Seva & I

AI_04260901_Sep._15_22.40.gifI was nervous. It was my first day on the job as a crisis hotline volunteer. Although I had just completed weeks of rigorous training on how to handle all types of calls – from anxiety, to depression, domestic abuse, and the dreaded suicide – I was still a little uneasy.

I met my mentor for the evening, an elderly white woman who lived in a suburb not too far from me. We made small talk, then she turned to her Danielle Steel novel, and I started thumbing through my training manual – both of us awaiting the next call.

Almost immediately, the phone rang.

“This one’s yours, kid” my mentor said.

I took one deep breath and picked up the phone. Apparently, there hadn’t been one for months, but sure enough, my first call was a suicide. Even though we spent an extensive amount of time covering this topic in training, I instantly froze up.

I placed the caller on speaker and my mentor immediately took over.

What happened over the next 30 minutes will stay etched in my memory for the rest of my life. The caller was severely depressed about a health condition he had been battling since he was a child and – to make a long story short – while on the call, he had the dangerous combination of the means and a motivation to end his life.

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Visions of Truth: Sikh Stories and Films

timthumb.phpLast week, Reema discussed the dynamic Punjabi-Sikh art scene. We’ve come a long way, especially in the field of film and media with a growing number of films by, for and about Sikhs. Now, you can attend Sikh film festivals in every corner of the country and even internationally. In addition to this, Sikhnet recently announced it’s 2009 Youth Online Film Festival. This online film festival is especially significant as it offers young inspired Sikhs an opportunity to showcase their creativity on a positive platform. Films such as turBAN, a film by Dashmesh Pictures and G.N.E., provides an “artistic editorial challenging current regulations invoked in the French public school system.” Each film plays an important role inportrayingSikh stories in creative ways.

Another notable film-related event is Visions of Truth, a traveling film festival devoted to showcasing films about 1984. The film festival will be held during the months of September and October in eight regions in California including: Yuba City, Sacramento, San Jose, Fresno, Los Angeles, Irvine, Riverside and San Diego.

The goal of “Visions of Truth” is to spur dialogue between members of the community by showcasing film and music media related to the third Sikh holocaust (1984). This event remains one the most significant, events in the history of Sikhs. In early June 1984 the Indian Army invaded one of the most historic of all Sikh Gurdwaras, the Darbar Sahib complex in Amritsar, Punjab. The ensuing destruction and loss of life marked one of the darkest chapters of the later 20th century for Sikhs. The aim of the film festival is not only to remember the events of 1984 but also to raise awareness in the community and promote positive dialogue. [link]

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SIKHOLARS: First Sikh Graduate Student Conference

bgurdas.jpgSikh scholars have a long and proud history from Bhai Gurdas to Giani Ditt Singh and Sardar Kapoor Singh with too many to name in between. Although in more recent times some academics have been seen as controversial in the community, a confident community celebrates academic conferences that provide a valuable forum for those interested to exchange thoughts, discussions, and ideas. This past weekend, one such conference occurred in Berkeley, titled After 1984 and was an example of the critical importance of scholarly exchange, bringing together such luminaries as Gurharpal Singh, Pal Singh Ahluwalia, Arvindpal Singh Mandair, and many others.

Despite the intellectual brilliance, the meeting point between activism and the academy has always been somewhat uneasy. This weekend allowed such an exchange to occur, but was hardly the focus of the conference. The Jakara Movement is aiming to bridge this gap early next year with its first annual Sikholars: Sikh Graduate Student Conference.

To be held at Stanford University on February 20th, 2010, the organizers are soliciting the communitys help in broadcasting the news of this first conference and calling for proposals. The deadline for abstract submission is NOVEMBER 15, 2009.

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Who needs Spiderman when I have Bhai Taru Singh?

Bhai Taru Singhbabania kehania put saput karaen ||
The stories of one’s ancestors make the children good children.
(Guru Amar Das, Raag Raamkalee, Page 951 of Guru Granth Sahib)

The American writer Muriel Rukeyser once said that the universe is made up, not of atoms, but of stories. This especially holds true for the Sikh universe. Stories or anecdotes from our short but action-packed history provide us with guidance, inspiration and resilience. Who needs fictional super-heroes when the Sikh narrative provides us with so many real-life heroes who did extraordinary things?

For most Sikhs, myself included, these Sikh stories told to us by our parents and grandparents were an essential part of growing up Sikh. However, we’re quickly losing this great oral tradition. For a variety of reasons, parents and grandparents aren’t telling sakhis like they used to and kids aren’t listening to them.
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Take Action To Make Kirpan Education Bill Into Law

Kirpan1-150x150.jpgThe California legislator has unanimously passed a Kirpan Education Bill (AB 504) through both houses (Assembly & Senate); it is now headed to Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk. This bill, carried by Assemblymember Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach) and other co-sponsors, will only become law if the California Governator signs off on it. AB 504 is a historic bill because it is the only piece of legislation in America that focuses on Sikhs and our kirpan. Furthermore, the bill is being pushed through the law-making process in California-a state with the oldest and largest number of Sikhs in America.

The Kirpan Education Bill (AB 504) requires that all California law enforcement officers be trained on Sikhs and our kirpan. This training would teach California law enforcement officers about Sikhs and the importance of our religiously mandated articles of faith. Sikhs wearing a kirpan are often disrespectfully approached by law enforcement officers and arrested for concealed weapons charges. Often law enforcement officers will pull Sikhs over for minor traffic violations or safety concerns and as soon as officers see the kirpan the situation is escalated into a criminal offense; although the Sikh was only practicing his/her faith. These officers are unaware that the kirpan is a religious mandated article of faith-a gift from our Guru that we wear with care, respect, and love.

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Is RDB really the best we have to offer?

In many ways, the Punjabi-Sikh art scene is expanding exponentially these days. Just 10 years ago, beyond major, mainstream singers, I don’t think there was an arts scene, except maybe in people’s homes. Today, there are film festivals in most major cities like Spinning Wheel and the upcoming Sikh Heritage Film Fest in NY, art exhibits in museums such as the recent exhibit at NY’s Rubin Museum and current exhibit at the London’s Victoria and Albert, and even spoken word shows like When Lions Roar and Lahir. There are independent artists writing thoughtful lyrics, creating original beats, and giving some of our community’s concerns a voice. One of my favorites from this summer is Humble the Poet’s “Singh with Me” featuring Sikh Knowledge.

Yet, while the number and modes of art and artists grows in our community, many mainstream musicians are following RDB.jpgmainstream trends… videos featuring flashy cars rented for the shot, women as props, all at some party. Maybe they’re catering to what they think the audience wants, but the audience is clamoring for what they see as glamorous… which is manufactured to cater to the whims of the audience. This degenerative, downward spiral has led to recent hits such as RDB’s “Om Mangalam.” (See end of post.)

RDB is clearly identifiable as Punjabi-Sikh (let’s not talk about who’s a good or bad Sikh- that’s boring), wearing the now fashionable Palestinian support scarf, and singing Om Mangalam in this video on the homepage of their official site. This is definitely a case of trying to do too much and doing it all badly. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being Punjabi, singing Hindi music (while wearing a Palestinian support scarf), in a video with meaningless lyrics. It’s just not art. Some might call it entertainment, though I’d call it a train wreck.

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To The Last Hair, To The Last Breath

combing_kesh_10_03_2007.jpgA few weeks ago, while at the park with my family, an elderly woman dressed in a sari came over to say hello. After a brief introduction, she said to us “wait here for a second” and called out “Alex…come here!” A little boy with light skin and brown hair ran over to us. The lady in the sari bent down and said to Alex, “See…this is what your grandfather looked like. He wore a turban and had a long beard just like him.” Alex wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but he forced a quick smile and ran back to the swings.

As a dastaar-wearing Sikh, I come across these interactions quite often – some pleasant, some not-so-pleasant, and some downright awkward. But because they happen so often, I tend to brush it off and forget all about them quickly. For some reason, this incident stuck with me.

It made me think about the days in Gurmat camp decades ago when the Uncles would scare us in to keeping ourkesh or else keshdari Sikhs would become a “thing of the past” and “only be seen in museum exhibits.” I never bought that theory, but the incident in the park did shake me a bit.

Although Sikhi is such a large part of my life, truth is…I really dont think aboutkesh much. As a matter of fact, when I lead presentations about Sikhi to Sikhs or non-Sikhs, I make a point to downplay thekesh aspect. Not that it is any less important than any of the other kakaars, but with non-Sikhs, the “mystery” behind the kesh seems to overtake discussions, and we miss some of the most important and central tenets of the faith…equality, self-less service, self-realization, and universality of the message. And even with Sikhs,kesh is made such a focus that many in our community feel that as long as we retain the external image of a Sikh, the rest of maryada and discipline does not apply. It is essentially a free-pass and gives us the right to criticize those who do not keep their kesh.

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Sikh Boys Stranded in Ceuta

Blogged by: Amol Singh

Ceuta_Boys.jpgFor many of us, the ability to live our lives in the diaspora is a direct consequence of journeys emanating from Punjab. Our fathers and mothers left economic insecurity and political uncertainty and set sail on ships and planes to far off backwaters in hopes of finding routes to the holy grails of North America and Europe. In today’s grapevine, it has become a casual affair to hear of Panamanian border crossings and Cuban raft rides. In a remarkable event, Spanish documentary film makers Alberto Garcia Ortiz and Agatha Maciaszek are currently in the process of filming the harrowing story of 54 Punjabis; who stranded in the Spanish city of Ceuta and fearing detention and deportation have fled and taken up refugee in the hills of the city.

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BC Sikhs – Beyond Elections and Gangsters

ranj_dhaliwal.jpgMany of the elements that make up this article have been featured in the Langar Hall in the past Ranj Dhaliwals book Daaku about the lifestyle of Punjabi gangsters, thugs, and drug-dealers in BC during the late 1990s and early 2000s that cost the lives of 100+ youth in our community, Mani Amars film A Warriors Religion that documents the real life stories and effects of the peak of the violence, and finally to the various twists and turns that is British Columbias Sikh politics from new coalitions to disputed certifications.

However, a recent article in The Walrus, author Timothy Taylor brings all these elements together in his piece, titled Showdown on Scott Road.

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A new kind of Joan of Arc/(Punjab?)

Blogged by: Amritpan

harshinderkaur.jpgFor many years UNICEF India has attempted to survey and document the declining sex ratio and female feticide in India. And for many years the government of India has maintained that Punjab (and thus Sikhs) consistently registered the highest number of kuri maar cases, as compared to states such as Haryana, Himachal, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. So when a Punjabi doctor took the stage at United Nations Geneva Conference and dared to question the validity of the governments survey methods, she was met with a ruthless legislative backlash so typical of Bharat’s political response to its human rights advocates that it almost doesn’t even prompt a second glance.

A renowned, outspoken crusader of womens rights and a pediatrician at Rajindra Hospital, Patiala, Dr. Harshinder Kaur presented a paper to the Geneva Convention that explicated upon the abject conditions of women in India, disputed female feticide as being a Punjabi cultural phenomenon by asserting that Rajasthan has the highest number of feticides, and challenged Indias injudicious spending of the UNs funds, urging that the UN redirect this monetary support to specialized NGOs.

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Taxi Cab Drivers: Who Is Protecting Their Rights?

Last week a Punjabi Sikh cab driver suffered a gruesome act of hate in the middle of the night in the Bay Area. He was called Bin Laden, a terrorist, and someone who had come to this country to kill Americans. His attackers where white males working professional jobs in real-estate. Not your stereotypical attackers, but committing a very typical act of hate. Although, the attackers posted bail with their money; the injured cab driver can not work to provide for his family.

We have laws to protect the attackers, but who is protecting the taxi-cab driver? How is it possible that assaulting a taxi cab driver is not a felony in every American city? Taxi cab drivers have one of the most dangerous jobs because of the environments in which they transport clients and how money for service is exchanged. They never know the character of the person they are picking up or if he/she will have enough money to pay. They function off the assumption that they wont be attacked and their client will pay them. Otherwise, they could not make a profit in this business. They cant let their fear overtake them.

At a recent conference, Driving For The Future, a taxi cab workers alliance in the Bay Area called United Taxi Cab Workers, announced that they are working towards a bill of rights. The Asian Law Caucus is working closely with this group. The bill of rights would demand, for example, that attackers suffer more severe penalties and there be a safety-net of benefits to help cab drivers who have been assaulted. In an industry employing large number of immigrant men who are not fluent in English; the need to legally protect taxi-cab drivers rights is very important. We need to encourage Punjabi Sikh taxi cab drivers to participate in this alliance to make sure their needs are protected.

Gurbani – A Sikh Solution to Female Feticide

It might partly be the scarcity of female voices and public female faces in the Sikh community that makes Nikky-imagining_the_fetus.jpgGuninder Kaur Singh’s so distinctive and refreshing. But in addition to her position as one of the few public female voices in the Sikh community, her original and creative work is really what makes Ms. Kaur-Singh so refreshing. As we have discussed in the past, in the context of “Relocating Gender in Sikh History,” the vast majority of Sikh history has been written by men. And thus, despite their best intentions, for the most part, women’s voice in Sikh history has been non-existent. It is silent.

In this realm of mostly male voices, Ms. Kaur-Singh has taken an original position on a much-needed project: to explore a feminist perspective in interpreting Gurbani. Many translations of Gurbani have been written, some of which are quite good, and others that are quite lacking (in terms of staying close to the feeling of the original shabad and being easily understandable for today’s audiences). One of the most popular translations today, if not the most popular, is Sikhi to the Max. It’s heavily used in gurdwaras, at weddings, and by individuals at home. And in this translation, the divine is interpreted as He/Him/Lord. Not only is this archaic, it creates a framework of masculinity that limits our understanding of Waheguru. The Sikh conception of gender embraces as well as goes beyond gender.

In a piece we discovered recently, Ms. Kaur-Singh contrasts current practices of sex-selective abortion with the place of the feminine within Gurbani. In a chapter of “Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture,” Ms. Kaur Singh orients readers with the history of sex-selection in Punjab. She then goes on to show how Gurbani holds the power to turn today’s practices on their head. In a few short pages, we are treated to a celebration of the feminine, reminded that our spirituality can focus on our source (the physical allegory of which is the mother) rather than its current infatuation with the end, and given a gender-neutral interpretation of excerpts of Gurbani which resonate as closer to a truer meaning than some other more widely used interpretations today.

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My Guru & I: In His Presence

news41_2.jpgIn honor of yesterday’s Gurpurab (Bhadon 17, Nanakshahi) marking the anniversary of the first installation of Guru Granth Sahib Ji Maharaj in the Darbar Sahib, I’d like to share a piece I had written for at the culmination of last year’s “300 Saal” celebrations, titled “My Guru & I: In His Presence.”

As 2008 comes to an end, I’ve been reflecting on all the “300 Saal” celebrations of the year. It was an inspiring year – and the discussion, speeches and sheer emotion of this milestone really gave me a chance to reflect on the role of the Guru in my life.

While volunteering at Gurmat camps, I always made a point to pose a question to the children, prior to leading them in to their first divan: “If you walked into this Gurdwara and instead of the Guru Granth Sahib being there, say it was Guru Nanak, or Guru Amar Das or Gur Tegh Bahadur, sitting there – how would you act?” How would you carry yourself when walking in? Would your mind-set be any different? Would your muthha tek take on a different meaning? Would you be more attentive and alert during the divan? Would you be more eager to listen to his words and try harder to understand him?

Guru Ram Das says:
Baani Guru Guru Hai Baani Vich Baani Amrit Saarey
Bani is the Guru and Guru is the Bani. And it’s within this Bani, that Amrit is found.

Thus, the Shabad (“The Word”) is, was and always will be the Guru. History tells us that even during Guru Arjan’s time, the Granth (then referred to as the Pothi Sahib because it was yet to be completed and anointed Guru), was the center of the congregation, the center of the Darbar, even in the presence of Guru Arjan himself.

The saakhis tell us that Guru Arjan had so much reverence for the Pothi Sahib that he kept it on an pedestal elevated even from himself, and joined the Sikhs in paying obeisance to it. This tells me that it is not the person, the attire or the physical attributes that make the Guru; instead, it is the Shabad. But we call the ten physical forms (from Nanak to Gobind Singh) Guru because they were the living manifestation of that Shabad.

They lived the Shabad. We sing it, they lived it.

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Pollution and Disease in Punjab

In the Faridkot centre… Harmanbir Kaur, 15, was rocking gently backwards and forwards. When her test results came back, they showed she had 10 times the safe limit of uranium in her body. Her brother, Naunihal Singh, six, has double the safe level. [link]

baba_farid_center.JPGAn article in The Observer discusses the link between the dramatic rise in birth defects in Punjab and pollution from coal-fired power stations. Many of the children are being treated in Faridkot and at the Baba Farid centers for special children in Bathinda, where there are two coal-fired thermal plants. Staff at these clinics had noticed an increase in the incidence of severely handicapped children who were born with hydroencephaly, microencephaly, cerebral palsy, Downs syndrome and other complications. They suspected environmental poisoning.

The healthcare workers rightfully voiced their concerns about this and wondered, if some children werebeing treated, how many more were being affected? As with governments other dirty little secrets, staff at the clinics were visited and threatened if they spoke out. In addition, a visiting South African toxicologist arranged for tests to be carried out and found that the children had massive levels of uranium in their bodies, in one case more than 60 times the maximum safe limit. The scientist was later warned by the authorities that she may not be allowed back into the country.

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Sikhs in the Tube

london_underground_logo.jpgAs all UK Sikhs or travelers to UK know at busy entries to the London Underground, youll find various vendors handing out free tabloids. Although everyone groans at the content, still enter the tube and youll find most busy Londoners flipping past the latest gossip on Paris Hilton or the recent election coverage in Afghanistan.

On Friday morning, many Londoners got a bright, colorful picture [click below the fold]. Although the content was nothing groundbreaking, still many of our Sikh readers (pagh salute: Joo Kay Singh) were pleased with the picture.

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Miss World Punjaban 2008

I found this video of the Miss World Punjaban 2008 contest interesting because the contestant chose to highlight her Sikh identity that is intimately linked to Punjabi culture. I find that it is easy for us to “intellectually” talk about the separation of the two identities. However, for many, being Sikh and Punjabi are intimately connected. They mutually exist-one does not envision oneself without the other.

Ms. Gurpreet Kaur Khaira from Canada chose to highlight this co-existence of the two identities in the talent portion of the contest. She performs dhadi vaar, while wearing a simple white suit and kessari chunni.

Who is Miss Punjaban and what does she look like varies … there is not only one notion of Punjabi “beauty” or identity … at least in this beauty contest! You can sing dhadhi vaar in simplicity or a Punjabi song in a bright red chunni and kokaa.

(FAST-FORWARD TO 1:44 to see Ms. Gurpreet Kaur Khaira from Canada)

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True Saint, Fearless Soldier: Bhai Taru Singh

bhaitarusingh.jpgFor those of you who enjoyed Vismaad Productions’ work with Sahibzadey, Rise of the Khalsa andSundri, there is now a newanimatedmovie to look forward to this fall. Bhai Taru Singh: True Saint. Fearless Soldier, is the latest production and will bepremiering around the world over the next few months. The film’s website provides a description of the film,

The story of Bhai Taru Singh is one of a true saint soldier who lived during an extremely difficult period for the Sikhs. The mughal rulers of the time were brutal towards all citizens, and especially the Sikhs. Bhai Taru Singh Ji bravely stood up to the regime which earned him the respect of all Hindus and Muslims from the surrounding villages. [link]

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Half The Sky

AI_04260901_Aug._26_11.47.gifThe issue of forced marriages and domestic violence clearly struck a chord with many of the TLH readers. But somewhere deep in the comments over titles, or whether these are Sikh or Punjabi issues, or whether or not we should air our “dirty laundry” in the first place I feel some of the issues themselves got lost. In formulating my own thoughts on the topic and trying to build a broader perspective on womens issues in general, I came across a fascinating article in last weeks New York Times Magazine called Saving the World’s Women. The premise of the article is that many of the countries that are disproportionately poverty-stricken and absorbed in fundamentalism and chaos, are also those same countries where women are the least educated and most marginalized. And by focusing (and investing) on women and girls, a dramatic impact can be made to fight global poverty and extremism.

Take the example of Saima Muhammad (pictured above) from Pakistan. Saima didnt have a rupee to her name, was routinely beaten by her unemployed husband and other family members, and had to send her kids away due to lack of food and other basics. Even her mother-in-law contributed to her troubles by encouraging her son to marry again because Saima was only giving birth to girls. However, after Saima signed up with the Kashf Foundation, a Pakistani microfinance organization, things turned around.

Saima took out a $65 loan and used the money to buy beads and cloth, which she transformed into beautiful embroidery that she then sold to merchants in the markets of Lahore. She used the profit to buy more beads and cloth, and soon she had an embroidery business and was earning a solid income the only one in her household to do so. Saima took her elder daughter back from the aunt and began paying off her husbands debt.

…Saima became the tycoon of the neighborhood, and she was able to pay off her husbands entire debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate the house, connect running water and buy a television.

As the economics of Saima’s situation changed, so did the relationship with her family. She now has a better relationship with her family and has earned their respect. It is unfortunate that this is what it took for Saima, and many will never have the golden opportunity Saima had, but it does send a clear message – that although it may seem impossible to break down cultural barriers, economics can change the game quickly.

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A Bit of Sikh Wisdom

While randomly browsing on the web, I came across this interesting anecdote by a Christian of Amritsar.


Sikh Heritage Film Festival in NY

East coasters and others with expendable income: the Sikh Art & Film Foundation is bringing you the 2009 International Film Festival to be held at the Asia Society and Museum.sikh_art_and_film_foundation.jpg

The Festival will kick off on Friday September 18th with 3 films (My Mother India, Flying Sikhs – A History of Sikh Fighter Pilots, and Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Via Dolorosa Project). The night ends with a party at Asia Society’s Garden Court. The Festival continues on Saturday with 4 documentaries (A Warrior’s Religion
Not Every Time, Turbanology, Who Do You Think You Are – Meera Syal) and 6 short films (Battle of Chillianwala – The Waterloo of India, Bhangra Generation, Prisoner’s Song, Street Smarts, turBAN, and
Unravelling). Saturday concludes with the Heritage Gala After Party at Leela Lounge. Mira Nair will be honored and $15,000 in cash will be awarded to filmmakers.

A pass to all above events is only $45. Buy your tickets before they sell out!

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