Having enriched American life, why should Sikhs change their ways?

The Stockton Gurdwara in California — the first Sikh temple in the United States — is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Immigrants from Punjab, purchased the lot on Grant Street in early 1912.

Once in a while, I bring out a black and white photograph of the gurdwara taken a few decades later. The members of the early families fan out on the steps leading up to its main entrance. I scan the faces, picking out my mother, my sister, brothers, cousins, aunts and finally, myself. In the front row, the girls stand in their fancy dresses. Boys in buttoned shirts look restlessly away from the camera. Behind us loom those who had the brave vision to build this temple, to cross the vast Pacific in the first place.

They settled in a place that looked much like their beloved but impoverished homeland, planting the broad sun-drenched valleys with the same crops they had grown in Punjab. The community was small in those years. When immigration laws loosened, many of the men brought brides from India. Those young families, my own among them, attended services at the gurdwara for ordinary and major celebrations, like the births of the gurus who established Sikhism beginning in the 15th century. Whenever we arrived, I would stand at the entrance, just inside the wall that surrounded the complex, looking up at the arch that soared above the doors. Looking back now, I imagine that wall must have made our comings and goings even more mysterious to the white residents along Grant Street.

In Oak Creek, Wis., this past Sunday, a gunman with ties to the white power movement entered a gurdwara and shot to death six Sikh worshipers. We know little about his motives, but presumably he saw the temple as a frightening symbol of otherness. But as I watched the images of the shooting on television, I saw the faces of my own brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, contorted with terror. It was the children who first spread the word of the attack, running into the kitchen, where women were preparing langar — the communal vegetarian meal of dal, yogurt and roti that is a staple of Sikh services.

Immigration quotas

In the mid-60s, when America’s immigration quotas were raised, a new wave of Punjabi immigrants flooded into California. My family had moved to a small town north of Sacramento by then. We travelled in caravans to the San Francisco airport to collect relatives weary from the long flight, bewildered by this fast new world. I gave up my bed for weeks at a time to cousins whom I’d never met. And new gurdwaras were built, their onion domes floating improbably in the skyline.

On Saturday nights, when my white girlfriends were off to the movies on dates, I drove my mother to the nearby gurdwara for quiet evening services. I would roll my eyes as I changed out of my jeans into a salwar kameez outfit that I prayed no one but my Indian friends would witness me wearing. But I can recall very clearly the comfort of having my mother sitting beside me during the service, her bowed head draped in a white veil, the feeling of peace that washed over me when the hymns and chanting began.

Eventually I left, in pursuit of an education and in hopes of shoring up my sense of who I was and wanted to be. I drove eagerly into an outside world that told me my possibilities were limitless. And I married outside the Sikh community, causing a painful breach with my parents that had just begun to heal when they passed away. But when they reached out to me at last, I understood that I still belonged to the community, always had.

The Sikh communities in California have flourished over the years. When I visit home now I am impressed by how comfortable the new generation seems in this country, whether they are developing advanced medical therapies for patients or dancing late into the night to bhangra beats. They have chosen to preserve their heritage while moving forward in the world.

But people still sometimes ask me, why can’t they assimilate more? Dress like us. Talk like us. Perhaps, some seem to believe, that would prevent the sort of tragedy that happened in Wisconsin.

I never have an easy answer. But I do know this: to wipe away what has come before, who we have been over the centuries, also means to forget who our own mothers and fathers were. It means that how they conducted their lives — the families they raised, the homes they built — didn’t matter. It denies us that basic human impulse, to remember their stories, the unique timbre of their voices. It would be as if they had never existed at all.

(The writer is the author of the novel “Under the Lemon Trees”)

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