by James Goldberg
My grandfather, Gurcharan Singh Gill, is the kind of grounded, giving person Jesus called “the salt of the earth.” He may also be the first Sikh convert to Mormonism—a farm boy whose mother’s early morning prayers laid the groundwork for a faith he embraced on the other side of the planet, where it has nourished his children and grandchildren.
Though he’s complained on occasion about Sikh politics, I’ve never heard my grandfather speak negatively about Sikh faith or about his cultural heritage. He always taught us that the Sikh gurus were inspired men and that Sikh values, especially family and community values, were from God. And so from the time I was young, some of the roots of my faith in God and his restored gospel have been firmly planted in Punjabi Sikh soil.
But throughout my youth, my connection to those roots was almost exclusively through family practices: the stories we told, the food we ate, the movies I watched with my great-grandparents, the handful of extended family events we attended at gurdwaras. It wasn’t until college that I decided to learn more on my own about the world my grandfather had come from. In college, I started to study Indian history and culture seriously. After my mission, I started visiting weekly with professor, playwright, and Bollywood screenwriter Abhijat Joshi to talk about Indian literature.
And after I discovered that world, I began to learn more about my grandfather. On one of my trips to see him, he noticed the Urdu-language poems Abhijat had photocopied for me, picked them up, and began to read out loud with obvious pleasure—something I’d rarely seen him do with something other than a math textbook. He translated for me—“It’s you who’s taken my heart, and put it in a cage like a bird”—and then he reminisced about the days in his youth when they would gather on the streets of his village and recite these poems, called ghazals, through the evening.
Part of what makes a ghazal is the form: each couplet stands as an independent thought, but the second line of each couplet must also return to the same end rhyme and then word or phrase. But part of what makes a ghazal is also the content: traditionally, these poems express the intense longing and anguish that come with separation—from one’s Beloved, from God, from a sense of peace. They are poems fit for a life lived with deep commitments and deeper aspirations.
My world is very different from the world my grandfather grew up in. But I think the poetic language of his youth speaks to the relationship between us and God as much now as it did then. And so from time to time, I like to write English-language ghazals, like this one:
You said to wait but how I wanted to be free again
Find a way to get a taste of the fruit from off that tree again
The Day of Judgment’s always hanging like a flaming sword
Each night the angels say it’s time to enter my plea again
I’m a sinner since the prophet wandered off to talk with God
Once Moses broke two tablets, but for me he’d break three again
Your hand is stretched out still, but it’s no use
I’ve fallen asleep. Left you alone to Gethsemane again.
When God is calling on all peoples to repent
Is it time to follow Jonah out to sea again?
Don’t think your eye can’t pierce me still
and with that piercing witness you’ve found me again
Faith was the beam I removed—and went blind
You had to wash the clearness out with mud so I could see again
I left you once—because you told me that I should
When I come back, what will I be again?
The altar has room, James, for both of your legs
So don’t ask for that promise on just one knee again