tears of bliss at the beauty of his voice and the sweetness of the holy songs.
One day, after singing a particularly lovely raag, he stopped the class. He gestured for me to come closer to him and to sit in front of him. I did so and we started singing again. He stopped the class a second time. He looked at me, eyes pregnant with too much to say. He sighed. “Your blood is stuck in your neck. It is stopping your voice. I’m going to have to touch you. Tee kay?” “Sure,” I replied. We started singing again. Then he hit me hard on the back of my lungs. I practically choked. The other students’ eyes widened into quarters. Then he pinched the back of my neck, closing off some blood flow. I made a face, a mixture of confusion and pain, and kept singing. For a moment he looked triumphant. Then his face fell again.
“Guru has sent you to me as a test.” This didn’t sound good. He continued, “You play harmonium so beautifully. Your hands are so musical. And then you sing. And no, your voice is all over the place. Up and down, over and back.” He looked near tears. He wiped the sweat off his brow. The room so hot it was like sitting under the interrogation lights you see in bad cop movies. “God has sent you to me to test me.” He looked like he was struggling to find a polite way to tell me that I was the worst student he ever heard. I knew he was trying not to let me in on exactly how bad I am, but I know it.
I knew it before I ever came to him. I have known it every day since I lost my hearing and with it my beautiful singing voice. His heart was only now breaking where mine had broken many times before.
“It will take so much work to fix this, Ramdesh. This is a very big problem. So much work.” And he sighed. “Who sent you to me?” he demanded.
“Guru must have.” I said. (Isn’t that the right answer? When in doubt, blame it on God.)
“Gurumustuk Singh?” he interjected.
“No. No. Guru,” I said again, a little concerned to name names, as if he was expecting me to say the angel of death had sent me to bring him home.
“But Balwant,"I said, gesturing to another student in class, "She says my voice is like a butterfly, flittering about all over the place, but so pretty when it lands on something.”
“No butterfly. So much work.” He held his head in his hands. That was a bit disappointing…no butterfly even? I looked around at all the beautiful singers in the room and wondered if my presence in class was making it harder for them to learn. My ego reared its ugly head, and I felt lost and alone. I felt like the leper of Sandhu colony.
I held my head up high and told him he was up for the job. I smiled brightly. But inside I cried everything except tears. When I was young, before I lost my hearing, my voice would soar out of me so easily with perfect pitch. I remember when I was the best singer out of every class. It is a profound and humbling experience to watch yourself in life go from the best to the worst.
It happens sometimes. Perhaps as you go from high school to college, and realize that while you were the star quarterback in rural Montana, you can’t hold up to the standards at your major university. It happens if you are a surgeon, and you develop a hand tremor. For me, it happened in Amritsar, where I could see myself as a child singing circles around my peers, and then watched myself as an adult struggle to sing a scale.
We need that, though, in life. I need that. You cannot appreciate being the best unless you understand what it feels like to be the worst. Humility is a virtue that needs careful honing.
What a privilege it is to be disappointed, really. For one, it means that you are still full of enough light to have dreams. It means your heart is open and searching for more. It may also mean that you have attachments to things that you would do better to release. Disappointment may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is a good medicine for the ego.
His sadness on my behalf burned bitterly that night, during class. But under the gentle shade of the leaves on the tree of passing time, my wounds have cooled. And I find a lightness there that wasn’t there before. By seeing his sadness for me, I let much of the sadness that I had for me go. Singing for me was always a bittersweet event. Although I loved it, I was always haunted by the thoughts of what might have been if history had been different for me. Once Ustaad-ji told me, “You must put your emotions to the side and do the work, Ramdesh. Give me the responsibility. You have so much emotion weighing down your heart about singing, give me the responsibility to make your voice good. Just do as I tell you to do, and let the heart be free from worry. This will help the voice.”
The baggage of lost dreams that I carried on my back like a dowager’s hump, I left at his feet. And it is funny, in that very Indian way that whatever your plans are never have the result you intend here. I went to Amritsar to learn to sing, but there I laid down the banner of sadness and loss, and suddenly I am realizing that with it, I laid down the shackle of attachment to an old dream. I have other talents and other gifts. I have other songs to sing.
I may be a leper and a schizophrenic, but my heart is healed again. At long, long last, my heart is whole. And that is something to sing about, isn’t it?