October 31, 2020

Kes

(c) J.Singh, 2018

Awan Becenti turned his teary eyes up to his mother.

“Mama, please,” he begged, as he tugged on her hand. But she stood resolutely in the middle of the sidewalk, her feet firmly planted on the ground.

Please!” he implored her, attempting to get her to move again. But she would not budge. “Mama! Please! You don’t know what they say to me, what they do to me in school. Even the teachers are threatening to throw me out. Please, Mama, I don’t want to have this burden, I just want to be able to go to school and learn and study in peace.”

Meda looked down at her child with sadness in her eyes. Her heart was broken at his entreaties, and for what he was asking. She gently touched his long, flowing hair. Then, she knelt down on the ground in front of him and looked him in the eyes.

“My beautiful son,” she said, her voice filled with her deep love for him and the pain in her heart. “Your hair is a sacred gift from the Great Mystery. It is our way now as it was before, to honor and respect the divine gifts from the Creator.”

Awan lowered his eyes. He was silent, but his face betrayed the conflict that was raging inside him. Finally, he burst out, “I can’t! It’s too difficult! I just want to go to school and be normal like the other kids! I don’t want to be teased and bullied and picked on every day.”

He fell into his mother’s arms, sobbing. Meda held her son in a loving embrace, opening her heart and sending him all her love as she closed her eyes tightly and silent tears escaped. They stayed like that for many minutes outside the barber shop. But they didn’t go in. Instead, they went home. There was no haircut for Awan that day.

Awan slept in the car on the ride home. He had been completely drained and emotionally exhausted. As she drove, Meda’s mind raced. What could she do? She had already tried speaking with the school teachers and the principal, who had assured her that they would correct any wrongdoing or inappropriate behavior. But the harassment and bullying just continued. She had even visited Awan’s class and given a talk about Native American culture, beliefs and practices. But nothing seemed to be working. And each day, Awan was suffering more and more. In moments of desperation and weakness, she entertained the thought of letting him get a haircut. At least the bullying would stop. But then another part of her realized that it was too great a price to pay for peace. Awan’s hair had been growing since he was a baby, it was a decision that she had made with his father when Awan was born, to honor their heritage and beliefs. And then, Awan’s father had been tragically killed in an accident at work, and she had been left to raise Awan alone. She never remarried. She always held the memory of Awans father in her heart and bravely raised the boy alone. She did have the support of her brother, Dyami, who always made himself available for anything she needed. But she never asked him for money, she found work and earned her income. She was fiercely independent and wanted to teach Awan the value of hard work.

She pulled into her driveway and sat in the driver’s seat for a moment. Looking in the rear-view mirror, she saw Awan sleeping on the back seat. He looked so peaceful when in the dream world, and yet he was in so much turmoil. And all because of the long hair. She didn’t blame him for wanting to get rid of it. His young mind reasoned that if he cut his hair, the taunts and bullying would stop. What he hadn’t learned yet was that the hair was just an excuse. If he cut his hair, the bullies would just pick on something else to torture him with, and next time, it might not be something he could so easily discard.

Meda finally allowed emotion to overwhelm her and she cried for the pain her beautiful child was experiencing.

“Oh Great Spirit,” she whispered, “whose voice I hear in the wind, whose breath gives life to all the world. Hear me! I need your strength and wisdom.”

In silence she uttered her prayer. The only sound she could hear was Awan’s breathing as he slept. Moments passed, and Meda sat with eyes closed, her focus on her prayer.

And then her phone buzzed. She pulled it out of her purse and answered it.

“Hey,” it was Dyami. She felt so relieved and comforted to hear his voice. He immediately sensed that something was wrong.

“What’s going on, Meda?” he asked, concerned.

She told him about what had happened outside the barber shop, about the school, the teachers, and how Awan was feeling. Dyami listened to everything she had to say, and then said, “Meda, I will come this evening. We will go somewhere. There are some people I want Awan to meet.”

***

The light was just beginning to fade, giving way to the dusk, when Dyami arrived at Meda’s doorstep and rang the bell. Awan went running to open the door, excited that Uncle Dyami had come to visit.

Meda smiled with joy when she saw Awan happy and excited, his young face filled with elation as Dyami leaned down and scooped him up in his arms.

“Thank you for coming,” said Meda as she hugged Dyami. “He’s so happy to see you.”

“Of course,” Dyami smiled, “anything for my favorite nephew!”

Awan wanted to play, so Dyami spent some time pretending to be a dinosaur, then a lion, then a horse, as they ran around through the living room and kitchen. And then, it was time to go.

“Where are we going?” asked Awan out of curiosity, after they had all climbed into Dyami’s SUV.

“Somewhere special,” Dyami replied, “And I think it is no coincidence that they are having their celebrations on this day.”

They drove to the outskirts of town, and turned just before the exit for the main highway. There were wide open spaces here, no shopping centers, no industrial buildings, just nature.

A few more miles along one of the smaller roads, and then Dyami turned into a long and winding gravel driveway. Awan looked out of the window in curiosity.

“I’ve never been to this place before,” he said to Dyami.

“I think you’re going to like it,” Dyami replied with a smile.

They reached a large, open parking lot, where there were already several vehicles parked. Dyami pulled into one of the open spaces, and they all got out and headed for the main building, which loomed large in the darkness. The warm glow of lights from insight beckoned to them. The faint sound of music and singing could be heard.

“Is it a temple?” Meda asked Dyami, as they walked towards the entrance.

Dyami nodded. “In a manner of speaking,” he answered.

At the main entrance, there were many rows of stacked shoe-racks. On one side was a table with boxes of head coverings in a variety of colors that looked similar to bandana’s. A small sink stood innocuously to one side of the main doors.  After removing their shoes and washing their hands, Dyami picked up an orange bandana and with a practised hand, put it on. He helped tie a black one on Awan’s head. Meda picked a white one to match the color of her clothes.

“We’re ready to go in,” said Dyami, and he led the way inside.

Beyond the main doors, it was a spectacular sight to behold. They entered into a great hall of sorts, with a high ceiling decorated with many sparkling chandeliers, which cast a warm, inviting light over the entire hall. There were no chairs or tables in the great hall, and everyone was seated on the soft beige carpet, the women on the left side of the center aisle, the men on the right. In the center aisle, a long red carpet runner with an elaborate design led to the front of the hall, right up to an exquisite stage the likes of which Awan had never seen before. Embroidered material of fine silk was draped over the main table on the stage, and was surrounded in the front by what appeared to be weapons and round shields. Swords, spears, and kirpans decorated the main stage. Covering the stage from above was a canopy which was equally elaborate in design, and it had some words embroidered on the front in a script and language that Awan had did not understand. Two men attended to the stage. An old man with a long white beard and matching turban, and standing behind him, a much younger man. The old man sat behind the object of veneration, eyes closed and deep in meditation. The younger man reverently waved what looked like a fly-whisk over whatever was covered in those deep blue silks.

To the left of the main stage was another, much smaller platform. Here, three musicians were seated, playing instruments and singing a deeply soulful melody. The sounds of their voices and the music they were playing filled the great hall with a resonance and energy that felt uplifting and hopeful and light.

Awan and Meda followed Dyami’s lead as he walked up to the front, hands clasped in front of him, knelt on the floor, and bowed down, his forehead touching the ground. He placed a dollar bill in the offering box, and then took a seat among the group of men. Awan sat next to him, while Meda sat just across the aisle opposite them.

It was an entirely new experience for Awan. He looked at the sea of vibrant color that surrounded him and he delighted in it. Subtle hues of pink, yellow, saffron, blue, and green. Dresses and elaborate designs that he had never seen. And turbans. Almost of all the men, and some of the women, were wearing turbans of different styles and colors. He was fascinated by it all.

After the service was over, Dyami introduced Meda and Awan to some of the members of the congregation. They smiled warmly and welcomed them to the Gurdwara. And then immediately offered them a hot vegetarian meal. The langar hall was adjacent to the main hall. There, like in the main hall, everyone sat on the floor.

Awan was finishing up his meal when he heard the beat of the drum. It sounded like it was in the distance, but it quickly grew louder.

“What’s that?” he asked, turning to Dyami.

“It’s the sound of a battle drum, a nagada,” Dyami explained. “Do you want to see?”

Awan was curious. He nodded, “Yes.”

They deposited their used plates in the large kitchen where several volunteers were washing dishes and cleaning up, and then headed out of the langar hall and into another large hall. People were gathered in a large circle, in the center were two boys who were engaged in a duel with wooden swords and shields. Awan’s eyes grew wide as he watched the boys. They must have been no older than him.

They were moving quickly, swinging their wooden swords high above their heads in a long arc, bringing them down squarely against their opponent. They blocked these strikes with their shields, and then launched a counter-attack. The kept moving, running, jumping, and leaping. The thundering beat of the war drum made Awan’s heart pound faster. Someone shouted something, a slogan, and the entire group responded in unison. Awan felt electrified, goosebumps on his arms.

When the boys concluded their duel, they lowered their wooden swords, did a forearm handshake, and then embraced. Another pair replaced them. The new combatants were using the same round shields, but the swords were real, the sharp metal blades glistening under the bright lights.

Awan watched in awe as the boys twirled and spun in the air, landing their blows with force and accuracy. These were real weapons, and the danger was real. Yet these boys, hardly older than himself, were wielding them with an expertise and familiarity that they made it seem like a casual exercise.

After the demonstrations were over, Dyami introduced Awan to some of the boys who had been performing.

“You were great!” Awan beamed in delight as he met them. They smiled, but didn’t talk much about their proficiency with the weapons.

“We’re happy to see you here,” they said, “You’re welcome to visit anytime.”

Awan spent a while talking with them. He was fascinated by everything and asked a lot of questions. Dyami and Meda stood at a distance, giving Awan some space.

“I haven’t seen him this engaged in months,” she said to Dyami, “He’s not like this at his school at all. Thank you.”

Dyami smiled and nodded. “It’s good to see him finding his spark again.”

As they watched, one of the boys carefully unwrapped his turban in front of Awan, and his long hair tumbled down to his waist. He appeared to be explaining something. Awan’s eyes were wide with astonishment. He tied his hair in a knot atop his head, and then, within minutes, re-tied his turban with a practiced hand.

Dyami chucked in quiet satisfaction to himself.

“This is why you brought him here,” Meda said, realization dawning. “To teach him that he was not alone.”

Dyami motioned to the boys.

“These people are warriors,” he said, “just like our people. Awan needed to see that he is not alone. His hair is a sacred gift, as it for these people. Now, perhaps, he may have a different way of seeing things.”

Meda squeezed Dyami’s arm in gratitude, silent tears welling up in her eyes.

On the ride home, Awan was quiet. He stared out of the window for a long while without saying anything.

Finally, he asked Dyami a question. “Can we come visit this place again sometime?”

“Of course,” replied Dyami, “We can go anytime you wish. Did you make some friends?”

Awan nodded. “Yeah. The boy who showed me his hair, his name is Jagtar.”

“Nice name,” Dyami said casually.

Awan nodded. He appeared to be in thought.

“Jagtar is brave,” he said, still looking out the window, “he is not afraid of anything.”

Dyami nodded. “I can believe that.”

Awan turned to Meda.

“Mama,” he said.

“Yes, my son?” Meda looked at Awan tenderly.

“I wish to keep my hair long, like my ancestors,” he said quietly.

Tears of relief and joy streaming down her face, Meda nodded. “Yes honey,” she said, “Of course you can.”

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Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind, Whose breath gives life to all the world. Hear me; I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.

Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes towards me. Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.

Help me seek pure thoughts and act with the intention of helping others. Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me.

I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy, Myself. Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes.

So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.

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