The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 25, 2003

Meet the author
“Hard work & emotional intelligence helped Sikhs to succeed abroad”
Humra Quraishi

  Surjit Kaur
Surjit Kaur

I had met US-based Surjit Kaur at Khushwant Singh’s home on earlier occasions. There was something about her that struck me. She was vibrant, confident and forthcoming. She had no hesitation in telling me that she’d been a single mom to her only child Ranju and the fact that while writing this latest book — her fifth — she was battling breast cancer. But, then, Surjit has been a fighter and a survivor all her life, which has had more than its share of upheavals. She said that it was her faith that kept her going each time she faced a hurdle. Reading from Sikh scriptures provided the support she needed. This week when she came down for the release of her latest book, Amongst the Sikhs: Reaching for the Stars (Roli), Khushwant decided to hold the function for releasing the book at his home. It was a rare honour for Surjit Kaur. Excerpts from an interview with her:

You hold a doctorate in counselling from Washington State University and even work as a professional counsellor in Virginia. What made you think of writing this book on the Sikhs living in the US, Canada and the UK?

Though I had known Khushwant Singh even earlier, but it was around 1988 that I came in close contact with him. This happened when I helped him with his research for History of the Sikhs at the Wilson Centre. That was an experience in itself, an invaluable learning experience. And though I had earlier written four books but they were about counselling and various aspects of gender-related issues. And as the itch to write grew stronger, I thought of various topics and it was actually Khushwant Singh who suggested that I write on Sikhs settled abroad. I selected about 30 families who’d made it, in spite of the odds facing them.


Your book gives the impression that successful Sikhs are leading fairytale lives. Also, why didn’t you include the ones who couldn’t make it?

I wanted to focus on the success stories, but each one of the people I have talked about had to go through a period of intense struggle and hard work. When they landed in North America and England, an uncertain future stared them in the face. Sikhs came to foreign lands in search of opportunities and succeeded despite odds. Jobs were difficult to come by and neighbours regarded them with suspicion. Some gave up the outward symbols of their faith, others upheld their traditions, striving to overcome the prejudices of an alien people `85what really helped them was hard work and emotional intelligence, that is control of emotions and impulses.

In India it has become almost a rule that to be rich and successful you have to get close to politicians. Does this hold true for the USA as well?

In the US one doesn’t face such compulsions. Nobody has to suck up to political bosses to be successful but, yes, I would like to add that things have changed after September 11. Now anybody can be stopped and interrogated.

Does the concept of Khalistan still have a following among the Sikhs abroad?

The Khalistan movement has died down. Even though the Sikhs abroad still talk about discrimination against minorities in India and some are still bitter about the 1984 riots but they don’t really talk in terms of a separate homeland.

How do the Sikhs and the Pakistanis relate to each other abroad?

They are good friends. In fact, Sikhs and Pakistanis are even partners in business and the political problems between India and Pakistan have not affected their friendships. And at the place where I work as counsellor (the Centre for Multicultural Human Services in Falls Church), almost 50 per cent of the people who come to me for help and advice are Pakistanis. They call me baaji and I do try and reach out to families of South Asian descent.

What would say to a young Sikh who is in his early 20s and heading for America?

I would tell him that go ahead with a positive approach but be willing to go through a period of disappointment and difficulties. To get the first job is an ordeal and a big challenge.

You have gone through upheavals on personal and professional fronts. What has kept you going?

Religion. Whenever I went through tough times I read Sikh scriptures and got a lot of solace and strength to go on with life.

Don’t you think it is paradoxical that while Sikh teachings focus on simplicity, the lifestyles of the rich are far from simple?

Yes, you could say there’s a paradox. Sikhs are fun-loving people with the ‘eat and drink and be merry’ attitude but that could be that because of the geographical positioning of Punjab and its frequent invasions in yesteryear, which made them so very unsure of the next day.

Did you feel that it was easier for these well-known Sikh families to open up and talk to you about their days of struggle because you are also a Sikh?

Yes, maybe my being a Sikh helped. Also, don’t overlook the fact that I’m a professional counsellor and that helped me relate to people.