Monday, May 07, 2007

A Journey of a Sikh Woman

A Journey

by MEETA KAUR

It's nap time and my mother's hair becomes a world of my own. Mama unpins her bun and lets her hair fall, rushing down her back. She combs through the tangles with her fingers. Her long, shampooed tresses are thick pieces of rose-smelling silk. Her shiny hair is black pashmina, an endless journey toward the heart of a dark sky.

I lie perpendicular to the length of the bed, on top of tangerine and gold embroidered pillows, flexing my feet and wiggling my toes. Mama lies down next to me. I proceed to thread her locks from the crown of her head through my big and second toes. Her hair fans out like a thousand silk threads suspended in air. Nestling both of my feet into the nape of her neck, I doze off warm, happy and safe.

I wake up to my mother combing out the knots. My father is coming home soon. I am only five years old, but somehow I know I will live my life joyfully. Mama is my light. She is home.

Mama teaches me how to take care of my hair during hair-bath days on Saturday mornings. I sit in our white ceramic tub waiting for my shampoo to commence. When the water reaches my waist, I crouch forward and push myself off the front of the tub. I sink under, and under is where I stay. The waves ripple over me as I hold my breath - one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi. I release tiny air bubbles with two seconds in between rounds and watch them float to the surface, then hover and pop.

"Meeta, beti, please get up so I can wash your hair." My mother places a plastic cream-colored stool next to the tub and squats down with her knees bumping up against the tub's side. I surface, a humpback whale disrupted from its southern migration. Mama's fingers sink into my scalp as she begins a relaxed massage.

"Close your eyes, urrahhh, close your eyes so it will not sting you." Mama piles the strands of hair atop my head and squeezes out more shampoo. She beams as she sculpts my hair into a temple. I tilt my head back for the rinse.The weight of the shampoo washes away, leaving me light as a feather. She towel-dries my hair and draws a line down the middle of my head with a comb.

She combs each section of my hair the way she combs her own - carefully, patiently. Mama's slow hands tell me how much respect she gives my body and me. At school, I romp with fluffy, tangle-free hair through recess.

As a child, I never question why all of my family members have long, thick hair - we just do. It is a natural extension of who we are. I do not realize until later that hair-bath days only exist in our family household, and that the brothers and fathers in other American families do not have long hair.

My mother silently declares an allegiance to a homeland that is rooted from our heads and connected to our hearts. As a Sikh woman who migrated from India to America, she carries the strength and solace of spirituality in her hair. It is a light that provides a sense of place and home between any borders, on any soil, whether she is in India, America, or any other country.

Although I didn't realize it then, my mother has been stoking the same guiding light in me since my childhood - a light that shows me the illuminating life that extends through my thoughts, out of my head, into my hair, and into the world, a light that shows me the path to who I am becoming, a light that sparks with subconscious knowledge and holds a steady glow.

When I am older, in middle school, Mom sends me on solo trips to India during summer breaks. My first trip alone leaves me jet-lagged and anxiously awake in the deep Indian nights.

After riding the Shatabdi train from the Bombay airport to Poona, Jeeti Masi and Uncle Ji greet and escort me to their home. Their daughter and my cousin, Baby, is married and has moved away to live with her husband and in-laws in Hyderabad. In her dusty pink- and-bronze room, the night's cool breeze chases the day's humidity out of the room through the half-opened windows. I sit up on the bed not knowing what to do.

I slink downstairs and head for the front door and quietly unlock the steel bolt to step outside. I step toward the custard apple tree in the lawn and pick one off. It looks like it has been glazed with green bottle glass. I carry it back upstairs, set it on the wooden nightstand, and wait for sleep to arrive.

The next day, jet lag leaves me drowsy on the velvet maroon sitting-room sofa with a set of my cousin's old comic books. They are dog-eared and have broken spines. They tell the spiritual stories of the ten Sikh Gurus, divine mortals sent as teachers to deliver the wisdom of a new faith, Sikhism.

As I read, I travel back in time to the 16th-century Indian subcontinent. Mughal soldiers force Hindus to convert to Islam or suffer death. The ninth Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur, dons a navy blue turban and a golden robe and has a long silky beard. He declares, "All people have a right to practice their own religion."

The Mughal leader sarcastically responds, "If you are so interested in defending these people, are you willing to die for them?"

In the next scene, Guru Tegh Bahadur is beheaded by a Mughal soldier.

Another comic book illustrates the story of Mai Bhago, a great Sikh woman warrior who challenged forty deserters of the Sikh army to return to their posts and fight on behalf of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Master, against the tyranny of the Mughals and the Hill Rajas, and to protect the principles of the nascent faith.

As I read the comics, I realize that if there are no people standing at the end of these battles, there will be no principles, because they live within the people. The need to live with dignity and freedom becomes greater than the need to just live. To me, the sacrifices these Gurus made for future generations seem fantastical and out of this world, but in reality the Gurus had compiled scriptures that captured their direct conversations with God, the enlightenment that centered on equality, while also drawing from the most progressive Hindu and Muslim tenets to create a just society.

On the comic page, the Gurus wear regal turbans that protect their hair. Their long black beards flow freely. They look different from everyone else. I am familiar with the way they look because they remind me of my family, but I also see that they are different. We are different.

I spend the next two days reading through each of the one-hundred comic books. I learn that my hair is referred to as kesh. My kesh represents an outward identity I am required to preserve as a Sikh woman.

The comic books fill me with information and history. I learn, in preserving this natural uniform, that I commit to the equality between men and women, rich and poor, black and white, Muslim, Hindu, Christian ... Kesh is a commitment to a loving state of mind, to self-control, to faith in humanity, and to the protection of individual and communal rights.

Through daily meditations; a commitment to just thought, speech and action; and faith in the One Supreme Being, a Sikh can reach a state of rapture right here on earth. A Sikh can live in utter bliss through serving humanity. What amazes me is the capacity to care enough to protect the rights of even those who I disagree with or who are intolerant of me.

I have a hard time developing the discipline it takes to fulfill the destiny that is laid out for me. To me, these spiritual prophets are political ideologues. I dismiss their faith as jargon. I do not see it, cannot feel it, and have no evidence of it existing around me, so I follow my pleasures and passions as a young adolescent American girl who has bought into the illusions of this world: standardized beauty, romantic love, and the power of money.

I want the attention of friends. I want the attention of boys. I want to be picture-perfect stepping out of the swimming pool with styled hair. I want to swoon with my classmates over our class pictures, squealing in delight about how cute we look. I want to date Rick Springfield.

But all of this is not going to happen with all of this long, frizzy hair. I muse: Maybe if I imitate my classmates' hairstyles - Stephanie's bangs, or Laura's bouncy blond bob, or Mindy's perm - I'll have a chance.

In my freshman dorm at the University of California at Davis, I am surrounded by young women fawning over their tresses all day and night. Deep conditioners, natural dyes, wave relaxers and mousse are must-have helpers. Fraternity parties, house parties and international parties call for one- to two-hour sessions in front of the mirror.

But my choices are limited: a ponytail or pigtails, wearing it down with a part in the middle or to the side, a tight or loose bun. Okay, there are choices, but something about my hair feels stale, like old bread. It is ancient, musty, and tired.

In my hair, my mother, aunt and grandmother nest with their stories, their histories and their spirits. They sit on my head waiting for me to hatch into a woman who makes a difference in the world, who makes a habit of acting fearless in moments that demand it.

The women in my family believe that my hair will purify my thoughts. They believe I can expand my thinking with my hair; all the positive energy in the world will be transmitted to me through my hair. Midnight tresses are rolled up into buns at the napes of my mother's, aunts' and cousins' necks. My grandmother wraps her salt-and pepper hair into an acorn of a bun, nesting her love for God and her ancestors' heritage into her hair.

But I am convinced that this is not for me. I am convinced that I belong to the world and the world is a better source of authority for me. The distance between my parents and me grows with fewer conversations and an ocean of misunderstanding. I decide it is time to push forward with something new - defined by me - something I can call my own.

I step into Select Cut Salons on Fourth and C Streets in downtown Davis. I am convinced that this decision will alter who I am and carve out an entry into my real life, a life waiting to be defined. Inside the salon, peroxide mingles with the receptionist's cigarette smoke.

"Who are you here to see?" The receptionist smashes her cigarette into the ashtray and scans the appointment book. Her sandy blond hair is cut like that of a choirboy who does not own a comb.

"I'm here to see Tiffany for a hairstyle ... um-m, a haircut," I tell her. It is no big deal, I try to convince myself. Everyone gets haircuts. Relax.

"Tiffany, your four o'clock is here!"

Tiffany greets and ushers me over to a hot-pink leather chair that competes with the black-and-white checkered floor. Cotton-candy-colored vanity lights line the individual station mirrors. The spritzers, mousse, hair relaxing serums and alcohol-free finishing-hold sprays confirm that hair care is a commitment that cannot be taken lightly.

Tiffany lifts my thick braid of hair over my head and lets it drop. Her hands are careless, unlike Mama's.

"Wow, what thick and curly hair you have."

For Tiffany, my long rope of a braid is just hair, humdrum strands hanging out of my head.

"Okay, so do you have any ideas?" she asks.

Her clumsiness makes my heart pound faster. I feel my hands quivering, so I sit on top of them and attempt to look genuinely interested. I scan the top of the mirrors for all the European cuts: pageboys, what looks like a Cleopatra cut, and simple unassuming bobs. It's exciting to think about how I might change, but something keeps grabbing at me, telling me to leave this place, to just get out of here.

But I won't. My head pounds, weighing heavier and heavier as I take in all the pictures. I survey Tiffany's red, curly, turn-up-the-volume hair. It hangs an inch off of her shoulders. I have to answer her, but I don't want my hair to look like hers.

"Umm . . . a bob looks nice, or maybe a Cleopatra cut, or . . . I don't know. What's the difference? Just cut it."

Tiffany's eyes widen and her eyebrows bob up and down looking like she is going to skip the Are you sure? or Wanna think about it?

My heart is thumping, and I see the entire Sikh army falling off their horses as they ride into battle - sliding off cliff edges, pierced by arrows, losing control of their purpose, their direction.

Just shake it off, I tell myself, it is just a head of hair, and everyone gets a haircut. Well, everyone except for Sikhs, Rastafarians some Native American tribes - and my entire living family.

Maybe I'm not a Sikh, or don't have what it takes to be one. I am the weakest link. I'm the soldier falling behind, barely able to carry my backpack, late for daily prayers. I'm the one who cannot get my act together, so what does it matter?

Tiffany's steel blades skim my neck. She struggles to cut off a lifetime of hair in one snip; it will have to be severed off, decapitated. Half of my braid is disembodied from the back of my skull. I close my eyes and wait for it to be over.

"There you go, hon," Tiffany says, holding my thick braid in her hand, like a dead animal. "I'll put it in a bag for you so you have a souvenir to remember it by."

When Tiffany hands me the bag with my braid, I gingerly set it on the floor. I hear her mumbling something about styling my new hairdo, but my mind is somewhere else.

I really did it. What did I do?

Tiffany uses smaller scissors to "style" my hair. Her glossy lips smack together as she talks, but I can't make out a single word of what she's saying until she's finished with the scissors.

"Okay! A quick blow dry and we are finizio."

She blow-dries my hair and asks me to do a quick flip of my head. I see myself in the mirror with tussled hair surrounding my face. I had expected something different. I thought it would be different.

Later, I get together with my roommate, Martha. She holds her hands to her mouth when she sees me. She looks like she is going to puke.

"Oh my God! You look so cuuuuu-ute!"

Cute? I am empty. Cold. I run my fingers across the shaved patch on the back of my neck and wonder about this cycle of growing out my hair, cutting it again, growing it out again.

What purpose does this serve? To be cute?

Three weeks after my haircut, I go home to Yuba City to visit my mother. On my way to the house, I pull on my hair at the back of my head trying to tug it to its original length. I ring the doorbell and wait. The lock clicks open and I throw my arms around her.

"Mom! Hey!" She throws her hands around me and they search for my head, for my hair. I freeze.

"Meeta!"

She whips me back where she can see my face; my hair jostles around near my neck, settling down two inches above my shoulders. Her face crumples and turns red. Her eyes well up. I see the pain denting her face, contorting it into something she is not.

She runs toward the kitchen, pleading with my grandmother to enter the prayer room. My mother wipes her face with her dupatta and starts her prayers before she even enters the sanctum. She is whispering into God's ear.

She does not speak to me for four months.

I call my mother on the phone and try to explain to her that it is just hair. My mother swallows her tongue in her attempts to explain that it is not just hair.

"It is identity. It is your commitment to an honest life, to a compassionate life. It is your character, your credibility. Why would you give up your own credibility?" she asks.

I want to cry, swallowing the sobs stuck in my throat. The smell of flowers in my shampooed hair makes me nauseous.

I reach for my childhood memories, but they slip away quickly, running away from me.

The next few months, I enter into the ritual of growing my hair out, trimming it, cutting it, and growing it out again. I become indecisive about my school major, and my grades falter. I find studying too overwhelming to deal with. I grow silent. I do not know who I am anymore. I drift and float through my sophomore year of college.

I develop an identity through a guy I date and transform myself into an accessory for someone else's life.

There is a constant gnawing at my insides for something concrete, something that grounds me. I have no center, so I drift out to sea without direction or guidance. I lose my connection to myself and to the world. I lose my connection to a deeper sense of who I am.

I do not realize that I had put that much faith into my kesh, into my long wavy hair, the hair I blame for my problems.

Mama accepts me into her house again, but she cannot hide her disappointment. She dismisses me during family conversations. She questions my pride at the dinner table. She tells my younger cousins to follow the example of my cousins in India: "The girls in India know who they are and where they come from."

I know my mother doesn't mean India when she says this to my cousins. She doesn't pledge an allegiance to the geography of India or even America, for that matter, but to the spiritual homeland of Sikhism. She stamps my passport: Deported. I am exiled from my family's homeland. I am a foreigner in my family's home.

The border between my mother and me expands. She sets up a front line to protect the sanctity of her life against the impiety of mine. I hold on to my illusions, declare my mother narrow in her thinking. We never talk about it-the hair, the kesh, the identity I abandoned.

A few years after graduation, I join Narika, a South Asian women's hotline that supports survivors of domestic violence. The hotline serves women from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. There are quite a few counselors who know Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu and communicate with the women on the hotline in their native languages. I stick with English because it is essentially the language I understand best.

I attend two counseling training sessions in the summer and prepare to wo-man the hotline. We receive a directory of domestic violence resources ranging from legal help to emergency room phone numbers.

Shoba, our counselor, suggests we prepare a hot cup of tea to keep at our side during our shift. She tells us that we will receive a range of calls: from women who may hang up, merely content with having heard a soothing voice on the other end of the line, to professionals asking for the names of good divorce attorneys.

It's Tuesday night, and I'm naively excited about my first hotline shift. I dial into the hotline and pick up one voice mail. I call the woman back. I listen to her pauses and hesitations when she speaks. I let her know it is okay to talk about what's happened to her, that it is okay to speak her truth.

She tells me he has hit her. We rest in the silence between us after she speaks. In this moment, I am humbled by my own history of Sikh women charging into battle, leading communities to fight oppression, and try desperately to pass on this historic courage, this timeless fearlessness through my lips into this woman's ears - down to her heart.

Eleven voice mails, three cases, and some court appearances later, the world has turned inside out for me and the distortion of it all hurts my eyes; these women's stories leak onto my pillow night after night. The counselor-training sessions ring true. Violence transcends class, education and race. Even though these same realities exist within Sikh communities in America and abroad, the scriptures state unequivocally that mothers, wives, sisters and daughters deserve the highest respect from their families and the society around them. Anyone who dares to harm them is violating sacred law.

I begin to question the world I am living in. I recall how quiet most of the Sikh girls were at school, how much they held in. I remember my mother demanding that my father respect her as an equal partner in those moments he lost sight of her right to make decisions in our household. I remember my own ability to dismiss myself because I had the ability to shrink, become invisible, smothering my own light because I am scared of where it could take me.

I walk the streets imagining that every man passing by is preparing to go home and beat up his wife. I lose two or three nights of sleep during any given week. On weekends, I'm in a deep slumber coma, not waking up for the sunlight, lunch, or even early-evening tea. The slumber pushes the days crammed with hotline calls into a semi-distant past, but the women's voices continue to scream in my head.

I help one woman secure a restraining order against her husband who consistently molests his youngest daughter. On the morning of her court date on the way to the courtroom, she shields me with her hands when she sees her husband. She turns to me and says, "I will not leave you alone with him."

She sees her daughter in me. I put my arm around her shoulder and let her know that I will not leave her alone with him either.

Colleagues and friends see me absorbing these women's lives and making their pain my own. The daily hotline calls push me into daily meditation and prayer. I practice rising early in the morning with the sun. I brush my teeth, bathe, and then have a cup of tea.

I recall my mother's and grandmother's practice of sitting down to pray, to clear their minds of any disturbances, to reach a solution or relief from a situation.

I return to my bedroom, sit cross-legged on my bed, and cover my head with a dupatta. I reach for my Nitnem bound in red velvet. The small book holds Sikh prayers in Gurmukhi on the right side of the page and gives English translations on the left. In concentrating on these prayers, I ask for peace of mind and strength, a calming of my nerves that will sketch a decent mind-size portrait of a sane world. I ask for guidance - grounded, firm guidance.

The meditation becomes a daily practice I cannot live without. Little by little, I chase fear out of my body to make room for more light. Three months of heavy meditation help me create a healthy detachment from the women without sacrificing my compassion for them.

The prayers center me. I realize that all the little hells created on this earth are what the Sikh Gurus fought against. I realize there can be no peace or rest if members in a society suffer or are denied their basic rights.

My hair has grown three inches longer. The meditation increases and with it my hair expands in length. I focus on the strength of my mother's hair and the strength and safety she gave me as a child, the comfort I find in my spiritual homeland.

I feel a crack in the older self that I mummified when I cut my hair into that Cleopatra bob three years ago in college. The new growth of my hair is the outgrowth of my new mind. I see the world for what it is and realize that faith and my contributions toward realizing the vision of a socially just society are what I have to hold on to.

I protect my mind's thoughts with my long wavy hair, warding off the severity of the world, nurturing my ideas and visions for my bright future. I realize all will not be resolved overnight, but I see a spark of light flicker from the steady glow of childhood.

The thick plaster of the bandages breaks off, and I return to the original homeland of myself, with the gift of kesh.

My hair becomes witness to all the love and atrocities in the world. My hair holds the strength, pain and love of these women on the hotline who I will never forget, cannot forget. I realize that I, too, am on a battlefield similar to the ones I saw in the comic books, even though the landscape is different and I'm not holding a sword.

The guiding light I inherit from the women in my family finds a way to penetrate me at my core and transform me from the inside out. I am duty-bound to the world around me according to the kesh I reclaim.

I rise daily to my original locks, which are now younger than me. My hair has grown back out to its former length, and I no longer question preserving it until I die.

I am on the path to becoming the woman my mother and grandmother prayed I would be.

http://sikhchic.com/article-detail.php?id=127&cat=6

[From Journey By Inner Light, by Meeta Kaur. Published in an Anthology, "Homelands: Women's Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time", edited by Patricia Justine Tumang & Jenesha de Rivera, Seal Press, California, 2006. ISBN-10: 158005188X; ISBN-13: 978-1580051880. US $16.95 ]

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1 Comments:

Anonymous gurnit said...

our stories are so much the same. yours, mine, hers. the insecurities, the doubts, the questioning, the tears, the rebelling, the triumphs....we share almost every experience. growing up as sikhs, the breakdowns that we go through, almost everyone else does too. but still every story can evoke so many different emotions.

12:40 PM  

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