Harold Jaffe’s Dispatches from India – December 10, 2015


He sat next to me in the densely crowded Delhi airport terminal.
I was reading with some irritation a typically over-ornamented
Thomas Mann long short story.
I smelled him before I saw him–a curious odor–stale, dry, camphor-
As though he just retrieved his garments from a lenghty seclusion in
the closet.
He sat to my left and I partially turned to him.

He was a Sikh, with the traces of a black-grey beard, a big man
wearing a black turban and steel bracelet, 2 of the so-called 5 Ks
enjoined on all Sikh males.
In Punjabi the 5 Ks are Kesh, Kanga, Kara, Kachhera, Kirpan.
Which is to say: uncut hair and beard, wooden comb, steel bracelet,
cotton underwear reflective of modesty, and a small sword to be
used solely in self-defence and in protection of the needy.
The turban is to keep the uncut hair in place.
The camphor odor appeared to issue from the turban.

I conceived the ensuing narrative almost at once.
What else do you do in the chaotic Delhi airport, the tedious but
refined Hun,Thomas Mann, on your lap and virtually everyone
shouting into his/her smartphone?

In 1984 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, prideful Nehru’s prideful
daughter, was shot to death by two of her trusted Sikh guards.
In the bloody aftermath, Hindu supporters of Indira Gandhi brutally
murdered up to 12,000 Sikhs, in many instances amputating their
legs, then burning them alive.

The immediate reason for Gandhi’s assassination was her violent
response to a Sikh seccession initiative in the Punjab area in
northwest India.
Specifically, the Indian army’s so-called Operation Blue Star, in June
1984, when they assaulted and badly damaged the sanctified
Golden Temple in the sacred Sikh city of Amritsar.

Many Sikhs felt and currently feel that they occupy an anomalous,
unrespected position in India, especially among the Hindu majority,
but also among the Muslims.
On the other hand Sikhs are India’s principal warriors who have long
been depended on to lead wars against Pakistan, Afghanistan, and
in Jammu-Kashmir.
During the Raj they served as colonizing Britain’s chief defenders of
the faith.

In the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the large scale
Hindu bloodletting, Sikhs went into hiding and/or disguised
themselves, especially the males, many of whom shaved their hair
and beards.
I remember travelling in western Europe in the late eighties and
meeting Sikhs, especially restaurant owners and workers, who were
unidentifable but for their steel bracelet, which represents their
unbreakable bond with God.

It is thirty years after the assassination, the Sikhs have still not
seceeded, but the history of the assassination and its long bloody
aftermath have become a kind of archeology.
Which is the way it happens.
Sikh males are regrowing their hair and beard and removing their
turban from its storage area in the closet.