I’ve always thought of myself as having existential tendencies when it comes to understanding and dealing with the horrible things that happen in the world: death, war, injustice, to name the big three.
When I’ve turned to the deep philosophical, spiritual, and divine poetry of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Book, I have found comfort and solace in its profound couplets and stanzas, but have never really felt there was any Pangloss-esque silver lining involved in death.
When I heard about Ajeet Singh Matharu’s death, I was absolutely gutted. I had randomly called my parents just to see how their weekend had been when my mother told me the news, using the words Matharu da munda. Matharu’s son. In the days that followed, people were posting blogs and making comments on a FaceBook page Jakara had thoughtfully created in his memory. But while I read all of the articles and blogs that had been written, I just couldn’t bring myself to write anything on my blog. It just seemed so final: Ajeet was here. Now he’s dead. The end. I just wasn’t ready. And I’m still not ready because I truly believe he isn’t gone.
I’m not delusional. I know the facts:
On Monday, July 26, 2010, at 7:45 a.m. the car Ajeet Singh Matharu was traveling in collided with a Punjab Roadways bus on the notoriously narrow and treacherous Landran-Chandigarh GT road. His cousin, Balcharan Singh, who was driving, survived with some injuries; Dhan Bahadur, the family’s Nepali servant, died upon impact; Ajeet died a short time later at a private hospital in Mohali, Punjab, India. He was 24 and I had seen him a year ago at Jakara 2009 in Fresno, California, with my wife, Sona. Knowing he was living in NYC, we had kept meaning to make plans to have him come over for dinner.
At Jakara, Ajeet had told me that before he returned to Columbia University to continue his Ph.D. in History, he was excited about going to Punjab University in Chandigarh for a six week summer program in Punjabi, a subject he admitted was not one of his strong suits. In an article published on August 18, 2009, Ajeet had told Roopinder Singh of the Tribune that “my grandfather used to try to teach me, but he would get irritated at my pronunciations and we would not make much progress.”This would partially explain his legendary exploits in the late Dr. Atamjit’s U.C. Berkeley Extension course in Punjabi all of those summers ago.
I was never what you would call “close” with Ajeet. We weren’t related. I didn’t go to his school, or to a particular Gurudwara. I was not active in any Sikh organizations, didn’t attend any of the Jakara Conferences , except for the one in 2009, and there was an age gap between us of about six years.
He was in his late teens when we both took Dr. Atamjit’s Punjabi course. We knew each other’s faces so we would always exchange stilted pleasantries.
Every single time Dr. Atamjit would enter the room, for example, he would say “haalooo” the exact same way. I still have no idea why it was funny, but it had virtually everyone in he room, including myself, in stitches. Then there was the lesson on idiomatic word usage in Punjabi, like “cha-choo, paani-pooni” where cha means tea, paani means water, but choo and pooni simply rhyme and mean nothing. Ajeet’s contribution: “Mexeecan-mexoocan.” And Dr. Atamjit’s deadpan face saying “Mexeecan-mecsoocan? Eh ki gal bani?” That doesn’t make any sense.
I didn’t know Ajeet the scholar, activist, or high school teacher. I reconnected with Ajeet at Jakara , and saw someone who was wise and mature beyond their years, but I also saw the same mischevious boy from years ago, who could still be completely juvenile in his humour.
Ajeet is the one on the right wearing the green kurtha. There are other videos (included in the links at the end of this post) that highlight his more serious and scholarly accomplishments, but this video from the Jakara Talent Show, 2009 is an anomaly. His humorous moments are not generally caught on film, but captured in private memories with people who knew him. Yet everyone at Jakara has gotten to see that side of him because that’s how at home he was there. The video shows just how effortless his humour was. All he essentially says is “I need a beat” and “What???” He and his friend were “opening” for rappers Humble the Poet, Saint Soulja of G.N.E., Hoodini, Baagi Gunjiv, and Sikh Knowledge. Or “warming up the stage” as they put it. And I remember Sikh Knowledge’s response to the performance had been, “you’ve just insulted an entire culture with that performance.” Only Ajeet could have pulled off ridiculing a style of music and culture that all of these rappers are so indebted to and passionate about, yet doing it with such panache that everybody, including the rappers, found it funny.
I went to his memorial service at Columbia University and later to the Sikh ceremony at the Manhattan Sikh Gurudwara last Thursday and found it very emblematic: he was all about bridging gaps. There were people he knew from different parts of his life: scholars, friends of the family, people from Jakara, etc. There were Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews in attendance.
The photo to the left was a particularly heart-breaking, yet beautiful and moving moment at the Manhattan Gurudwara when Dr. Matharu was clearly upset. Me, Sona, and our nine-month-old daughter, Kavya, went and gave him a hug. Kavya, who is extremely particular when it comes to strangers, immediately started smiling and playing with Dr. Matharu, as if she’d known him forever. And in a way, I think that’s true. At Jakara 2009, Sona was three months pregnant with Kavya when Ajeet was her group leader and facilitator.
I’m sure Kavya would recognize his voice if she saw him today. And when Kavya becomes an activist and/or revolutionary in her own way, some part of that spirit will be Ajeet’s.
So while I haven’t fully abandoned my existential ways, I believe that as devastating as Ajeet’s death was, his legacy lives on through all those who knew him. Even those who knew him for just a moment.
Somebody posted a blog about Ajeet with no content except for a poem by Langston Hughes that goes like this:
“I loved my friend
He went away from me
There’s nothing more to say
The poem ends,
Soft as it began-
I loved my friend.”
And while I like the poem, the implication is that Ajeet is gone, and I don’t agree with that hypothesis. I think a poem that better exemplifies my thoughts on Ajeet Singh Matharu is this one attributed to Mary E. Frye:
I Did Not Die
Do not stand at my grave and forever weep.
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and forever cry.
I am not there. I did not die.
Below are some links to how other people felt about Ajeet Singh Matharu:
Naindeep Singh of Jakara knew the Matharus, especially Ajeet, very well. He wrote this beautiful piece on on their relationship:
A video tribute
Video of Ajeet’s Time in Punjab
Tribute to Ajeet Singh Matharu by the Sikh Foundation
A video by Ajeet talking about why he teaches