A short animation film, ‘American Sikh’ captures 40 years of my life story in under nine minutes. It starts with the massacre of Sikhs in India in 1984, which I survived with my family, and ends with my ‘Captain America’ alter-ego. It has been a wild ride in my patka and turban.
The first time I went out on the streets of America with a turban was right after I had moved back to the land of my birth after Class XII from India. I landed in Los Angeles but I did not experience the warm welcome I hoped I would get. Strangers called me derogatory names. Some laughed in my face.
Second year in college, I took off my turban and cut off my long, unshorn hair for the first time in my life. It was a profound moment. I still remember the name of the barber who cut my hair. I did not tell my parents until days later.
In the midst of this identity crisis, I distanced myself from my culture and heritage. I spent almost 10 years trying to find my place in America. Books became my companions. I travelled across time with the words in these books. Eventually, I fell in love with the story of Gautama Buddha through Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’. I read about Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. For the first time in my life, I opened up to spirituality.
By this time, I was in graduate school at University of California in Berkeley. My brother was living not far from the university. He was deeply into his Sikhi journey. He asked me multiple times to go to the gurdwara with him. I refused until one day I agreed to join him to listen to Asa-Di-Vaar kirtan at a gurdwara on a beautiful hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay area. I went a few more times and started enjoying listening to kirtan. Eventually, I fell in love with kirtan. I did not understand every word but I felt a connection that tasted like bliss. I decided to live Sikhi for the first time in my life.
Three years later, I moved to the east coast, living and working just north of New York City. For the first time in 10 years, I donned a turban in August 2001. A month later, the tragedy of 9/11 unfolded. Within hours, Sikhs were being attacked in a rage of anger, ignorance, intolerance, bigotry and hate.
I worked from home for two weeks before stepping out. Out on streets, fellow Americans took liberty to call me names, show me the middle finger. I have been called ‘Osama bin Laden’ countless times. Americans have told me to ‘go back home’ for the last 20-plus years. Some Sikhs have been killed, many hurt and abused in post-9/11 America.
A few weeks after 9/11, I saw an animated editorial cartoon capturing the predicament of Sikhs as targets of hate and intolerance. This was the spark that inspired me to start creating cartoons with Sikh characters in turbans and beards, which I called Sikhtoons. All the abuse and hate that was hurled my way, I channelled into my art.
In 2011, after seeing a poster for the Marvel blockbuster ‘Captain America’, I created a new version of the American superhero in a turban and beard. A Jewish Brazilian-American photographer, Fiona Aboud, working on a photo essay on Sikhs in response to the poster, asked me to dress up as ‘Captain America’ for a photoshoot. I refused. I did not want to stand out any more than I already did.
Almost a year later, Fiona finally convinced me to step out on the streets of New York City dressed as ‘Captain America’. It turned out to be one of the most amazing days of my life. Americans treated me not only as one of their own but like a hero, a celebrity. Hundreds photographed me, some hugged me and one even invited me to their wedding party.
This photoshoot once again changed my life. A few years later, I gave up my engineering job to become a full-time storyteller, public speaker, performance artist and, now, a filmmaker. Young and old Americans, who at a mere glance might appear to have nothing in common with me, find connections across my story. This is why Ryan Westra, a young filmmaker based in California who first created a live action documentary about my ‘Captain America’ alter-ego almost 10 years ago, wanted to tell my story.
Wearing the turban and sporting a beard has been a challenge in the face of ignorance and intolerance. But I have learned a very important lesson from life. Do not change yourself because of someone else’s perceptions about you. Change only to become a better version of yourself. There will be ups and downs. Being a genuine and authentic Sikh means to be a perpetual learner. To learn from one’s mistakes. To reflect on one’s vulnerabilities. To innovate. ‘American Sikh’ is founded on this universal and inclusive spirit.
— The writer’s film is Oscar qualified in the Best Animated Shorts category
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