16 April 2008

Tales Of Vaisakhi Past

I have been thinking about the role Vaisakhi has played in my life. Today I want to right something easy and light. I am tired of being so serious, so today, just some light entertainment.


In my family we always jumped at the chance to do two things: throw a party and give each other gifts. The parties tended to be rather large and wild. (Yes, you can have wild parties without booze, drugs, sex or other immorality.) Of Rock 'N' Roll, there was usually plenty. The gifts, tended to be just the opposite, small and personal. After all, we each basically had everything we wanted or could easily get it. Handmade items were highly appreciated, as were things that were personally chosen to the giftees interests. Dad was a great wood carver, among his many talents. Everyone treasured his lovingly carved, perfect in size and shape kanghas. His intricate boxes and bowls were also highly prized.

It seemed each of us had our special collections, too. Additions to those also made fine presents. My collection? A bit eccentric, maybe, but I had - in fact, still have, I suppose - quite an interesting collection of medieval French light weaponry, mostly from The Hundred Years War period. That started with the three swords and dagger of my ancestor, the Lady Helene-Therese, who described herself as 'the mother, the queen and the woman of war.' She did indeed have children and the story of her as a warrior woman will someday be told in sometimes 2. The queen part, as far as I can tell, is pure ego. She was queen in her own mind of something, but I'm not sure what.

However, the collection I am concerned with here belonged to my second brother, Bertram, the civil engineer. He had an unexpected passion for Regency Period (1800-1825) stuff. He had all sorts of trivialities, from clothing to jewelry to books. (Regency to me, mostly conjures up pictures of ladies in high-waisted dresses a la Jane Austen.)

To decide who each of us was to give a gift to, we drew names. I, of course, drew Bert. From a second bag, we drew a condition. This was some condition the gift had to meet. I drew 'completely frivolous, but useful.' Huh? That would take some thought. After wracking my poor 16-year old brain, I came up with an idea. It made me laugh. Finding it would take some luck...

Of all my brothers, I was closest to Bert. He and I were, in many ways, complete opposites, especially, physically. He was the tallest man in a family of tall men while I am too, too short. He was dark; I am fair. He was big and broad and looked hypermasculine; I was tiny and skinny (I really was - back then) and looked very feminine. He was intelligent and funny and very, very devout. His kesh, both his head hairs and beard, was not as long as some of the others, but it was very thick and luxurious. Truth to be told, he was a bit vain of his beard and I thought the style he curled his mustache was a little silly and old-fashioned. Maybe Regency? Lol.

I was lucky. I found exactly what I was looking for, although I had to make a trip to New York City to find it. I remember how he ripped off the wrapping of the box, opened it and looked inside. The box, itself, was a lovely silver with gold inlay Regency box and it was filled with - a complete man's barber set! Frivolous to Bert, useful to most any man not a Sikh. It had all the grooming supplies: scissors, razors, a sharpening strop - and a mirror for the dandy to gaze upon himself. Perhaps it wasn't totally frivolous, though, because there was a second layer neatly filled with combs (metal - can you imagine using metal on a kesh?!), several mustache brushes and a small can labeled 'wax.' I had filled it with mustache wax. After his initial shock of seeing scissors and razors, he laughed and laughed, that full-belly, fill-you-up laugh that I remember so well and miss so much?

And what was my gift? I really don't remember, but I'm sure it was very nice,


The year of my great breakdown. This one is short, but not sweet. Or maybe it is.

My health, both physical and mental, had been deteriorating since my first stroke in 1993. I had reached a low point and had decided I didn't want to bother with all that hair anymore. After all, I wasn't doing anything Sikh, it seemed silly to bother with the physical and social bother of keeping kesh. I was standing in front of a mirror, pulling my hair back to get some idea of how it would look short when the doorbell rang. I looked out the peep-hole and saw a young woman holding a black, leather-bound book; she had the unmistakable, earnest look of a Christian missionary. Well aware of the date, I decided it would be somehow ironically amusing to spend the day listening to a would-be converter, then cutting my hair. As I opened the door, she flashed a big, overly sincere smile at me and extended her hand. 'Hello, neighbour, my name is Mona!' I didn't hear another word she said. And my kesh remained intact.


Last year, Maman, Suni, Mary and I spent Vaisakhi together. It was a special time for me. The year before, after my major stroke, I had been reunited with my family, after an absence of more than 20 years. This was my first Vaisakhi with family. My brothers were unable to be here, but we we women made our own occasion of it. And Maman, who you know as Vini, knows how to do it. I know she is old, but she is lively, imaginative and lots of fun. Also, she has a heart full of love and Sikhi. The perfect mother-in-law. Perhaps the perfect woman.

I had returned to Sikhi, and Mary was just learning it, making good her escape from a life of untruthfulness and hypocrisy with the Jehovah's Witnesses. Her enthusiasm and wonder at everything, actually seeing and participating in what she had only read about gave all of us a fresh perspective on everything. Maman has a unique sense of style to go with her sense of humour. She took it upon herself to dress us all. In what were blue, almost cholas, well, they would have been cholas, but they were a bit longer, as none of us, expect perhaps Mary, cared to show our legs. She decked us out with saffron sashes and gatras, and then tied turbans on all of us, including herself. She did a beautiful job of it. Suni and I hadn't been thus attired since November 1984, a fact of which Maman was well-aware. She saw this as part of our healing process.

For my part, I love wearing a dastaar. It makes me feel like a really Sikh Sikh. Not only does it serve the same purpose as a man's - to hide and protect the kesh - it is also the only real relief I get from this stubborn post-stroke headache. I have actually read there is a scientific basis for a turban giving headache relief. Whatever the reason, the sudden release from pain made me a bit giddy.

Mary, as might be expected, was caught between being very serious and giggling. We were not to carry our usual small kirpans, but full-length, metre-long ones that Maman had brought from Amritsar. In fact, all of our kakkars that day, except our kesh, of course, were from Amritsar. I was, at first, unwilling to quit wearing the kara I had worn since those days in 1984, but, in her gentle, compelling way, she convinced me.

One by one, I picked up each kirpan ans swung it around a bit until I found the one that best suited me. Oh, I was a bit off balance, but I had not held any sword-like item for many years and I enjoyed the feel of it in my hand. None of the other three had studied any sword fighting, a fact that assumed some importance a bit later.

She could convince me to switch the kara, but Maman had the good sense to know that I would flat refuse to go to the large gurdwara in Renton, so we headed to the small one we both like. On the way, we stopped at a convenience store being run by a good-looking keshdhari Singh wearing a red turban and a large kara, high up on his right arm. HE looked at us and couldn't help laughing. 'Ladies, where is your fifth?' Only then did it dawn on any of us that we did look a bit like a Panj Piyare minus one. Maman countered by chastising him for working on Vaisakhi.

'Are you really so poor that you can't close the store for one day?'

'Didi Ji, if I were closed, where would you get your 7-Ups?'

She harrumphed. She really did! "Didi Ji, indeed!' But she was laughing.

We had a sort of adventure in the afternoon. We walked a short distance and ran into a group of Sikh teen aged boys. Several were turbaned, but looked slightly thuggish, nonetheless. One approached us quite rudely. 'Aunties, do any of you know how to use those' - indicating our kirpans - 'or are they just decorations.' I know Maman was about to give them a tongue-lashing about showing respect for our articles of faith, but I forgot the stroke for a moment and remembered only that I had once been very good at fencing.

'Who has a long kirpan and the courage to take me on?'

My companions audibly gasped, as one of the young thugs stepped forward. He was tall and strong and wore a handsomely tied crimson dastaar. His long, sharp kirpan glistened in the afternoon sun, dazzling the eye.

'Sure, Aunty. Let's get it on!'

'Mai, for God's sake,' Suni started, but by that time, it was all over. My kirpan was right up against, actually touching through his clothes, that part of his anatomy that a man - especially, I suppose - a teen-aged boy - values most.

'Don't move a muscle.' I said in my most dangerous voice.

'I surrender. Please don't,' he squeaked.

I didn't move. 'Where's your chardi kala, Khalsa? A Khalsa isn't supposed to surrender, especially not to an "Aunty."'

Still squeaking, 'I'm not Khalsa.'

I lowered my kirpan. 'Oh. OK.'

He obviously knew nothing, absolutely nothing about fencing or sword fighting. A good thing, too, for me. My partially paralysed left side, my lack of balance and my lack of peripheral vision could have proved disastrous. Not to mention that I was taking blood thinners. But I bet he won't be challenging any more 'Aunties' any time soon.

Mary, though, was confused. 'Is this what usually happens on Vaisakhi?'

A loud chorus, all three in unison, 'No!'

I won't guarantee that this last story hasn't been embellished a bit, but just a bit. My challenger was a mousy little kid who really needed someone to teach him to tie a turban. His kirpan was very dull and not really shiny at all. And I doubt he had ever held a sword-length kirpan before in his life.


Please check out this website: Khalsa Kirpans: The Handmade Knives & Swords of Jot Singh Khalsa. They are beautiful. A bit pricy (I noticed one going for $280,000.) But beautiful.

Pictures are some more from the professional photographer, Charles Meacham's series, Being Sikh
Go to the Galleries link on the website and then click on Being Sikh. These are wonderful pictures!


  1. Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh

    Mata Mai Ji

    It is so wonderful to read your story of a mirthful memory. I think it is a blessing that you have a collection of women friends who you have not only shared a heartbreaking history with, but also have been there in your healing process. I hope in my life, when I am older that I too have such a family of true friends to push and pull me through the difficult times.

    Vaisakhi di Mubaraak to you.


  2. Dear PK - I always feel so warm when I read your 'Mata Mai Ji'

    Many happy family stories are over in the sometimes - 2 blog.

    There are two more women friends I have been blessed with that haven't figured too much into this blog. One id an individual, the other a collective of individuals.

    My sweet, gentle Lilly, the lovely Jain woman who has been my best friend for over 50 years. I have many times been told that a Sikh and a Jain make an odd pair, but we are both people with definite beliefs that we insist on living by. We both value loyalty very highly. I have often thought that we Sikhs who have a tendency to be more sipahi than sant - like myself - need a Jain or a Buddhist or even a devout Quaker around to remind us what we're fighting for. Do you know the song 'The Wind Beneath My Wings'...?

    My second, collective friend are my Kaurs, the nurses who refused to let me die in the hospital after my stroke. Again, I refer you to sometimes -2, I've written more about them there.

    There has been great heartbreak in my life, true, but there has also been great joy. Somewhere in there, I am trying to learn detachment from both. I've not been very successful.

    Ah, well, chardi kala. I keep pushing on.



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