09 July 2007

The Day I Became A Sikh

Cross-posting seems a little lazy to me, but several people have asked me to publish this post into this blog. I am not sure if it is funny, sad , poignant, inspiring or what; I am sure it is a vital part of my personal story. It is exactly as published in sometimes - 2 on 31 March 2007.

The Day I Became A Sikh

(Note My aunt's name is not Jeanne and the priest 's name was not Leblanc.)

All this happened about 43 years ago, so the conversations are slightly fictionalised. I do not really remember most of them them verbatim. But the meanings are exactly what occurred.

I believe I have mentioned that Dad had promised my mother, who was Catholic, to raise me as a Catholic. He didn't like that at all, but being a man of his word, he kept his promise to her, or rather, he tried to keep his promise to her. No one had consulted me on the matter.

So let's travel back in time of my birth. Mom insisted that I be properly baptised in the church with all the trimmings. Not one of the Sikhs, including Dad and my brothers was there. I was dressed in a very long silk gown that completely engulfed the tiny baby. That dress was kept for a number of years and it was a good meter long. (What became of it I'll tell later.) It was white with elaborate embroidery all over it. Quite a work of art actually. But it did have a stain on it. I, being me, objected to the whole proceedings in the only way a small baby could: I kicked and screamed and threw up all over it. It is said that newborn babies are very close to God and have definite ideas about him/her. I have no recollection, of course, but I was on my worst behaviour, I have been told, kicking and screaming and, as I said, throwing up. My maternal aunt and uncle became my godparents, charged with the duty to make sure that I was brought up and educated as a proper Catholic girl. A Christian name being a necessity, I was named after an ancestor of mine on the French side, Helene-Therese, who, from what I know about her, would have made a fine Khalsa. In fact I used her war dagger in combat. The name was the only good thing about the whole ritual.

My aunt, Jeanne, took me to mass every Sunday for years, and saw to it that I was enrolled in Catechism class, which I had to attend after school.

I hated every minute of it. I begged Daddy to please, please, please put an end to all this; mom had run off and there was no reason to continue. But he was a man of his word, and this forced religious life went on and on. I even hated the smell of the church. It wreaked of cheap incense and old spilled wine. Most of all, I hated the priest, Father Leblanc. He was short and fat and smelled of cigarettes and alcohol. These were the days before Pope John 23 liberalised the church, and the people were taught that the priests were all wise and almost infallible; they were not to be questioned.

This torture went on for years, but when it came time for 'The Sacrament of Confirmation,' I knew I had to put an end to it. No way was I able to stand up and publicly declare that 'I believe in the holy Catholic church.' I knew that if I went to the ceremony, I would have to simply refuse, which might make a point, but would also make a scandal, which I, being a very private person even then, really wanted to avoid. Gradually an idea came to me: If I could get kicked out of the church before all that, the problem would be solved. It would alienate my mother's family, of course, but I had always considered them low-lifes with no standards and would be happy to be rid of them.

So I prepared my plan of attack. One day in confirmation class, I looked at my kara, which was the only Sikh object I was allowed (I'm sure none of the Catholics realised it was more than a piece of cheap jewelry), took a very deep breath, and raised my hand. This greatly surprised Fr. Leblanc because I always just sat there, stony-faced.

He smiled his slimy smile at me. 'Yes, child. Do you have a question??'

I nodded.

'I'll be happy to answer it, my child.'

(I'm not your child, thank God!) 'God is our heavenly father who loves us so much that he sent his son, who is also God, to be tortured to death and then brought back to life, so we wouldn't go to hell, and then he sent the Holy Ghost, who is also God to be our helper, so it seems like there are three Gods, but there is only one. I don't understand?'

I was just beginning. I had rehearsed all this many times before and he had to think I was sincere.

He did.

'That's the mystery of the Holy Trinity, child. It is beyond human understanding.'

'And if we don't believe in it, our loving heavenly father will send us to hell to be tortured in firy torment forever and ever.'

He was beginning to see where I was headed. 'You mustn't question God, child.' He was becoming annoyed.

I continued in this vein for some time, ripping Catholicism up one dogma and down another.

The good priest just stood there, mouth open, aghast at my words.

'I don't question God. But what you worship and call God is not God; you worship an evil demonic thing and I would rather be tortured for a thousand forevers than to worship that hideous evil THING for even one second!'

Priests in those days were not used to being challenged by anyone, especially not by 12 year old girls in confirmation class. Did you know that people really can turn purple? He was beyond anger, nearly insane, I thought his eyes might pop out of his head. He pointed a chubby little finger at me. 'Blasphemer! Heretic! Spawn of Satan!'

Daddy as the devil? What an interesting idea.

( I think he actually used those terms, but I can't be sure; it was over 40 years ago.)

'Get out!'


Mission accomplished.

Usually one of my brothers would pick me up, but since they wouldn't be there for some time, I took the bus home.

When I walked in Dad realised I was early. 'You didn't skip that church class today, did you?'

'No, not at all.'

He heard some expression in my voice. 'What are you up to?

'I told him the whole story, punctuated by an occasional 'You said WHAT?'

When I was done and he was trying to keep a straight face, he muttered something under his breath about Gobind Singh and reached out and touched my kara. 'That was the only compromise your mother would make with me about you and religion.'

'I have never understood why it was important to her what religion I was; she never cared about me.'

He promised he'd talk about that when I got older, which he did, with much difficulty. But that story belongs somewhere else.

'Well, I guess I need to talk to that priest. Let me go get dressed.'

When he came back, he was in his best Punjabi gear, complete with a red turban and a full-length, metre-long sword. I could just see him there, calm, rational, self-composed, a bit unconsciously menacing with Fr. Leblanc ready to have a heart attack-nervous breakdown.

When he came back, he informed me that Fr. Leblanc was extremely serious about my not returning. And that the good father had called both of us some names of which neither of us was sure the meaning, but they weren't meant as compliments. I did explain to him that he, never having been baptised was merely an infidel, but I was a heretic; he would be hung or something, while I was supposed to be burned alive. But this was the twentieth century, not the fifteenth, so the worst that would happen is that my French-Canadian relatives would disown me.

He almost skipped away and came back with a smallish box, which he handed to me. 'I have always prayed that one day I'd be able to give this to you.' I opened it and gasped.

Inside was a kara, a kirpan, a kanga, a pair of kechera and a red silk chunni.' You can use any or all or none; it's totally up to you.'

It's totally up to you. It's totally up to me. It's totally up to me. It's totally up to me. Suddenly, it sunk in that I was free, I didn't have to pretend or go along any more. In one very real sense, this was the beginning of my life.

I went to my apartment and built a fire in the fireplace. Then I took a long, long shower and washed my hair. My kesh. I could finally call it my kesh. I called Surinder, Al's wife to help me get dressed.

I took down the crucifix that my aunt had insisted I had to have by my bed and thew it into the fire. Remember my christening dress? That was next. There were a few other things, but those were the most important.

At Dad's insistence, the whole family (whoever happened to be in residence) always ate dinner together. When I appeared, not as a Canadian preteen, but as a young Punjabi lady, everyone was surprised. Before we ate, Dad made a little speech.

'All of you know that I promised our Princess' mother that I would raise her as a Christian. Before today, I didn't realise what an injustice I had done to my daughter. I was wrong to force her into a way of life that neither of us wanted or could believe in. I've been a regular Mughal. I should have broken that promise a long time ago and accepted whatever consequences there would have been. I shouldn't have waited for her to stand up to a ridiculous little priest. I was wrong. Mai, Princess, can you forgive me?'

That is very close to what he actually said. It was a moment that is indelibly burned into my memory.

I couldn't believe what he was saying or how serious he was. But I did appreciate that he realised he had been wrong and had said so.

I matched his solemnity. 'Of course.'

I paused. 'Am I a Sikh now?'

'You're the only one who can answer that. You know enough to make that choice. Do you believe in Christianity?'

'No, not even a little bit. Of course, I'm a Sikh, I always have been inside. Now I can be outside, too.'

'We do need to teach you a thing or two about religious tolerance, though.' He giggled.

Dad reached under a napkin. 'You might want this.' He handed me a small silk envelope with a key on a chain inside. I knew at once what it was. The key to Guruji's sitting room. With people in and out constantly and kids all over the place, that door was kept locked, but each family member wore a key on a chain. Now I had mine, as well.

That pretty much tells that story। Everything that happened afterward was a result of this day.

Photo of kakkars by Karamjeet Singh
Used with permission