langar – food and faith

The average number of visits to my blog so far this year is about 65 per posting. I don’t know this many people, so a very warm “thank you” to friends and strangers alike.


There is an aphorism in journalism that can be encapsulated as follows: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.” [My italics.] This quote has been attributed to several editors and journalists (see Wikipedia) and serves to underline the principle that the news media rely on to decide what is newsworthy.

Whilst one might accept that the unusual is deemed more newsworthy than the usual, ‘man bites dog’ journalism doesn’t necessarily explain the tendency of the news media to focus almost entirely on bad news or negativity, as it seems to do from where I am sitting, so to speak.  I don’t mean to imply that all news is bad news, it just seems this way when one reads the newspaper or listens to the news on the radio. (I don’t watch news programmes on TV.)

As if to emphasise the unremitting dismal and bad news of late, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme earlier this week titled Good News is No News.  I have no wish to dwell on the theme of the programme: instead, I thought that this week I would write a blog about uplifting news.

It is heartening to come across a good news story from time to time, such as the one about Katie Cutler whose online appeal raised over a quarter of a million pounds for Alan Barnes, a pensioner who lives in Gateshead and who was mugged when he took out his bins for emptying.  Katie thought that her online appeal might raise £500; however the story touched the hearts of people the world over and means that Alan can move to a new house where he can be safe. Apparently, local tradespeople have rallied round and offered free home improvements.

I admit that I am an old softy and I cried when I watched the video (on the BBC News website) of the meeting between Katie and Alan. Go on, I challenge you to watch the video

and not shed a tear of joy.  Go on …. please watch it, just for me.

Another lovely item I came across this week in the Guardian came at the end of a Q and A type of profile of the wonderful actress Tasmin Greig.  In answer to the question what is your greatest triumph?  Ms. Greig replied that this was the feeling she experienced when she received a letter sent to her by a woman who was working in a medical refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border.   The letter said that the woman’s young son, who had been traumatised by various family events, could only be comforted at night by one thing: watching episodes of Black Books.  Brilliant!  If you haven’t seen Black Books, it was a Channel 4 comedy show, with Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey and Tasmin Greig and was absolutely hilarious.  The thought that laughter helped this boy through a difficult period in his troubled life by seeing the three of them do crazy things in Dylan Moran’s anarchic book shop (the Black Books of the title) is simply wonderful.

The main theme of this week’s blog – food and faith – derives from a programme that I heard recently on the BBC’s World Service’s Heart and Soul series that was broadcast in February.  The presenter was the broadcaster Hardeep Singh Kohli and the programme explained and explored the Sikh principle of langar, which embodies the link between food and faith in Sikhism and translates, more or less, to free meals for all.

In the programme Mr. Kohli went to the Sikh temple in Southall, London.  The temple provides free meals at the temple for about 5,000 people per day during the week and twice that at the weekend.  Recently, members of the temple have taken langar ‘on the road’ in the form of a SWAT team, in a van.  The Southall Welfare Awareness Team takes langar into the community. Towards the end of the programme, Mr. Kohli accompanied the team’s van to The Strand in central London where they regularly feed two to four hundred homeless people per day.  “[Our religion teaches us to] love your neighbor” and “help the needy,” explained one of the members of the team.

Perhaps it is the case that, as a rule, langar feeds mainly Sikhs who visit the temple in Southall, but the SWAT project feeds anyone who is need, regardless of faith or lack of it, who turns up at the SWAT van wherever it is in central London.  Mr. Kohli interviewed a number of homeless people who attended the van in The Strand: it was clear, from their responses that they could not survive without the food provided by SWAT.

I found the story told in the programme tremendously uplifting in that it told of one of the principles of the Sikh religion being put into practice: helping needy people by providing them with food.

I used to work in an open-plan office that included three lovely Sikh colleagues.  I always felt, during several years sitting at my desk in that office, that there is something calm, quiet and peace-loving about these Sikh men.  Perhaps this relaxed charm is a function of their religion or it might be that they are just nice guys, or perhaps it is both.  I have been retired almost five years at the time of writing, but I remember Harj, Jag and Guv with much affection.  Another colleague, Shahid who is a Muslim, is also remembered for his easy charm and peace-loving demeanour.  Guv, in particular, would often bring food and nibbles around all of the desks in the office; sometimes these tasty morsels would be fiery and hot!  Now that I know about langar, I understand why Guv often brought food to the office.  They were great guys and a pleasure to work with.

One more thing to tell you about Guv: he often used to make fun of my great age, which I always looked forward to because he was very funny.  For example, if he brought peanuts or similar around, he would say something like: “Would you like me to cut them up for you Dave?”  Or, at the end of the day, he would say: “I could see you across the main road Dave”.  He used to think of something different and funny to say most days: I completely enjoyed the attention.  If you are reading this: thanks Guv and I miss the fiery peanuts.

Given that we seem to be constantly bombarded with instances of extremes of religion that have ‘gone wrong’ is the guise of jihadists staring out of the newspapers at us, it was extremely uplifting listening to Hardeep Singh Kohli talking about langar and the SWAT van from the temple in Southall.  What a wonderful story and an example of how faith has a genuine impact on a community.   Writing as an atheist, I really admire the Sikhs who have shown  that langar can make a difference to people who are in need.  We weren’t in need in that sense in our office: Guv was just being nice, but I suspect that his religion contributed to his neighbourly actions.  If I didn’t happen to be a confirmed atheist, I think that I would choose to be a Sikh.

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