Barrier who was a bridge

I never met the man, but his presence was felt in the groups that I moved among during the 1980s. I was a budding journalist then and he was an academic who was also a scholar of India and particularly of Sikh history and tradition (among the few in the US at that time). I was in my 20s and he was in his 40s.

Norman Gerald Barrier Pix courtesy

Norman Gerald Barrier Pix courtesy

He had published Sikhs and their Literature in 1970, and of special interest to him was the Singh Sabha Movement (1873-1925), something I, too, was familiar with. My father, Giani Gurdit Singh, was the first General Secretary of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Shatabdi Committee in 1973. He was also editor of Singh Sabha Patrika, a Punjabi monthly, which he became so involved with that he had to shut down his own paper, Parkash.

N. Gerald Barrier, or Jerry, was a historian and a scholar of Sikhism. In 1966 he was awarded a PhD on Punjab politics and the disturbances of 1907 from Duke University and he spent 37 years at the University of Missouri at Columbia, from where he retired.

Over years, we exchanged phone calls, and sometimes I published his articles in India Observer, New York. We found a common friend in Dr I J Singh, a brilliant academic with a deep knowledge of the Sikh ethos. It is only today that I realised that IJ’s admiration for the man was also based on a long-distance relationship.

It’s only today that I found out that Prof Barrier had died on June 6, after a long battle with cancer. Memories flooded in. Of his phone calls, of how we reconnected through e-mails once I moved back to India, of sharing information and having discussions on his projects and academic interests, of his warm note to me after my father suffered a heart attack in Delhi.

As I trolled the Net, I saw the article by Dr Pashaura Singh, who had worked closely with Prof Barrier since 1994 and co-authored books with him. There was also an article by Prof Frank F. Conlon, who says “he loved books, he knew books, and his goal was to place the right books in the hands of those who would use them.” Dr I.J. Singh movingly remembered how his first book, Sikhs & Sikhism: a View with a Bias was born and nurtured by a man whom had had not even met until then!

The website had many comments on the man who provided his scholarly inputs, a periodical for book reviews and even books from India to the west. Jerry Barrier, was, indeed, a bridge between the US academia and South Asia. His work and his presence has left a significant impact even among those of us who never shook hands with him, physically, even as we interacted with him intellectually.

This article, by Roopinder Singh, was published in The Tribune on June 10.