When I spoke to Serene Singh, I was inspired by her grace, kindness, and passion. She left me with anecdotes and words which I will carry through my own life, the most inspiring of them being: “it is more critical than ever to have the tools to respond to hate with love.” Serene is a highly accomplished individual, but more than her accomplishments, what is inspiring is the way in which she allows the foundational beliefs from Sikhism to inform her work with women empowerment.
When Singh was young, she and her sister were the only two South Asians at their school in Colorado Springs. Throughout her schooling, she “wanted to stop feeling like an outsider among peers” and was “tired of explaining what a kara and turban were.” Instead of taking her hardships to heart, she has used them to strengthen her faith.
I find her optimism inspiring and in telling her so, she explains to me a vital notion of Sikhism called Chardi Kila or constant bliss. It’s the idea of being in a constant state of gratitude and optimism. Whether it’s her own struggles, the stories of the Serenity Project, and even the narratives of the death row women she works with, Serene emphasizes that no matter what difficulty she’s dealing with, she knows that “you can’t fight darkness with more darkness. There has to be love and light with every form of fight.”
Serene most values the Sikh lesson of being able to appreciate differences and stand up for justice. She carries this through both her professional and personal life, a message we all need to be reminded of in today’s world. Serene uses love and light to fight for the hate and darkness which women have faced for so long.
As a middle schooler, Serene lost one of her dearest friends to suicide. She was young, but it was her first time realizing that resources for women are lacking. Serene tells me that women survivors are the most at risk, yet the most under-resourced demographic. Her experience prompted her to start the Serenity Project, a 501c nonprofit for female trauma survivors. The Serenity Project is one of Singh’s pride and joys, and also the organization which won her theDiana Award— the UK’s most prestigious award for social work. The Serenity Project follows Singh’s philosophy of fighting darkness with light. It aims to give women survivors the confidence and self-love tools to go back into the world and thrive.
Pageantry is another way in which Serene advocates for self-love and women empowerment. Oddly enough, her love and drive for pageantry began with a distaste for it. She assumed like many other people, that pageantry was just girls walking around in gowns for the vanity of it. She felt that gave her “ a right to make fun of pageant girls,” even though her attitude was counter to the Sikh tenet of love and acceptance for all people.
Serene decided to take part in the 2013Miss Colorado Teen USA Pageant, sure that her preconceptions would be proven right. But when she was selected as a top 10 finalist, she felt she did not deserve it. She believed she didn’t have the type of confidence of the women around her. And yet, the opportunity opened doors for Singh. It helped her realize that society’s “definition of success and worth through solely academic success is crippling for young Indian American women.” As she continued to flourish, she realized that she was not only capable but also had the tools to uplift other women. She gained confidence in herself and used that to show other women that they too are beautiful and are capable of pageantry.
Serene was named a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, where she is working towards her Ph.D. in Criminology and Criminal Justice. In particular, Serene is focusing on better understanding and highlighting the experiences of women in the justice system.
Singh has used her Sikh values to create the foundation of her work. Everything Serene does is an attempt to empower women and reduce the hate which surrounds our society.
Serene’s elder scholars at Oxford describe her as “1,000 hummingbirds wrapped into one human being.” And though I only spoke with her for thirty minutes over the phone, I believe that there is no better way to describe her presence.
Ayanna Gandhi is a rising senior at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds.
Indira Ahluwalia is tall and graceful with a warm, welcoming smile. She’s the picture of wellness and good health, or so you’d think. Her story, however, is about an illness that inspires dread, but it’s a remarkable and inspiring one.
In 2007 Indira was told she had metastatic breast cancer which had spread to her bones. She did not have long to live. But since that devastating diagnosis 13 years ago, Indira has beaten the odds and has not simply lived, but thrived.
Her forthcoming book, Fast Forward to Hope, describes the tortuous, but ultimately awe inspiring journey through the dark crevices of her disease, and the toolkits for survival she developed which she firmly believes, contributed to her recovery.
“I remember the day I went to my gynecologist’s office so well,” Indira says. “I had coped with a terrible back pain for weeks and was walking around with a cane. I had an appointment with an orthopedic doctor but then a new symptom appeared. I felt this awful shaft of pain from the underside of my right nipple all the way up my arm; it was a live, electric wire thing, and it prompted me to make an appointment with Dr. Maser, my obstetrician-gynecologist, immediately.”
That trip led to an immediate mammogram which diagnosed her breast cancer and her doctor insisted she get a PET scan.
“I had already been through an MRI for my back pain, but without contrast, and it didn’t show anything. But when I had the PET scan, my bones just lit up,” Indira recalls. “Dr. Maser, an incredibly supportive doctor, came out and held my hand and said to me “promise me you’re going to fight.”
The full meaning of what it meant to have the cancer in your bones didn’t hit Indira till later.
“I visualized a tiny, pinkie size spot somewhere, and was horrified when I saw the spread.”
The process of getting the right diagnosis is one of the first lessons in Indira’s book.
“My father had colon cancer and we were very conscious of taking care of our health and testing on time. I began having colonoscopies when I was 35. But I was 38 and had never had a mammogram. I simply didn’t see the connection or imagined it was a risk at my age. I didn’t know at the time that there is a genetic connection between colon cancer and breast cancer. It’s important not to underestimate your risk in any area, was the first lesson I learned. It’s also important to get every technologically advanced current diagnostic test done. My MRI without contrast hadn’t picked up the cancer in my bones.
Her second lesson was about the will to survive. At the time, her children were young: her son was 3, her daughter had just turned 5. After going through every stage of grief – denial, shock, anger and finally, acceptance, – Indira came to the conclusion that dying before she raised her children was simply not an option.
“You have to believe in what you want the outcome of your illness to be,” Indira says. “I had a simple choice – living or dying – and I was determined not to die. You also have to commit yourself to healing and not let a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness overtake you. I had some very low points in my treatment, when I had to actively cultivate my faith in the positive outcome I wanted – beating back the cancer. There is an enormous capacity all of us carry within us for self-healing and we need to believe in it, with gratitude and humility.”
Indira’s strong conviction about the healing power of positive thinking is borne out by recent research that supports the power of optimism and faith in changing the course of serious illness. She also found that being open about one’s suffering and disease brought enormous rewards.
“The first thing that comes to my mind from my ordeal is the goodness of people,” Indira declares. “I knew there was a stigma associated with cancer, but I was open about my illness and I was overwhelmed by the response I got from all sorts of people – friends, family, staff, clients, my children’s Montessori teachers, unknown strangers. She believes that given and opportunity, even random strangers offer unconditional kindness and compassion.”
She recounts a particularly moving incident. On a cab ride from her office in Ballston, the cab driver surprised Indira with a, “Oh, my God, it’s you!” He explained he’d driven her home some months ago, “…. you were talking to your doctor and you’ve been in my prayers ever since.”
“It was the simple humanity of his words which really touched me,” Indira says.
“Another of my primary anchors was my faith,” affirms Indira. “I believe in the Sikh tenet of Chardi Kala which is, essentially, cultivating a state of eternal optimism as one goes into battle. And I was going into battle with my cancer, with all the resources I could muster, including my state of mind.”
Her doctor told Indira he had used her first diagnostic scan from thirteen years ago and her most recent scan, to teach a class of medical students. He presented them as scans for separate individuals. His students diagnosed the thirteen year old scan as that of a patient unlikely to live, but gave the latest scan a great prognosis. His students were astonished when they heard that both scans belonged to the same person.
“My doctor told me that they needed to bottle the magical elixir I’ve used to beat back my cancer and distribute it to all his cancer patients,” Indira recalls.
“I’ve tried to share what I learned about my magical elixir in the book,” Indira says.” Writing it was a cathartic process and it lays out the essentials in terms of harnessing the science of your disease along with your faith and your social network, and creating your personal anti-cancer army. I really hope I can help others who may be going through a similar trauma. My advice to them: choose yourself and visualize your cure with all your heart.”
Indira’s book, Fast Forward to Hope, will be out in late April 2021 and will be available on Amazon and in Barnes and Noble and local bookstores.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents
Mainstream South Asian American diasporic fiction focuses mostly on the post-1965 generation of immigrants, beneficiaries of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which abolished national origins quota and facilitated the arrival of highly skilled workers from India and other Asian countries to help the U.S.
Yet the history of immigration from India, China, and Japan to the U.S goes back much further to the early years of the twentieth century, at least, when many Indians, particularly Sikhs from the state of Punjab arrived in California to work in the logging and farming industries. Although historians like Karen Leonard and Ronald Takaki among others have documented this early history of Asian immigration, very few fiction writers have tapped into this rich history for their fictional explorations. Rishi Reddi breaks new ground by undertaking this ambitious project in Passage West.
The novel follows a group of Sikh men, particularly two friends Ram and Karak from 1914 to 1974. The novel begins with the death of Karak and Ram’s preparation of a eulogy which provides a narrative flashback into the life of his friend. The early part of the novel sets up the geographical landscape of Imperial Valley, California, where the two friends find themselves after stints in the British army, time in Hong Kong, and a brief experience in the logging industry in Oregon, for Ram.
Readers are gradually introduced to tumultuous events sweeping through the world, the growing farming community in the Imperial Valley consisting of Sikh and Japanese farmers, the restrictions to land ownership and citizenship rights, the inability for Sikh farmworkers to bring their families with them leading to the growth of bachelor communities, the growing racial hostility, and violence against Asians in the U.S, expressing itself in infamous incidents like Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship that carried passengers who were British subjects from India and who were denied landing rights in Vancouver, Canada, which was also a British colony and were forced to return to India.
We also notice the growth of revolutionary politics with the rising influence of the Ghadhar Party, which consisted of expatriate Indians who raised funds to support armed anti-colonial resistance against the British, going so far as to support Germany during World War 1.
The emotional core of the novel resides in the compelling description of two forbidden love stories. Both Karak and Ram develop relationships with Mexican women who they meet in the farming community. In spite of the anti-miscegenation laws, religious and linguistic differences, Karak marries Rosa and starts a new family and life with her. Ram, on the other hand, is attracted to Rosa’s cousin Adela but feels torn by his loyalty to his wife, Padma, and the son born out of their brief union. Ram and Padma at the beginning of the novel are deeply in love with each other, but as vagaries of their lives and the cruel immigration laws unfold, their ties gradually attenuate.
The racist immigration system is rendered most visible in their harrowing separation. At a more public level, we see the passage of Alien Land laws that restrict land ownership by non-white races, forcing many farmers to become internal refugees looking for land in other states or underpaid employees of farming corporations. Even more poignant is the depiction of Sikh and Japanese soldiers joining the U.S. Army in the First World War, being lured to this task by the promise of citizenship. Yet, in spite of their service, they are denied recognition and dignity for their brave service. Reddi provides us glimpses of the losses faced in the trench warfare as well as the deadly attack of the Spanish influenza of 1918 which claims the life of Amarjeet’s best friend, the Japanese American Harry Moriyama.
The most brutal rendition of racism is offered in Reddi’s depiction of the sustained attempts by agricultural corporations to exploit the Sikh farmers, not having the right of land ownership, by cheating them of their harvests. This results in the climactic episode in the novel which leads to a murder, the near lynching of a Sikh man, and the long-term effects of this traumatic event in Ram’s ability to return to India.
Reddi’s novel is the product of sustained archival research. She has conducted interviews with descendants of Sikh Mexican families, as well as historical research on the harassment, racism, and violence that these early immigrants were subjected to. She seamlessly weaves historical characters and events in the rich tapestry of her novel. This novel dispels the monolithic model minority myth of South Asian Americans. It celebrates the working-class roots of early immigrants from India, the multiplicity of religions and faith traditions that these immigrants came from and united to fight against common injustices.
In addition, the novel highlights solidarities between various minority groups, not only the marriages between Mexicans and Sikhs, which is very different from the mostly endogamous marriage traditions of South Asian marriages but also the solidarities between Japanese Americans and Indian Americans. This is a novel that deserves serious scholarly attention and should be embraced by more courses in South Asian American literature and history. However, even though this novel is the product of intense scholarship, the research does not burden the writing. The novel flows effortlessly. It is deceptive in its elegance and simplicity and powerful in its empathetic portrayal of early South Asian Americans.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Gurjeet Kaur Randhwa drove a truck from Central Valley, California, carrying fresh produce to dinner tables across fifty states of the United States of America. A former national level field-hockey player in India, she now deftly navigates the American highways ensuring she stays in good health.In order to maintain her truck-driver’s license, Gurjeet must ensure her blood pressure and diabetes is within the acceptable range.
Gurjeet’s medical exam report is part of her driving record. It is filed electronically by the Medical Examiner (ME) with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) bi-annually. Any drop in health indices would mean she loses her license or at best, gets recertified every year.
The looming threat of annual medical exams that can choke off their livelihood, puts pressure on truck drivers to manage the perils of their sedentary lifestyle that result from long hours of driving. Long haul truck drivers in the U.S. have an increased prevalence, over the larger population, of major health risks and conditions across the board—obesity, morbid obesity, self-reported diabetes, cardiovascular risk factors, smoking, and lack of health insurance.
Eighteen percent, approximately 30,000 of them, are estimated to be Punjabi says Raman Dhillon, founder The North American Punjabi Trucking Association (NAPTA). The number of Punjabi truck drivers fluctuates based on the availability of jobs. Satnam Singh, a truck driver out of Yuba City says about half of the Punjabi drivers, approximately 20,000 live in California.
This Series will look at (the health challenges Punjabi drivers are facing in order to keep their driving licenses, and how they are navigating this during COVID. The two articles that follow will look at the nutritional value of dhabas (Punjabi truck stops) dotted along the US highways frequented by Punjabi truckers, and how these drivers increasingly use telemedicine to stay relatively healthy on the road and meet their licensing requirements.
Fuel For The Body
Gurjeet, a gold medalist in Masters in Physical Education, was a Professor at Women’s College, Amritsar before she moved to the United States. Her training in nutrition came in handy as she planned for her life on the road. She is vegetarian when on the road and thinks that most Punjabi truck drivers too are largely vegetarian whilst driving.
“Since it is not considered auspicious to eat meat, I have observed that most truck-drivers do not eat meat when on a long road.”
Sikhism, the religion of a majority of Punjabi truck drivers, stipulates a preference for a vegetarian diet and theGurdwaras (Sikh temples). servelacto-vegetarian food to worshippers and visitors.
“When you are driving a 80,000-ton vehicle, which takes an entire football field length to come to a full stop, you really are riding a rocket. It is a powerful machine and any small mistake can have magnified consequences. Driving long hours, as we do, one definitely wants the blessings of the Guru with us,” says Gurjeet. Gurjeet has never seen Punjabi Sikh drivers transport cattle to beef factories for that very reason.
Satnam Singh, a truck driver who lives in Yuba City and is an active member of the community, agrees with her that most are vegetarian while driving. “Not all of them. I would guess 80%” he said.
Unfortunately, being vegetarian further limits their food-stop choices on the road so drivers pack nutritious meals before leaving home. Gurjeet, when she drives her truck, carries two subzis or vegetable curries per meal. She wraps the chapatis or flatbreads individually in airtight packs to keep them fresh longer. Every truck has a small rest area behind the driver’s seat. It holds a mini-refrigerator, a microwave, and a bed to lay on. On a ten to fifteen-day road journey, there always comes a time when the driver exhausts their stash of food and has to stop and buy a meal. This is where the driver must make informed choices.
To meet the needs of the truckers, dhabas or food stops serving Punjabi food have sprung up along US highways. In the remotest of places, sometimes hidden inside gas stations are mouth-watering, wholesome delicacies that promise to keep the glycemic index from jumping up.
Gurjeet and her husband used to drive together, taking turns. As drivers are paid by the mile, this enabled the couple to make a quick turnaround and complete more trips every month. A truck can make only three trips a month barely breaking even. By sharing the driving amongst them the couple would squeeze on a fourth trip. But life on the road was tough. Sleeping in a moving truck was hardly restful. Driving long hours tired Gurjeet out. Lack of good sleep is definitely a factor impacting the health of the truck driver.
Balvinder Singh, a truck driver who now runs a dhaba, agrees. “I could not get fitful sleep on these journeys. When the load needs to be dropped off and another one picked, the driver is at the mercy of the client. Whenever the load becomes available he must pick it up. In a rush to minimize the number of hours spent in wait mode the driver sometimes snatches just 3-4 hours of sleep before he starts loading,” says Balvinder.
The number of hours on the road is strongly regulated by the Department of Transportation. After being off duty for 10 or more consecutive hours, a trucker is allowed to drive for up to 11 hours in a period of 14 consecutive hours. The truck‘s Electronic Logging Device or ELD system makes a note of the number of hours the driver has rested and the number of hours he has been on the road. The driver must receive a minimum of 10 hours off duty if transporting property, and eight hours if transporting passengers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a nationwide emergency hours-of-service exemption was in place for truck drivers hauling loads related to the coronavirus pandemic. The relaxed rules allow some truck drivers to rest for less than 10 hours.
The Center of Disease Control (CDC) states that adults who sleep less than 7 hours each night are more likely to say they have had health problems, including heart attack, asthma, and depression. Some of these health problems raise the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Get The Heart Pumping
Most truck stops have facilities for the truckers to shower, shave, eat and exercise. Some have a lounge to relax in and a gas station to fuel up. Gurjeet and the other Punjabi truck drivers rarely use the gyms. “I have never seen any desi drivers in the gyms,” says Balvinder.
After being cooped up in the truck for long hours Gurjeet would rather be in the fresh air. She advocates a walk at every stop making sure to cover a few miles. As a lady driver, security is a concern. She does not wander too far from the truck but circles her 53-foot long truck, carving out her own track.
Health of Wealth
The romance of being a truck driver has been captured by many movies and folk singers. The shiny machine humming down the long road of freedom making stops as it travels through new lands and vistas is a vision that fueled the American dream of this professor of nutrition, field hockey player, and yogini. With the drop in loads due to the trade war with China in 2019 and COVID-19 in 2020, the American Dream seems to be souring as truckers fight for loads.
The drop in container traffic has led truck drivers who served the ports to move into stable but low paying Central Valley produce transportation businesses. Price gouging by middlemen brokers has made it difficult for truckers to meet their expenses let alone make it profitable for them to drive their trucks. Since the beginning of May 2020, commercial drivers have taken to the streets of Washington DC and Sacramento petitioning Congress to take immediate action to improve broker transparency. A majority of the Punjabi truckers are independent operators who get their business through brokers. A shipper pays the broker, who in turn pays the truck driver for carrying the load. Brokers are taking advantage of the desperation of the independent truckers in COVID times by creaming off the rates. Motor carriers have the right to know how much a shipper is paying a broker and how much the broker is then paying the motor carrier. Brokers often find ways of circumventing federal regulations (49 CFR §371.3) that require them to keep records of transactions and make them available to carriers upon request.
It is time to remember that behind the wheel of the machine is a person who delivers our essential goods, keeps panic of empty grocery store shelves at bay, and drives at great peril to their health, fighting to stay healthy to keep their jobs.
Truck driver Satnam Singh of Yuba City said in Punjabi, “Every day we ride a bomb. We are caught in a triple whammy of less work, low rates, and poor health.”
“As many mothers know, love is sweet labor — a choice that we have to make over and over again, every single day. What would it look like to extend a fraction of that love, to ourselves, to others who don’t look like us, and even to our opponents?”
– Valarie Kaur
Valarie Kaur is a mother, lawyer, and progressive activist who is grounded in her culture and religion, much like Gandhi and MLK. She is the author of the upcoming book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, releasing on June 16, 2020. Here I am in conversation with Valarie Kaur, as she comments on loss, love, and the power of forgiveness.
GPJ: A lot of activists are seen as angry, yet you have talked about loving your enemy. How do you do that?
VK: I believe that revolutionary love is the call of our times. I became an activist after the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was a family friend. Since I was 20, for more than 16 years, I have gone from community to community working on a range of social justice issues. I began fighting hate crimes against Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, and other South Asian Americans, and soon realized that our issues were bound up with other communities of color. So I’ve worked with: Latino communities fighting immigration detention; worked with black youth fighting stop and frisk; on prison reform and solitary confinement; marriage equality and trans rights.
My son was born at the end of 2015, and we began to see hate crimes skyrocket, reaching levels just as high as they were in 9/11.
I had a small existential crisis — I thought, I’ve been a lawyer for 15 years — I thought with every campaign, we were making the country safer. My family had been in the country for 100 years and I believed we were making linear progress. I looked at my son and realized that I was raising a brown boy, keeping his hair long in accordance with his Sikh faith, in a country that was even more dangerous than the world that my grandfather lived in. I sat in a torrent of tears. I left my job. I took a period of deep introspection.
After so long, what actually creates change for the communities I serve? It always came down to a critical question: is there love here? Communities that received love in the wake of atrocity were able to respond with love and sustain struggles against institutions of power. I began to think about love as a revolutionary force and began to speak publicly about it.
When the elections happened in 2016, I was flooded with messages from people saying, “now more than ever, we need this message of revolutionary love.” When myspeeches went viral, I felt I had a mandate.
We built the Revolutionary Love Project — the vision of the project is to make love a public ethic in American life, but also globally. I’m really thinking about how social norms take hold in 25-year cycles — what might it look like in education, criminal justice, politics, as well as our homes and schools. Our mission is to produce thought leadership, stories, and tools to equip people to practice love, particularly in the fight for social justice.
Activists are usually stereotyped as being angry, and there’s a reason for that. They traditionally work in the frame of resistance, and while resistance is necessary — it’s important to have a strong line of defense against the policies and executive orders that this administration is issuing — it is insufficient to produce lasting social change. When it’s all about resistance, we as advocates tend to mirror the dysfunctions that we are fighting. We tend to mirror the stress, anxiety, fear, and even hate that we are resisting.
So my call is instead to adopt a frame of revolutionary love. As many mothers know, love is sweet labor — a choice that we have to make over and over again, every single day. What would it look like to extend a fraction of that love, to ourselves, to others who don’t look like us, and even to our opponents? When love is poured in these three directions, it can become revolutionary.
GPJ: We seem to care a lot about people who look like us, but the leap to care about our oppressors seems difficult. How do we love our oppressors?
VK: To me, the ideal in the Sikh faith has always been that the warrior fights, the saint loves — hence, a revolutionary love. I see Guru Nanak’s path as one of revolutionary love. We’ve inherited a history of, not only martyrs, but also soldiers and warriors. What does it mean to adopt that religious imagination of warriors against political injustice in modern times?
The first Sikh woman warrior was Mai Bhago in 1705 — when 40 soldiers abandoned their post, she donned a turban, she took a sword in her hand, mounted a horse, and said, “We will return to the battle and I am the one who will lead you.” She became the one she was waiting for. She’s my inspiration, and I believe we need to become the Mai Bhago of our time.
That’s why I created the Mai Bhago Retreat, to bring together Sikh women justice leaders every year so we can see ourselves and reinterpret our faith in this way. This is fierce religious imagery — sword and shield — but I believe we do not need literal weapons to fight the war before us. We may have needed them years before, but not now with the institutions of democracy we have before us.
My sword is my law degree, my shield is my film camera. I look at my Sikh sisters using their pens, doctors’ scalpels, pocketbooks, as their shields. Nobody goes into battle alone, so it’s important that we come together to fight the good fight together. What does it mean to love your opponents? My core practice is to heal the wound. I have never come across anyone who I have seen as wholly evil.
Every perpetrator of violence or supporter of violence is doing it from their own sense of woundedness, fear, and insecurity. They don’t know what else to do with their insecurity but to aim it at us. They are wounded. We point our swords and shields at the cultural-political institutions that allow them to hurt us. I am less interested in unseating this particular president, and more interested in the social and political conditions that led to this presidency. That’s what I’ve battled against — it changes how we fight.
Whenever we focused on putting bad actors behind bars, it never changed very much. But when we focused on transforming institutions of power, or transforming a corrupt police department, or changing federal hate crimes policy, or winning net neutrality, that’s when we began to see systemic change. I believe that loving our opponents simply consists of tending to their wounds. Changing how we see them, from monsters to people who are wounded, opens the possibility of forgiveness, and even possibly reconciliation.
Frank Roque, who murdered Balbir Singh, was about to receive the death penalty when his sentence was commuted to life in prison. On the 15 year anniversary of 9/11, Rana Balbir and I stood at his memorial, and he said, “nothing has changed.” I asked him, who is the person we have not yet tried to love?
The last thing we had heard from Frank Roque was at his trial, when he had said he was going out to shoot some towelheads and their children too. So we called him up and asked him why he agreed to speak to us, and he began to tell us how he was sorry for what happened to our family but was also sorry for the lives of the thousands of people killed in 9/11. He failed to take responsibility, and I began to get angry, but Ranaji kept listening and wondering about the wound in Frank.
He says, “Frank, this is the first time I have heard you say you’re sorry.” And Frank says, “Yes, I’m sorry for what I did to your brother. And when I go to heaven to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother and I will hug him.”
Forgiveness is not forgetting, it is freedom from hate. Then we can begin to see and challenge the cultural forces and the institutions of power that allow violence to happen. It took us fifteen years to make that call. If you are still hurting, and you can still feel that rage and pain and loss in your body, the best and most loving thing you can do for your opponent is to tend to your own wound. Forgiveness is really about freedom for yourself, and opening yourself to the possibility of reconciliation.
I don’t believe I will ever reconcile with Donald Trump, but I do believe that thinking about what drives his insecurity and fear, what makes him feel so alienated and lash out against all of us who look different from him, helps me fight him better and helps me to talk to those who support him, to understand why they are fearful, and hold up a vision of a country that includes them too. Loving our opponents is strategic, and savvy. It’s how we are going to build a movement that’s not just about resistance but about transformation.
Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is grateful to Kartik Jain for transcribing this unpublished interview with Valarie Kaur. When she is not writing or teaching yoga, Geetika can be found enjoying the great outdoors. She is currently working on a book called “50 Voices From South Asia.”
2019 is the 550th birth year of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, that is indeed, the youngest religion in the world! Some of the most iconic symbols of Sikhism are Sikh men with their colorful turbans, gurudwaras which welcome everyone regardless of their religion, and langar, the simple community meal that all visitors to a gurudwara can share.
As it turns out, some lovely children’s books capture various aspects of Sikhism’s rich culture and offer both adults and children a sneak peek at some best loved symbols of Sikhism.
Have you ever wondered how Sikh men tie those beautiful turbans? Or the fact that colloquially, the turban is referred to as a pug, or that fifty is not a number when tying a pug?
Natasha Sharma, one of India’s best known children’s authors, weaves a brilliant story in The Art of Tying a Pug, where a young Sikh boy learns to wear the pug but the family’s pet pug gets progressively anxious because he thinks the family is referring to him when they discuss ‘tying a pug’. Sharma, a sardarni who grew up in Amritsar in Punjab, hoped the book would be a small step in fostering understanding, open-mindedness and respect about the Sikh culture.
“The Art of Tying a Pug” is a book that is extremely dear to my heart for many reasons.
Helping my father with his morning pooni before he could fasten his turban was a regular feature. I’d help him match his fifty to the turban and scout around for the salai that he invariably misplaced. In case you’re wondering what all this means… pooni, fifty, salai … “right there was my inspiration for the book!” Sharma says.
Artika Aurora Bakshi’s My Little Sikh Handbookfocuses on Ardas, the special prayer that Sikhs recite before and/or after any special occasion.
The interactive book, with plenty of fun exercises, explains what the Ardas is comprised of and why it is important to Sikhs. It also explains why the sacred Guru Granth Sahib became the eternal guru for the Sikhs after the 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh passed on.
For Bakshi, Ardas was a shared moment of bonding with her family when she was growing up – it was also a time to make requests to God for a book or a good exam result. And even if you know nothing of Sikhs or their culture, Bakshi’s book has a delicious treat — the recipe for the karah parshad that all gurudwaras serve and that everyone loves, because, as Bakshi says in the book “Karah parshad is always tasty because it’s blessed by Waheguru. We also put in a lot of love when we make it.”
“I remember laughing sometimes, when we were seated in our prayer room and the verses from the Guru Granth Sahib Ji were being recited, and our mother was trying to hush us up. Life turns a full circle and I find myself doing the same with my boys… if on some occasions, there was laughter while praying, then it was a blessing,” Bakshi said.