I had been meaning to write down this story for some time, but life got in the way as it tended to do, and then something terrible happened. A man walked into a Sikh place of worship armed with weapons and began shooting, killing six and maiming a few others. I was shocked and horrified as many Americans were, for similar reasons, but also for a different reason. I have an enormous respect for Sikh people and their religion.
The Sikh religion and belief system in my opinion are quite close to many core values in American society. In fact, they have much in common and evince many qualities that are admirable, even noble.
I first learned of the Sikh religion from a close friend of mine who was a student of Urdu and Hindi. He made it clear to me that Sikhism is not Islam, nor is it Hinduism. It is a relatively young religion, and they have certain beliefs that make them stand out from other peoples: they wear turbans, grow long beards, and the male adherents tend to be burly and hefty. They wear a bracelet made of steel or iron, and many carry some kind of sword. That last bit really piqued my interest. As I am an aficionado of the martial arts, I wondered how they got away with carrying a sword in modern society.
“If they are abroad, they carry a small replica that will take the place of their real sword. Most men carry a small dagger, but in Northern India, the birthplace of Sikhism, you can see tall men with piercing eyes and long white beards carrying these enormous curved scimitars.”
“Impressive. So, why the swords?”
“They’re expected to defend their faith. But in fact they defend and have defended the rights of others. They are extremely egalitarian, even promoting women’s equal rights and prominent status as child bearers as early as the sixteenth century. They are monotheistic; believe in hard work; contribute to society; and practice purity of the mind, body, and spirit. They eschew intoxicants.”
“Sound almost like Mormons.”
“Not exactly. They only take one wife, and the mother is a highly respected and deeply loved member of the household. As I said, they pushed for women’s rights when such a notion was unheard of.”
I really admired their martial spirit and egalitarianism, two very core beliefs of mine. This to me is quintessentially American: the belief in equality and a dogged willingness to fight for freedom. Didn’t we stand up to the British? The Sikhs have been giving their lives to the concept of equality and religious freedom centuries before the Americans ever did.
Their work ethic resonates with the traditional American protestant work ethic. They believe in being householders and their region of India has been the wealthiest and most successful in all of India. They are the hard-working Americans of the Indian subcontinent. What’s not to love?
Joe Shmoe Republican asks: “Well, yeah, but what’s with the turban and the ZZ Top beards? Do they have to do that?”
Ah, America! Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, and Repository of the Perennially Uninformed. If only that psychotic white supremacist had bothered to just Google Sikhism, he would have found a much worthier cause to follow than a Neo-Nazi Party.
By all accounts, Sikhism dovetails quite nicely with many aspects of American society. It may seem odd to Americans that Sikh men carry swords, but some Americans like to carry guns. True, for distinctly different reasons, but there it is. Historically, Sikhs and Americans are not really the ‘turn the other cheek’ type. There is an underpinning respect for strength, a stoic regard for being able to stand on your own two feet. Is this not quintessentially American? And Americans purport to believe in justice for all, all men created equal, religious freedom, etcetera etcetera, and so do Sikhs. Americans value the entrepreneurial spirit and guess what? Sikhs are extremely enterprising, outstripping other ethnic groups in terms of success and home ownership. They have distinguished themselves in many fields. One Sikh nuclear physicist even worked on the Manhattan Project. There is so much to respect in this religion. What is not to love about these people?
Pity we are such superficial people unable to see past surface trappings. All right, enough. Let me tell you my story before this post devolves into another soapbox affair.
I had been in and out of New Delhi for the past three months in between trekking excursions and I would rest up exclusively in Par Ganj, the lively old quarter in the center of Delhi. The narrow streets were packed with merchant stalls, ubiquitous cows, pickpockets, backpackers, western style eateries, and local color out the wazoo. If I wasn’t kicking back in a café with a banana lassie then I was roaming the rooftops practicing my wushu routines. There was even a young lad who was determined to train with me every time I came to stay in the Old Quarter. As a foreigner I stood out. As a foreigner who performed kung fu in the nearby park and on the rooftops, I stood out even more. I got to know some of the men (I never dared approach an Indian woman) either because they saw me or because I bought goods from them. One man in particular, a spice seller, befriended me in a way.
He was a big, beefy man, easily six feet two, with a great black and silver beard neatly rolled up in curls and tucked under his heroic chin, and sporting a neat, trim turban. Despite his expansive waist, he could sit cross-legged Indian style as easily as a lithe rubber-legged maiden. He often hailed me when he saw me run past. I would stop and tell him how my last trek had gone and he would suggest a new place to visit.
“You are very lucky to be so free!”
“Freedom is an illusion! It’s hard work marching over a field of ice!”
We would often banter back and forth, and our conversation never turned serious, i.e. political or religious. I was often too busy to stop for more than polite chitchat. On my last trip, I had gone to Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas to study Buddhism in a local temple and also to do some whitewater rafting. The rivers were running fast and cold and clear after the snows had melted. I did those things, but though I went up to study like a sere little monk—and I did meditate earnestly—I returned with a girlfriend—a young Australian woman, beautiful, fiercely independent, and shrewd. She was an intrepid traveler, unafraid of anything.
The Sikh merchant said nothing as he saw us stroll past his shop, hand in hand, but I caught a mirthful glint in his eye. I am sure he saw the joy glowing on my face. My companion and I stopped to purchase some nuts and other street food to nosh on. I had been in and out of Par Ganj so much that it had become quite familiar to me, my place of respite after camping in the wilderness. My guard was down.
My companion whirled and slapped at a young man who had passed behind us.
“What the hell?” I said to her.
“He pinched my bum.”
This was a big problem in India. India men see foreign women and in the seething crush of a crowded marketplace, they take the opportunity to cop a feel. I had seen my companion stand up for herself and slap any man who dared lay a finger on her. She did not dress like a typical Western woman, oblivious to Indian norms: she did her best to cover herself from head to toe in flowing garb to deemphasize her curvaceous figure. Still, when she didn’t cover her face, her sky-blue eyes, handsome cheekbones, straight nose, auburn hair, and pale skin marked her as a foreigner.
She was close to tears. Enough was enough.
“Do you want me to get him? Do you? I will?”
She never wanted me to intervene, preferring to handle things herself. Also, I knew that deep down—sweet pacifist that she is—she did not condone my “violent exercise.” Wushu practice is hard to integrate with Buddhist teachings, Shaolin monastery notwithstanding. But at that moment she felt violated; it had happened once too often, and she was sick of it. Fatigue from being a stranger in a strange land afflicts anyone who is “out” long enough, and India is particularly onerous. It is exhausting to deal with all of the severe problems that India has. Virulent sexism not the least. She had reached her limit.
She gave me the smallest, almost imperceptible of nods.
“Yeah, him, the one walking away with his mate.”
Two men, one tall one short, were hurrying away with their arms around in each other, heads bobbing together in laughter.
“Hey!” I shouted after them. I caught up with them. I grabbed the tall thin one and whirled him around to face me. “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“What?” He smiled impishly at me.
“We are guests in your country and you dare insult my girlfriend!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He was all smiles.
“Don’t play the innocent fool with me.”
He continued to smile. He was not a lower class Indian. He was dressed well, spoke impeccable English, and wore a nice watch. He broadened his smile and spread his hands as if to say he had nothing to hide.
“You, you’re a disgrace to your country. You think it’s all right to molest foreign women? Do you!”
He continued to protest his innocence. In the heat of passion I of course did not think this through. I just wanted to defend the honor of my girlfriend. What was I going to do with him now that I had caught him? Take him to the local constabulary? They would laugh at us and perhaps subject my companion and me to further unwanted groping. I was pissed. He was smiling like an infernal monkey.
I slapped him. Pap! Right on the cheek.
He blinked at me stupidly, then exploded in anger. He swung his arm in a wide vicious arc.
So easy. Block. Jab. Cross. His head snapped back, whipping his long hair away from his brown face. He looked at me in shock. Slowly, his knees began to tremble, buckling, and he sunk down as if sucked by sudden gravity, collapsing onto the street.
“That’s what you get for being a misogynist!” I said, shaking my finger at him.
I walked away flushed with adrenalin. I should have collected my girlfriend and bolted from the scene as quickly as possible. We lingered, however, finishing our purchases, which was very stupid in hindsight. We felt vindicated. We had been accosted and we had meted out justice. Why should we flee? We were the ones molested and now we had chastised this miscreant. That’s it, over and done. I may have been done with the molester, but he was not done with me.
I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He picked himself up and came at me. He was yelling that I had wronged him; that he was innocent. He charged. He charged right into my foot. But it was a glancing blow, only enough to spin him away, not really hurt him. He went down, but got up again, flailing his arms blindly. This was pathetic. He was not a strong man, so I did not hit him. I deflected his blows and locked up his arms. Then, he tried to kick me in the testicles, but I shifted my hips away from him. All he had left was his head and he slammed it into my nose, again and again. My vision exploded; while painful, it was not debilitating.
I tripped him, flipping him down to the street. He held on and dragged me down on top of him. I was dimly aware that the crowd had surged forward, had begun to close in. I felt blows rain down on my unprotected head and back. I tried to shield the back of my head with one hand while pushing away the young fool’s fists under me. He was getting crushed flat as well. We were inexorably pressed together like two frogs under a steamroller.
In India, riots are not infrequent, especially in the summer. Tensions run high every day and it takes very little for some minor incident to catalyze any crowd into violence. It did not matter who was right or wrong. Now, the crowd only saw a foreigner beating down on one of their own. Suddenly the air was sucked away from me as if by a vacuum. Suddenly, swiftly, there was space, there was blue sky after being submerged in a black, brown, grey ocean of fists and feet. I felt myself lifted up by powerful hands. I heard a gruff whisper in my ear, a rough beard on my neck and cheek: “Run! Run!”
I saw my girlfriend standing nearby, a blank lost look of horror on her face. I snatched up her hand and dashed down the street with her, exploding out of the clamor and roar of the crowd. I did not stop until we had sped up the stairs of our hostel and slammed shut the bolt on our door. Miraculously, we had not lost any of our valuables other than the snacks we had purchased. We had not lost our lives.
My poor girlfriend was in shock. “I’ve never seen anything like that. Never.” She sat down heavily on the bed. I felt horrible. How many times have I seen that look on the faces of loved ones, friends, family? Too often. My stupid actions put her in peril. I tried to console her. She looked at me with fear.
“You’re bleeding. You have blood….” I had blood spattered on my shirt. I had a cut on the bridge of my nose from when the young molester had smashed his forehead against me. The blood was flowing freely. I tore off some tissue paper and staunched the flow.
“You should…doctor, see a doctor.”
“Naw, I’m all right. I feel fine. It looks ugly ‘cuz it’s on bone, on the bridge. Are you all right? You didn’t get touched did you?”
“No. No one came near me. But you…you could have been killed. I could have been killed. They just…they just all started jumping on you, hitting you. If that man….”
“Yeah. Who was it? I didn’t even see who it was. All I felt was someone grab me and yank me out of the dog pile.”
“It was a big man. With a white turban. And a beard.”
“A Sikh. I know that guy. I always say hello to him. He has a shop on the main strip.”
Later, I realized that the Sikh man’s brave actions could very well have put his own life in jeopardy, but that didn’t stop him from acting. On the contrary, he helped a foreigner, a complete stranger, without thought for himself. My actions were stupid and I put my companion and myself in danger. If it were not for that man…I shudder to think of what could have happened. I always relate this story to my friends whenever the topic of selfless bravery crops up.