Wisdom Stories Ep.50: Sarbjit Singh

Wisdom Stories cover of Sarbjit Singh

Cultural expectations surrounding the elderly are being challenged today, and with good reason!

While it was the norm to slow down and retreat into a quieter life post-retirement, more men and women are finding purpose and joy in doing the opposite.

WisdomCircle honours such men and women by shining light on their journey through an inspiring series called “Wisdom Stories”. These people have successfully smashed stereotypes, and their stories remind us that life should be lived to the fullest, no matter what age or stage.

“I graduated from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIMC) – the 6th Batch of 1971 – much before the lay public was even aware of its existence. That explains my entry and more surprisingly (at least to me), my exit. Those were the days of the Naxalite movement when industry moved out en masse from Bengal. Our temporary location was at Sinthee Mor in North Calcutta, virtually the heart of the movement. We had an excellent faculty, library and a band of gifted students, a majority of them engineers, some from the IITs.

The next 25 years were spent with Dunlop in increasingly responsible roles in different parts of the country, interspersed by a brief stint with an American freight-forwarding company and two eventful years at Nairobi with a rubber-products manufacturer. An overseas exposure is something I would recommend to everyone for the varied challenges one faces. Mine included two life-threatening incidents and the challenge of getting members of the sales team from different African tribes to work together.

After my corporate stint, I spent eight years setting up and running a trading enterprise with a British investor in construction chemicals. It was challenging, taking on large MNCs at a time when working capital was under intense pressure and the cash flows of even large, reputed corporations were adversely affected.

The big question that confronts us when we near retirement, is what next? For me, this was a no-brainer. Having led an active sporting life, I knew I wanted to learn martial arts. Having hesitated for nearly two years, I finally mustered up the courage to walk up to the Nepali Sensei who taught karate at the park. He had one look at my balding grey head and said “Aap ki to umar ho gayi hai” – you are past the age for karate. It took a display of my muscular arms to persuade him to take me on. Five years later, aged 65, I was presented a black belt.

Image of Sarbjit Singh

My love for nature and wildlife was seeded during my school days at Bishop Cotton School, Simla. We were taken on hikes during the holidays. Those remain some of my happiest memories. Many years later, I met a German couple who were in India for bird-watching. Feeling rather sheepish, I resolved to learn about these beautiful creatures who abound in India (India has some 1300 species of the 10,000 in the world). I therefore decided that post-retirement, I would spend half the year in the mountains of my youth – Himachal Pradesh. Leading from this, I learnt some basic editing skills and launched a YouTube channel dedicated to birds and nature.

The trick to a happy retired life is to keep throwing challenges at yourself. The next one for me was learning to sing. Fortunately, I came across a 28-year-old Kabir Panthi from a village in Bihar. I no longer sound like a horse and shall hopefully reach M Rafi’s level soon.

I am currently in the midst of writing my family history covering three generations of Cavalry officers dating back to 1877. Beginning with sparse information, I have realised that when you passionately want to do something, the Universe opens its arms. I now have people in France, Belgium, England and of course India, giving me their knowledge and time. Who knows, like all of us, I may have a book in me.

I’m clear that I don’t want to sit and twiddle my thumbs. The world is my oyster. As is it yours.” 

Sarbjit Singh

Interview and photograph credit: Saonli Sen Choudhury from WisdomCircle

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