October 31, 2020

Dastaar

(c) J.Singh, 2018

“I dunno,” Harmeet Singh looked at himself in the mirror with a considerable measure of doubt. The image before him didn’t seem to be his own, the turban and the full beard seemed somehow alien, something removed from his personal identity. It almost felt as if this generic image had subsumed his real self, which was lost somewhere, drowning as it gasped for breath.

“Come on dude. You’re nineteen, just chill,” his roommate, Rahul casually remarked. He was lying on his bed in their shared dormitory room, lazily flipping through the pages of the latest Sports Illustrated magazine.

“Hmm,” Harmeet barely heard Rahul’s words as he kept staring at himself. Who was he looking at? It looked like someone else, not him. Not the guy he knew he was inside. Now the guy he felt like.

Harmeet had grown up with strict parents. At home, rules were to be followed without question. Asking “why?” in response to a paternal injunction was a cardinal sin. Everyone in the house feared the wrath of Harmeets father. All the family members would do whatever it took to avoid being subjected to the angry outbursts, the shouting, and the emotionally draining guilt trips. Thus, many topics were never discussed, including anything to do with religion. Harmeet learned that lesson early on, when, as a six-year old, he innocently asked why they didn’t cut their hair. After all, most of his friends in school had haircuts, so (his six-year old mind reasoned), haircuts couldn’t be so bad after all, could they? And, keeping such long hair was quite cumbersome and difficult to manage (not to mention all the teasing he had to endure from the other students in the school). Harmeet never forgot the rage of his father when he asked that question at the dinner table.

“Why can’t we cut our hair, mama?” the six-year old Harmeet had asked in his soft voice. “Jonah does get hair-cuts, and also Trevor. Even Jessica. All the kids make fun of me and laugh at me and call me a girl.”

His mother stopped eating, got very quiet, and slowly set her fork on the plate. His older sister stared at him, wide-eyed. This was the calm before the storm. Harmeet didn’t remember much of what was spoken (or rather, shouted), but the imagery was burned into his mind for eternity. His father had become livid with anger. He remembered his bulging eyes, his face red as he reacted to this latest affront from his wretched child. He remembered the loud, thunderous shouting, and feeling very small and scared. He remembered hot tears streaming freely down his face as he sought protection in his mother’s lap, trying to hide away from the intense verbal lashing that he was being subjected to. No dinner for him that night. He went to bed hungry, hunger pangs gnawing at him, while he trembled in fear, unable to process or understand what had brought about such an intense reaction and such negatively charged emotion upon his tiny little body. He vowed never to ask any questions that might result in a similar onslaught. From then on, his priority became self-preservation at all costs.

Over the years, he became an expert at keeping his father satisfied, whether that meant skirting the truth, being silent, burying his own feelings, or even outright lying. He would do anything to escape those wrathful outbursts. For the most part, he was successful. Even so, every now and then something would happen that was out of Harmeets control, and his father would launch into a verbal attack against him. In these situations, he had learned (with much practice) to hunker down as in a storm, and wait for the verbal lashing to pass. When it was over, his father would return to his normal self, and continue as if nothing had happened, often wondering why everyone seemed to be so reticent around him.

Now, having just completed his first semester at college, Harmeet was preparing to return home for the break. He had enjoyed his first taste of freedom, living by himself in the dorms with Rahul as his roommate. More than anything else, it was a welcome reprieve from the constant fear of his father’s outbursts. He felt that he could finally breathe, and relax, and just be himself. He didn’t have to have his guard up all the time, wondering if the next moment would be another round of angry shouting and accusations. He didn’t have to walk on eggshells.

When Rahul’s parents had come to drop him off in the dorm, Harmeet had watched in awe as they laughed and smiled and joked with each other. Who jokes with their Dad? he had wondered, watching their interaction with intense curiosity and wonder. Rahul’s Dad seemed very warm and approachable. He even sat down with Harmeet and talked with him for a while. He asked him what his major was (Computer Engineering), and what he wanted to pursue as his life’s vocation after graduating. The whole conversation lasted less than five minutes, but Harmeet felt like he had had a more meaningful conversation with Rahul’s Dad in those few minutes than he had ever had with his own father his whole life.

He wasn’t sure if he particularly cherished the idea of returning home for the entire break, which was several weeks long. He was eager to see his mother and sister again, but as the date got closer and closer, he realized that he had a growing apprehension about seeing his father. It was an unsettling feeling that he had never experienced before, and he wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it.

“Hey Rahul let me ask you something,” he said, turning around to face Rahul. “When you think of me, is this what you picture? This guy?”

He gestured to his beard and turban. Rahul glanced over at him, then turned back to his magazine.

“Doesn’t really matter, it’s still you, Harmeet,” Rahul replied, a tinge of impatience in his voice.

“Yea, but, I mean...I don’t feel like this, you know? It seems like it’s not me. This look, I mean,” Harmeet struggled for words.

“What look do you feel like, then?”

Harmeet shrugged. “I dunno.”

“Mr. Bollywood hero?” Rahul joked. “Shah Rukh Khan!”

“No!” Harmeet said emphatically, but his emotions were mixed. A part of him wondered that maybe he was being held back from advancement in social circles because he had to wear this religiously mandated garb.

“Hollywood then? Tom Cruise!”

“Come on,” Harmeet tried to steer the conversation back to a more serious note.

Sensing his frustration, Rahul sat up in his bed and looked him squarely in the eye.

“Look, yaar,” he said in a firm, but empathic tone. “Your look is something to be proud of. You don’t have to try to change yourself to please society.”

Harmeet bristled at those words.

“I don’t do anything to please people!” he retorted, “this is for me! For how I feel inside.”

Rahul sighed, looking down at the faded blue carpet on the floor for a moment. Then, he dug into his pocket and pulled out his iPhone.

“Here,” he said, “let me show you something.”

He tapped on the YouTube app, and searched for a video. When it started playing, he turned the phone around and showed the screen to Harmeet.

The video showed bleak scenes of despair - there were thousands upon thousands of people, entire families with small children, infants, and the very aged. All appeared to be displaced from their homes. Many were walking carrying sacks full of personal belongings, others had only the clothes on their backs. They were hungry and thirsty, exhausted from their long trek. It seemed like an altogether desperate situation for these unfortunate people.

“What is this?” Harmeet asked, puzzled.

“Refugees. They are fleeing persecution,” Rahul explained, “they crossed the border to escape the death squads. They have their lives, but nothing else, nowhere to go, no place to sleep, no jobs, no food. It was a humanitarian crisis, you don’t remember it? This video was taken a year ago.”

Harmeet shook his head. He was not in the habit of watching the news, and he had never read or heard about this crisis. Even if it had been on the news, it had escaped his attention.

The camera of the video panned left to show seemingly endless lines of refugees slowly walking towards the treelines where they may be some hope of shelter under the canopy of trees. The faces of the refugees betrayed their despair, it showed in stark contrast their hunger and their dry and cracked lips, not having had any food or water for days.

“Why are you showing me this?” Harmeet felt a surge of impatience mixed with anger.

“Just wait,” Rahul replied, “Watch.”

The camera panned right, towards the trees, and zoomed in right there at the edge, where the lines of refugees were coalescing. There, a group of children stood in a circle around one man, who held a large water bottle in his hand, and was hurriedly rushing from person to person, giving them a drink of clean water before moving on to the next person. This man was tall and well-built, had a long, flowing black beard, and wore a navy blue turban. A bit further behind him were three other men, similarly dressed, who had set up a makeshift kitchen with large pots that were positioned above open fires, while they chopped vegetables and prepared meals for the refugees. On the other side, another man in a turban was handing out blankets and directing the new arrivals where they may sit and rest while they waited for food and shelter.

Harmeet watched in silence. He realized that these volunteers were Sikhs who had served to provide aid to the refugees.

When the video was over, Rahul spoke in a quiet voice.

“That look which you find so inconvenient, is the look of a savior to all those refugees. By last count, I think they said it was three hundred and fifty thousand refugees in total that were displaced. While the international community had done nothing for these poor people, these Sikhs had quickly gone to the border, set up the camps for the refugee’s, and started giving them aid. They were the only ones these providing this aid. This is not the only time that Sikhs have stepped up like this to serve humanity. They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. As long as I can remember, anyway. That’s why everyone knows that if they see a Sikh, if they see the Sikh turban and the beard, they know they can rely on them for help, for aid, for assistance.”

Harmeet snorted. He had heard the philosophy and all the stories from his mother before.

“Yea,” he replied, “Sure they can. But how many of these kinds of guys are there? I’ll bet it was just a handful and most people are out drinking and partying, not lifting a finger to help. The real test is not in how you look, it’s what you are inside! I don’t have to wear a certain appearance to prove it.”

“Okay,” Rahul sighed, “Suit yourself.”

***

Harmeet stared up at the large LCD screen before him, scanning all the lines to find his flight departure time. He had already checked in, and now he just had to make his way to the departure gate and board his flight. He found his flight number, and sighed when he saw the status in blinking capital letters: Delayed. He would have to wait for an extra hour and thirty minutes.

“So much for getting to the airport on time,” he thought to himself as he plopped down onto a chair. He wondered how he should spend the extra time. Maybe he could while it away browsing the through the merchandise in the airport stores. They always had such interesting and unique items in the gift shops.

Just as he stood up to lift his bag, a short woman in a saree approached him. A small child of four or five years old hid behind her shyly and peeked out with inquisitive eyes.

“Excuse please,” she spoke in a thick Indian accent, “Bhaiya?

Harmeet was taken aback. She was standing right in front of him, too close for comfort. He felt like taking a step back to reclaim his personal space, but he was already backed up against the chair and had nowhere to go.

“Um, yes?” he asked awkwardly.

Bhaiya, hamari madhat keejiye, humko maalum nahi kya karay,” she pressed the palms of her hands together in supplication before him.

Harmeet did not know Hindi, and only understood a smattering of his mother tongue, Panjabi. He wondered what this woman was trying to convey to him. It seemed that she was requesting some kind of help. He scanned the area for an information desk, or any airport personnel who might be able to help her, but he didn’t see anyone.

“I don’t understand, sorry,” he said, shrugging, and lifted his back onto his right shoulder. She stood staring at him with her hands clasped before her.

Humko maalum nahi kya jaaye. India jaata hai, lekin kahan pei? Kabhi? Havai jahaj jaatay hai, nahi?

Harmeet grimaced. This was awkward and making him uncomfortable. He wasn’t accustomed to complete strangers coming up to him like this. He just wanted to turn around and walk away, but he couldn’t just leave her here like this, all alone, imploring him for help.

“Can you speak English?” he asked.

Nahi, humko Angrezi nahi aati, Bhaiya, yeh hamara kagaz hai,” she reached into an old cloth bag she was carrying and handed him passports and boarding passes.

He couldn’t believe that she was handing him, a complete stranger, such important documents. Then, suddenly, without warning, he felt a crushing emotion that almost brought him to tears. It came on so suddenly and wish such force that he was not prepared for it. In the blink of an eye, his entire perspective changed.

For perhaps the first time, he saw the person standing in front of him, not as some random stranger, but as a human being in need, someone who had specifically sought him out, and who (for some reason that he couldn’t fathom) trusted him enough to hand her most important travel documents to. She couldn’t speak the language and was stuck in a foreign place, she was bewildered and had her small child with her, and was trying the best she could to deal with the situation. He couldn’t help but wonder, what if it had been him in a similar situation, and he had asked for help, and nobody had cared enough to help him. And it was doubtful that the gate agents or the airport personnel would have enough knowledge of Hindi to be able to communicate with her.

A feeling of responsibility overcame him. He felt an intense pang of guilt for how callous he had been, and he resolved that he would do whatever he could to help her. After all, he had the time. His flight was delayed and he wasn’t going anywhere soon.

He nodded to her and looked at her passport and her child’s passport. Both were Indian citizens. The boarding passes were for flight number 1723, Air India, departing for Delhi. Seat 12A and 12B. Luggage tags were attached to the back of her boarding pass. Everything seemed to be in order.

Kahan peh jaiye?” she asked him.

He glanced at the boarding pass again. Boarding time was 12:30 PM. Then, his heart skipped a beat. He looked at his wristwatch, it was already 12:39 PM.

“You have to go, your flight is boarding right now!” he said with an urgency in his voice.

From the puzzled look on her face, it was clear that she didn’t understand him. He looked around, they were standing near Gate C9. But her flight was departing from Gate H24.

It was very far away.

“Plane!” Harmeet made motion of a plane taking off with his hand. “It’s going to take off in a few minutes! We have to run!”

She understood. “Havai jahaaz! Udta hai kya?

“Yes, hanji, yes, now! Abhi, right now!” he motioned to her as he started running. She scooped up her child in her arms and followed him.

As they ran through the wide hallway, he made a rough calculation in his mind. The boarding pass indicated that the flight departure time was 1:00 PM. He knew that the cabin doors were usually closed fifteen minutes before scheduled departure time. They still had a lot of ground to cover before reaching Gate H24. A quick glance at his watch revealed that it was now 12:42 PM. It didn’t look like they were going to make it.

He began to get tired. He was sweating and out of breath.  But he didn’t stop. They kept running through all of the C gates and were now in the main hub, which spread out into all the other gates. H gates were to their left. They took off in that direction. He dared not look at his watch, he feared they were already too late.

Then, without warning, he began to feel something inside him. A feeling, a sensation that he had never felt in his entire life. It started in the middle of his chest, and felt like a soft warm glow. At first he thought it was due to all the running. But it was not that. It was something else entirely. That glow gave off a comforting warmth, which slowly spread across his chest and up and down his torso. He felt it in his shoulders, and arms. It spread to his neck and into his face, and up into his head. And it exploded out of the top of his head like something that cannot be contained or hidden. It was the strangest sensation that he had ever experienced. He didn’t know what to make of it, what to think of it, or whether he should be concerned about it. All his focus was on getting to H24 on time.

They passed one of those electric buggies for in-terminal passenger transport. Harmeet swung around and waved to the driver.

“We need to get to Gate H24,” he explained, gasping for breath, “her flight is about to take off. Can you get us there?”

“Cuttin’ it a bit close ain’t ya?” the driver admonished Harmeet, before nodding and saying “Hop on!”

They all climbed onto the leather seats while the driver zipped through the terminal as fast as he could in the little electric buggy, beeping the horn for everyone to clear the way as they drove through.

Harmeet eventually caught his breath, and wiped the sweat off his face with his sleeve. But it was 12:52 PM. He feared that the plane had already left the gate.

“Gate H24!” announced the driver as he slowed the buggy and came to a gentle stop.

They jumped off and immediately went to the gate. Harmeet saw that the boarding area was completely empty, but the door was still open. Four uniformed ground crew were standing by the door, smiling as they approached.

“Oh thank God!” Harmeet felt waves of relief wash over him. “You didn’t leave yet.”

He was met with cool, professional smiles from the airline crew.

“We held it open for you,” one of them informed him.

“Oh thank you!”

They promptly scanned the boarding passes, and then it was time for the woman and her child to leave. She turned to him, smiling with gratitude.

Humra shukrian hai, aap ka,” she said, clasping her hands again.

Harmeet shook his head. “It’s ok, no problem,” he said. He felt satisfied, fulfilled, as if he had accomplished something huge. But he couldn’t quite place his finger on where this feeling was coming from.

She bent down to touch his feet with her hands. He quickly stopped her.

“No need for that,” he said, “I’m just a guy.”

“Aap ji hamra madhat kiya hai, aap ki meherbani hai. Aap ji ka lakh lakh pranam, Sardarji!”

And then she turned and walked with her child onto the jetway to board her flight.

Harmeet stood for a long while in that spot, long after the doors had been closed and the ground crew had dispersed. Alone with his thoughts, he wondered at what he had just experienced. His mind was filled with so many questions. Why had the woman chosen him? What had made him want to help her so much? What were all these feelings that he had never experienced before? And why was he feeling so fulfilled at having helped a total stranger? What was going on with him? He was as confused as ever, but this time, he had specific questions, and a compelling experience that would drive him on his quest to search for answers.

Quietly, amidst the sounds of aircraft taking off, the periodic announcements over the airport speakers, and the general din of passengers, he began walking slowly back to his departure gate.

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