I was up at 6 am on Sunday, the call of duty. Travelling three hours to Warrnambool in a bus full of one tribe and me the only outsider was pretty daunting. And daunting was also my task to report live before a camera, record interviews for a print story and, if possible, click pictures too. As the bus pulled away from the Blackburn gurudwara with the chant of prayers, I was up in action taking the soundbytes of people. It was a nice bonhomie inside the bus. The women were excited to meet Kapil Dev, an elderly woman came up to me and asked me to click a picture of hers with him so she could show her son. The men were happy rolling out the snacks - pakoras, chips, grams, and kept passing on to one and all. I was in for Punjabi hospitality, and fed well.
But it was also a historic journey of sorts. Punjabis of all generation were seated in the three buses that were all headed towards one direction. It is remarkable that the community kept aside all commitments and showed up in strength to honour one of their elders. In this case Pooran Singh. Yes there is a Pooran phenomena right now after news of the Indian hawker who came from Bilga village in Punjab in 1899 died with a last wish, which for 63 years, had been left unfulfilled. And everyone was going to see the wish being finally fulfilled after the man's grand nephew Harmen Uppal was tracked down. Uppal, who lives in Birmingham in the UK, will now take the ashes of Singh to be scattered on the Ganges. Accompanying him will be legendary cricket star Kapil Dev.
How it all happened is interesting. Two Melbourne based researchers and historians Len Kenna and Crystal, who have been studying the lives of Indian hawkers who came to Australia a century ago, learnt of some ash lying at the Guyett Funeral in Warrnambool. They were staggered that Alice Guyyett, whose father before dying had told them of Singh’s last wish, knew they were seeking for Singh. Len contacted the SBS Punjabi radio service, (the reporter of which is basking in her current glory) and as news made headlines in India, the relatives of Singh were traced. On a chance call, the Birmingham-based Uppal found out about the media visits and googled and contacted SBS. Meanwhile, Kapil Dev had expressed his desire to fulfil Singh’s last wish if none of his family members were traced. I asked Dev why he chose to come. He told me how he cried and cried after hearing the story. “I am an emotional man you see.” At Warrnambool I did get a chance to monopolise his company, and he gave a warm speech, straight from the heart. Skilled off the field too.
I also met everyone else. Uppal, Alice, Len and Cyrstal and I spoke with each one of them. I also met 87-year old Avis Quarrell, who as a child played with Pooran Singh. She read out a beautiful poem which she had composed in 1980 in memory of Singh. She called it the:
The Indian hawker
In an old covered cart, he travelled the road
Peddling his world of wares
Pots and pans, brushes and brooms
To lighten the housewives' wares
But he carried it well the things to delight the heart of a farmer's girl
And necklace of shells to lighten.. and (could not follow the rest of the line)
That girl was Dorris my mother, you see, and the hawker was old Pooran Singh
She looked forward to each of his visits wondering what next he would bring
He became close friends of her parents staying with them in his cart
There is a tall pine tree by the garden wall of the family who he was a part
All that remains is a necklace of shells
Pooran Singh has gone so has the girl he gave it to
But I and my memories will live on
The frail voice and the words did something to me. Quarrell also displayed the necklace which Pooran Singh had given to her mother and called it her tangible link with Singh. I was moved by everything I saw. So were the people who were all present. Their hearts were touched by the life of an Indian hawker, who probably spent a hard and lonely life, but was connected to people in so many ways. Even in his death, he managed to connect so many lives.