(This article was first published on 22 September 2017. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary on 8 November 2022.)
The chirping of the birds died down and night subdued the activities in the town. Across the city lay Nanak’s home where his mother, Mata Tripta, sat in front of her pantheon of Hindu deities, praying for her son’s safe return. Her husband, Mehta Kalu, was pacing up and down the courtyard with his hands held behind his back.
Nanak had left home in the morning after his father had given him the hefty amount of twenty rupees to visit the market town of Chuharkhana about twelve kos (forty five kilometres) from here and purchase something worthwhile to trade.
The eighteen-year-old Nanak should have returned by now. Nanak’s sister, Bebe Nanaki, brought her anxious father a glass of hot milk mixed with almonds. She knew better than her mother that underneath the anger her father was actually worried about the safety of his son.
‘This boy cannot do anything right,’ grumbled Mehta Kalu as he took the bronze tumbler from his daughter and sipped the milk.
‘He will be alright, Bapuji. He is a very sensible person,’ Bebe Nanaki defended her brother.
‘What sensible? Is it sensible to not return home after the sun has gone down? You know well enough how dangerous these jungles are. I am sure that he is once again in the company of those no good ascetics discussing useless things. What does he find in them? Look at all the other boys of his age. Nawarang was born around the same time as Nanak. He has now completely taken over his father’s cloth business. Rajat on the other hand, has started maintaining the accounts for his family’s vast agricultural lands. Bebe Nanaki, you know we don’t have vast agricultural lands or a thriving business. I am an accountant. It’s not a hereditary occupation. What will happen after I die?’
‘Don’t say such things, Bapuji. Please!’
‘Nanak needs to take up a trade, a profession. I know you and your mother think that I am unduly harsh upon him but one day you will realise how important this training is for him. He cannot be a buffalo herder for the rest of his life. It is below his status. We are Bedis. We are the ancient orators of the Vedas. Is this how we want to pay tribute to the memory of our forefathers?’
Mehta Kalu handed back the empty tumbler to his daughter and laughed sarcastically. ‘How can Nanak bring shame to our family by becoming a buffalo herder? To be honest he cannot even do that. Remember when I once asked him to look after our buffaloes? He fell asleep and the animals entered the fields of Raj Kumar. Had Rai Bularji not intervened in time and agreed to pay the amount lost, we would have suffered a major loss.’
‘But father, you have to understand. Our Nanak is not like ordinary people. He is sensitive and observant. He thinks and talks about topics that ordinary people cannot even fathom,’ said Bebe Nanaki.
‘All sisters think their brother is special and all mothers think their child is special,’ he replied mockingly. ‘Nanak has extraordinary intellect but he needs to use his intellect in practical matters. How will he survive in a world like this if he continues to talk about spirituality and metaphysical matters all the time? He needs to learn accounts and other things which would be useful for him to make a living. How will he make a living from religion?’
Finishing her prayer Mata Tripta emerged from the room. ‘Nanaki, go get an earthen-pot from the kitchen and fetch water from the well. There is no water in the house for the night.’
As Bebe Nanaki left, Mata Tripta asked her husband, ‘Any news of Nanak?’
‘No, nothing yet.’
There was a knock on the door. Mehta Kalu rushed to it and opened it to find a young boy, slightly older than Nanak, standing outside the door. ‘We’ve found Nanak,’ he said. ‘He is hidden in the grove of waan trees outside town.’
‘But why is he hiding?’ Mehta Kalu asked and without waiting for an answer headed out of the house. He called his employer and friend, Rai Bular, and together they left to get Nanak.
They found Nanak sitting under the trees sobbing softly. His white clothes were covered in mud. Mehta’s initial thought was that Nanak had been robbed on the way. Rai Bular, who had been fond of pious Nanak for a long time, gently placed his hand on top of the boy’s head and asked, ‘What happened, son? Why didn’t you return home?’
‘Because I am afraid of Bapuji.’
‘Why are you afraid of me?’ asked Mehta, his voice rising in anger.
‘Please, Mehta. Let me talk to him,’ intervened Rai Bular, aware of the complicated relationship between father and son.
‘Why are you afraid of your father? Have you done anything wrong?’
‘I have done nothing wrong,’ replied Nanak. ‘In fact, I have done a good deed. But I know that what I have done will not please my father. I have disappointed him, which is not a good deed. I am confused about this relationship between good and bad.’
‘What good have you done?’
‘As you know, Bapuji gave me twenty rupees to do an honest trade this morning and I headed towards the market of Chuharkhana. There is a jungle on the way which I am sure you have seen many times. In the jungle I came across a strange sight. There were a group of ascetics lost in mediation.
They were naked, all of them. They had matted hair falling on both sides of their shoulders. Their leader was a wise man called Santrain. I knew that I should not stop and that I should continue my journey and complete the responsibility that my father had given me. I knew that if I stopped I would engage in a philosophical discussion with them and then I would lose track of time.
Yet, I still couldn’t help myself. It was a strange sight indeed. Some of them were standing on their heads, while there was one resting in a meditative pose inside the recesses of a banyan tree. So lost were they in their thoughts that they did not even realise I was passing by. I walked up to their leader and asked them about their beliefs. They belonged to a group which refers to itself as Nirbani. The leader of the group told me that they had not had food for several days.
‘Why haven’t you?’ I asked them.
‘Because our beliefs forbid us to engage in the material world hence we have no money to buy food, neither do we have any land on which we can grow our own.’
‘Why don’t you go to the town and beg for food like all the other ascetics?’ I asked him.
‘Begging is forbidden as per our beliefs,’ he told me.’
‘Why were they naked?’ Rai Bular felt himself being drawn towards the story, while Mehta listened indifferently.
They say that their bodies are pure, a boon to them from the Divine. By putting on clothes they would disrespect that boon. Unlike jogis they don’t even pierce their ear because they believe that they have to return their body to the Divine in the same state as it was given to them. That is their idea of purity.
‘If I wanted to listen to the nonsense of ascetics, I wouldn’t travel to Chuharkhana for that. There are plenty who pass through Talwindi. I would ask them. Where did the money go?’
‘I tried giving the money to Santrain but he refused. He said that it was against his religion to take money. He told me that if I wanted to feed them I should buy them food instead. So when I reached Chuharkhana, instead of buying profitable goods I bought food for the ascetics and fed them. That was my honest trade.’
Mehta Kalu could not control his temper and despite the presence of Rai Bular, whom he respected immensely, slapped Nanak. An already shaken Nanak started to cry.
‘Mehta!’ shouted Rai Bular. ‘Control yourself! This is no way to treat a grown-up man.’
‘A grown-up man doesn’t go around wasting his father’s money. He earns his own. Since this was the hard-earned income of his father, he found it easy to give it away to the ascetics. I would love to see him do that with his own money, given that he chooses to earn someday. I cannot believe my misfortune. I waited so long for a son, a successor.
Had I known that this was how he was going to turn out, I would never have spent those nights in prayer and given all those gifts to the temple in hope of a son. I would have lived my life without any male progeny and instead allowed my lineage to fade away. With the direction that this young man has taken, our lineage is already threatened.
‘If Nanak pains you so much then why don’t you allow me to adopt him as my son? From today, you are relieved of all of your responsibilities as his father. He is my son now,’ said Rai Bular.
The relationship between father and son deteriorated further after this incident. Even though they lived in the same house, they never spoke.
Nanak became increasingly aloof from his family and started to spend more time at the abandoned mound on the outskirts of Talwindi. Soon after, Nanak’s only supportive family member, his sister, also got married and moved to Sultanpur. This further alienated father and son.
Seeing the condition of her brother, who was lost within himself, and would not take any interest in the house or in any profession, Nanak’s sister, on a visit to Talwindi, suggested that he get married.
At this point, Nanak was spending all his time in the jungles around the city and Bebe Nanaki felt that with the responsibility of a wife, he would spend time at home.
When she broached the topic with her mother she too felt that this was a good idea. Bebe Nanaki had already identified a girl. Her name was Sulakhni and she was the daughter of Moolchand Khatri from the village of Pakhoke near Gurdaspur.
Bebe Nanaki had interacted with the young girl and had found her to be well-suited to take up the role of daughter-in-law at the Bedi household. She was respectful towards the elderly and knew about her responsibilities as a woman. Mehta Kalu too was thrilled by the proposal.
When Nanaki talked to Nanak about the marriage proposal, he accepted it quietly. It was not as if Nanak was eager to marry. He simply couldn’t think of any other option.
He was inclined towards spirituality and was attracted towards asceticism, but he did not want to live the life of a celibate, like them. He knew that he wanted to continue to engage with society and so thought that a marriage would be a step in the right direction.
The proposal was then extended to Sulakhni’s family by Bebe Nanaki and they accepted it immediately. They knew that the Bedi family was a respected family and that their daughter would be protected in their house. Marriage dates were decided by the priests and a modest ceremony was organised.
Marriage had the desired effect on Nanak and he started to spend much more time at home than he did earlier. He would continue to meet the ascetics and Sufis on the outskirts of Talwindi, but there was moderation in his behaviour now.
The relationship between father and son also improved slowly as Sulakhni acted as a bridge between the two.
Soon after their marriage the young couple was blessed with a son who was named Sri Chand. Nanak had never been happier in his life. Mehta Kalu started believing that Nanak was now completely cut off from the spiritual matters.
One day when Bebe Nanaki and her husband, Jai Ram, were visiting Talwindi from Sultanpur, Mehta Kalu broached the topic of Nanak’s profession with his son-in-law, who was well established in his job in the court of Nawab Daulat Khan, the Governor of Sultanpur. Jai Ram suggested that Nanak be allowed to come with them to Sultanpur where he would find him a reasonable job.
Tripta and Mehta Kalu were shocked by the suggestion. Never before in the history of the Bedi family had a son lived with his sister after marriage, but they eventually agreed because never before had a son like Nanak taken birth in the Bedi family.
Nanak, after the birth of his first child was also much more aware of his responsibilities, which is why he readily agreed to accompany his sister and brother-in-law to Sultanpur. Here, his brother-in-law got him a job with the Governor of Sultanpur as a manager of the Nawab’s provision store.
Nanak enjoyed his new responsibilities.
Soon he was joined there by his wife and first son. A year after Sulakhni moved in with Nanak at Sultanpur, they were blessed with another son, whom they named Lachman Das.
(Excerpted with permission from ‘Walking with Nanak’ by Haroon Khalid, Tranquebar Press.)