Sikhs attend a vigil in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, on Tuesday. (Reuters)
I remember I was wearing a red dress with white flowers and as I looked down, I watched the ghee from the halwa prasad flow through my fingers. Then I looked up at the stern looking Sikh priest with the white beard flowing, his kirpan hanging by his side and his lips raised slightly in a smile. I ate the prasad quickly and wiped my oily hands on my dress.
It was Sunday and I was at the gurdwara in Burrabazar. Like many Sikh families, we came there every Sunday. It was a place where tradition and strict rules were observed. Men wore turbans, women covered their heads with a dupatta and they sat in separate sections. I was 10 years old. The priests frowned upon girls whose eyebrows looked obviously threaded, short strands of hair falling forward or dupattas slipping down.
What I loved about the gurdwara, apart from the prasad, was the sonorous, harmonious voices of the priests and the music. It was beautiful and sung with energy. But what captivated me most and made my soul come alive was almost at the end of the ardas (the prayer session), when the main priest would cry out, “Jo Bole So Nihal” (Whoever says this, will be happy, shall be fulfilled).
Then would be a pause and then the congregation, in one loud full-throated voice, would yell out, “Sat Sri Akal.” At that moment, I would feel it, I would feel the oneness, the fervent passion of being a Sikh. I would feel the full force of the history, the tradition and the pride of belonging to a community where men were strong leaders who would lead and defend their people, if necessary.
“Jo Bole So Nihal” was a cry of triumph, of victory, of the invocation to the divine God and of the pride of being a Sikh, all together. It was a call for Sikhs to come together and after the Sikh riots of 1984, it was an appeal for Sikhs to come forward, to not be afraid and to be one with their community again.
I never forget that. Five years later, when I came to New York, I looked for a gurdwara and I found peace in the services. And I waited for that special moment when I felt the harmony, it was in that moment when my soul would awaken, when my blood would cry out in oneness with my people, when that shout of passion would come from my priest, the moment when his voice would call out with power and strength, “Jo Bole So Nihal,” and I echoed it in my mind. That was what it meant to be a Sikh. To be one with your God and with your community.
My visits to the gurdwara stopped after September 11, 2001, for many years. It was also the time when I put away all my Indian clothes. I never wore them in public again. I saw and heard about incidents that happened to other Indians, heard of the hatred, the verbal abuse and the ignorance that was thrown at them.
I didn’t want to be a part of any of it. So I hid, behind my American clothes and my sunglasses. It was years before I went back to the gurdwara again. To me, whenever I go to one, anywhere, it is as if time has stood still. It is the same service, the same dedication to the Granth Sahib (the holy book of the Sikhs) verses, the music and the cry to action that echoes through my blood.
The only difference was that I went as a westerner, I went in long skirts and a scarf. I knelt and bowed the same way. I felt the same but outwardly I was different. (To be fair, there were others and still are like me. After 9/11, a lot of turbans have disappeared.) Perhaps, some people in the gurdwara thought I was from another religion. My hair was short now and I did not speak. Little do they know that I understand every word of the service and every snippet of conversation.
They do not know this but I respect and admire them. I applaud them for their courage, for the common audacity of their actions. For the way that they wear their traditional salwar kameez, their kara and bring their children to the weekly service and are involved in the community.
I know I want to blend in, I want to be “American”. I don’t want to stand out. I don’t want the extra attention. I don’t want to be persecuted, especially after 9/11.
I know this to be true, that many people feel like me. They believe that Sikhism is very strict, it does not explain itself. It does not reach out. It is not inviting, it does not hold seminars in interfaith meetings. It does not recruit followers.
After the Milwaukee tragedy, I think I know the answer. Either you are a Sikh or you are not. You have to be born to it. The real Sikhs were warriors and they shone as rebels, as fighters and as defenders of India. To be a Sikh means to be strong, to be brave and to have courage. The word “Sikh” literally means to be a disciple or seeker of truth. How many people can say that and do that in their ordinary lives? It’s a very high standard of living and it takes courage.
Throughout history, Sikhs have yelled out that cry of triumph through the brutality of the Muslim rule, through the savagery of the 1984 riots when Indira Gandhi was assassinated (which I believe is one of the most shameful moments in Indian history) and now, when an unprovoked massacre in a gurdwara in America killed six Sikhs.
That it happened in America, which is one of the greatest nations of the world and where freedom of religion is one of the most prized possessions, is a debate for another day.
That day in Milwaukee, the six Sikhs were doing what any Sikh does in any gurdwara in the world.
They wore their turbans, their symbol of pride. They worshipped and the ladies were preparing the langar (the feast that Sikhs and non-Sikhs are offered) that everyone sits together on sheets on the floor and eats at the same level.
To offer alms, to feed everyone and to offer peace to all is to be a Sikh. They build gurdwaras that have four doors that point in all four directions, indicating that all are welcome, especially people of all faiths. They did not know that day in Milwaukee that a hate-filled, white bald man with tattoos would walk through those open doors and kill them.
The priest of the temple, Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, apparently confronted the gunman Wade Page, 40, with the only weapon he had, a butter knife he had probably grabbed from the kitchen. With that puny weapon, Kaleka defended his temple which he had helped build and all his people. He died there, fighting for all that he believed in. A brave warrior, a strong man and a true Sikh.
As he lay dying there, I like to believe that in his mind, he heard that rallying cry, “Jo Bole So Nihal,” one more time and he was at peace because he had answered the call. He had done his best and he made us all proud of being Sikhs on that dark day.