24 February 2008

Teach Your Children Well..

Teach your children well,
Their parents' hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

Last Wednesday, as I do every day, I walked out to the mailbox to pick up our snail mail. As is often the case, some young teenagers across the street started making fun of me. I do look a little strange, walking slightly off balance and my semi-paralysed left hand has a tendency to ball up into a fist and that arm hangs a bit funny, not quite natural looking, I suppose. I ignore these rude kids, as usual, but I'm very much aware of them.

That day, though, there were a couple I hadn't seen before, a girl with very long, black hair and a boy with a patka. As I turned from the mailbox to walk back into the house, the girl loudly slapped the patkaed boy and ran across the street to me.

'Ma'am, I'm sorry. They shouldn't be rude like that. It's mean.' Then she very bravely gently took my left hand and held it. Cooties, you know.

'Thank you,' I said, 'That's very nice of you. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. But you know, Guru Ji says we should use physical force, only when there's no alternative. You really shouldn't have hit your...brother?'

'Yeah, he's my brother, Steve [Steve? I thought.] Guru Ji?' She gave me that very curious look, grabbed my right hand and my kara fell out of my long sleeve to my wrist. She gasped and then broke out in a huge smile.

'She's one of us!' she shouted across the street and ran back to her brother. 'Sorry I hit you, but you shouldn't be so mean.'

All three came across the street, obviously curious about me. They were full of questions.

'Are you a goreh Sikh? What happened to you, your hand doesn't work too good. Do you hate us for being mean?'

'Not exactly. I had a stroke. No, but you should stop the rudeness.'

I invited them in and offered them some hot spiced milk and cookies (biscuits to you Commonwealth types). How cliche. I told them about my family with the Punjabi Sikh father and the French Canadian mother.

They were fascinated by my eccentric family and they wondered if I had any kids. Without really thinking about the situation, I answered, 'Yes, a son and two daughters, but they're dead. They got killed.'

Instant sympathy as only the very young are capable of followed immediately by curiosity. 'How did they die. Can we ask? Was it a car wreck or something?'

'Or something, I guess. We were visiting in Delhi during the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 and they got killed.'

'I heard something about that, but I don't really know what happened. About a thousand Sikhs were murdered, right? We know it happened, but no one who was there will talk about it. Tell us.'

Suddenly we were in much too deep. I really didn't want to give these innocent - if rude - young kids their first first-person account of this ugliness. There was a naive sweetness to them that I knew my story would destroy. Usually, I feel the need to tell our story, but this time, I was very reluctant.

'How devout are your parents? How much does being Sikh mean to them?'

The boy answered. 'They're both amritdhari. See they don't let me cut my hair.'

'Would you, if they let you?'

'Oh, yeah, all this hair is so dumb. And they're always laughing at me at school.'

That decided me. 'My son, Sandeep, was about your age - you're around 13? - when all this happened. '

The boy coughed. 'I like to be called Steve, but my name's really Sandeep. Like your son.'

'Well, he'd probably still be alive today if he'd cut his hair.' So I told them the whole story. And I showed them what I will not show you, my readers, our pictures. I showed them the formal family portrait we had done before we left for India in April, 1984. They did the obligatory oohs and aahs over how beautiful I was and how handsome Mani and Sandeep were. We really were a good-looking family, if I may say so. Then I showed them the pictures we had taken with our hairs down and open - proof it was unshorn - before we were attacked in Delhi and then the pictures of us in full bana, all of us, even me, with turbans, ready for whatever would happen. They giggled uneasily over that picture.

'You look like people out of an old Sikh history book, like shaheeds fighting Mughuls or something.' Then, very softly from one of the boys, 'I guess you were kind of like them.' Then, 'We need to see the other pictures, too.'

I pretended not to understand, but they persisted. 'The ones your rescuers took. You said you have them.'

Those pictures are graphic and bloody, not things to show these young people. On the other hand, scenes as graphic and bloody are shown daily on CNN and even network news. 'Are you sure you want to see them? They're pretty terrible.' That, of course, although unintended by me,. goaded them on and they insisted they simply had to see them. I have both printed copies and a CD, but I didn't feel like looking at the large pictures on the TV, so I got the prints. I myself rarely look at them; they really are that bad.

It so happened that the top picture was of Sandeep lying on his back, his head at that askew angle. I had, of course, washed all the faces, so at least there wasn't a lot of blood there, although, some had seeped out of his nose after I had washed him. All of them looked at the photo, then at the portrait still on the TV screen, back and forth. None of them had dry eyes. 'Shaheed,' whispered Steve/Sandeep boy. However proud we are of them, I doubt any mother wants that particular word to apply to her child. We give them willingly, when necessary, of course, but...

'I'll never, never cut my hair,' from Sandeep/Steve , loudly. 'Never!' He may change his mind later, but for a moment, at least, he experienced the pride and determination of a Sikh.

We went through the rest; the pictures of me lying across Mani's body clearly upset them. They did comment on how peaceful they all looked. I always have that reaction to these pictures, as well.

Their reaction to the picture of the [person] I had killed surprised me, although I guess it shouldn't have. His face had not been washed; it was covered with blood. His eyes and mouth were open and his throat a gaping mass of dried blood. In contrast to our shaheeds, there was nothing peaceful looking about him. Those unseeing eyes and silent mouth still clearly showed the terror he had experienced at the moment of death. And my new, young friends? They cheered. And laughed. And I didn't stop them. I suppose I should have given them a lecture about how it is a painful thing to kill, even when it's necessary and how death is a tragedy and, you know, all that. But I didn't. I always feel a particular sense of satisfaction when looking at [him] lying there, terrified, helpless, dead.

When they left, I told them I'd really like to meet their parents.

Two days later, I did. A knock on the door and there stood a medium height, rather weathered-looking turbaned gentleman and a diminutive lady in an orange salwar kameez suit, along with the two young teenagers. We fatehed each other quite formally and I invited them in, the woman trying hard not to giggle. I wondered why.

The man was very serious, however, and when we started talking, I discovered that his brother had been killed in Delhi. They had never told their kids about him or what had happened there. I got in the impression that he was glad that had gotten the story from someone else.

Nervously, 'My two reluctantly Sikh children are suddenly talking about taking Amrit. My son, Steve, has become Sandeep and instead of lobbying to hack off his kesh, he wants to tie a turban.. We would like to see these extraordinary pictures if we could, please.'

The wife, able to contain herself no longer, burst out laughing. I had wondered if perhaps she couldn't speak English, but she spoke up, with a perfect Toronto accent, 'I'm sorry, but I thought with the way the kids talked that you'd be at least two metres tall and breathe fire. You look more like one of the gurdwara aunties than like a mighty warrior.'

I laughed. 'You might be surprised at some of your gurdwara aunties.' And she probably would, at that.

I showed them the pictures, first the 'nice' ones, then the gruesome ones. They had the same reaction as their children. 'So sad, but they look so peaceful.'

As they left, they were a little apologetic. 'We should have talked to our children about these things, ourselves.' I could not disagree. Unfortunately, they are just here for a week visiting family and will soon return to Toronto.

'...And know they love you.

Teach Your Children -Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1970 is a great song and it deserves to be read by all of you, so here are the lyrics:

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.

Teach your children well,
Their parents' hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh
and know they love you.

And you, of tender years,
Can't know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.

Teach your parents well,
Their children's hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.

Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh

and know they love you.

The picture of the young man is from a SALDEF mailing. I chose it because the young man's new mustache reminds me so much of Sandeep. He was so proud of his - as well he might be. Few young men of 13 have such a nice one.

The bird watching picture is for my readers who love birds. And children. And courage?