By Avtar Singh Oct. 31, 2016
My sweet child, delicious as he looks in his turban, isn’t even half-Sikh. And yet, at a very deep level, a sardar is what he 100 per cent is. Why is that so important to me?
Everyone gives Muslim women grief over choosing the hijab. But what about you sardars? Aren’t your turbans just as much of a marker?
I heard this (or something like it; I’m paraphrasing, of course) from a prominent Pakistani feminist about 20 years ago, over a drink in a central Delhi bar, surrounded by pictures of splendidly hirsute, turbaned Sikh chiefs of the previous century. I almost died laughing, in between telling her what I thought was self-evident, that my wearing a turban had as much to do with my immense respect for my cultural heritage as any residual “belief”. She smiled, then laughed as well. Now, though, two decades on; when I remember that moment, I’m not sure there wasn’t a hint of something more combative in her mirth.
She’d already spent decades justifying both her feminism and Muslim upbringing to interlocutors who thought those two were mutually exclusive. She wouldn’t have been caught dead in a veil or a head cover, but she resisted the easy, lazy assumption that those who wore them were automatically “fundoos”. If Muslim women were to be called out for obeying what is equally a cultural imperative, well, why not keshdhari Sikh men? She’d had enough, she indicated, of idiots who didn’t credit culture’s immense weight in the ways we choose to represent ourselves to the world.
If some of those ways irritate; if they grated then on those on the left who believe that religion should have no part to play in culture; and now, increasingly, on those on the right who would like nothing better than uniformity: well, what of it? She dismissed the irritated, as she dispatched her drink. Surely it couldn’t get any worse for those who are recognisable from afar for their religious affiliations.
Well, we all know how that worked out.
Earlier this year, my wife and I performed our seven-year-old son’s dastar bandhi. It translates, literally, to turban tying. It has no religious function or sanction, per se. There is kirtan, an ardas, the turban tying itself, and then the obligatory festive lunch. It doesn’t mean that our boy will henceforth appear in public wearing an adult turban; there is no reason to, for he isn’t old enough yet to tie it himself. It’s a random marker, a milestone a family chooses for itself, and its main purpose seems to be celebratory.
At the same time that the militantly secular French government was banning headscarves in publicly-funded and run schools, they banned young Sikhs from wearing turbans.
The family laughed and clapped, but there were other notes in the overall party air. There were words from the bhais performing the kirtan, and sweet heartfelt messages from people with the presents they gave. In the main, they focused on the same things; the need for young Sikh boys “these days” to remember their history and their heritage, to remember their place in the world. There was also, perhaps, relief. My wife is an American, like my mother a non-Sikh who acquiesced in her husband’s wish to raise his son as he was. Which is to say, as a turbaned sardar. The larger family was glad to see that this child too was following as others had before him, in the path laid out by Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru, who founded the Khalsa in 1699, and bequeathed it its distinctive symbols.
My sweet child, delicious as he looks in his turban, isn’t even half-Sikh. And yet, at a very deep level, a sardar is what he 100 per cent is.
Why is that important? Why is it so important to me?
At the same time that the militantly secular French government was banning headscarves in publicly-funded and run schools, they banned young Sikhs from wearing turbans. The point was made that they needed to apply the law evenly. But how to explain to a young Sikh child – who is probably dying to ditch what sets him apart in an alien environment anyway – that what sets him apart is part of who he is?
It isn’t as if young Sikh boys are lining up to keep their hair. Ease, or the lack of it, is presented as a good reason to cut it off. Keeping long hair isn’t easy for a young boy. The few extra minutes in the morning, the time spent drying your hair when you wash it, the ritual of the turban and everything else; it is a chore.
There has been terror. Fear is its own justification, and for those kids whose parents decided enough was enough in 1984, fair enough. What price a history lesson when there’s a baying mob at your door?
There has always been peer pressure. Even in this day of non-Sikhs getting tattoos of khanda kirpans and Akshay Kumar and Ranbir Kapoor essaying Sikh protagonists on screen, can we really state that our aesthetic imperative embraces something as enthusiastically different as the keshdhari khalsa?
Finally, there is the troublingly ubiquitous “how lovely. But is it really necessary, anymore?” trope, recited even by close friends who’ve known me all my life. As if being a khalsa was a time-bound reaction to a specific set of circumstances, and it’s okay now, the crisis is past, we’re welcome to re-enter the larger fold.
The khalsa are Hindus with swords, in other words. That’s all we ever were.
And now it’s time to give the swords up.
We are different. We were made so by Gobind Singh, in perpetuity.
I like that keshdhari Sikhs themselves are getting involved in pushing an alternative standard to global hegemonies of “beauty”. I like that foreign brands now use Sikh models as ways to widen that conversation, no matter how anodyne that conversation actually remains.
I love the fact that I exchange nods and smiles with passing sardars around the world. I love the Sat Sri Akaals I’ve encountered from people with even the most fleeting acquaintance with India. I love how distinct I am, how recognisable my son will be, how the identity itself creates a community, no matter where you are.
Gobind Singh made it so. So a khalsa would be unable to hide.
It takes courage to stand apart. Under the Mughals, when there was a price on Sikh heads. Now, as the world drowns in bland anonymity.
I’m really, really happy that a growing proportion of Sikhs are now embracing the politics of being a sardar. To be keshdhari was always a political act. It has played out in troubling ways, no doubt, and I for one don’t want a return to the dark days of militancy in Punjab.
But at this moment in our collective lives, when we’re all being asked to toe a particular line, and pay obeisance to a certain idea of citizenship and nationhood, it is more important than ever for observant Sikhs to remember we are different.
We were always meant to stand for something. Of course, the message has been diluted. How could it not be? But it’s still there. And it begins with the way we look.
“What sets us apart makes us what we are.” It is a troubling formula, for those on the left as well as on the right. Look at how it can play out. “Jihadi” terror. Caste-based armies. American exceptionalism. Identity politics of the sort my Marxist friends agonise over, and with good reason.
But imagine how it could play out, if we could actually embrace difference. We could come to recognise that a woman in a hijab isn’t automatically going to produce terrorist children, and a beef-eating tribal isn’t anti-national.
The point where tradition, religion, culture and identity meet is fraught, loaded beyond belief with our own individual and collective histories. But you can’t wish it away. Not in India. So treat that point with nuance and with respect. Celebrate the differences, instead of seeking to elide them.
And when next you see a child in a turban, after the “how cute”, forego the “but why, now?”
It’s a thoughtless comment. It ignores history, hints at a smug endorsement of the current dispensation, and probably merits a little bit of slapping down.
And, since it implicitly goes against the celebration of diversity and difference that is a cornerstone of our constitution, it probably is anti-national.
Avtar Singh was the founder-editor of Time Out Delhi. His last novel, Necropolis, is available online, and in India from HarperCollins India and worldwide from Akashic Books. He lives with his wife, son and singing dog in Beijing.