NEW YORK’S always bustling Times Square is a magnet for visitors and residents alike. The best way to feel it is on foot since that is when you hear the throbbing heart of Manhattan as you negotiate your way through a teeming mass of humanity.
It is also used by many to make a statement. One of them, some time ago, was a friend, Angad Singh, who had stayed with us in Chandigarh when he visited us five years ago. His friend Chris Canalis and he were making a film on sustainable development in Punjab, along with doing some humorous skits and teaching students at Akal Academy schools.
He is now a journalist. A year ago, he made news with a unique protest. Angad took the killing of Timothy Caughman, a black man, by a white racist, personally. He protested against the hate crime by tying his turban at Times Square in honour of Timothy Caughman. While tying it, he said: “I believe hate crimes come from ignorance, from fear. So I’m here in front of you to challenge that today. Every day when I put on my turban, I am putting myself in hate’s way.”
Sikhs wearing turbans have been victims of hate crimes, this writer included. The turban still reigns as an article of faith, as something to be worn with pride. The Sikhs of New York organised the Turban Day on Sunday. They tied over 8, 000 turbans in a few hours to raise awareness.
This was certainly something that was in short supply when I went to the Big Apple in the mid-1980s. The number of Sikhs was increasing, but turbaned individuals were far and few among the teeming masses that always throng Manhattan. The city took us all in its stride. The level of invisibility that was granted to you even if you wore a turban was tremendous, it really didn’t seem to matter what you wore on your head, or what the colour of your skin was, people let you be as you went about your business.
Old-timers would recall using the turban to great positive effect as they went around selling Encyclopaedia Britannica. An esoteric headgear, reminiscent of some of what maharajas wore, often saved you from being brushed off from the threshold as you went door to door, selling books to supplement your student allowance. Remember, this was the generation that landed in the US with $8! That’s what the Indian government allowed each individual to carry as foreign exchange.
As people got to know you better, their inquisitiveness grew. They were fascinated by the length of a turban and how it was wrapped around the head, only to be told, “You will have to know me a lot better before you find that out!” Most smiled, some got to know us better.
One day, driving from New York to St Louis with my family, my brother and I took turns at the wheel. Much into the night, as I pulled up at a gas station, a man walked up to me and said: “How are you, Mr Singh!”
“Great! How are you doing?”
“I know Singhs. Good people. My doctor is Mr Singh too,” said the stranger, who was no longer one, what with us having broken the ice — thanks to my turban.
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