Bracelet Is But One Memorable Link to Sikhs
I was in Africa in 1972 when I met my first Sikh. There were actually two of them, Cocky and Mohinder. I was walking the streets of Nairobi with my husband and an Australian we had met at the youth hostel. We stopped to look in the window of a photography shop. Photos of men in turbans, beautiful Indian actresses and wild animals had been arranged haphazardly in the display window. Loud, discordant music blared out the open door.
“Where are you going, my young friends?” a round, bearded man wearing a lime green turban asked as he stepped through the doorway. We mumbled something about breakfast. “Would you like to see the wonders of Kenya? Many dusty elephants? And lions? The Masai warriors and the snow-covered mountain? Kilimanjaro! We can take you on a tour.”
His metal bracelet caught the sun as he gestured toward a bearded, but much taller and quieter man wearing a powder blue turban. “My friend, Mohinder. And I am Cocky Singh. Tomorrow we will go on this adventure, shall we?” The Australian, my husband and I stood, mouths opened, our eyes darting like confused ping pong balls.
“Mohinder and I will bring all of the camping equipment and food. We will cook and drive, and we will go tomorrow for three days and two nights. A good idea?” We were traveling on less than cheap and didn’t do any type of tourist thing, but the next morning we crammed our sleeping bags into our backpacks and stood at the appointed spot near the Nairobi morning market.
A Volkswagen Beetle came roaring around the corner, loud Indian music providing a soundtrack. Mohinder unfolded himself from under the steering wheel and offered his hand. Cocky hugged each of us and began reciting the list of wild animals we would see: “giraffes, elephants, yes, many elephants, monkeys, the little devils, and lions.” He stuffed the backpacks into the front of the car, where many bags and boxes were already crushed. “Let us go. Tonight we sleep with the Masai.”
This is where I will stop the story for now because I must tell you about the second time I met a Sikh. Usually my husband and I filled our red plastic water bottle before we walked to a main road to try to hitchhike to our next East African destination. For some reason we forgot on this particular day. We were excited about going to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and we thought there would be lots of traffic on this well-traveled road. There wasn’t.
We stood for hours in the tropical sun. We had drunk the small amount of water remaining in the bottle from yesterday’s supply. An occasional car passed, filled with waving passengers. We sweated until we had no more sweat. There was no shade. The afternoon sun started a westward decline when a dust-covered car swerved to a stop in front of us, motor still running. The turbaned driver told us to get in and help ourselves to the Gatorade-type drink in the back seat. We did. And then off to Dar es Salaam at 120 mph, our driver’s metal bracelet smacking the steering wheel as he accelerated. This new friend and savior was a rally car driver.
Sikh No. 3 is actually a whole congregation of folks. When we arrived in Dar es Salaam, we headed for the nearest Sikh temple, or gudwara. Travelers had spread stories of the hospitality of these temples where they were given a room, or at least a bed, for no cost. We were invited to come into the main dining hall for a vegetarian dinner and, the next morning, breakfast. All was offered with smiles and polite gestures. A common language wasn’t necessary.
On to my most recent Sikh friends. Two giggling sisters came into my life during my last year of teaching English as a second language at Southern Regional Middle School. The girls were the last of many Sikhs I had taught in the district. I had the joy of taking Harmanjot and Prahbjot to the ocean for the first time since they had come to the United States. What fun! We went out for lunch. What fun! We worked on science projects. What fun! As teachers sometimes do, I grew to love these students. Adapting to American culture was difficult for them, but they loved to learn, and I loved their stubborn strength and sense of humor.
During summer vacation the sisters returned to India to attend a cousin’s wedding and visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. This is a sacred site for all Sikhs. Long ago many of their people were martyred and buried within the walls. On their return to the United States, the girls gave me a tiny snow globe, a key chain, but most importantly, a metal bracelet, a kara, made of steel. I had seen each of the Sikhs I had known, including my seven Sikh students, wearing a bracelet like this. All Sikhs wore this symbol of the totality of God. I accepted the gift and wore it with pleasure.
On Sunday, Aug. 5, the faces of these people, especially my students, played across my mind like front page photos in a newspaper. In these scenes, women clutch one another, terrified, horrified. Their faces are streaked with blood. As they lift their hands in prayer, I see a steel bracelet shining on each wrist. I shake my head and do not understand why American citizens are not marching in streets, waving flags and banners, taking back our country from those who advocate hate and violence while brandishing their legally purchased weapons. As for me, I can only write an essay to my local newspaper, phone my congressman and twist the steel bracelet I wear on my wrist.
Cynthia Inman Graham lives in Manahawkin.