New Internationalist

We should all be more neighbourly after Wisconsin

A man prepares food for a Sikh langar
A man prepares food for a langar. Photo: Hari Singh, reproduced under a CC license.

The senseless killing of six Sikhs on Sunday, in their Wisconsin Gurudwara (Sikh Temple) has left us, here in India, all shocked.

People in Britain have been familiar with this strong, vibrant community for many decades. Many are surprised by the fact that the temple’s Wisconsin neighbours, who came out in full force to express sympathy and condolences, knew so little about the people who worshipped there.

The fact is, even us Indians know mighty little about our compatriots who are not from our immediate environs. We live, for the most part, in little ghettoes of our own making: Parsi, Christian, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, the last divided by caste, all divided by class.

Living in a close, multi-cultural community in Gudalur, South India, I am constantly surprised by new discoveries of customs, ideas and cuisine. It’s been an enriching experience for all of us.

Going to the Rishi Valley school, with values and a philosophy that is inclusive and wonderful, helped my children. I remember being shocked that, aged five and six, they had never met a Sikh before. So twenty-odd years later, I was pleased to hear my son Tarsh enjoyed visiting  the Amritsar Golden Temple, volunteering with the washing up in the enormous langar (kitchen) which feeds thousands of pilgrims and tourists every day.

During the tsunami in 2004, the Sikhs arrived in the area to help. Nagapattinam, a tiny Indian coastal town in Tamil Nadu town, had never experienced anything like it. Everyone came out to gawk.

Tamils are mostly small people. The Sikhs, tall and turbaned big men, with their kesh (long hair), kirpans (swords) and karas (heavy steel bangles), striding purposefully towards the camp in their kurtas (knee length tunics) were a formidable, magnificent spectacle. For the local Tamils, the Sikhs were a totally exotic species. Every bit as foreign as for the Wisconsin neighbours.

They won hearts pretty soon; Sikhs are warm, generous people. And the serving of food to complete strangers is an act of devotion. They make each person feel welcome and special by the way they feed you, although they feed thousands every single day.

The food is delicious. They choose the best ingredients without counting the cost, dishing out generous dollops of expensive ghee (clarified butter) and treat each guest like royalty. There is always wonderful, free food in every langar. Many young tourists and travellers with diminishing holiday money have gratefully accepted the superb hospitality before moving on.

I read that the Wisconsin people were amazed by the spirit of forgiveness expressed at the prayer meeting in memory of the victims. The Sikh scriptures are beautiful, as are those of most religions – if only we could take time to read them. It reminded me of the incredible hospitality I've enjoyed in Muslim homes. And the sad thing is, few people are aware of the Muslim scriptures that preach kindness, goodness and charity.

To me, the end of hatred can only come if we begin to know and befriend 'the other'. This would involve community centres holding mixed cultural social events. The best, most effective beginning, of course, is getting children together, which makes school programmes essential. In Mumbai, peace committees were formed after the 1993 riots in which Hindus and Muslims, instigated by evil vested interests, slaughtered each other. These committees have successfully prevented further riots.

At this point with so much xenophobia around, it seems an impossible dream. But we must continue to hope, to imagine, like Lennon, that someday the world will live as one.

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