by Meeta Kaur
On 9/11, media outlets repeatedly flashed Osama Bin Laden’s picture next to the burning Twin Towers. An image, I believe, that is seared in our collective memory. Within moments, many Americans implicated an entire culture of people, Muslim Americans, for this terrorist act. And the turban and the beard became the identifying markers of a terrorist.
Growing up in a Sikh family in Northern California, I remember chatting with my father as he tied his pagri. We started in the bathroom where he brushed and tied up his beard under his chin. We then moved to the dresser mirror in my parent’s bedroom where he stared at his reflection, carrying on a muffled conversation with one end of 15 feet of black starched cloth anchored in his mouth. He repeatedly circled his turban in a rhythm across his left temple and back around up to his right temple until the material was neatly wrapped around his head, without wrinkles. These morning chats often started with requests for poonee–the stretching out of the turban by holding two ends in my hands while my father held the other two, pulling and tightly rolling to create the neatly folded material necessary to tie his turban.
Kitchen conversations amongst my mother and her sisters, my masis, occasionally drifted to how handsome some young Sikh men were, with admiration for how neatly they tied their pagris. They maintained this refrain when my younger brother passed through wearing a patka, a small turban for boys. “Look at this sardar!” they would say. “So handsome. So smart looking!”Our backyard was a haven for my father’s turbans before he went out into the world again. My mother washed all of his turbans as a special load to take advantage of the day’s sunlight, drying them on a clothesline strung between the cherry and pomegranate trees. The transparent material rainbowed the sunlight in blues, reds, blacks, and whites as I zig-zagged my way through the cascades of damp fabric.
According to the Sikh faith, the human form, including hair, has been created in complete perfection, and it isn’t a Sikh’s place to alter this perfection. The turban and the unshorn hair connects us to ancestors who have set extraordinary standards to serve the world with courage and compassion. It is a clear, distinct signifier of a Sikh, making their intentions transparent to all.
Most days my father wore black turbans. Red ones were for celebrations, and navy blue was for a change of pace. I remember watching his turban sway to the then-new Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the car, perhaps to show me that we could connect on something.
My parents migrated to the U.S. in 1969 from Punjab, India, to practice medicine, and they looked for a community that reflected their cultural roots. My uncle directed them to Yuba City, a small northern California town, also known as America’s Punjab. Sikhs have walked Yuba City streets since the 1920s as one of the pioneering farming communities in Sutter County. It reaffirmed to me that people both inside and outside the Yuba City Sikh community knew my father the way I did: a quiet man who prided himself on his ability to successfully help others.
It might not have been love at first sight, but eventually, after starting to know his thoughts and experiencing his bedside manner, his patients – whites, Hispanics, Hmongs, and Punjabis learning to live together in a farming community—developed a long-lasting affection for him. My mother, who also maintained her long hair in a full bun, built a reputation as one of the most straightforward and compassionate physicians in Yuba City. I like to imagine that it wasn’t their occupations but their natures that drew people to them. The prescriptions were just an added bonus.
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