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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  1. #1 Ludwig Pesch 10 Aug 12

    Thanks a lot for yet another thought provoking blog on an issue that matters. It highlights the danger of alienation. Mutual distrust can indeed be reduced on a day to day level. That's hopeful and independant of grand gestures or government sponsorship.
    The fear or paranoia that once again translated into unprovoked violence against innocent people can neither be dismissed nor easily resolved. Racially motivated hate crimes need no ’spark’. Worse, their perpetuators are aware of the cult status bestowed on lethal arms. It makes any coward feel like hero, martyr or media celebrity when he (mostly a male) is in fact just that: a coward. But who dares telling this to America's youth? No US politician, not even the present President who, in the wake of this tragedy, felt compelled to condone gun ownership: ’hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage’ while refraining from any new proposals on gun control. Read more in The Guardian:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/26/obama-gun-control-deal-aurora
    Racism and other forms of discrimination need to be checked continually. This column is a boon and timely reminder that change for the better requires pro-active involvement by all responsible citizens.
    I am glad to be reminded here of the hospitality and generosity of Sikhs as I have happy memories of it myself!

  2. #2 Umakant 10 Aug 12

    Thanks a lot Mari for your kind and soothing words! Yes, you are right in re-emphasising the need for neighbourly understanding amongst different communities. There is a need to develop a culture to respect each others religion, culture and human rights. This is true for every one and all human rights for all must be practiced without any ambiguity.

  3. #3 Aloke Surin 10 Aug 12

    Beautifully written, Mari. I endorse your views fully.A little extrapolation re the self imposed ’ghettos’ that we live in: many years ago I was more than surprised that even within the Christian community in India, there were sub-groups like ’Indian Christians’ (meaning those whose mother tongue was not English; the term was generally used by Anglo Indian Christians to refer to those of the same faith but who spoke the vernacular!). And I also remember ’enlightened’ leading English language newspapers in India like The Times of India and The Hindustan Times had categories within categories in their weekly Matrimonial classified ads (a huge revenue earner I am sure): Goan Christian, Mangalorean Christian, Syrian Christian and so on and so forth. I have always felt that in this case the media is helping to perpetuate our differences instead of lighting the way forward. And as for the people who put out the ads,what can I say....they need to really live the scriptures of their faith!

  4. #4 sujatha rangaswami 10 Aug 12

    thank you mari for pointing out how ghettoised our experiences are in india - and why it is vital that kids are introduced to the many religions languages and peoples they share the world with.

    on an another note i was pleased to read about the quality of hospitality in muslim homes - my best journeys from the human warmth and hospitality angle have been in countries predominantly muslim - coincidence ? or cultural value ? i tend to think it is the second ;)

  5. #5 Nick Harvey 10 Aug 12

    Having slept and been fed at the Golden Temple in Amritsar several times without ever being asked to pay a rupee, I can vouch that Sikh hospitality is a godsend for the weary traveller.
    I've also been welcomed and fed more times than I can remember in Muslim homes, particularly in Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia.
    In the West, if your partner or parent turned up at the house without warning with random foreign strangers they'd just met on the street who then joined you for dinner before sleeping on your floor you'd think they'd gone crackers. There's plenty we can learn from Sikh and Muslim cultures.

  6. #6 Anita Christy 11 Aug 12

    We were visiting Wisconsin and on the day we left we heard this shocking news. Personally know friends who attend this gurudwara. The Sikhs are truly a peace loving community who did not deserve this. May we all learn from their spirit of forgiveness.

  7. #7 Beulah 11 Aug 12

    Very nicely worded... yes we were in malaysia when the Tsunami arrived and the sikhs in that area also set out towards Banda Acer in boats laden with food and medicines.... if anyone they didnt deserve this.Hate is such a terrible thing, to live with it a life time is so hateful.Hope this ends soon!!! thanks for the gentle reminder of our beautuful compatriots.

  8. #8 Mark Fernandes 11 Aug 12

    It is sad but true that people all over are getting lonelier. There is no inclination or time to know thy neighbour and hence the lack of respect and brotherhood.
    Our biggest hope is our schools where as a child I met my friend and learnt to appreciate and learn from their way of life.

  9. #9 anita 11 Aug 12

    I remember growing up in a housing society in Bombay years ago and meeting so many cultures and to date I believe that has what has kept me keen to step upto a stranger and ask them what language they speak and where they are from. Its not out of a desire to find out whether they are safe to befriend its a simple curiosity to know the diversity and richness of cultures that are out there! I believe it helps to start early to trust one's neighbors but in these times how far can we go with that?

  10. #10 Prabir 11 Aug 12

    Nice. Many Sikhs feel misunderstood. I was surprised that a colleague recently asked me whether I knew anything about Sikhs. One of my best friends at school was Sikh and there were many at college in Kolkata. Their scriptures include verses authored by writers from at least two other religions. Their hospitality is famous

  11. #11 dhun daruwala 11 Aug 12

    A great article.
    One of the finest communities in India.
    Friendly and brave.
    India has to do more than just an apology for the slaughter of Sikhs after Indira's asasination.
    Maharaj Ranjeet Singh was the only person under whom the Afghans were conquered.
    I have not to this day seen a Sikh beggar.
    That presidential hopeful Mit Romney dropped a clanger when he confused Sheik for Sikh.
    The US needs better candidates than that !
    Didn't they learn from that ignoramus George W ?
    Take care,
    Dhun D

    D. F. DARUWALA P-8, HAUZ KHAS ENCLAVE, NEW DELHI 110016 TEL: 91-11-26868961 FAX:91-11-26861193 EML:[email protected];[email protected]

  12. #12 david cohen 11 Aug 12

    Hi Mari,

    My comment on your moving blog.
    Please post for me.
    Thanks,

    David
    -------------------------------------------------------

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara's beautiful essay on the Sikh tragedy in Wisconsin in my country, USA,should be widely read. I especially hope it is in the US.

    A brief story. Some years ago the US Supreme Court upheld that military commanders, in non-combat settings, could order Sikhs serving in the military to not wear their turban. The same is true for observant Jews who wear a kippah (skull cap head covering.)

    Many of us believed that this ruling, because it extended to non-combat situations, violated the free exercise of religion, a core constitutional and democratic value.

    As a public interest lobbyist working with supportive legislators I helped establish legislation in the Defense Authorization legislation to permit the wearing of a head covering in non-combat situations (working in the kitchen, working in the office, going to the movies in uniform) . This helped Sikhs, observant Jews and now Muslims who wear a head covering
    exercise their religious practice.

    There's lots to be critical about in the US--it includes our elected officials fearing the fanatical
    gun lobby-- but we do get some things right and this is one of them.


    --
    David Cohen,
    Senior Advisor, Civic Ventures
    Senior Congressional Fellow,
    Council for a Livable World

  13. #13 MAUREEN 13 Aug 12

    Wonderfully put, Mari. Strangely just this morning I said the same thing in my class. The lack of awareness of those ’different’ from us is shocking. The question is whose duty is it to change this?

  14. #14 Sharon Osbourne 14 Aug 12

    Hi Girl,

    So dang proud of you ..... ’On topic’
    It a sad day when we in a civilized world see ...... ’out breaks of madness’.

    Sharon Osbourne
    Canada

  15. #15 Oru Madayan 25 Aug 12

    For whatever it's worth, this horrible tragedy was not simply due to ignorance or hate, it also involved a disturbed individual who was allowed to possess a gun under highly politicized and irrational gun ownership laws. The shooter, a white supremacist, also thought that the bearded and turbaned Sikhs were the Taliban. This does not in any justify his heinous act, but does clarify that Sikhs are not targeted because of their faith, but rather because of their appearance and ignorance about their identify. The 9/11 attack has increased suspicion of foreign cultures rather than increase awareness and understanding. Together with the economic downturn, it has increased frustration and irrationality, and in many ways damaged the American spirit of openness and tolerance. This is ultimately, perhaps the greatest victory of the 9/11 terrorists.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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