Editor’s note: Visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, in October 2018, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres observed that it was “a place of peace, tolerance and harmony; it is sacred to the Sikh people, and it is open to all people from all religions. It was my great honour to share in the warm and generous spirit of this holy place.

Barely a hundred kilometers from Amritsar is the district of Moga where, eighteen months later, another warm and generous spirit rose from the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lyubov Ginzburg chronicles the remarkable story of Gurdev Kaur.


When an ordinance mandating the donning of protective masks took effect in early April 2020 in the state of Punjab, India, the country of 1.3 billion was three weeks into a nationwide lockdown imposed to avert the further spread of the novel Coronavirus, now more commonly known as COVID-19. Across the world, the pandemic is tearing apart the very fabric of our societies, exacerbating persistent challenges. It is disproportionally impacting the most vulnerable, including those unable to protect themselves and their families by following basic safety guidelines, such as handwashing, sheltering-in-place and securing protective face coverings. Yet alongside the sheer sorrow and ongoing loss, the crisis has also revealed an inexorable urge to give and sacrifice. Sharing has proven as crucial for enduring the emergency as many of the essential measures undertaken to resist the destructive power of the virus. At a time when, in the words of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, "we need every ounce of solidarity," the story of 98-year-old Gurdev Kaur Dhaliwal of Moga, who stitches masks for the poor, is the ultimate manifestation of unity of purpose. In a recent BBC Punjab video, the near-centenarian avowed gratitude for "the will and strength" she has been blessed with throughout her life, enabling her to wholeheartedly offer her unconditional service to the community.

Mrs. Gurdev Kaur whose surname implies unity of a vast sisterhood, was born in British India in 1922, in the village of Jai Singh Wala, Punjab, a well-known historic destination and site of a sacred shrine. Upon marrying a successful entrepreneur from Singapore, Gurdial Singh Dhaliwal, she moved eighteen kilometers from her birthplace to the district center of Moga. Unable to obtain parental permission to pursue a formal education, Gurdev, like the majority of women of her generation, dutifully consigned herself to a broad array of household tasks and caring for their four sons and two daughters. Constrained by traditional gender roles, she sought spiritual sustenance in sacred texts that she still studies daily. Gurdev satisfied her creativity by designing and making clothing and other stitch crafts on an old-fashioned, hand-operated Singer sewing machine, which has been her constant companion since her in-laws brought it to India from the Malay Peninsula nearly 80 years ago.

Mrs. Gurdev Kaur and her late husband Gurdial Singh Dhaliwal. Moga, Punjab, India. Undated. Courtesy of Kaur Dhaliwal family.

The affirmation of everyday existence as an opportunity for dān (charity) and sevā (selfless service), which are preached in scriptures, and the steadfast Singer always at hand predetermined Gurdev's decision to seize the day and contribute to the fight against the onslaught of COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization and the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the use of facial coverings is among the simplest ways to lower the risk of contracting and spreading the virus. When the scourge reached Moga in late winter 2020, there was an acute shortage of masks in the city and, to make matters worse, they were expensive. As soon as Gurdev saw that many local vegetable vendors couldn't afford this most basic means of protection, she resolved to commit eight hours a day to crafting cotton facial coverings for people in need. "I want everyone to be safe during the pandemic and be able to take care of themselves in these difficult times," she explained. "I'm trying my best to do as much charity work as possible, and will continue to make masks for those who are going around without them."

Soon her already busy schedule grew tighter. Waking at daybreak, Gurdev offers prayers and, navigating with the aid of a walker, joins her sewing machine by 8 o'clock, applying herself to the commendable task until four every afternoon. When preoccupied with her work, she demonstrates admirable strength and stoically maintains her stamina for hours at a time, crafting about 100 masks daily. The nonagenarian's perseverance is mirrored in every turn of the Singer's balance wheel, as she powers the well-oiled antique machine with her inexhaustible energy. "For the last 25 years, I am almost blind in one eye", said Gurdev, "but with the Grace of God, I can see very well with the other. I am compassionate about helping others and never am fatigued as long as it’s for a good cause. My hands never get tired. I want to help." Invigorated by the sonorous clatter of her long-time companion, Gurdev often becomes so enthralled with sewing that she needs to be reminded to take a break for a sip of tea or when the time comes to share a meal with family.

Asked about her grandmother, Ms. Ramandeep Kaur noted that Gurdev's dedication inspires the entire community. "My grandma is an exceptionally powerful and, at the same time, very warm and compassionate woman. When she is not involved with her charitable activities, she likes to read or follows the news on TV, being deeply engaged and genuinely concerned with the well-being of the world, humanity and the future of the planet", said Ramandeep with affection. Through simple acts of kindness and benevolence, the family matriarch encourages younger generations to abandon their selfish schemes, remorse, self-pity and fears, and to draw instead upon confidence, determination and good will. While initially family members offered Gurdev moral support, with each passing day more joined her mask-making mission. Ramandeep claimed that reaching out to others has been a truly liberating experience for all of them. It has cultivated poise and helped to maintain an inner peace, mitigating the trauma of isolation. "Lending a hand becomes crucial for our own survival", she asserted. "It helps to preserve our human values, remain spirited and resilient in the wake of distress and frustration."

Original receipt from the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Inc., Kuala Lumpur, 1937. Courtesy of Kaur Dhaliwal family.

As coveted masks rolled off the one-woman assembly line and were distributed, demand increased. Many sought out the free facial covers, and requests began to arrive from nearby hospitals. The local administration, led by District Magistrate Sandeep Hans, felicitated her. Neighbors as well as complete strangers have been showing up with pieces of clothing and other patches of material to be repurposed for the essential protective gear. By late May, many countries and regions were gradually lifting restrictions, but the requirement to wear masks remains in place, and the most vulnerable in Moga still rely on Gurdev's commitment and skills.  

As sun-up arrives and Gurdev prepares for a new day, a world away, the desolated, still-shuttered city of New York eases into a spring evening, pierced by myriad beams of light defining the silhouettes of its iconic landmarks. In the heart of a metropolis mercilessly ravaged by pandemic, a historic street not far from United Nations Headquarters brings another dimension to this Good Samaritan story, enhancing its universality and asserting shared human destiny. There, on Mott Street, 170 years ago, the first Singer sewing machines were manufactured, quickly becoming the world's most recognizable brand, embodying both a burgeoning domesticity of the industrial age and technology-empowered womanhood. Since its foundation, the Singer company has contributed to the reinforcement of social cohesion, identified by the Secretary-General as a precondition for unity and success in the struggle against the virus of ignorance, as well as racial and religious hatred. During the current pandemic, Singer is donating hundreds of their modern, electrically powered heavy-duty machines to the hardest-hit American hospitals, where they are deployed to produce the life-saving gear, as Gurdev does back in India.

The demand for masks and other essentials has been unrelenting, as have stories of selfless, determined and resolute 'corona warriors'. Like Mrs. Gurdev Kaur Dhalival, these exceptional women and men have chosen to become a part of the global response to a devastating viral outbreak that can be defeated only through solidarity.

The author sincerely thanks Mrs. Sunita Chabra and Mr. Vinnie Chabra for their generous assistance with the translation of the BBC Punjab video from Punjabi into English.

29 May 2020

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