Full of life even at the age of 87, Gian Singh Kotli has donned multiple hats of being a teacher, Punjabi scholar, litterateur, poet, lawyer, hockey player, snowshoer, and hiker who has climbed the majestic and popular Grouse Mountain at least 200 times
By Dr Neelam Batra-Verma
What can be more amazing than to receive an appreciation letter from the Premier of British Columbia, John Horgan, on a life not only well lived but also highly inspirational, passionate and motivational.
“You have proven yourself to be an inspiration to not only your community but to all British Columbians,” affirmed Horgan’s letter to Gian Singh Kotli, a Punjabi scholar, teacher, lawyer, hockey player, writer, poet, hiker, snowshoer and much else.
Of late, Kotli has been making waves in Canada for his fitness and his candid encouragement and inspiration to all. Local media has been following his story for months now, even trailing him on hikes with bulky cameras. To date, Kotli has climbed the majestic and popular Grouse Mountain at least 200 times and has walked the famous Stanley Park nearly 40 times. This summer, Grouse Mountain opened on May 23 and he has already hiked it 25 times.
‘Prithviraj Kapoor, the legendary film actor, was one of Punjab Sports Club’s founders and played in this team. Eventually, I was made the captain and then the manager of the team.’
Grouse Mountain, located in the North Shore Mountains of Vancouver, in British Columbia, has an elevation of 1200 m and is very popular with hikers in the summer. Climbing it is not easy and so the ascent is called the Grouse grind. More than 150,000 hikers do it every summer. The mountain resort runs chairlifts, serving at least 33 runs every day, and is an attraction for tourists. Kotli laughed when told that a person like me has only visited Grouse Mountain on the chairlift. “What is the point of going to the mountain on a chairlift? You are missing the beauty and elegance of this natural wonder. You need to climb the 2,830 steps to get the feel of it. It is a serious workout and a basic level of fitness is required. It is better than going to a gym. You will easily reach your cardio training goal as well as enough squats and lunges for the week. But certainly, your legs and skeletal system have to be strong enough.”
Kotli, from Hoshiarpur village in Punjab, started his career as a humble teacher in Khalsa High School in Kolkata. He then went on to acquire a BA and then two master’s degrees in political science and English. His thirst for education led him back to university to do a Bachelor of Education followed by a law degree. He is called ‘Gyani’ (the learned one) since he also has an Honours degree in Punjabi and is a translator for English and Punjabi certified by STIBC, Vancouver.
Not only his education but also Kotli’s career took him to faraway places, working in different positions and gaining new experiences. After teaching English in Kolkata, he moved to Patna to take up the principal’s position in a high school and then was picked up by the then Barnala government in Punjab to become the Punjab Legislative Assembly public relations officer in the early 1980s. His love for Kolkata was, however, overpowering and he joined the Rozana Desh Darpan, one of the biggest Punjabi dailies outside Punjab. Says Kotli, “Not many know that Kolkata has a huge Punjabi population and they want to keep the language alive. During the 1980s, it had a massive circulation and was one of the most sought after publications.”
He spent three decades in Kolkata, immersed in educational, literary, and sports activities. He was known as a teacher, principal, reporter, photographer, editor, advocate, player and so on. He recalls proudly, “The Punjabi community of Kolkata gave me immense respect. When I joined Khalsa Sporting Club, a hockey team which was playing in the 3rd Division of BHA (Bengal Hockey Association) won the most matches, moving on to the 2nd Division and eventually the first. In Punjab, I played football, kabaddi and enjoyed all types of races, jumps, etc.”
Kotli goes on to narrate another story about the Punjab Sports Club team which was among the top ranking 1st Division hockey teams of Kolkata, but had moved down to 3rd Division. “Prithviraj Kapoor, the legendary film actor, was one of its founders and played in this team. Eventually, I was made the captain and then the manager of the team.”
Kotli has donned multiple hats in the 87 years of his life. Apart from being a teacher, he is also a Punjabi scholar, litterateur and poet. He has been spreading the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev and propagating Sikhism around the world. He was invited to Singapore as a Sikh scholar and educationist to talk to Sikh youth, who may not have been exposed to their faith’s teachings while living in another country. He says, “Getting a visa or Permanent Resident status in Singapore is certainly not a cakewalk. But the community there cleared all the hurdles for me so I could work there with ease.”
After that, he was in high demand. The more people heard about his teachings, they became enamoured of the simplicity with which he spreads the message. A friend invited him to Canada through the Khalsa Diwan Society in Vancouver in 1990 and ensured that he had all the documents to start a new chapter in his life.
He joined the Khalsa Secondary School as a teacher and disseminated his teachings in various gurdwaras in British Columbia. He was soon appointed the Multi-faith Coordinator in Surrey Memorial Hospital, a position he still holds.
His messages of love, equality and well-being of the human race have spread everywhere. He is called to spread his teachings in faraway places like the North West Territories, Ontario, Alberta, Yukon, and Yellowknife. “I was asked to speak at the world religious conference even as far away as Yellowknife and even in unheard of places like Tuktovaktuk.”
Tuktovaktuk is located in the Northwest Territories and is a settlement of the six Inuvialuit communities in the Arctic Circle. It is the only community in Canada on the shore of the Arctic Ocean which is connected to the rest of Canada by road and has a population of less than a thousand.
Coming back to his passion for hiking, Kotli has hiked Stanley Park in Vancouver 38 times. He doesn’t even consider it a workout. “Stanley Park is nothing. I can walk the whole Park twice in one day. It takes just 3-4 hours.” He has also snowshoed at Thunderbird Mountain, which is higher than Grouse Mountain.
Stanley Park is spread across 1,001 acres, situated in Vancouver’s downtown Peninsula and surrounded by the beautiful English Bay and Burrard Inlet. Unlike most other parks, it was never architecturally designed but is the evolution of a forest within the urban space. At least eight million tourists visit this marvelous natural wonder every year. It is roamed by coyotes and other animals. But nothing can deter Kotli. “I keep waiting for those animals to come pay me a visit but I guess they are afraid of me. I still have to encounter one,” he laughs.
Kotli is now famous on the trails not just for his fitness level, but also for encouraging other tired hikers who want to give up mid-way. “I give a pep talk to anyone who is tired and thinks they cannot reach the top. Everyone can hike. Nevertheless, my famous line is if I can do it at my age, you can too as most are younger than me. I have yet to come across a hiker my age. The youngsters get inspired and want to take pictures with me. Of course, I oblige,” Kotli laughs heartily.
Behind every successful man is a woman. Kotli’s wife, Surender Kaur, has been his anchor and happily adjusted homes and her own career for her husband’s sake. Married for almost 50 years, Surender too has worked hard, adjusting to new workplaces, environments and culture. With a double master’s degree, she too has taught in schools along with raising three daughters. “I have written four books of poems in Punjabi and in many of them, she is my inspiration. I have one poem, ‘Stree’, totally dedicated to my wife. I cannot imagine my life without her.”
Premier Horgan rightly said in his letter, “In addition to your illustrious contributions to Punjabi scholarship, literature and poetry, you have climbed Grouse Mountain nearly 200 times. This is impressive for anyone but to be doing so at the age of 87, outpacing people half your age (and younger), is truly remarkable. You are proof that through hard work, perseverance and an indomitable spirit, anything is possible.”
With high spirits and a zest for motivating and inspiring all and sundry, Kotli hikes on. Nothing can dampen his spirits, not even Covid or lockdowns. Gone are the days when Hollywood or Bollywood stars were considered heroes. It is people like Gian Singh Kotli who are the real heroes; who inspire and teach people to live humanely, for the betterment of our race.
(The author is a Canada-based senior journalist.)