From the crack of dawn today (Sunday), the sprightly 82-year-old Baba Karnail Singh Khaira has been a busybee, shuffling around at his modest ‘Guru Ka Langar’, near Karanji village on NH-7 here. With folded hands and a welcoming smile, the bespectacled Khaira Babaji warmly ushers in hordes of tired and famished travellers, offers them a seat and orders his loyal team to serve them piping hot meals, although today is “very special".
“It’s the 415th anniversary of the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev, the Fifth Sikh Guru, today’ As per traditions, I offer ‘rose sherbet’ to all who come to my ‘langar’ for a month," the beaming Khaira Babaji told IANS.
When the national lockdown started from March 24, 2020, Khaira Babaji’s ramshackle ‘langar’ proved to be a life-saver for millions, mostly uprooted migrants or those stranded for weeks away from their homes and kin, waiting in long queues for their fill. At that time, the humble ‘Guru Ka Langar’ was the only decent eatery on a 450-km stretch serving meals - free, 24X7 - to anybody who walked in, migrants, travellers, villagers, and even mute stray animals.
Now, a year later, the world-famous ‘langar’ has started an ‘oxygen bank’ with 15 cylinders given free to needy Covid-19 patients in the pandemic second wave. After IANS first highlighted his yeoman services (May 31, 2020) in this remote, forested, tribal corner of Maharashtra, Khaira Babaji became an international celeb, much sought after by the paparazzi.
His awe-inspiring story is what legends are made of - and he earned the admiration of millions, from celebrities to stars to politicians or commoners and was featured in the TV series “Bharat Ke Mahaveer". Thousands world-over like US-based author Sabina Khan, Amardeep Singh of Bengaluru, Yavatmal’s Kishore Tiwari and Salim Khetani, Narendra Narlawar, Amritsar Gurudwara Guru Ka Bagh’s Baba Satnam Singh and Baba Kirpal Singh, Amreek Singh Malli and many more sent big or small donations that kept the ‘langar’ fires burning without a break.
“In contrast, many international TV channels came, shot and telecast my films/documentaries, and suo moto assured to organise funds for my ‘langar’ services. They made billions of rupees ‘selling me’ through sponsors. However, I am still waiting for them to fulfil their promises. But, Wahe Guru is great..," said Khaira Babaji, looking skywards.
Located in a desolate area, the ‘langar’ is linked with the historic Gurudwara Bhagod Sahib in Wai, around 11 kms away in a dense jungle, visited mostly by Sikhs. It was here that the 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh stayed in 1705, while en route to Nanded, some 250 km away, where he was assassinated on October 7, 1708.
Nearly 125 years later, it bloomed as the world-famous ‘Gurudwara Takht Hazuri Sahib Sachkhand’ (Nanded), one of the most revered Five Takhts in Sikhism.
“Gurudwara Bhagod Sahib is barely accessible, so in 1988 we started this ‘langar’ branch on the highway. I was assigned to manage it with the blessings of Nanded Gurudwara Sahib’s Baba Narinder Singhji and Baba Balwinder Singhji," recalls Khaira Baba.
The pandemic Lockdown 2.0 was a different experience for him, he chuckled. “My photos and phone numbers are all over on social media’ Now, people call me up hours before and request me to keep food ready for big or small groups 50, 100 or 500 people! This is Guru Nanak’s blessings..!" The ‘langar’ serves breakfast of tea with hard bread or biscuits, meals comprising rice, rotis, dal, vegetables, biryani with daily menu change, providing soap and borewell water for bathing to the visitors.
Born in Meerut (Uttar Pradesh) the young Karnail left home at 11 to answer “a mysterious call for service to humankind", later travelled all over India, lived in countries of the Middle-East and Europe for nearly 10 years organizing funds for Gurudwara services.
“Though semi-literate, I speak fluent English, Hindi, Punjabi, Arabic, Dutch, German and of course, Marathi," Khaira Baba said with pride. Attributing his daily lonesome grind in the dust and blazing sun as ‘marzi (desire) of Wahe Guru’, his sole possessions are 3 sets of clothes and travelling around in the three service vehicles donated by devotees to the ‘langar’. He drove down to run ‘langars’ outside Delhi during the ongoing farmers agitation.
Khaira Babaji calculated the number of persons fed based on the disposable plates count as 3 million plus for the past 15 months, 2 million in the initial 75 days, rest in the last 12 months (June 1, 2020-May 31, 2021), besides over 600,000 ‘take-away parcels’, and still counting.
The ‘Guru ka langar’ has kept two donation boxes outside in which people drop coins/notes, but the collection is never counted and the money ploughed back into public service.