A Translated Hymn: Sunday in Gurdwara

By Puneet Dhaliwal

A boy no older than seven, an orange bandana wrapped around his little top-knot, gets up to help two men serve treats to close off the prayer. He walks alongside the narrow carpet separating men and women, and is greeted with various smiling turbaned men. After dutifully bowing his head by the Guru Granth Sahib, the 11th prophet of Sikhism, he returns to his mother. Her head is draped with a cyan scarf falling loosely over either side of her face. She smiles at the women around her, noticeably proud. She must be relieved that the new screens at the front of the room translate hymns from Punjabi to English, so her son will be able to understand his Sikh identity, and why he is the only boy at his class who has never had a haircut.

I sit among the women, with my hair shorter than I am used to. While my parents are not baptized Sikhs, meaning they don't follow all the rules: uncut hair, waking up with sunrise, meditating daily, wearing an iron bangle, and a small knife to symbolize strength, my only religious understanding stems from a Gurudwara — the Sikh temple.

A few turns off highway 405 at the Fairview exit lead to Warner St, where a small you-blink-and-you-miss it orange board announces the Sikh Center of Orange County. Car doors slam shut in the front parking lot as families head towards the small door leading into a hall. The men sit on the right side of the room, heads covered with bandanas unless they wear turbans, the traditional, orthodox Sikh head covering. Women sit on the left, every color featured in the scarves they have draped over their heads. While traditionally the salwar-kameez, would be their wardrobe staple, here in Santa Ana, California, it is reserved for weekly temple visits. The few women with bandanas around their heads rather than scarves are quick in their motions, seemingly trying to avoid attention — rather unsuccessfully. In a sea of turquoise, fuchsia, embroidered, sequined salwar kameez, denim and T-shirts grab the most attention.

I own a suitcase full of these clothes. They vary between those to be worn at the temple and other festive ones for weddings or parties. My recent years of religious independence have upset the balance. I hadn't gone to the temple since 9th grade, and I knew my mom gave up trying when she didn't come back from India with any casual, cotton salwar kameez for me. One time I drove my visiting grandparents to attend service. I asked my parents for directions, and my mom said, “It's right by South Coast Plaza." My dad laughed at the thought of the largest Nordstrom being my point of reference, but I don't think my grandmother was amused.

People in the hall sit cross-legged, except for the older attendees at the back of the room who are granted chairs for their surgery-treated knees. The crowd chants along with the three men playing tabla, harmonium, and singing hymns. The man playing the tabla initiates a beat. The harmonium player joins in, and the singer follows suit. It is hard to believe that only two instruments are being used, because of the echo in the room, the music has filled up the space and has people swing slightly with their hands folded and legs crossed. These hymns are projected on two screens at the front of the room, switching lyrics the way a karaoke screen does.

Around 11am every Sunday, SCOC organizes its busiest prayer ceremony. Anticipating over 400 attendees, it asks for $750 from those wanting to host langar. The purpose of langar being that any one of any age, caste, creed, or social class would cook together, dine and clean up together. The Sikh Center of Orange County finds this harder to accomplish. The small parking lot lays out the American Dream in the form of one luxury sedan parked next to another. While the temple remains open until 8 pm, due to limited attendance, there are no communal prayers past 3 pm. The hymns, too, have adjusted to the American 9-5 lifestyle.

The prayers start out slow. There is a rhythmic build up as the afternoon passes. The man at the tabla begins playing with more intensity, moving his hands across the surface, tapping his wrist, then his palms, then his fingers to create a variation in sound.

After the hymns finish, another man in a navy turban stands in the middle of the men and women, facing forward. He begins reciting the closing prayer into a microphone, announcing the family's name who has organized the day's service, for a birthday, wedding, death anniversary, or any occasion in between. A general increase in American/English names being announced, be it for birthdays or weddings, has made “Johnathan" or “Ashley" sound less foreign over the years. There is a rustling sound as everyone stands up. A room that held stationary occupants up to this point is suddenly full of movement. Women fix their scarves as they rise, children look around for their cue to follow suit, and parents of toddlers help them stand up. Then the man with the microphone thanks whoever organized the day's langar.

I think back to my first American langar. The three-course meal with three sides to pick from was a feast compared to lentils and flatbread. In India, someone would come around and walk along the rows of people seated on floor mats. I would stay seated hoping for seconds, or thirds. The upgraded menu offers variety, side salads, and desserts. I have never gone back to the self-service buffet for seconds at Warner Street.

A girl named Mehar runs over to the front of the prayer room, anticipating the sweet treat that will soon be distributed. Understandably so. Parshad is flour, butter, water, and sugar cooked until everything is blended to caramel colored concoction, designed to melt in your mouth. Even though napkins had been handed out, thanks to our seven-year-old volunteer, those in the back generally rub any butter that is left behind into their hands, as they are accustomed to doing so back home. Frequenters demonstrate their appreciation by offering new carpets, bouquets of flowers, lights. Charity has adjusted to the conversion rate and the American GNP.

I compare the plain yellow building to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. Named after its building material, the temple is surrounded by a fish pond, with a marbled footpath leading up to its entrance. Situated in each corner of the rectangular pond is a marbled building: the dining hall, showers (for those who wish to bathe in the pond), historical museum, and more prayer rooms. Like most temples in India, it offers a sizable income for the beggars lined up outside.

Born out of Guru Nanak Dev's distaste for social corruption such as the caste system, in the name of religious virtues, Sikhism originated a little over 300 years ago. Born in present-day Pakistan, Guru Nanak began transcribing a book of teachings. The 10th formally recognized Guru, Guru Gobind Singh continued the practice of adding his teachings to the book. Due to the country's state of unrest after Mughal invasion, he declared that the book would be the last entity to serve as the religious teacher. Today, Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, concentrated mostly in India's Northern States. After decades of fighting for a sovereign state, Sikhs have migrated all around the world, bringing the temples along.

Mehar, in bright pink leggings and a baby pink dress is seen again, this time running right along the parking lot. Guneet Kaur, her mother, asks her to come along to the serving line. They walk past an entrance to the “special ceremony hall," which remains empty awaiting a wedding. They approach a kiosk attached to the kitchen. A tall man with a black turban and beard greets them from the other side of a long shelf lined with a three-course meal, and fills a section of their divided Styrofoam plate with dal. The mother refuses the paneer for her daughter, and doubles up on the kadhi. She carries the rectangular plates to join her husband and son at a table then returns to get two disposable cups of chai. The meals are always vegetarian, in accordance to religious notions of purity, despite Punjab being home to most Indian meat dishes.

As Guneet and her husband, Gagandeep Singh are done instructing their kids to bow their heads and say thanks for the meal, Guneet's scarf has fallen off her head and she makes no qualms about adjusting it back into its position. Gagandeep's bandana had come off right as they left the prayer room, as they put their shoes back on and washed their hands. They realize these are liberties that an American temple allows. One in India would collect their shoes at the very front in exchange for head-coverings, and return them on the way out for the day. These reminders of being away from home are now only noticeable when they sit and think to notice them.

Gagandeep, a software engineer, moved to New Jersey from a Punjab 11 years ago, and began visiting a local Gurudwara there. After moving to the States, he soon cut his hair to assimilate and not have to answer constant questions regarding his uncut hair and beard. He moved to the post 9/11 America. He was chronologically and geographically much closer to negative stereotyping Sikhs faced due to mistaken Islamophobia, mistaking them for Muslims due to their turbans and full beards.

His mother did not speak to him for two weeks. She had trouble forgiving her son for ridding himself of his hair and shaving his beard, an integral part of Sikh identity. When his wife joined him in America two years later, her hair was also much longer than it is today. Often attributed to nature's intention, orthodox Sikhs leave all hair alone. Scientific theories, maintaining one's natural form, or asserting identity are often reasons stated. Unfortunate consequences of this assertive identity tie into bigotry and ignorance. Sikhs who claimed asylum during the 1984 religious persecution in India, now worry about the shift in American tolerance. When it comes to his son, Gagandeep is more concerned with him knowing the spiritual values rather than practicing abstinence from razors.

Guneet recalls being shocked at life in America, including the culture of American gurudwaras. SCOC, like most other temples in the country, celebrates most religious festivities on the weekend that follows. Like the Singh family, most parents are only able to bring their kids to worship on Sundays, if that. Guneet, who took up a job in finance after studying in California, views the routine-centered life in America as mechanic. Back home, she would visit the Gurudwara three days a week if she pleased, or sometimes not for weeks at a time, but here, they try to come every Sunday, schedule permitting, to bring her father-in-law so he can see his friends. For him, the temple offers what it would back home - community, a chance to discuss politics, offer his opinions, and keep up with the goings on about town.

Mr. Singh is a retired professor from Punjab. He lived a life busy with work and friends. Now, him and his wife watch TV, or their grandkids when the parents are away. Driving to SCOC, a decision that depends on their son or daughter-in-law is their only interaction with anything familiar outside of family.

My parents never skip a weekend if my grandparents are visiting. Sometimes I wonder why my grandparents don't just wait for us to go back to Punjab for holidays. Apart from visiting relatives, and the temple, nothing interests them here. Gorgeous California beaches, lavish shopping malls, cafes, or the oceanfront dining experience sparks no excitement. Instead, they fly over 8,000 miles and hope someone can carve out the time and give them that 30-minute ride once a week. Then they head back home, with some souvenirs and updated bragging rights of their son's American success.

There are many grandparents with their grandkids scattered around the hall. The two best represented age groups. There are hardly any teenagers. The few wandering out in the open space between the kitchen and the dining hall are quite literally neither here nor there. They don't necessarily have parents guiding them through every step, but most don't look convinced about the afternoon, either. They are old enough to arrange their own hair appointments, and the boys who have kept their hair, no longer have to deal with being called girls, the way they might have in elementary school.

Gagandeep's mother sits on a table with women her age. She talks about his hair as if it was another child she raised. She brushed it every day when he was young, then covered it with a small piece of fabric until he was old enough to iron and tie his own turban. They talk about going back home, to spend their days hanging out in front yards, picking mint leaves and chopping green beans, throwing the stems wherever seems convenient. They would visit their friends without arranging a good time to meet. They would gossip and inquire about goings-on around the village, word of mouth which travels through their servants working across homes. They talk about attending the temple back home — the same one where they prayed for their sons' American job offers.

Every time I have gone back to Punjab since moving to California, I have attended a wedding. Almost all those weddings have meant relocating to America, Canada, or Australia for either the bride or the groom. A Green Card or foreign visa being the selling point, is subject to a better match and sometimes even a higher dowry. Plagued by religious persecution, political corruption, falling agricultural prices, and most recently drug infestations, people of Punjab, especially those who identify as Sikh, are among the largest emigrant groups of India.

There are two racks just outside the prayer hall. One for shoes, and then one across it that serves as a small newsstand, offering Indian newspapers and magazines. As the dining hall empties out, some reach for these as they walk towards the lot.

The seva (Sikh belief in selfless service) for trash collection begins as food runs out. Two young men grab a large black trash bag each and go from one table to the next collecting used utensils, plates, cups, and napkins. It's all disposable. Dish washing seva is not the American way. Cooking, in fact, is also optional. Instead of the traditional volunteering to cook a simple two course meal, SCOC gives its visitors a sponsorship offer. Depending on the day of the week they would like to host a meal, they can deposit money to the office and their name will be announced at the service. There is a whiteboard to be used as a sign-up sheet, so everyone can see what days are available, and schedule their appointments accordingly.

By the end of lunch, around half the original attendees remain. There is conversation amongst some Hindu visitors over the impressive “free food for all." Though Gagandeep talks about the separated tables and sponsored meals taking away from the original purpose of a langar, a wider variety of the South Asian community is present than at a given temple in India. Occasional non-Indians will attend, upon an invite from an acquaintance. The festive gatherings, attract a crowd disregarding religion, nationality, or race. Regardless of what the faith stands for, comments over others “taking advantage" of the free food can be heard as attendees skip the prayer room altogether and head for the wide variety of food stalls that take up the parking lot during holiday fairs.

As the crowd makes its way towards the parking lot, there is some more chit-chat about things not being the same as they are in India. Vegetables don't taste the same here because they use too many chemicals. Things don't last as long because they are built to break down. Even if they break down, no one repairs anything because it is cheaper to replace them. Then some movies, politics, songs are discussed, and conversations fizzle out as they turn to the work-week lying ahead.

That's the general exit. A line forms to turn left on the street, and then there is a trail of vehicles making their way onto the 405. Some go north, others south. Some take food and treats home for those who couldn't attend.

Soon, turbans will be untied, exchanged for bandanas, or sometimes an uncovered head, depending on how the man pleases to dress while at home. Scarves will be hung up in closets, packed away for the next Indian gathering. Salwar-kameez will be exchanged for “western" lounge wear, put away in a separate pile of laundry, to be hand-washed or dry cleaned. Naps will be taken, to further recreate life back home. Then the week will begin and go on. Until Sunday, when these attendees reach out for a piece of home, and parshad, once again.