In the third week of April, a Norwegian YouTube video with English subtitles bounced off of Facebook walls. It showed two Sikh males unreeling yards of fabric in the hall of a railway station on “Turban Day” in Oslo. On offer for those who signed up to sport a turban or pugree was a free ride on the Airport Express. The video camera hovered over the heads of passengers milling about on the platform in colorful pugrees tied expertly by the Sikh gentlemen.
The word pugree has been co-opted from the Punjabi language. In the Indian subcontinent, it’s a generic term referring to head gear popular in India’s different regions even though the word may have originally referred to the particular turbans worn by men of the Sikh faith. The pugree was described by the Oxford dictionary as the turban of the British army man in India who wore “a scarf, usually of thin muslin, wound round the crown of a sun helmet or hat and originally fastened so that the ends hung down at the back to shade the neck.”
For our family, the pugree is a symbol of compassion and humanity. In July 2012, when my husband had a nasty fall inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, an entire regiment of turbaned Sikhs marshaled all possible resources to care for him as we dealt with finding care for the multiple bruises and fractures he had sustained. In the days following his injury, the community showed itself to be tight knit and large-hearted. During that visit, a Sikh friend of many years walked us through a langar, a community kitchen, in his place of worship. We watched rotis puffing and sliding off skillets. Vats of dal and kheer simmered inside the immaculate kitchen. At every such Gurdwara canteen in cities around the world, anyone may walk in to eat—regardless of creed, race, or religion. Community service is one of the key tenets of Sikh faith.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 incident in the United States, this community became a target for hate crimes when the Sikh turban was linked with the head gear of the Al-Qaeda, an extremist terrorist network that masterminded 9/11. Overnight, a strip of cloth wrapped around a head became a marker with which to vilify people and strip them of their right to dignity and to life. A decade since, intolerance for the uncommon and the unknown is the new normal even in a nation pledged to unity in diversity.
His turban gave much grief to Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa’s Durban in 1893 when he reported for work at the court sporting a pugree in the style of the times. At Gandhi’s next court appearance, the magistrate asked him to remove it. Gandhi strode out of the courtroom and promptly wrote to the press about the incident, defending his right to wear a pugree in court. During his two decades in South Africa, Gandhi’s experiences representing the marginalized Indian laborers in court strengthened his resolve to fight intolerance and injustice. His struggles formed the bulwark for his credo of non-violent agitation; he would wield it powerfully for India’s emancipation from the British.
In The Story Of My Experiments With Truth, he talks about how the ship he was traveling to South Africa almost capsized during the monsoons: “All became one in face of the common danger. They forgot their differences and began to think of the one and only God—Musalmans, Hindus, Christians and all. Some took various vows. The captain also joined the passengers in their prayers.” Gandhi says the feeling of oneness was momentary: “With the disappearance of danger disappeared also the name of God from their lips.”
Gandhi’s writings are a reminder of the importance of introspection, of the value of civil intellectual debate between people with different ideologies, and of the urgency to see life, literally, from inside another man’s head. The video of Turban Day felt like a literal, yet poignant, effort towards that. I considered its relevance in these bleak times. For ethnic minorities in most of the western world, life is becoming rife with uncertainty, especially as swarms of Syrian migrants knock on doors seeking refuge. I could see how, more than ever before, the need to demystify the turban was urgent for Sikhs.
The final segment in the Norwegian video cuts to a scene inside the train where passengers of different ethnicities sporting blue, purple and orange turbans are laughing and taking photographs of one another. The harmony of the scene took my breath away. I wished it would last.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley.