Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Singhnis

Like most educated Indians, I tend towards taking residence on the fence. My reading and exposure has rendered me incapable of committing to any one view point. I take refuge behind words like objectivity, maturity, liberality. No extreme notions please; it all depends on one’s circumstances; we draw upon our own life’s experiences; life is grey, not black and white, so goes my global mind. And nothing exemplifies this wishy washy stand better than my aversion to staunch religious identities.

I was named Shamminder, I switched it to Neerja. Dispensation with the Sikh middle name for women “Kaur” meaning “Princess” was a foregone conclusion. And the radical step of chopping the tresses happened as early as my Vth grade, no less. This is not to say that we lacked in parental indoctrination. There were sporadic dinner table discussions when Dad would remind us of our unique privilege in having been born into a Sikh family. We did undertake the annual Gurudwara visits on significant ‘Gurupurabs’, my participation being limited to the rare delivery of a sabad kirtan. But the acquaintance with this faith by birth remained at the nodding tier until the year 1984 in Delhi, that is.

While at our Saket home in South Delhi on those four eruptive days from the 31st Oct to 3rd Nov, there materialized overnight a coagulation of an essential difference. 
For the first time, I felt a sense of being outside, of having been marked in an elemental way. I remember with crystal clear clarity the night of 1nd Nov. Sick with claustrophobia at being cooped up while the national capital of the world’s largest democracy giddily lost its humane map and tired to the gills of the relentless TV coverage of mourners filing past Mrs Gandhi’s body lying in state at the Teenmurti Bhavan, Dad and I stepped out at night for some airing around our J-Block residence. 

Oblivious to the horrifying fact that the J-Block Gurudwara had been burnt down just hours earlier, we approached it from the far end, wondering at the slow plumes of smoke rising into the night sky. Earlier in the day, we had stood against our front door window chinks, viewing with disbelief the sight of a marauding bunch, looting the shops in the block market. And now here we were, licking at the rim of trouble.

A few steps further, the tight knot of conspiratorial huddle facing the Gurudwara stirred as a singular figure broke away to come charging at us. He panted up and garbled nervously, “Sardarji, please go back home. It is not safe here.” I looked up at my father, surprised to see him hesitate. There was that second of a pause, we turned around and walked back into the mourning shehnai.

That chilling hour came and went. Two years later, I was at the very same Gurudwara, this time in my bridal finery. Married into a conservative Sikh family, I remained preoccupied with life’s a-religious events for the following twenty five years.

The next my Sikh identity came slamming at me was, of all the places, an elegant restaurant with views of the Santa Monica Mountains at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles, California. 
I was in the company of two feisty, generous and brilliant Singhnis and we ended up discussing “Amu”. I, a reasonably well informed Indian, had never heard of this movie by Shonali Bose, starring Konkona Sen Sharma and of all the people, Brinda Karat. It turned out that the film that won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in English was censored in India. 

Needless to say, it was that “hello myself” moment.  I never felt more “Sikh” than I did watching “Amu” late that farewell night at Sadhana’s silent Agoura Hills home.

Thank you Navinder! Thank you Ranjit!

Waheguru Ji da Khalsa,Waheguru Ji di Fateh.

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