… Perhaps one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever…I do not think, for instance, that one can invoke the Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. One cannot say, “Oh, I’ll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I’ll apply myself to the task, and I’ll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.” I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and finds oneself foiled. One finds oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why. Something is larger than one’s own deliberate plan, one’s own project, one’s own knowing and choosing…
When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us. It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well.
- Judith Butler Precarious Life p22
Whenever someone dies, I find myself reassured by this passage of Judith Butler. There is an interconnectivity that is inescapable with loss, and the death of another always leaves you a forever-changed being. I wonder if the discovery of the lost “self” entails a day where it can one day be found, relocated. And what is to become of us on that journey?
Narratives of trauma and the memory of violence are two things that Sikhs are well acquainted with. As children, we are taught about the sacrifices of the Gurus, how they were forced to endure the unbearable not just as a sacrifice for the creeds of their nascent community, but to the other religious communities around them. Every time we’d pray ardās, we are explicitly and graphically reminded of what sort of torture occurred and told to remember them. “Waheguru,” multiple bodies chant in unison, repeatedly at the cues given by our Granthi. I was never particularly invested in the visceral narrative, nor did I give much thought to repetitive actions that I would perform. Much like the autonomic processes of respiration, I would prostrate and mime the moves of a Sikh in Gurdwara without much control over my actions. It’s not a matter of intuitive deduction but the just the training that I couldn’t escape from the first day I set foot in Gurdwara. I never once thought through the significance of that prayer, and my mind would exhibit very little brain activity during the exegetical part of service where the Granthi reads from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and gives a sermon so that we all might follow.
I never really thought about loss. Today, Butler’s words reverberate in my head in concert with Ardās.
To a degree, I blame my truancy towards religion on lacunae in my own linguistic capabilities. In my youth, the Gurdwara world was not just a monolingual space of Punjabi but also of a poetic language that resisted classification. No one spoke like the religious text, but every adult seemed to intuit its meaning. Despite my attempts, I could never “get” it. My parents would gently admonish us and say that our approach was wrong. Sikhi, we were reminded, was less about our efforts to understand and more an experience of listening. “Beṭā, you’re not listening. Listen with your heart to what the shabad [hymn] is saying.” I would try and close my eyes and mimic the behavior of a seventeenth century ascetic, as s/he would have particular experience with the Word, but I’d mostly just feel myself nodding off.
I don’t proclaim to know any more than what I knew then, though I have done a bit of work to equip myself with the skills to approach “knowledge” in some way. And despite my best efforts to stop my structuralist attempts to understand Sikh religious language (using grammars, dictionaries, etc.), I seem to be inextricably entrenched within this methodology. Still, I have tried to start listening to Sikhi, which is a harder task then it seems.
As my eyes welled with tears yesterday, I realized I wasn’t quite sure why I was crying. Was I mourning the lost lives of people I never met? The attack on religious space? The hurt from yesterday was something that burned into my core and has left me singed. Tempers can flare in Gurdwaras and since I have observed a fight or two before, I concocted a narrative in my head: a squabble between two men got heated and someone decided to bring a gun. I was embarrassed at this thought. I think every Sikh in the United States has at some point thought, “God, I wish everyone finally knew what a Sikh was,” and so I was stricken to think that this is how we’d make our entry on a televised arena.
This attack could have happened anywhere.
But then we learned more: a white male with a 9-11 tattoo. The news reported that hostages might have been taken. Many were feared injured or dead. Phone calls and messages started pouring in from friends and family who knew people who were at that particular Gurdwara last week or driving on their way there today. I felt disgusted.
The trauma of yesterday was a layered one. We listened with hope for a positive outcome, but I found myself cringing at the description of Sikhism. One CNN anchor pronounced “Sikh” as “Psych,” which at any other occasion I would have considered a delicious slippage. I realized that CNN was dipping into its multicultural bag of tricks to obscure their own ignorance and represent Sikhism to the world. Again, we were presented with the same old narrative: Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, started in Northwest India, blah blah blah. Men tie turbans and keep their hair unshorn. I am always troubled by statistics, as they always force me to order myself within a mathematical understanding of the world, to speak to the deaf ear of the hegemon. “Oh, wow, the 5th largest religion?” my friends would respond, astonished. “Yeah, there are more Sikhs than Mormons,” I’d gloat. The number’s game would be a sort of competition, where Sikhs came two positions shy of the worthy bronze medal.
I wondered if the assailant would be described as a “terrorist,” or a man with “mental health problems.” I wondered how long it would take for this to be called an act of terrorism and a hate crime.
I always balk at the question of “What is a Sikh?” I refuse to answer it. I am not a walking Wikipedia, and I think it’s highly unfair for one to have to prioritize overarching religious tenants in a five minute period to a dimly curious interlocutor. If I say that Sikhs never cut their hair, then I am automatically eliminated from my own faith. If I situate them in a spatial origin in 16th century Punjab, then I risk an elision of the diverse global Sikh diaspora. How does Guru Nanak’s trip to Mecca complicate the geopolitical understanding of Sikhism? And how would one go about explaining that story to another?
These contradictions place me in a predicament. Very few of these questioners will ever understand what it’s like to speak of a religion that doesn’t follow a western secular rubric, or talk about the turban that is a testament to Sikh sovereignty. Do I mention that religious text uses words for God used by Muslims and Hindus alike? How am I to elide these very important histories from the conversation?
Yesterday’s media representation demonstrates that Sikhs will always be asked to engage with the world in a nationalist idiom. We will always be asked to reaffirm our Americanness, or be spoken of in a last ditch inclusivist effort. President Obama describes Sikhs as a part of the “broader American family,” which to me raises larger questions about which constituents a more “mainstream” (narrow) American nuclear family might exclude. “Multiculturalism” is a huge part of a problem. Despite its efforts to account for plurality of “cultures” in a “globalizing” world, the word is more than anything a reproduction of the othering logic that minorities have been for years subjected to.
It is just colonialism in a euphemistic disguise.
The word “multicultural” always delegates the minority card, and in its attempts to acknowledge difference, it hierarchizes an already stratified society in such a rigid way so that I know that I am always already forced to state my name and religious bio-data in a digestible form to the mammoth and intransigent hegemon. It is particularly insidious in how it covers its racist and classist attempt to shield a violent, xenophobic ignorance that is (perhaps like God) omnipresent. In addition to saying that I am Sikh (i.e., “I am not Christian), I am also forced to articulate, “I am also American and I am not violent,” to address our naive view towards a binaristic politics that divides the non-West into pro-freedom (Western friendly) and pro-violence (“war on terror” rhetoric). We are never in conversation with others; we are always speaking to others’ fear.
And we also share culpability in propagating this fear. I don’t know how many times I heard “Sikhs are not Muslims” or “Sikhs are confused for Muslim” yesterday, but that might the most damaging statement of all. This type of statement suggests that the violence is not wrong but simply misplaced: Muslims would be the “rightful” recipients of violence. Consider the following identifier: “We are Sikh and we are not Muslims.” I even heard the word “beard” and “Taliban” conflated yesterday. Though innocuous sounding, latent within this case of mistaken identity is a fear of being pooled in with Muslims. This statement kowtows to a particular brand of American myopia that views religion and non-white communities in a very simplistic way. There are friends, there are foes, and then there are the uncertain ones that are yet to be situated on the spectrum. By identifying the beard and turban as a point of contention and speaking against a comparison of “enemies of the State,” we further entrench our Americana by vilifying the enemy. The violence to be experienced at that very moment is only postponed to a moment in the future, displaced to another target. Sikhs then imbibe and reproduce the very violence that they were subjected to. The easiest way to be an American for the denizens of a “multicultural” and “utopic” America is to identify what is un-American and differentiate ourselves by appropriating the same insipid and oppressive logic that was just used against us.
I’ve started to prematurely wince at the idea of seeing American flags on dashboards with turbaned drivers. We always have to say that we are “peaceful” and disavow “violence.” But what about those who continue to define us as intrinsically violent beings? What of the trauma of having to always having to answer with an “I am” when the question is based on a fraught and problematic premise?
I am reminded immediately that the police once called our house after September 11th. Apparently, someone saw my grandfather (a frail octogenarian with three master’s degrees) in the car with my father and assumed suspicious behavior. I am reminded of the pain I experience as the my father asks me to remove my kaṛā at the airport.
As a Sikh with scholarly commitments to Punjab and South Asia, I have always felt a struggle with my personal commitment to Sikh studies. I’ve always shied away from intellectual engagements with my own faith, as I felt that it intrusively forced me to engage with my religion. And at the end of the day, I want Sikhism to remain untarnished and my own. My parents’ own experiences in India and as immigrants to this country were so shaped by violence and xenophobia that I was raised to be timid about my religion in the public sphere. We cut our hair and the jangle of my kaṛā (steel bracelet) would announce Sikhi’s vestigial presence in the classroom every time I would write. Children would make fun of me because of this, and I developed a great sense of shame.
These memories refuse to leave me, though the fear they’ve instilled within me is one that I’ve learned from. Over the past year, I’ve begun to reevaluate my own intransigence towards Sikh studies and recognize that it was my own fear of being a representative of the community. For the past couple of months, I’ve thought long and hard about becoming a turbaned Sikh. (I’d like to avoid here the potent cliché of belonging to a traumatized community.) I recognize now that our bodies are not our own but are objects for society to politicize. We are always coerced into a problematic relationality of representation, where our bodies stand for symbols of something that jars. The turban figures in here as something to be vilified, a threat of a foreign and frightening world to “secular” space. I wonder if the turban might empower me as an inert being in a politicized space. As I’ve stopped running from the role of representative, I’ve noticed that begun to imagine myself with a turbaned identity. I think about the continuity of struggle that turban individuals have endured over the years and see the turban as an opportunity to gain a more empowered sense of self.
Much like 1984, a violence was enacted in a sacred space. Yesterday’s tragedy was an unfortunate reminder of how quickly life can be lost. It is insufficient to describe this violence as unjust.
The objective of this essay is not to conclude with an exuberant optimism on how to change the world, to remain committed to altruism in the face of violence. Instead, I’d like to reflect on the aftermath of the Sunday’s tragedy to think a bit about how we can understand our tomorrow. My sadness from Sunday extends beyond the loss of life or the violation of Sikh sacred space, though there is an undeniable continuity of trauma here that Sikhs have experienced in the subcontinent and abroad. How will we as a society come to tackle the systemic racism that enables this type of violence to continue unhindered? What is it about America’s particular romance with the assault rifle that allows it to fall into the wrong hands all too frequently? How do immigrants to America internalize the ubiquitous and jingoistic whiteness that targets them specifically? We are all too excited to talk about “cultural diversity” and “multiculturalism” without realizing that these words are deeply imbricated in a politics of othering that reinforces an essentialism it seeks to escape. We as Americans are too uncomfortable with talking up front about the systemic whiteness and racism that continue the societal inequalities of the past.
It shouldn’t take another tragedy to start the conversation.
While my friends all heard nursery rhymes and quaint bed time stories, I was cooed to sleep with two different techniques: Sikh prayers and stories about Indian sacrifice. Japji Sahib (the morning prayer, though taught to me at night!), the martyrdom of the Gurus, Partition, Panjab. I feel myself being enveloped in diasporic cliché as I type. Every night, I was told to recite words that I did not comprehend, and that to search for the “meaning” by mere translation was to miss the point of prayer entirely. “Just listen,” my mother would say. Easier said than done. The Indian stories were delivered in English, set in a frighteningly foreign context that I just couldn’t grasp. No concern that we just didn’t “get it.” These were stories to be believed and unquestioned.
I could never forgive my parents for their sectarian grief over events they never truly witnessed. Born seven short years after Partition, they couldn’t have marched in kafilas or confronted ’47 violence in any appreciable way. This was before I understood constructions of racial difference, that outside my Long Island house was a white world that would lead me to call myself “brown.” This is before I understood the empirical quality of their fictions. I didn’t give my immigrant parents enough credit. How Jhumpa fucking Lahiri of me! And, though I’m wary of subscribing to overwrought and invoked diasporic cliché, I imbibed my father’s unexperienced stories as memories of my own lived experience. I imagined a tradition of generational uprootedness that culminated in my sister and I. Add a tally next to your narcissism tab! And then I would drift off to school and learn about the geography of Long Island, and I’d momentarily forget, but just until my kara would jingle against the table and I’d glance down to see my turmeric stained nails.
Well, here it is… This is about a pogrom, etched in my memory bank that exposed & shattered my belief system. To this day I’m laden with fear, courage and guilt. Yes, I’m talking about a nightmarish Halloween when devils pervaded and usurped human sanity. Oct. 31, 1984 may be logged in the Indian history as a black Wednesday when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh body guards, but the thousands of Sikhs, victims of the holocaust that ensued, are still waiting for it to record their plight. The assassination was indeed a dastardly act and it had severe repercussions on the Sikh community in New Delhi and its suburbs. As luck would have it I was caught right in the middle of this byzantine storm, orchestrated at the highest level by the ruling government henchmen.
I was in Delhi for a day, to have my return flight seats confirmed with Kenyan Airlines. I was with the family of my wife’s uncle, Gur Darshan Singh, in Bengali market, when the news broke out. We turned on the TV where Doordarshan was carrying the gory details. Around noon, pockets of disturbances against Sikh businesses had already started. Observing the mood in town, Darshan Singh ji suggested that it would be in my interest to leave for Chandigarh as soon as possible. I hurriedly packed my bag and decided to head for ISBT (Inter State Bus Terminal) immediately. GD Singh, as he was popularly called, offered me a ride on his Vespa scooter. As a pillion I could see the dirty glances we were both getting as we drove towards ISBT. Sensing imminent trouble, he made a u-turn and headed back home. We made it back to Bengali market safely. Now the problem was how I get back to Chandigarh.
Here I was, visiting my parents after four years of separation and now unsure what lay ahead in the coming hours. Mr. GD Singh, got hold of one of the local security guards and requested him to drop me off at the train station on his bicycle. After initial reluctance he agreed and off we went driving thru’ deserted streets. At one point we encountered a small crowd which scared the security guard and he unceremoniously dumped me on the street and rode off. Luckily a three wheeler saw me and offered to take me to the railway station. This guy was GOD sent. He whisked me away – with very little to no conversation on the way. He could sense I was a Sikh even though I did not have a turban on. I thanked him and paid him more than what he wanted to charge. I felt relieved having reached the train station safely.
Well, it was short lived. The station was packed. I don’t remember if I purchased a ticket or not. There were a lot of penetrating eyes in my direction. HE came to my rescue once more. A coolie charged at me, held my arm and whispered in my ear to just come along. For some reason I did not doubt his intention and went along. He asked me where I was headed… Chandigarh… I shot back. He told me there was a train to Ambala about to arrive and that would get me out of this mess. This coolie not only helped me on the train but got me a seat as well. I’m not sure if he asked me to put away my kara or I did it on my own but I did.
After about 10 minutes, the train started to drag itself away from the station and soon gained some semblance of speed. I was sitting on the corner of a bench seat, the crowd, a mix of people with some Sikh gentlemen who looked like Afghani Sikhs. They were dressed in salwar kameez – typically Afghani style – short statured but smart looking. As the train was crossing Dadra station, a group of miscreants started throwing stones at us, for some unknown reason the driver slowed the train and, I heard this later from other passengers, few of them boarded the train as well. Soon, there were some new faces inside the compartment who were basically scouting the passengers. I did not like the look on their faces, a fear engulfed me and I felt very cowardly at the time. Instinctively, I put my left hand under my left thigh. My left hand has a tattoo showing the Symbol of One Creator – Ek Onkar. I remember crying later at my inability to hold on to the standard set forth by our tenth Guru Ji. I still carry that guilt in my heart.
Before the train could pull into Sonepat, someone pulled the chain to stop the train. It came to a screeching halt. Looking at one another, one could feel others’ heart beating faster. Then the most degrading, humiliating acts followed. One by one, each turbaned Sikh was asked to get off the train. They pleaded, begged to be left alone, but the evil ones would have none of it. From what I witnessed, they were severely beaten up by the crowd – their turbans went flying, their salwar was set on fire. I could not see what kind of injuries they suffered. One Sikh ran off towards the open field with a screaming/shouting group behind him. God alone knows what happened to him. My mind was growing crazy – a voice kept telling me to jump in and help these innocent souls and the other kept reminding me of my wife and 3 year old daughter. Sometimes I wonder, would it have been better if I were to become a martyr that day. They say Earth is for the Valour – but this was not the time to show that.
Eventually a few cops showed up and the train started moving again. At Sonepat station I switched to a first class compartment. The rest of the ride to Ambala was uneventful but had left me very drained and demoralized. I reached Ambala around 7:00 p.m. and found that both, Punjab & Haryana bus service to Chandigarh had been suspended. I was left in no man’s land. I was desperately looking for assistance to get back to Chandigarh. And then, I happened to spot a very wealthy family at the Ambala train station and approached them for help. It turned out these folks were from Chandigarh and had two cars heading back. I explained my situation, showed them my passport. For some strange reason, these people loaned me their car with a driver who was asked to drop me at my residence. Who on Earth does that? The ride from Ambala to Chandigarh was full of emotions, ready to explode. We stopped for a few security checks on the way and I was finally home around 9:00 p.m. – hugged and kissed Amy – thanked Vaheguru for carrying me through the ordeal – narrated the whole story to the family – still remember their jaws dropping and thanking God in unison.
I got very little sleep that night – still thinking about the fate of the Afghani Sikhs. I went to the Gurudwara Sahib in sector 19 the next day and offered my prayers and thanked Baba Ji. I never really went into any details about that eventful day with any one until now – and only because you coaxed to narrate my experience. Amidst the horrific display of human atrocities, I still remember the good deeds done by the Security Guard who imperiled his life to give me a ride on his bike, the scooter walla who came out of nowhere to save me, the coolie – how he read fear on my face and helped me and finally the industrialist family from Chandigarh – and you know what, I never got to thank them personally for their unselfish acts but I pray that Vaheguru provide them as well in their time of need.
This life may not be a utopian cockaigne, but it should be cherished, valued and above all loved. Love your life, family and friends and don’t forget to thank HIM for it is HE who has made this possible.
With lots of LOVE,