> In New York, Sikhs March with Message of Tolerance

> Op-Ed: Like the Rollercoaster ride of First Love

In New York, Sikhs March with Message of Tolerance

Family vans and SUV’s started pulling up at approximately 9am on Saturday, April 27 around Madison Square Park in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. The area had already been cordoned off with steel barricades earlier that morning, which bordered the streets and stretched all the way to 40th street and Madison Avenue.

Curious bystanders watched men in brightly colored turbans (mostly a vivid saffron shade), and women in fluorescent saris, unload huge containers and coolers of freshly prepared food, drinks and eating supplies. By 11am, the hamburger and french-fries aroma that wafts the area from the neighboring Shake Shack was replaced by the scent of Indian vegetarian delicacies. A gustatory delight, the dishes included spicy chickpeas, samosas, rotis, fried snacks, spinach and lentil saag, curry-rice and assorted desserts (gulab jamuns, mithai and laddus) to freshly prepared drinks like cardamom chai, sweet and salty lassi and mango lassi.

Stalls, banners and flags were assembled and a seating area with folding tables was set up by dozens of young turbaned boys, sporting orange t-shirts captioned, ‘Sikh: Compassion, Courage, Service, Equality, Self-Sacrifice, Humility, Justice, Discipline’. The 26th Annual Sikh Day Parade, organized by the Sikh Cultural Society of New York had commenced, and the festival, with its cornucopia of food, tradition and joie de vivre was inviting the whole of New York to partake in its cultural celebration. Usually taking place in the month of April, it corresponds to the Sikhism calendar Nanakshahi month of Vaisakh (harvest).

“Mango drink, it’s free today, take it! It may be 5 dollars tomorrow” implored Brijmohan Singh as he handed out bottles to passer-bys. One of the many Sikhs giving out free food, Singh, a resident of Queens volunteering with the Dashmesh Cultural Association of New York, explains that the event is not a free-food distribution stunt to woo people. Rather, it is an expression of sharing the Sikh tradition of langar, the practice of serving free meals in gurdwaras, which is based on the principle of equality and unity.

“The same food is served to everyone under one roof, under the concept of seva-samaj (duty to the community),” explains Paramjit Singh, a volunteer with Saint Majha Sahib Karamjot Sikh Center, Ozone Park, Queens. About 15 gurdwaras in the tri-state area (Long Island and New Jersey) had amassed food to donate that had been tirelessly prepared in their community kitchens by both men and women from the neighborhood.

While lines were quickly forming around the promenade to sample the food, Brijmohan explains that every year they serve about 8000-9000 people. “ The parade, which showcases aspects of our religion sees about 100,000 people. Our food is the main highlight and is churned out from noon to 6pm and you can have as much as you like,” he said, as volunteers around him feverishly packed to-go boxes for people who wanted to take more food back home.

In fact some local families had prepared kheer (sweet rice pudding) and jalebis and packed it in individual containers for this purpose. “ I look forward to this activity every year,” said Harmeet Kaur, a housewife from Richmond Hills, Queens. “I get together with my friends and we cook, sing hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy text of Sikhism) and chit-chat all night.” She says that the ritual brings her a lot of peace and gives her a sense of purpose when it comes to her religion.

The Sikh Awareness Society, from Jamaica estate, Queens, had also set up kiosks where older members were handing out fliers and religious literature to people. “We want people to know the facts of Sikhism, especially in a time like this where we are considered a minority,” explains Harinder Walia, a member of the association. Kangas (tiny wooden combs) and karas (iron bangles) were also being distributed for the same purpose.

“It’s an effort on our part to tell people what we are,” says Brijmohan. He finds this time’s event especially telling because it is the first parade after the Sikh Temple shootings that took place in Wisconsin in Aug 2012.

The crowd, now overflowing, makes it way towards 28th street, where the parade is approaching from several blocks uptown. An exhibition of Sikh martial arts, the performances include ‘gatka’ (use of sticks and kirpans or swords in a traditional dance) and a coordinated motorcycle march by young Sikh men in saffron t-shirts carrying flags from the gurdwara.

Members of the United Sikhs of America lead the Nagar Kirtan- a custom of singing holy hymns during a procession. With the backbeat of drums on float, this time, the objective of this Kirtan was to end the violence and biases against the Sikh community. As the main float carrying the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scriptures of the Sikhs, makes its way along the promenade, the road before was being swept by sewadars (volunteers) and young men in royal blue robes who lead the way with their heads bowed down in deference.

Bystanders chanted in unison “Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh (Wonderful Lord’s Khalsa, Victory is to the Wonderful Lord)”. 7-year-old Arsh Singh, standing nearby, asks her mom if she can be lifted over the barricade and prostrate in front of the proceeding Guru Granth Sahib. Her mother picks her up and sends her off. “ We are progressive, welcoming community and this interfaith event is aimed at peace, mutual tolerance and we want this message to resonate,” she says.

Arsh comes back smiling and shows her mom the handful of dryfruits she has received as prasad from the elders sitting on the float. “ Mama, I will share this with friend Hannah in school,” she says.

Published in India Abroad, May 10th, 2013

Like the Rollercoaster ride of First Love


This is not a love letter to New York. Nor is this a shpeel on how it is a Muse for millions or a list outlining why it is the greatest city in the world. Because elucidating the obvious becomes boring after a while. Rather, speaking of things that are often forgotten-- however small and however mundane, like an unspoken glance that is actually an entire conversation with a stranger in the subway, or picking up your usual daily order from the halal cart coffee guy without exchanging a word—make living in this grimy, mad, erratic, gyrating and breathlessly dizzying city worth it.  My experience here thus far has been a lot like the rollercoaster ride of first love- raw, unfamiliar, exciting, scarily tugging at the heartstrings, and often confusing, but incredibly enriching and indelible.

When I moved here two years ago from Bombay to start at Columbia Journalism School, I wasn’t intimidated. And I didn’t feel like I was venturing into unknown territory. Because having visited NY as a tourist, I had classified them into twin cities. The same urban sprawl of concrete, fast cars, bright lights, 24/7 public transportation, and hopeful faces struggling to make it. How hard could it be adjusting in a similar setting? My head was inundated with expectations, all manifesting from having watched too many reruns of  ‘Sex and the City’. Little did I know that the willing suspension of disbelief is actually a real thing.

I was jolted out of my fantasy in my very first week here, when class assignments involving reporting events and stories took me to unfamiliar places like Harlem, South Bronx, Astoria, Tremont, Hollis, Bay Ridge and other cultural and geographical pockets across all five boroughs of the city. Suddenly, New York wasn’t about the hedonistic fairy-tale picture postcard of touristy Soho or about iconic landmarks like the Empire State building and Times Square. It wasn’t about couture on Fifth Avenue, Zagat rated Michelin star restaurants or rooftop soirees on the Upper East Side. Nor was it about interviewing models, successful Wall Street bankers or established chefs and rappers. I realized that to rise above the fluff and to truly seize the city’s jugular, I would have to venture to untried streets and interact with the average man to listen to his very real issues if I wanted a story that I would be proud of publishing.

I roamed through public housing/ projects amidst gang violence and gunshots in El Barrio. I waded through sleet and inches of snow to old-age homes and churches and mosques in Brooklyn and Queens. Detention centers, police stations, food pantries, veterans housing, courts, offices and public schools- I went to them all. I spoke to mothers buying groceries with food stamps, fathers who didn’t know how to deal with their children coming out to them, elders who hadn’t been provided help from housing authorities despite numerous complaints on the lack of hot water and bed bugs, bodega owners who charged $2 for an apple because fresh produce was a luxury, homeless kids who became subway dancers and musicians so that they could make a quick buck and spent evenings chatting with drag queens, policemen, lawyers, social workers and detectives.

I sang with the old man from Grant Houses who told me that none of his grandchildren visited him anymore, conversed in broken Arabic over coffee with a deli owner who wanted to share his experience in the march to end gun violence and even ate really expensive kebabs in Jackson Heights because the restaurant owner wouldn’t talk to me otherwise. I got hit on by many suspect characters and hollered at by cab drivers. I got lost countless times and spent more than half of my graduate school days waiting at subway stations on the wrong end of the platform. But in the course of this exhausting blurry chaos, I forged bonds. I became best friends with a fellow Pakistani classmate and destroyed all the notions of Indians and Pakistanis at loggerheads. Columbia was a journey of self-discovery, it pushed me to shed my preconceived perceptions of people and places and revealed facets about my personality that I didn’t know existed.

And then I graduated. Most of my friends left and a handful of my classmates had jobs. I didn’t. It was then when the city became a monster. The stability of school had ended and no one warned me about the hangover. It was then, when I was financially, emotionally and physically spent that I started craving home and resenting my independence. For three months I survived on Maggi noodles and eggs as I frantically applied, interviewed and networked for jobs.  

I walked those same streets that had given me an adrenalin rush and the pang of loneliness devoured my soul.  I started circumventing or walking through certain blocks repeatedly because of the emotional baggage or significance associated with them. Like where I shared a Magnolia cupcake with my best friend because I couldn’t afford to have the entire one (financially and calories) or avoiding the block where the boy who broke my heart lived. Another where I disintegrated and wept in front of complete strangers because I had messed up another job interview.  I aimlessly walked into stores and started calculating the price of clothes based on the number of articles I would need to write. Even with a few friends and family around, the void was excruciating. When my campus housing ran out, I couch hopped and survived the harsh summer heat without air conditioning or a ceiling fan.

New York really tests your resolve. There will be days when you feel that you don’t fit in. That no one acknowledges your existence because you are worthless. The inconspicuousness will consume you. Another day the same feeling of anonymity will empower you and give you a sense of belonging when you rejuvenate yourself and determine to make it. No. Matter. What. In this city, your moods and goals will change everyday. And then something will happen that will make you realize that you do matter. The deli guy will give you a free soda and a bag of chips because you smiled at him. You will then realize that everyone is struggling to make it- visa woes, apartments, jobs, relationships- somehow everyone is level and everyone is frustrated, but they all still don’t want to leave here.

Three months post graduation I found a job and I got a visa. I started practicing Buddhism and found two great roommates. In this whirlwind two years, now, when I people gaze (a favorite pass time of mine in the city), I see different stages of my life reflected in the people around me. College kids scrounging to buy second -hand furniture for their dorm room apartments, recent graduates willing to work unpaid just so that it might translate into a full time job, internationals grumbling about social security numbers, colleagues and friends constantly battling with themselves about leaving this maddening city that is designed to bankrupt you.  Gnawing at you constantly, New York literally chews you to the bone, licks you clean and spits you back out. And leaves you to decide. Is she worth it?

Just last week, I was strolling down Washington Square Park when the sunlight reflected a section of the ground that had something handwritten with chalk scribbled. It said, “ I was in love with New York.  I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way. I mean I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again.”  I know that I didn’t need any more signs.

Published in India Abroad, July 19th, 2013