"It was very difficult. We wanted to distinguish ourselves from Muslims and educate the public about who we are and what we believe. But at the same time we didn't want to single out Muslims for discrimination or persecution. We were very worried about that. The equality of all people and all religions is central to our faith. We didn't want to seem as though we were saying, 'No! We're not Muslims! Don't attack us! Those guys over there are Muslims! Go attack them!'"
Gagandeep Kaur was talking about the period following September 11, 2001, when many "foreign-looking" people were on edge. Kaur was referring to September 15, 2001, when Frank Silva Roque, a 42-year-old Boeing aircraft mechanic, went on a shooting spree in Phoenix, Arizona, and murdered Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Indian immigrant.
Kaur was referring to the more than 50 "foreign-looking" California residents who in the three weeks following September 11 were subject to verbal harassment, arson, vandalism, or physical assault. At 3:20 p.m. on Sunday, September 30, 2001, at an intersection on Miramar Road, two men on a motorcycle pulled up beside Swaran Kaur Bhullar, a San Diego businesswoman unrelated to Gagandeep Kaur.
One of the men jumped from the motorcycle. He screamed at Kaur Bhullar, "This is what you get for what you've done to us! I'm going to slash your throat!" He yanked open the door to her car. She ducked away from his knife. Stabbed several times in the scalp, she survived the attack. The two young men were never identified.
At Frank Silva Roque's trial in October 2003, his defense attorney argued that Roque was insane, that at the time he shot and killed Balbir Singh Sodhi, Roque was "plagued by relentless voices" telling him to "kill the devils." The prosecution argued that Roque at the time of the crime was sane but "consumed by hatred toward Arabs or anyone who looked Arab."
Prosecution witnesses testified that Singh Sodhi had immigrated to the United States because he and his family had faced religious persecution in India and that on the day he was murdered, Singh Sodhi had been shopping at Costco, where he donated $75, "all the money he had with him," to the Red Cross relief fund for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. After deliberating for six hours, the jury found Roque guilty and sentenced him to death.
Looking at Gagandeep Kaur, it would be difficult to guess her ethnicity, much less her religion. She's a petite woman, well proportioned, with the rounded shoulders and tiny waist you see in daguerreotypes of 19th-century ballet dancers. She has long, thick, dark hair and large brown eyes and the sort of light brown skin that might place her as coming from Latin America, the Near East, the Middle East, or the Indian subcontinent. She could just as easily be a Roman Catholic from San Juan, Puerto Rico, as she could be a Shia Muslim from Tehran.
"I was born in New Delhi, India, moved to New York in 1973 at the age of three, and moved to San Diego seven years ago," Kaur told me on the afternoon I met her in a conference room at Prudential Financial's Mission Valley offices, where Kaur works as a financial advisor. She wore a black blouse and dark slacks and was sipping coffee from a stainless-steel commuter coffee cup. Her American accent was so neutral that it was impossible to tell that she'd grown up in Queens, Long Island.
"My only experience of discrimination is that I was once walking home from school. I must have been in fourth or fifth grade. I was on my own at that point, walking by myself, and I remember a car driving by and a guy rolling down his window and saying, 'You smelly Hindu. Go home.' And I remember thinking, 'I'm not a Hindu.' But in hindsight, it didn't matter if I was a Hindu or not. It was discrimination. And so, yes, there was discrimination, but it was because we didn't look the same as everybody else, not because I was a Sikh, necessarily."
The Sikh religion, the world's fifth largest, is what Gagandeep Kaur shared with Balbir Singh Sodhi and what Gagandeep Kaur continues to share with Swaran Kaur Bhullar and 24 million other people in India and throughout the world. Gagandeep Kaur feels a particular responsibility toward Sikhs. She recently stepped down after three years at the helm as chairperson for SALDEF, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a ten-year-old Washington, DC-based organization that promotes public awareness of the Sikh religion and advocates on local and national levels on behalf of Sikh legal interests, such as protection against religious discrimination in the workplace.
"Sikh is actually pronounced like the English word 'sick,' not like 'seek,' " Kaur told me. "But we have a hard enough time explaining who we are without our going around and correcting how people pronounce the word. And, anyway, you can imagine the sort of jokes there'd be if people started pronouncing it correctly."
Part of the difficulty Sikhs confront is that, as a faith teaching the equality of all religions, Sikhism doesn't proselytize. Sikhs don't engage in door-to-door pamphleteering, and they don't broadcast television or radio commercials promoting their faith. Another difficulty is that Sikhism originated in a part of the world, and among historical circumstances and controversies, unfamiliar to most Americans.
In the mid-15th Century, a time when Muslim kings ruled large parts of south Asia, a Hindu boy named Nanak who lived in northern India and was born a Brahmin, a member of Hinduism's highest and most prestigious caste, refused to participate in a sacred ceremony that marked his coming of age as a Brahmin. To complicate matters, this unusual boy set out on what became a lifelong mission of preaching to Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims that they look beyond their respective rituals, practices, and dogmas, to seek God within themselves. While this was enough to surprise anyone who bothered to listen, Nanak also advocated equality between rich and poor, and, most radically, equality between castes and equality between men and women. At a time and place when religion, economic status, caste, and gender were absolute definitions of a person's value in the world, these teachings were particularly revolutionary.
When Nanak was in his 50s, he'd gathered around him a number of followers. They called themselves sikhs, a name that came from the word for "student" or "disciple" in Punjabi, the Sanskrit dialect spoken in that part of northern India. These Sikhs referred to Nanak as their guru, an honorific title meaning "teacher." They lived together as a community and adhered to three central practices that Guru Nanak required of his followers: service to the poor, communal meals, and communal worship. The Sikh faith had elements that both Hindus and Muslims could recognize and understand: monotheism, the belief that God is a single, indivisible, eternal entity; and reincarnation, the belief that good or bad actions determine whether upon death a person's soul either returns to this world to improve itself or unites with God in peace and joy forever.
Nine other gurus followed Guru Nanak. Over the course of 239 years they elaborated and refined the Sikh faith's tenets and practices. Although Sikhism attracted many tens of thousands of converts, its popularity was less than universal. With great violence, Hindu and Muslim forces suppressed the upstart religion. Sikh history is in many ways a history of martyrdom and defensive battle. By the time the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, died in 1708, Sikhs had chosen as their slogan Ek Onkar, meaning "There is one God," and as their symbol, the khanda, an emblem of three swords, which represent Sikh determination to resist all forms of tyranny and oppression.
It was the Sikhs' experience as an oppressed religious minority that prompted their adoption of a number of outward signs of their faith. The thinking went something like this: if we as Sikhs truly believe in the equality of all people and religions and in the right of all people to worship God as they choose, then we should set ourselves apart as examples of what we believe. Sikh men and women would never cut their hair. Sikh men would never cut their beards, and, in a demonstration of egalitarianism, all Sikh men would wear a turban, a symbol of religious and aristocratic privilege in Muslim society.
Three hundred years later, these outward signs of Sikh distinctiveness still attract attention.
"My father wears a turban, and my brother, when he was young, had what we call the joora, the topknot of hair that he covered with a kind of mini-turban, a traditional scarf that we call a patka," Gagandeep Kaur told me. "So I remember things that happened, and I never told my father and brother because I did not want them to be aware of it. I remember, for example, people walking by us and snickering. I felt very protective of my brother. He was a little younger than I was. So for me, recognition of being a Sikh meant that I was different, predominantly because of the hair. At that time, I was at such a young age that the only difference I could see was the hair, that we didn't cut our hair. My father kept his beard long. He kept his hair long and wore a turban. My brother kept his hair, wore it on the top in a joora, and I had long braids. And I remember, even with my long braids, boys would tease me, especially with the hairstyles my mom did in the '70s. You know, I had this little hairstyle where she did two braids and rolled them. The boys would pull up my braids and say, 'You look like a dog.'
"And if you weren't being teased for being a Sikh and for your hair, then you were being teased for having darker skin. We have darker skin.
"We were living in Queens, New York. My brother was a fully recognizable Sikh boy, and in the public school, he was having quite a lot of problems. My mother decided that she wanted us to go to private school, so she enrolled us in a Roman Catholic school called St. Joan of Arc. You know, every class had 90 to 100 students. But it was like a family. The teachers were extraordinary. We participated in everything, even religion class, and we attended church services, but we did not take Communion and we did not go to confession. Other than that, we did everything. And it was wonderful. However, we moved to Long Island and went to a public high school. My brother had a very tough transition. He was the first recognizable Sikh in the school, and because of his long hair, his joora, they couldn't tell if he was a boy or a girl. He had to prove his masculinity continuously. He had two fights for which he was suspended because some boy had touched his joora. When he got to high school and became a star athlete on the track field, he never had to prove himself after that."
I told Kaur that I, too, had noticed the different ways Sikh males covered their heads. I'd seen different colors and styles of patka and turban.
"The color of a turban or a patka doesn't mean anything. It's just a kind of self-expression, a matter of personal style. Some guys like bright colors, other guys like pastels. But the shape of a turban can tell you something about where a Sikh is from. For example, Sikhs from Punjab, the Indian state where most Sikhs live, have flatter, more rounded turbans. But following England's colonization of India, Sikhs began migrating throughout the British Empire. So different Sikh communities started to develop turban styles of their own. A more narrow turban that comes to a pronounced point at the front is typical of Sikhs from Africa. Since my family is from India, my father and brother wear turbans that are more round. Because my brother is a body-builder and has huge arms and shoulders, he wears a particularly large and round turban that's in proportion to his body size.
"In the past decade or so, many Sikh women, especially in New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles, have started wearing turbans. There's nothing in the Sikh religion that requires women to wear a turban or that forbids them from wearing one if they want to. It's a question of preference and style. And I think there's also an element of being secure in the religion and wanting to express this security and confidence in an outward way."
Being recognizable as a Sikh continually poses risks, Kaur said.
"In India we had a long tradition of being especially close to Hindus. Hindus and Sikhs married each other. My husband's paternal grandmother, for example, was born a Hindu but, once married, converted of her own free will to Sikhism. There were even many Hindu families that had a custom of raising their first son as a Sikh. This all changed in June 1984, when Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian army to invade the Golden Temple, the most holy site for all Sikhs. At the time, there was a kind of revival of Sikhism going on, and the Indian government interpreted this as a separatist movement, as a Sikh demand for a purely Sikh state. It all ended disastrously for everyone. Many Sikhs were murdered. Many were imprisoned and tortured. There were Sikhs who saw the invasion of the Golden Temple as a direct provocation, an assault against them as a religious minority. In January 1986, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards who were Sikhs. There was more violence against Sikhs. Throughout India, Sikhs experienced persecution. People couldn't get jobs. They had no way of making a living. Although things have recently started to improve a little, at that time it was difficult for a Sikh to stay in India. It was a very tragic situation."
I asked Kaur what Sikhism meant to a Sikh like her, someone who'd lived at such a distance from these enormous events.
"I think the Sikh emphasis on the equality between men and women gave me a sense of self-esteem. Now, gender equality is of course the ideal in Sikhism. That doesn't mean that culturally men and women are always treated as equals. But at the very least, there is the religious belief that gender equality is a Sikh value. It's something that our religion teaches, and it's something that we believe in. And so I grew up with the idea that I, as a woman, could do anything. For a while I was a stockbroker on Wall Street. I was right there in the trading pit where there were few women. It was an interesting experience. And I think that it was my faith that gave me the self-confidence that I had every right to be there and that I could do the job as well as anyone else.
"You see, I grew up identifying myself not so much as an Indian, but as a Sikh. My mother and father were always working a great deal. But my grandparents lived with us. My grandparents would pick us up from school and bring us home. Most of our religious teaching, the foundation, was laid by our mother. But the continuation of the experience was my grandfather and my grandmother, so we were well versed in what Sikhism was.
"I remember being five, six, and seven, sitting on my grandfather's lap, asking him stories about the gurus, and his emotionally telling these stories to me. The whole of Sikhism, pride in being a Sikh, was instilled in us at a very early age. I don't remember identifying with being an Indian. I remember specifically being reminded that I was a Sikh, and, I think, again, that was because my father and brother looked very different and because I did not cut my hair. And because our parents and grandparents wanted us, from the time we were very young, to remember why we did these things.
"I remember when my faith became real to me as an adult. I was at Stony Brook University and I had just taken an exam, a bio exam or some exam, and I was going to the library. It was raining, drizzling, a cold night. All of a sudden, these words came to me, words from a prayer that my mother had taught us. And I realized that what my mother had us say was, 'Oh, please God, don't let us see a bad time.' All of a sudden, it just made sense. I remember saying aloud, 'You know what? It makes sense.' All these years I just said the Sikh prayers. I just wanted to fit in. My parents did it. My parents told me to do it. My friends did it. But with that one realization, I understood what I'd been saying all those years and I understood that I belonged.
"There's something in Christianity called, I think, the 'Jesus Prayer,' where you just keep saying it. You just do it as a ritual. You keep doing it. Well, if you're doing something good, that good becomes a part of your heart and eventually becomes a part of your soul. And if you're doing something bad, it also becomes part of you. In this, the 'Jesus Prayer,' you keep saying Jesus' name again and again. You're doing it as repetition, but eventually it seeps into your heart and becomes a part of your soul, and then all of a sudden you can't imagine being without it. And I think that's what it was when my mother had us do this Sikh prayer again and again. Eventually, the mere repetition of it, the ritual of it, took on an essence of its own. I felt so enlightened that I knew that this was where I needed to be.
"After that experience, I changed in a profound way. I mean, obviously, I could have fallen in love with somebody non-Sikh and chosen them to have a dual lifestyle at home. But after that experience, I wanted to be a Sikh. I chose to be a Sikh. I wanted somebody to share my religion with. Not being able to share something that's so integral to you is a very lonely existence. Not that I think that there's anything less about being Jewish or Catholic. I think that's fine. This just became my personal goal in life. I wanted a husband that I could take with me to the gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship. I wanted someone that I could sing the Sikh hymns with. I envisioned my family with a turbaned husband and a boy and girl, doing the things my mother and father did with me and my brother. And I envisioned my mother and father being able to talk to my husband, and I envisioned my brother being able to talk to my husband. Sikhism, it's a family thing, too."
Kaur's epiphany interested me. Although Sikhism is far removed from Protestantism, the Sikh faith seemed to have an emphasis on personal religious experience, on individual choice. I told Gagandeep Kaur that I'd read something about what Sikhs called amrit, a ceremony in which a Sikh drank water sweetened with sugar and made a solemn vow not only to agree with Sikh precepts but to follow them absolutely.
"Taking amrit is like being confirmed in Catholicism. There are different levels of being a Sikh," Kaur explained. "To be a Sikh is, fundamentally, to believe in the ten gurus and to believe in the Sikh sacred text, the Guru Granth Sahib, and in the teachings of the gurus, simply spoken. To be a Khalsa, someone who has taken amrit, is to go to a very significant level above the basic Sikh way of life. To become a Khalsa is an even more aware state of mind. My mother has chosen it. She's at a spiritual level different from my father's. My father is a very proud Sikh, but he does not feel at this point that he is keeping a commitment.
"Taking amrit is very much a matter of personal choice. It's not forced on anyone. I've chosen not to take amrit until I was married. For me the rationale was that a husband and wife need to travel collectively. If one person takes amrit and makes that commitment, it's very difficult if the other partner doesn't. So, I've waited till I got married and we both were traveling the same way collectively. Otherwise, unless you're so, so sure, it can be a very empty ceremony. It's a very deep commitment, especially in America, because of the daily life and the way we live."
For devoted Sikhs like Gagandeep Kaur, an important part of the way they live is their weekly participation in a religious service at a gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship. A very large book is central to the experience of that worship service. Before his death in 1708, Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Guru, made a decision that might sound familiar to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Guru Gobind Singh announced that upon his death, Sikhs would be led by a guru who would never tire or become ill or grow old or die. Guru Gobind Singh declared that the Sikh sacred text, the Guru Granth Sahib, a compilation of 5894 hymns drawn from Hindu and Muslim saints and poets and uniquely Sikh sources, would serve as the Eternal Guru of the Sikhs.
A gurdwara, literally "door of the guru," is where the Guru Granth Sahib is read, or sung, during Sikh services. The gurdwara is also where everyone, Sikh and non-Sikh, who attends the service, eats the communal meal, or langar, prepared in the gurdwara's communal kitchen. When I first visited the Sikh Foundation of San Diego, the name of the gurdwara in Poway where Gagandeep Kaur serves on the board of directors, I was struck by how familiar and strange the gurdwara, and what went on in it, seemed. And it was only by visiting the Poway gurdwara that I was able to understand in a real way the role that food plays in Sikh faith and practice.
No one at the gurdwara knew who I was or what I was up to, but people made a point of greeting me and introducing themselves. Almost all the women wore traditional punjabis, the long, loose-fitting blouse worn over loose-fitting pants that taper at the ankle. The women's interaction with me was casual and direct. Most of the men wore turbans and slacks and dress shirts. When they shook my hand, they clasped it between their palms and held it a little longer than Westerners might. What was most attractive about these people wasn't just their warmth and directness. They anticipated my self-consciousness.
"Don't feel awkward," said an older man when he saw me, all thumbs and frustrated, struggling to tie a Sikh scarf around my head. In a gentle, matter-of-fact way, he sat me down and tied the scarf for me.
When I later mentioned this to Jagjit Dhesi, the gurdwara's president, he said that Sikhs know what it feels like to stand out in a crowd.
"Sikhs started immigrating to California at the turn of the last century," Dhesi told me, "but only in very small numbers. Part of my family settled in Yuba City in 1906. You can still meet these second- or third-generation Sikhs in places like El Centro. They've got names like 'Fred Singh.' They don't keep their beards and they cut their hair. They don't wear turbans. They don't speak Punjabi, and they have only a little familiarity with India. Although they're completely American in every way, they do remember that they are Sikhs.
"When the first Sikhs got here, Indians weren't allowed to own property, so they worked for other people, mostly in agriculture, growing things like peaches and almonds. When I came to the United States in 1967, I remember that driving from San Francisco airport, I was amazed by how open and sparsely populated the country seemed. It was a big change from India, which is so densely populated.
"My dad was working as a farm contractor, and we lived in a town of 3000 people that's about 50 miles from Fresno. He had already cut his hair and beard in 1950, so he didn't stand out in that way. The way that I stood out was that, when I got here, I didn't speak English very well. The summer after I arrived, my father got me a job doing contract work. The idea was that working around American kids would force me to speak English. And by the end of the summer, I was speaking it pretty well.
"At Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, I studied electronics engineering, microwave communications, computer science, and applied mathematics. My background in mathematics was already very strong from my education in India, so I did well in my studies. After graduating, I came to work here in San Diego at NCR in 1974. At that time there were only about 20 Sikh families, or about 80 Sikhs, in all of San Diego. I would guess that there were maybe only 1500 Indians in the entire city.
"More Sikhs began arriving, very slowly. With the Sikhs I met at NCR, we started getting together for holidays and religious services. We started meeting at UCSD. More Sikhs started to come to the city. By 1986, there were about 100. In 1987, we sponsored our first event as a community. We had a concert of a group of Sikhs from Africa that sang religious songs. In the early 1990s, Sikhs began moving here in larger numbers. It was the computer and biotech boom. To give you an idea of how we grew, by 2001 we had 100 families and we knew we had to establish a gurdwara. So a group of us got together and wrote our charter and started looking around for a place to buy. Within a few months we'd raised $400,000, and we bought this place, which used to be a Pentecostal church. More than 300 families now belong to our gurdwara."
I asked Dhesi, who doesn't wear a turban or have a beard, why he'd decided to stay so involved with his faith.
"Some of the Sikh teachings are very close to my heart, and I agree with them dearly. Equality, our teaching that we are opposed to any discrimination based on class, race, religion, or gender. Our idea of charity, of sharing with others and giving to the poor. And our respect for others, our belief that all humanity is equal. My father never forced the faith on me. That's not the way Sikhs do things. We believe that being a Sikh is something that's very much a personal choice, a personal decision.
"Even when raising my own children, when teaching them right from wrong, telling them what they could and couldn't do, my approach was very practical, not religious. Of course Sikhs aren't supposed to drink alcohol, take illegal drugs, or smoke tobacco. But my approach was always that there were good, practical reasons for living by the rules. It makes your life better and easier. And what was most helpful when raising my children was keeping them occupied, with their studies, with sports. Kids do challenge you, but once they know their limits, they stop."
Dhesi told me that he had three children: a 26-year-old daughter who has a Ph.D. in physical therapy, and two sons, 21 and 23 years old, who were both in medical school at USC and Penn State, respectively.
Dhesi sat beside me in the gurdwara, at the very back of the room where, as Dhesi pointed out, I could sit against the wall and be more comfortable. Much of what I saw that morning reminded me of what I've seen at mosques, synagogues, churches, and Hindu temples. As is required in mosques and temples, you must remove your shoes before entering the gurdwara. As in mosques and synagogues, you must cover your head. (For men and boys without turban or patka, and for women who don't have scarves, a basket of kerchiefs sits on a table to the immediate right of the Poway gurdwara's entrance.) As in mosques and temples, worshippers sit on the floor. As in mosques and synagogues, men and women sit separately. Before, after, or even during the service, Sikhs do something that's similar to a practice I'd noticed in Eastern Orthodox churches. Immediately upon entering the room where the Guru Granth Sahib is read, at any time during the service, Sikhs line up before the takhat, the canopied platform on which the great book sits. They kneel and touch their foreheads to the floor and, upon rising, leave a money offering before the takhat. In Eastern Orthodox churches, when worshippers enter the nave at any time during the liturgy, they approach icons, light candles before them, and leave flowers on the icons' ornate frames.
In the gurdwara, most of the 90-minute service is devoted to singing hymns, accompanied by harmonium and tabla, from the Guru Granth Sahib. In Poway, a PowerPoint projector beams the hymns' lyrics, and their English translation, onto a wall to the takhat's left. Gagandeep Kaur had told me that men or women can sing the hymns, and on the Sunday morning I visited, she and her husband sang one together. ("It was a small way," Kaur told me, "of sharing our recent marriage with the congregation.") The hymn that Kaur and her husband sang, like most of the other hymns sung that morning, talked about God's love for humanity and humanity's love for God, "God is as close to you as your hands and your feet," "I have no friend like God, who gave me body and soul and infused me with understanding," "Merciful Lord, have mercy upon us so we may sing Your praises."
During the service, I could smell the onion, cilantro, turmeric, and ginger from the communal meal being prepared in the gurdwara's kitchen. I became so hungry that my stomach growled, and I had difficulty paying attention to the service. My body's response to the smell of cooking caught me off guard. I hadn't expected to think so much about food during a worship service. I knew that for thousands of years, the preparation and offering of food was an integral part of ritual practice at Hindu temples, where Brahmins, the priestly caste, cooked and distributed prasad, sacramental food, to the faithful. But I hadn't quite understood just how Sikhism had adopted and transformed this aspect of Hindu tradition.
Gagandeep Kaur had explained to me that as Sikhism evolved, the religion became more determined to discourage caste prejudice among its followers. The ancient notion of caste, the belief that people by virtue of birth are of greater or lesser social value and of greater or lesser spiritual purity, remained a stubborn reflex for those Sikhs who'd converted from Hinduism. This belief persisted even among those Sikhs who'd converted from Islam, although many of them came from families that had initially converted from Hinduism to Islam precisely because Islam had forbidden caste prejudice.
Because family names were one of the most reliable indicators of caste, Sikhism recommended that its followers abandon family names. Sikhism advocated that in place of surnames, Sikh men should use "Singh," which meant "lion," and Sikh women should use "Kaur," which meant "princess." This recommendation hasn't been followed by all Sikhs. But their religion had another means of attacking caste prejudice at its deepest level.
Many of the Hindu caste system's strictest rules concern who can and who can't eat another person's cooking. A Brahmin may eat food prepared only by another Brahmin. All castes beneath Brahmins may eat food prepared by Brahmins. But all castes beneath Brahmins are forbidden to eat food prepared by anyone from a caste beneath their own. These rules of ritual purity and spiritual quarantine are in some parts of India so unyielding that lower castes are forbidden, under threat of violent reprisal, to draw water from wells used by Brahmins.
Everywhere in the Sikh world, at every gurdwara, everyone takes turns cooking langar, the communal meal, and everyone eats the communal meal.
"I'm not going to pretend that caste consciousness has completely disappeared from the Sikh community," Gagandeep Kaur told me. "But that consciousness is disappearing more rapidly as more Sikhs live outside India and the community becomes more dispersed. In my own family, for example, on my father's side, there was a tradition of marrying only people who had one of eight surnames. But my father broke with that tradition. My mother didn't come from a family that had one of those eight family names. And I and my brother certainly didn't pay any attention to that tradition. It didn't mean anything to us. It couldn't mean anything to us. We grew up in the United States. When thinking of a spouse, the most important thing was choosing a Sikh, someone who shared our faith.
"And even if someone still holds some caste prejudice when it comes to marriage, that prejudice can't go very deep. Sikhism requires that we must accept and sit beside anyone who enters the gurdwara. A king or a president and the smelliest, dirtiest homeless person are treated the same. We are all equal. We all eat from the same kitchen."
After the service that Sunday morning, we lined up at the gurdwara's outdoor kitchen. People from the congregation dipped into large pots and bowls to serve us hefty portions of black-eyed peas, spinach made with fresh soft cheese, chickpea fritters in yogurt sauce, basmati rice seasoned with cinnamon, milk fudge spiced with cardamom, freshly made galub jamun, little donuts bathed in sugar syrup, and a cilantro chutney made with lime juice and onion that Gagandeep Kaur had whipped up herself.
"You're probably noticing that the food is vegetarian," Kaur said as she ushered me to a seat at one of the gurdwara's picnic tables. "Some Sikhs can eat meat and some don't. It is a personal choice, but the reason we don't serve meat at langar is that we don't want to offend anyone. The idea is that anyone who comes to the doorway of the Guru, in the gurdwara, is supposed to be able to come and eat with us, and a vegetarian meal is the most common unoffensive denominator in any diet."
I ended up sitting across the table from a tall young man named Ronnie Singh, who told me that he'd just graduated from UCSD.
"I'm the public relations director for the San Diego Siege," Singh later told me when I asked him about his life. "The San Diego Siege are a professional women's basketball team consisting of the finest. Some Olympic players, some WNBA players. We have Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie in the league. I was actually just recently promoted to co-general manager of the team, co-assistant general manager, I should say. So the opportunity there is great. I'd really like to get into the field of sports down the road. Right now I'm working in law, and I like that, but sports is where I'd really like to be. A sports agent, maybe, or be a general manager, or something like that. This is the first step. I'm only 23 years old.
"I was born in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I lived in Florida until I was four, and then I moved to London for a couple of years. And then I came to San Francisco, Marin County, when I was seven, and I lived there until I enrolled at UC San Diego, where I studied management science and minored in law and computer science. My dad and mom were both born in India. My dad was raised in London and lived there for most of his life, so I still have most of my dad's side in London. My mom and dad were arranged to be married a couple years before I was born. I'm the oldest of three boys.
"It was kind of hard, with the whole difficulty as far as trying to raise the first generation in America while at the same time trying to continue with the culture and religion. My family was generally religious. We all wore turbans and followed the Sikh religion. My dad still wears a turban. But I'm the only one in my family so far who took amrit. I did it when I was 12 years old."
Since Ronnie Singh wore no turban and had the tousled hair and casual-seeming stubble of a male model, I wondered what had happened.
"When I was 12 I was trying to find out about myself, and religiousness was a big part of that. I was raised with that religious mindset, while my brothers were, you know, five or so years younger and didn't get that as much. I think that the whole acclimation to American society didn't start until I was 10. We spoke English at home, but there was still lots of Indian, you know, nuances. We ate Indian food every night, pretty much. We spoke Punjabi with our parents sometimes, but mostly I spoke it with my grandma. My grandma and I still speak it together. My grandma doesn't speak English very well, and she lives in the Bay Area, so I get to practice when I'm up there. The time I took amrit was when I was at Sikh camp. It was in Fremont, California, during the summer.
"In my high school, I was the first Sikh. I was the first patka-wearing boy to go through my district. In the Bay Area, there are plenty of Sikh families. In Marin, however, there aren't that many. As far as having a joora is concerned, and keeping it neat and covered in a patka, it takes some effort. That's what made me cut my hair eventually. It is quite a process. You don't want to humiliate the religion, so you want to do your joora and patka right. You want to look good. My youngest brother plays varsity basketball in high school, and he just cut his hair a month ago. Before that, he would come home every day, and his joora and patka were always falling off. And it's because he took a beating at basketball. The long hair is hard to manage, especially if you play sports. And you don't want to humiliate its significance, so it's like you've got to keep it clean, but that, in itself, can take hours, not just minutes of the day, but hours. And it takes time, especially when you start getting a beard. Like the way that a beard grows makes everything more difficult.
"And when you make the transition from patka to turban, which you usually make when you start growing your beard, you're talking about even more time. It's not easy, because you want to do it right. You want it to look good, look neat. You don't want it to be a mockery. I wore a turban through my third year of college. It really takes an hour and a half, two hours, to properly wrap a turban. And you can't do that every day. So usually you do it in the night, and then you keep that same turban for a couple days. And every couple nights, you build a new one.
"The amount of fabric used in a turban is huge. I remember that when we used to fold it, one person would grab one end of the material on one side of the room and the other person would grab it from the other side of the room. And this was a big room. It was probably, I don't know, six yards of fabric. It was long. It was huge.
"When I decided to cut my hair and stop wearing a turban, I think I made a religious decision. I'm not saying I'll never go back to wearing a turban, but I really think that the hair is a symbol and it's important, but at the same time, there are so many better ways to show your faith. And that's the time you spend being with God, as opposed to just taking care of your hair and your turban. I mean, it is a gift. It's a gift from God. That's the significance. But time is also a gift. And you just have to make the decision, because my dad, for example, works crazy hours. And when he gets back from work, he looks not so tidy. I mean, he looks fine. Nothing against that, but it's even hard for him, and he's been wearing a turban for so long. And the turban, as opposed to the patka, is where it really becomes a challenge, because it presents so many new obstacles. That thing weighs a lot and it makes your head hot and it covers your ears. I decided that I would use all the time that I used to spend on the turban, on its maintenance, and use that time instead for prayer."
I asked Ronnie Singh if he felt that his faith had informed his decision to work for a women's basketball team. I said I thought that most sports-loving young American men would consider working for a male sports team more prestigious.
"About working for a women's team, I never gave it a second thought. So, yeah. That's the way our religion's rules are set up. Equality of castes, equality of gender. Everyone who comes to the gurdwara is treated the same. Women are equal. A women's sports team is equal to a men's sports team. I had that idea of equality bred in me. I didn't even think about it."
How else, I asked, did his faith touch his day-to-day life?
"I think it makes for silent confidence. I can go about making decisions and doing certain actions knowing that God will take care of me and that all will be good as long as I remember God, as long as I believe. It's confidence that things will turn out all right and that the relationship between me and God will blossom into greater things. Not just right for me, you know. I do believe in the afterlife."
I pressed him on this point. What sort of hope did he have for the afterlife?
"The goal is to permanently get out of the cycle of death and rebirth. But, see, this is the one thing I don't believe in so much. Maybe that's where I diverge from my religion. You know, I don't think it's so bad being in the cycle. Maybe that's just because I'm young right now. I enjoy life. Maybe I'll change my mind when I get older. I do believe that I'll come back and that I'll know stuff that I didn't know before. The knowledge we gain will always stay with us, and eventually we will know everything we need to know."
And then what happens?
"I don't really know. We'll see."
When I told Gagandeep Kaur that I'd spoken with Ronnie Singh, she sounded frustrated with him in a big-sisterly way.
"Oh, Ronnie," she sighed. "Of course you saw that he doesn't wear a turban. You know, there's really no good reason why he shouldn't. He even has a very pretty girlfriend, a non-Sikh girl, who thinks he looks so handsome in a turban. She doesn't have a problem with it. So maybe someday he'll start wearing one again. It's his choice. We Sikhs never force anyone to make any kind of religious decision. It's entirely up to him."
Kaur did suggest that I speak with 19-year-old Amartaaj Grewal, who attends UCSD. When I showed up for my meeting with Grewal at a coffee shop near the university, it was easy to spot him walking across the parking lot. Like Ronnie Singh, Grewal is well over six feet tall, and his turban adds several inches to his already imposing height. Dressed in T-shirt and jeans, a light blue backpack slung over his shoulder, Grewal was a sweet young man, very at ease with himself. By looking at his turban, I could tell where his family came from.
"That's right! You got it!" he laughed when I said that his family was from Africa. "Both my mom and dad were born and raised in Kenya. In my family, we wear the African-style turban.
"I was born in Chicago and came to San Diego when I was ten years old. I went to Torrey Pines High School. My family is pretty religious. We went to the gurdwara every week for the service on Sundays. It was a pretty traditional life. We spoke Punjabi at home, and when my mother had time, she'd teach us Punjabi. I always kept my hair long. I had a joora and patka when I was younger. That made things a little difficult when I first started going to kindergarten and elementary school. With kids teasing me and stuff. It was a rite of passage. But at the beginning of each year, my dad would visit my class to explain about Sikhism and 'This is why Amartaaj has a joora.' And what he did was that he always brought candy with him when he came to my classes so that the kids would always associate Sikhism with something good and sweet.
"Everyone in my family has taken amrit. I took it when I was very young, like when I was ten years old. It seemed like no big deal to me, like I was just getting a kind of baptism, and I was already living a religious Sikh life anyways. It was just the normal thing to do.
"When I was in seventh grade, I started wearing a turban. It's a symbol of becoming an adult. It's pretty simple. The way the turban works in terms of your life is that it makes me think, 'I'm gonna get noticed if I do something wrong.' It's very easy to pick a Sikh out from a crowd. At the same time, it also works for you, because if you're doing something right, people are also gonna notice who you are. So you're sort of a representative of the Sikh people. You always have to be on your best behavior. You can't make any mistakes.
"When you're a Sikh, it's like wearing any team uniform -- you want to represent the team as best you can, and that's what I was always reminded to do. Especially because of 9/11. That's probably the biggest thing that affected my adolescence. I mean, the reaction from my community in Torrey Pines was nothing but support and stuff, but everywhere else it was pretty bad. It was like I couldn't go anywhere. I would go to Padre or Charger games, and you couldn't walk into the stadium without hearing some comment. People in the stands would yell things at me like, 'Osama!' Even when I was playing high school sports after 9/11, guys would say things like, 'Oh, I'm guarding Osama now.' Or when we'd shake hands after a game, they'd say, 'Good game, Osama.' It was just this childish stuff. But it was everywhere I went.
"Of all the suicide bombers from 9/11, for example, how many of them wore turbans. Zero, right? It was just the one face of the whole organization who happened to wear a turban. But it didn't even look like a Sikh turban. It didn't look like any kind of turban that a Sikh man would wear. So I just started saying, 'I'm not a Muslim. I'm from India.' But then I thought about it. Even if I were an American Muslim, that wouldn't make it right to call me 'Osama.' I really don't believe that it's okay to make fun of American Muslims. It's just a select few Muslims that are being brainwashed over in the Middle East who are doing these things. So I try to educate people about who Sikhs are. You gotta fight ignorance with teaching."
I remembered what Ronnie Singh had told me about his younger brother's difficulty with looking tidy while playing sports. I asked Grewal if he'd had similar problems.
"I played four years of basketball and then two years each of cross country and high jump. I couldn't wear a patka when I was doing sports. It's too hard. So, it was just me with my joora and a headband."
Knowing that young women are often drawn to tall, dark men with distinctive hairstyles and headwear, I wondered what Grewal's dating experiences had been like.
"I've never really had a girlfriend. I mean, it was just my choice. It's just something I don't want to do because I feel like I'm going to be marrying a Sikh girl, and I don't really want to call it wasting my time, but I don't want to get involved with anyone where it might jeopardize my marrying a Sikh. So that's why I have, like, friends that are girls and stuff like that. My dad wanted to be out of college and have a steady job before he got married, and I kinda want to do the same thing. I want to know where I'm gonna live and who I'm gonna work for before I get married."
I asked Grewal which aspect of Sikhism was most important to him.
"Humility. And the belief that all our actions have consequences. When something bad happens to me, I'll wonder why it happened and what it was that I did to be in this spot. I can always trace it back to something. I guess, for example, this past January, I got in a really bad car accident with my mother. We were dropping off my family at the airport. The night before, I and my sister had gotten into this argument about who's the better driver. And I was yelling at my sister, 'You shouldn't even be on the road!' I look back on that argument, and I know that one of the things that Sikhism always preaches against is pride. We're very against pride. We're all about being humble. So, I was, I guess, too proud, and then I got into a pretty big accident because of that.
"The accident wasn't even my fault, but, still, the point was that it doesn't matter how good of a driver you are, someone can come out of nowhere and just clip you. Which is what happened to me. But I was still too proud to think that could ever happen to me, and I paid the price for it. When I play sports, every time I've ever thought to myself, 'This is in the bag. This is going to happen,' it always went the other way. Every time. So I've just learned to keep my mouth shut and be humble, and then usually good things happen. Nothing good ever comes when you boast. I mean, anywhere in life you look. Nothing good ever comes when you boast."
After meeting with Grewal, I called Gagandeep Kaur and said I was interested in talking with a Sikh man who was established in his life and career. Kaur said, "I know someone. He's what we call a typically overachieving Sikh. He's a very successful orthopedic surgeon with a couple of other degrees. And he's just gone to business school to get an MBA. His practice is out in El Centro, but his family lives here in San Diego. He commutes back and forth."
Fifty-three-year-old Bombay-born Dr. Veerinder Anand is so busy that it was easiest for us to speak by phone. He chuckled when I told him that Kaur had mentioned his degrees.
"In medicine I had nowhere further to go," he said. "I already had an M.D. and M.S. in India. I did my ortho and sports-medicine residencies and boards here in the States. I got two B.A.s, two M.A.s, and two postgrad degrees, and all of these were in medicine. What else was there for me to do? I was interested in increasing my medical knowledge and also its application in a broader sense, so I joined the MBA classes at SDSU and was just recently graduated.
"I think being a Sikh, once I start something I am committed to it. I wear a turban, and I think that being visible as a Sikh does influence the choices that you make. Being a kind of diplomat for the Sikh community does subconsciously affect you, both here in the United States and back home in India."
Had the doctor's visibility as Sikh caused any problems for him?
"Only once. When I first got here I was in New York for six years. In 1980 I was standing at a bus stop in Newark, and these two men came up and started making fun of me, calling me an 'Iranian.' There was also this Jewish gentleman there at the bus stop, and he stood up for me. He had no idea who I was, but he told the two men that my having a beard and turban was no reason to assume that I was Iranian or even a Muslim. They left us alone. My oldest son also wears a turban, and you do worry about that. You worry about your children if they go to places where some people do not have cultural acumen."
I asked the doctor why he had established his practice in El Centro.
"After I finished my training in New York, I wanted to settle in California. At that time there was no Sikh gurdwara in San Diego, but there was one in El Centro. The gurdwara here in El Centro is more than 65 years old. You must remember, there have been Sikhs in El Centro for a long time. They're mostly third-generation Sikhs, and they really don't have much of an idea of the Punjab. But in El Centro I could take my kids to the gurdwara, and it was important to me that they have that contact and that religious experience in their lives."
What was it in Sikhism that Dr. Anand found so valuable?
"What I've gained from my faith is that basically you have to treasure and value life. There are always going to be ups and downs, and, basically, if someone strikes at you, your first step is to ask why. If they strike at you a second time, you should fight back. If you're right and you know you're right, you should be very courageous and try to defend yourself."