Dear Momma

sikh_mom.jpgThere are no words that can express how I feel
You never kept a secret, always stayed real
And I appreciate, how you raised me
And all the extra love that you gave me
I wish I could take the pain away
If you can make it through the night there’s a brighter day
Everything will be alright if ya hold on
It’s a struggle everyday, gotta roll on
And there’s no way I can pay you back
But my plan is to show you that I understand
You are appreciated
(2pac – “Dear Momma”)

While Sundari beat me to the punch, I submit a slightly differently emphasized take on the same story as well….

The historic bravery of Sikh mothers run deep. From our history (although possibly still not highlighted enough) to our family households, often we are in the company of greats. From Gurbani to Manak’s Maa Hundi Maa, celebration of these women is deeply ingrained. Here is another dedication, with an asterisk.

The timesonline published some promotional pieces about an upcoming book written by its Business columnist, Sathnam Sanghera. The book is his personal memoirs titled, If You Don’t Know Me By Now: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton.

Sathnam takes us into his world. A matriarchal family in a patriarchal society. His mother, a hardworking devout Sikh woman, makes ends meet and bravely survives and loves despite difficulties. Living with a schizophrenic and at-times abusive husband and again raising a schizophrenic daughter, Surjit Kaur is the heroine of Sathnam’s book.

Traditional and controlling as she is, Surjit comes out as the heroine of the book, an almost universal loving mother figure, who could equally be intensely Jewish, or Catholic. When Sanghera comes home, he admits, she still has his bath running, and sprinkles holy water in it. And even when she could not provide material things, even when mental illness put a shroud over their lives, she still gave her children a sense of worth.

Although the book has not yet been released, from its description, Sathnaam’s story touches on many issues in the Sikh community. It is a story of growing up in England in the 1980s and those issues associated with growing up in an ethnic enclave.

Sathnam remarks:

“By the time I was eight,” he writes, “I had never been to a cinema, used a telephone, been inside a church, used a shower, sat in a bath we still used a bucket and jug seen the countryside or the sea, read a newspaper, had a white friend, owned a book, met a Muslim or a Tory or a Jew.”

Some of the scenarios are those that many of us have either engaged or observed:

When his mother came to stay with him, he had to throw away the left-behind nail varnish and knickers, dump the alcohol, and quickly stick internet photos of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, on the walls.

From the description, the book is not merely a narrative account highlighting the indomitable spirit of Surjit that exists in many of our households. It also tells of a the contradictions in our community. In a letter addressed to his mother explaining why he wrote the book, Sathnam seems to be writing something therapeutic for himself. Despite his parents’ repeated attempts (20 according to his account) to have him marry a Jat Sikh girl, Sathnam declares his independence [below I am copying-pasting some extended extracts]:

My dearest Mother,

There’s something important and difficult I’ve been meaning to tell you and because it’s easier to be brave on paper than in person, I thought I would do it by writing this, my first ever letter to you.

But now I understand one of the main reasons is that you shielded me from the harshest aspects of the truth, to ensure that I had an untroubled childhood. And that’s what I had, Mum. Nearly all my memories of growing up are of feeling loved and happy. You have always given me the support I needed, have taught me the value of hard work, and the importance of keeping the show on the road.

And to digest further, my message to you, Mum, is this: I love you and I appreciate everything you have been through and done for me, but I am not going to marry a Jat Sikh girl just to please you. This isn’t because I have someone unsuitable in mind I want to marry. I’m not seeing anyone. It is simply that I want to marry someone I love, rather than someone who fits your criteria.

His reasoning is clear:

I know this will come as a disappointment to you. So much so that you might stop reading at this point. Which is why I’m getting my translator to make a tape recording of these words, so I can force you to listen to my arguments even if you refuse to read them. And the first of my arguments is simply this: I don’t believe it is right, morally speaking, even on the terms of the Sikh religion, to pick a spouse on the grounds of caste and religion.

Indeed, when Guru Nanak established our faith, one of his motivations was to free people of the burden of caste. “Caste is worthless and so is its name,” he wrote in the Guru Granth Sahib. “For everyone there is only one refuge . . . Recognise the light, do not ask about caste.” Furthermore, it was one of the founding principles of our religion that people should not discriminate on the basis of religion. “God is in the Hindu temple as well as in the mosque,” wrote Guru Gobind Singh. “God is addressed in both the Hindu and the Muslim prayer; all human beings are one though they may appear different . . . They are all of one form and one God has made them all.” If this is true, then why should it be wrong to marry someone of another caste and religion?

Maybe you’ll reject such reasoning as perverse. Sikhs have had a caste system, in defiance of the founding principles of their religion, for centuries, and have married within their religion for just as long. Why should I be an exception? Well, Mum, with your encouragement and support, but also because of good luck and my own hard work, I have benefited from an education, and that education has taught me how to
think for myself.

The book has captured my attention and I intend to read it after its publication. From mental health issues, to the struggles [and contradictions] of many of our matriarchal families, to the bane of caste that will continue to destroy the Sikh community, Sathnaam touches on all of these themes in his memoirs. It is to this last point that I think is extremely interesting. The theme of caste seems to penetrate the book (although I haven’t read it yet, but it seems substantial in the Times’ presentation). In the online passages, two particularly were striking to me. The first being the role that British social systems have played in strengthening caste. Sathnam has a humorous account of his first day of school. Like many other Sikhs, on the roll list, his last name was listed as Singh (for men) and Kaur (for many women). It was the teacher, after going through a list of Singhs and Kaurs, stated, Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear She put her red pen down on the table. This wont do at all. Now then Can those of you called Kaur or Singh provide me with a surname, please? From anecdotal evidence, many have shared that it was in the diaspora and particularly Anglo cultures (UK, Canada, US) that demanded surnames. This in turn, when diasporic Sikhs visited Punjab, began affecting people’s usage of surnames in Punjab as well. (Another example of the diasporic actions’ effect on the homeland). Another example from the article, comes when the Anglo-British writer asks Sathnaam about the other Gurdwaras in Wolverhampton. She writes: There are three temples in the area I havent been in that one because thats for a different caste. [Sathnam] shrugs at the absurdity.

Hopefully I will be able to share with my fellow Langar-ites and hopefully others will engage in this book discussion. We are seeing the beginning of many Sikh voices coming to print and tackling some of the social problems that plague our community. Jaswinder Sanghera’s book Shame falls within this new class as well as Canadian Ranj Dhaliwal’s novel Daaku on gang violence in Vancouver. As a community we are maturing, becoming open to questioning, and beginning to challenge existing unjust hierarchies. Many at the forefront are those that are choosing to opt out of the community; I hope that the majority that seek reform and revolution from within will also take up the battle.


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35 Responses to “Dear Momma”

  1. what's in a nam says:

    I think people who write like this are really really brave. For all the scars that they already have they are willing to accept that they will receive from the effects of public scruitiny.

    I don't think I could write like that again. I did once. I wrote about my mother's life on a blog in the hope of a truthful depiction of her life after her death and whilst there were a handful of people who appreciated her struggle there were many more who completely overlooked the strength and courage and headed straight for "look how messed up her life is". People don't say it to you. They don't say it directly, it's the way they look at you and whisper in each others ears. Kind of gives their thoughts away, don't you think?

    Anyway – for those who have been brave enough to put their names to their stories – my respect. And to those who giggle at and whisper about the misfortunes of others – may God bless you too.

  2. what's in a name says:

    I think people who write like this are really really brave. For all the scars that they already have they are willing to accept that they will receive from the effects of public scruitiny.

    I don’t think I could write like that again. I did once. I wrote about my mother’s life on a blog in the hope of a truthful depiction of her life after her death and whilst there were a handful of people who appreciated her struggle there were many more who completely overlooked the strength and courage and headed straight for “look how messed up her life is”. People don’t say it to you. They don’t say it directly, it’s the way they look at you and whisper in each others ears. Kind of gives their thoughts away, don’t you think?

    Anyway – for those who have been brave enough to put their names to their stories – my respect. And to those who giggle at and whisper about the misfortunes of others – may God bless you too.

  3. Nicole says:

    To the above-

    Expecting your audience to only have the response you intended is very hard to control. Its in a way impossible. I know its hard to write about your own experiences in fear of others negative comments, but it may be worth it to write for those who gain some insight. You inspire someone who was desperately looking for inspiration. So I'm with you on that… its really hard to write about your own experiences, but those that are daring enough to do so deserve respect.

  4. Nicole says:

    To the above-

    Expecting your audience to only have the response you intended is very hard to control. Its in a way impossible. I know its hard to write about your own experiences in fear of others negative comments, but it may be worth it to write for those who gain some insight. You inspire someone who was desperately looking for inspiration. So I’m with you on that… its really hard to write about your own experiences, but those that are daring enough to do so deserve respect.

  5. what's in a nam says:

    'Expecting your audience to only have the response you intended is very hard to control'

    It's not about contolling people's response, it's a complete and utter shock at the lack of consideration that people have for others' troubles and at the lack of dignity they display in awarding a persons 'courage' with a display of amusement.

    there's that old indian phrase isn't there that (excuse the poor translation)

    'when your own home catches fire it's a tragedy but others' tragedies are a circus'

    "You inspire someone who was desperately looking for inspiration"

    You shouldn't look to others for inspiration. Search within yourself it's all there.

  6. what's in a name says:

    ‘Expecting your audience to only have the response you intended is very hard to control’

    It’s not about contolling people’s response, it’s a complete and utter shock at the lack of consideration that people have for others’ troubles and at the lack of dignity they display in awarding a persons ‘courage’ with a display of amusement.

    there’s that old indian phrase isn’t there that (excuse the poor translation)

    ‘when your own home catches fire it’s a tragedy but others’ tragedies are a circus’

    “You inspire someone who was desperately looking for inspiration”

    You shouldn’t look to others for inspiration. Search within yourself it’s all there.

  7. what's in a nam says:

    the more I write the more I realise that it's a complete waste of time.

    cue baingandabhartha's entry.

  8. what's in a name says:

    the more I write the more I realise that it’s a complete waste of time.

    cue baingandabhartha’s entry.

  9. Jagdeep says:

    Whilst Sathnam's story does represent a section of the Sikh community in the diaspora, it's important to note that it is not the sole narrative out there, and the right balance is found by many if not most out there.

  10. Jagdeep says:

    Whilst Sathnam’s story does represent a section of the Sikh community in the diaspora, it’s important to note that it is not the sole narrative out there, and the right balance is found by many if not most out there.

  11. He quotes from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib to make his point about caste and to discuss the principle of equality amongst religious traditions.

    However he seems extremely ignorant if he thinks that marrying someone of a different religion will be easy.

    Yes, Sikhs accept all people and their religions. In fact we serve all people equally. However almost all other religions have a belief in the exculsivity and superiority of their religions. Moreover Sikhs reject dogmatic and ritualistic practices in favor of heartfelt/real/honest beliefs and righteous deeds. Being a Sikh is living a Dharmic life (a righteous life). If you marry somebody who follows a completely different lifestyle, whose religion prescribes dogmatism and empty ritual as the way to "find" God, someone who believes, like most popular religions, that God is separate from you, I think you're in for a miserable life.

    When marrying, a person's lifestyle and beliefs should be taken strongly into consideration. This means caste and race don't really factor, but the prospects for a Dharmic and harmonious life should really weigh on a person's decision.

  12. He quotes from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib to make his point about caste and to discuss the principle of equality amongst religious traditions.
    However he seems extremely ignorant if he thinks that marrying someone of a different religion will be easy.
    Yes, Sikhs accept all people and their religions. In fact we serve all people equally. However almost all other religions have a belief in the exculsivity and superiority of their religions. Moreover Sikhs reject dogmatic and ritualistic practices in favor of heartfelt/real/honest beliefs and righteous deeds. Being a Sikh is living a Dharmic life (a righteous life). If you marry somebody who follows a completely different lifestyle, whose religion prescribes dogmatism and empty ritual as the way to “find” God, someone who believes, like most popular religions, that God is separate from you, I think you’re in for a miserable life.
    When marrying, a person’s lifestyle and beliefs should be taken strongly into consideration. This means caste and race don’t really factor, but the prospects for a Dharmic and harmonious life should really weigh on a person’s decision.

  13. Kamaldeep Singh says:

    Just read the above article and i could not help but feel that the person was a little selfish with a holier then thou attitude.

    Yes Sikhi teaches against the caste system, and i agree with this, but one thing we have to understand is that the caste system has been ingrained into almost every single person of Indian Origin over thousands of years. It will not vanish over night.

    His mother has had a very hard life, by his own admission, and worked diligently to keep her family together. I do not believe that the Author would have got very far in any aspect of his life had it not been for this couragous Sikh woman.

    All she wanted was her son to get married to a Sikh Jatt Woman.I dont think that the mother was asking for the world. People simply want to be comfortable with the next person and, by and large, Jatts are Similar in thought as are Tharkans as are..

    We have to understand that there is a huge generational gap between People who have been born in “the West” and the parents who have come from India as they have lived in full force with the Caste system, so their take on it is going to be different.

    Sometimes we need to look at things from our parents perspective and stop looking at them with our rose tinned glasses and understand, that they too have their insecurities, frailties and dreams, just like us, and are simply doing their best to muddle through.

    They are now older, a bit frightened, and haven’t got the same young blood that they once had with which they were going to conquer the world, and need us to hold THEIR hand to tell them that everything is going to be OK, like they did when we were once children.

  14. Kamaldeep Singh says:

    Just read the above article and i could not help but feel that the person was a little selfish with a holier then thou attitude.

    Yes Sikhi teaches against the caste system, and i agree with this, but one thing we have to understand is that the caste system has been ingrained into almost every single person of Indian Origin over thousands of years. It will not vanish over night.

    His mother has had a very hard life, by his own admission, and worked diligently to keep her family together. I do not believe that the Author would have got very far in any aspect of his life had it not been for this couragous Sikh woman.

    All she wanted was her son to get married to a Sikh Jatt Woman.I dont think that the mother was asking for the world. People simply want to be comfortable with the next person and, by and large, Jatts are Similar in thought as are Tharkans as are..

    We have to understand that there is a huge generational gap between People who have been born in the West and the parents who have come from India as they have lived in full force with the Caste system, so their take on it is going to be different.

    Sometimes we need to look at things from our parents perspective and stop looking at them with our rose tinned glasses and understand, that they too have their insecurities, frailties and dreams, just like us, and are simply doing their best to muddle through.

    They are now older, a bit frightened, and havent got the same young blood that they once had with which they were going to conquer the world, and need us to hold THEIR hand to tell them that everything is going to be OK, like they did when we were once children.

  15. Mewa Singh says:

    Kamaldeep Singh,

    I am not sure if I understood your comment. Are you suggesting that Sathnaam should marry whomever his mother suggests in order not to be 'selfish'?

  16. Mewa Singh says:

    Kamaldeep Singh,

    I am not sure if I understood your comment. Are you suggesting that Sathnaam should marry whomever his mother suggests in order not to be ‘selfish’?

  17. Kamaldeep Singh says:

    I am not saying that Sathnaam should marry whomever his mother suggests, as this would go against the grain of the person getting married. They should have simply reached a point where both parties understood each others perspective and priorities and then move forward. Otherwise you do not.

    I, for the record, do not believe in the caste system either, but when getting married i have to take on board my parents perspective.

    Just because i do not believe in the caste system and the older generation does, I do not think it is right to have a hissy fit(Cant think of a better phrase at the moment) and refuse to get married.

    If, by the Grace of God, i have children, i would not be too concerned if they married into another caste as it would not be as big a deal for me as it would be to the older generation as they have completely different take on the issue.

    Hence the irradiation of the Caste system would take its course naturally.

    Hope that helps to clarify where I am coming from.

  18. Kamaldeep Singh says:

    I am not saying that Sathnaam should marry whomever his mother suggests, as this would go against the grain of the person getting married. They should have simply reached a point where both parties understood each others perspective and priorities and then move forward. Otherwise you do not.

    I, for the record, do not believe in the caste system either, but when getting married i have to take on board my parents perspective.

    Just because i do not believe in the caste system and the older generation does, I do not think it is right to have a hissy fit(Cant think of a better phrase at the moment) and refuse to get married.

    If, by the Grace of God, i have children, i would not be too concerned if they married into another caste as it would not be as big a deal for me as it would be to the older generation as they have completely different take on the issue.

    Hence the irradiation of the Caste system would take its course naturally.

    Hope that helps to clarify where I am coming from.

  19. Mewa Singh says:

    Thank you Kamal for the clarification. While I can appreciate your idea of 'reform' through generations, I must salute those that through a single decision and an individual 'revolution' in a single-act, end casteism for their coming generations.

    Sathnaam can't be faulted for trying. According to the given links, he writes

    And God, I've tried. There was even a Sikh doctor I spent three months dating, even though it was evident from the beginning we had little in common, that our personalities did not mesh in any way. I told myself that I wanted to give you what you wanted, that I could bury my true desires to make you happy. But it slowly became apparent that I could never go through with a marriage in which I didn't love the other person. I want more from my life than that.

    I think also a number of people are judging Sathnaam on the assumption that he should be following 'normative' Sikh practices. While in some way he, individually, may always feel a tie to the community, he seems to be searching for his path. He writes

    Having said that, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that my decision is entirely intellectual or moral. I think I believe in God. Or at least I believe that we all have to answer for our actions, in one way or another, eventually. And if I had to pick a religion according to its founding principles, I would pick Sikhism. But I'm no saint, and many of my reasons for giving up on the arranged marriage thing are personal. Among them there is the simple fact that in the more than 20 set-ups I've had with Sikh girls over the past decade, I've not come close to finding someone I could spend the rest of my life with.

  20. Mewa Singh says:

    Thank you Kamal for the clarification. While I can appreciate your idea of ‘reform’ through generations, I must salute those that through a single decision and an individual ‘revolution’ in a single-act, end casteism for their coming generations.

    Sathnaam can’t be faulted for trying. According to the given links, he writes

    And God, I’ve tried. There was even a Sikh doctor I spent three months dating, even though it was evident from the beginning we had little in common, that our personalities did not mesh in any way. I told myself that I wanted to give you what you wanted, that I could bury my true desires to make you happy. But it slowly became apparent that I could never go through with a marriage in which I didn’t love the other person. I want more from my life than that.

    I think also a number of people are judging Sathnaam on the assumption that he should be following ‘normative’ Sikh practices. While in some way he, individually, may always feel a tie to the community, he seems to be searching for his path. He writes

    Having said that, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that my decision is entirely intellectual or moral. I think I believe in God. Or at least I believe that we all have to answer for our actions, in one way or another, eventually. And if I had to pick a religion according to its founding principles, I would pick Sikhism. But I’m no saint, and many of my reasons for giving up on the arranged marriage thing are personal. Among them there is the simple fact that in the more than 20 set-ups I’ve had with Sikh girls over the past decade, I’ve not come close to finding someone I could spend the rest of my life with.

  21. Kamaldeep Singh says:

    There will always pioneers in all aspect of life, and the caste system is no exception, but the driver behind it is an important one.

    The picture that has been painted is far from that of a Pioneer:

    "When his mother came to stay with him, he had to throw away the left-behind nail varnish and knickers, dump the alcohol…"

    As well as:

    "…because of good luck and my own hard work, I have benefited from an education, and that education has taught me how to

    think for myself."

    The last one left a bad taste in my mouth.

    The number of Marriages taking place in the UK have fallen dramatically in the UK across the board and Sikhs have been effected by this also.

    I am of the belief that Sathnaam has adopted this mindset also, does not want to get married, which i have no problem with i reluctantly add, but there is no reason to play the martyr and hide behind the ideals of Sikhi.

  22. Kamaldeep Singh says:

    There will always pioneers in all aspect of life, and the caste system is no exception, but the driver behind it is an important one.

    The picture that has been painted is far from that of a Pioneer:

    “When his mother came to stay with him, he had to throw away the left-behind nail varnish and knickers, dump the alcohol…”

    As well as:

    “…because of good luck and my own hard work, I have benefited from an education, and that education has taught me how to
    think for myself.”

    The last one left a bad taste in my mouth.

    The number of Marriages taking place in the UK have fallen dramatically in the UK across the board and Sikhs have been effected by this also.

    I am of the belief that Sathnaam has adopted this mindset also, does not want to get married, which i have no problem with i reluctantly add, but there is no reason to play the martyr and hide behind the ideals of Sikhi.

  23. projectnaad says:

    God has given us the free will to decide how we choose to live our lives and who we marry. But if you are a SIkh and you are following the spiritual lifestyle then it would be much better to marry someone who is on the same path or who would love to live the Skh Dharmic lifestyle. Apart from that you can marry a person of any caste or race you wish.

  24. projectnaad says:

    God has given us the free will to decide how we choose to live our lives and who we marry. But if you are a SIkh and you are following the spiritual lifestyle then it would be much better to marry someone who is on the same path or who would love to live the Skh Dharmic lifestyle. Apart from that you can marry a person of any caste or race you wish.

  25. Phulkari says:

    Even though I have not read the book, based on the clips provided by Sundari and Jodha (thank you to you both for highlighting this piece), I think one of the most powerful aspects of this book will be the male perspective of a 2nd generation Punjabi Sikh in the Diaspora on his relationship with his mother. His discussions of marriage, community, religion, and mental/emotional health will be particularly unique and insightful. Too often this form of expression is viewed as part of the female realm in our community and male voices are quiet (I would even argue silenced). However, we know that Punjabi Sikh males’ relationships with their mothers are generally quite unique based on an emotional intimacy generally not shared with fathers and different from that of a mother-daughter relationship. Can't wait to read it!

  26. Phulkari says:

    Even though I have not read the book, based on the clips provided by Sundari and Jodha (thank you to you both for highlighting this piece), I think one of the most powerful aspects of this book will be the male perspective of a 2nd generation Punjabi Sikh in the Diaspora on his relationship with his mother. His discussions of marriage, community, religion, and mental/emotional health will be particularly unique and insightful. Too often this form of expression is viewed as part of the female realm in our community and male voices are quiet (I would even argue silenced). However, we know that Punjabi Sikh males relationships with their mothers are generally quite unique based on an emotional intimacy generally not shared with fathers and different from that of a mother-daughter relationship. Can’t wait to read it!

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