J K Rowling's Sikh CharactersT. SHER SINGH
Saturday, September 29, 2012:
I remember the days -- I shudder to think how quickly the decades have gone by -- when we in Canada fought long and hard, and won, the right for Sikh-Canadians to serve in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (“RCMP”), and thus, in all its uniformed services, while observing the full tenets of the Sikh faith.
Baltej Singh Dhillon bore the brunt of the legal fight which went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as the public and media angle, all of which he handled with aplomb and finesse.
So, one fine morning, we had a police officer in our national police force in a turban and beard -- a handsome sight which dazzled a supportive nation.
And then … then, things soured in the minds of a handful of Sikhs, with post-partum predictability.
Through the whole struggle, the short-sighted amongst us had lost sight of the fact that we were fighting for the right to have Sikh-Canadians employed as the nation’s policemen (and policewomen, of course).
And what do policemen do? They uphold the law, investigate wrongdoings and apprehend criminals. And, if the courts agree with the evidence they gather, the scoundrels receive their just deserts.
Baltej Singh proved to be a top-notch policeman. He did his job well. And part of the job involved - given his language skills and cultural insights - tracking down, inter alia, Sikh-Canadians who had broken the law. Yes, we too have our fair share of law-breakers and they too deserve to feel the full force of the law.
That made the short-sighted amongst us bristle. Especially those who did not understand the workings of the law, or did not feel compelled to follow it. Were we going to have “our own Sikh policemen” help nab Sikhs?
Of course, we were.
If Baltej was to be a good police-officer, he was going to help nab and weed out law-breakers, and that would, of course, include Sikh-Canadian law-breakers.
It was a lesson in civic responsibility all new, transplanted communities need to learn, as they struggle with basic survival and growing pains, and we too did.
Now, it appears, some of our fellow Sikhs - another pocket of short-sighted souls - this time around in India, and the few who respond to them in knee-jerk reaction around the world, are ready for a similar lesson.
We are a miniscule minority. A mere 2% on the subcontinent where we have historically emanated. And in lesser percentages in all of the countries around the world where we have made our home. That is, a very small minority in the world.
We have been hankering for recognition. Rightly so. We have our distinctly different practices and beliefs and values, all of which we are very proud of … and rightly so. And the only way we can make progress along these lines is by educating others about who we are.
And that is a multi-pronged process. It involves the news media - newspapers, television, radio, internet. Then, there is social media. The movie industry - entertainment and documentary. Education. Government. Law enforcement.
Not mere text books, but the whole gamut of non-fiction writing.
And the world of fiction is arguably one of the most powerful, because it shapes our thinking, our attitudes, even our behaviour. Long-term.
We have been hankering for ages for attention and coverage for ages, and some of us have worked hard to make it happen.
Our challenges have been many.
First of all, in getting accurate stories, free from politically fed biases and propaganda from our detractors, some of whom are powerful, determined, mischievous and resourceful.
Then, the challenge has been to get writers within our own community to tell our stories.
Next: the challenge to get mainstream, non-Sikh writers to explore the same territory and to write about us in the mainstream literature.
Next: Once you achieve quantity, you turn to improving the quality.
We want to enter the public consciousness at the most effective and influential levels.
All of the above we as a community have been working towards, slowly and steadily.
And as in all other challenges we have had to face, we have achieved success in this field too.
We have top-notch writers now in our own community, writing in impeccable and high-quality English, the lingua franca of the world today. And they have started telling our stories.
That, in turn, has encouraged more and more “mainstream” writers of the highest calibre to start exploring Sikh characters and stories of their own.
And hundreds of books have appeared on the scene. The frequency is increasing, day by day, with geometric progression.
And so is the quality.
This week we have experienced yet another landmark on this journey: the most famous and read author of today has released this week the most eagerly awaited book of the year, her first novel for adult readers (that is, grown up consumption, considering that she has written mostly for children to date).
And, lo and behold, it has Sikh characters and some discussion of matters Sikh.
This has been on her own volition. It’s come unsolicited. We have no institutions that “facilitate” this sort of thing. It’s happened merely as a culmination of all the “work” that has gone before it in the last few decades and centuries.
This brings us to the Baltej Singh - RCMP moment.
Once a novelist decides to write a book, we cannot tell her how to write it. She does her own research, digs into her own well-spring of information, and then mixes it all up with her creativity and imagination, and comes up with something uniquely her own product.
Invariably, no matter who writes it, some of it we will agree with, some of it we won’t. Some of it, we‘ll like. Some of it, we won‘t.
Once out, once published, we cannot control it, we cannot shape it.
Least of all ... we cannot censor it.
J K Rowling, whose new novel, “The Casual Vacancy”, was released two days ago, stars a Sikh family of characters.
Now, Rowling is a creative writer with a wild imagination - and I say that as a compliment. Remember, she is the creator of Harry Potter and Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, of Rowena Ravenclaw and Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington (better known as Nearly-Headless Nick).
That is, she creates caricatures and exaggerated characters, as all writers are wont to do.
And, even as she turns to adult fiction, she will do the same. Just as all writers have always done - ranging from Charles DIckens to Salman Rushdie.
Which means, Rowling’s Sikh characters will be, and will behave, the way her imagination wants them to be, not how you and I would like them to be. They will be interesting characters, with warts and flaws and aberrations.
No, they will not be clones of Bhai Vir Singh’s heroes and heroines. They will be more quirky, and closer to real-life, and not the ideals of Sikhi that you and I aspire to. They will highlight our real-life flaws, not our ideals.
If we like them, good. If we don’t, stiil … good.
The more idiosyncratic they are, the better. They stay in the reader’s mind, and gradually encourage him or her to gather more information later, at his or her own sweet time.
If any of you do not like the depictions in her book, then don’t read her any more.
But, for heaven’ sake, don’t be ridiculous -- like some characters have already surfaced (predictably, in India!) -- to complain, or protest, or demand censorship. It may be the way things are done in India, but that's not how civilized and truly democratic societies function.
All I suggest that we, as a community, do is remember the following:
- The few voices of feigned outrage we are beginning to hear from India, raised against Rowling’s book, are not very bright lights. They couldn’t read a book from cover to cover, if their life depended on it. They never have.
- Some of the good souls complaining are being described as 'high priests' of Sikhism.
Balderdash! They are no more priests, leave alone 'high' priests, than I am the Queen of England! We have NO priests or anyone who has any equivalency. Anyone who claims to be one is a charlatan.
- They do not represent Sikhs anywhere, despite their high-falutin’ titles which they have somehow usurped and cling on to ad nauseum.
- Any recognition of Sikhs in the world’s public consciousness drives our detractors to distraction. They control these figures who claim to represent us, and use them as fronts to embarrass us, in order to dilute the impact of any positive step our community takes or experiences.
- It is no coincidence that in recent months and years, at every juncture, whenever we have heard anything strange said on our behalf, it has emanated from these few sitting in India. In India!? Since when did India become interested in the welfare of Sikhs? Let them first address 1984, if they truly want to express their concern and support.
So, let’s beware of mischief carried out in our name.
Let’s all go out and buy a copy each of Rowling’s book. If we like it, great. If we don’t, we’ll finish it nevertheless and then, move on to the next book.
But, let there be no if’s and but’s about it: I’m thrilled that Rowling has chosen to depict Sikh characters.
No matter what they are, what they say, what they do, thank you, J. “Kaur” Rowling - as you have already been re-christened - for this.
No, I haven’t read the book yet. But I will. Right away …
Conversation about this article
1: Jaimal Singh (New Delhi, India), September 29, 2012, 8:32 AM.
None of the Indian voices you have read about, complaining about J.K. Rowling's new book, represent us Sikhs in India on the subject of what should and should not go into any work of fiction. What you are witnessing on this subject is the usual mischief drummed up by the usual suspects, using the usual handful of Sikh stooges as fronts, to hurt the Sikhs. We have to learn to ignore them, as we do mosquitoes and flies: mischief-mongers who are but a part of the overall diversity of life. They serve some purpose, I'm sure - possibly to keep us on our toes at all times, if little else.
2: G.C. Singh (USA), September 29, 2012, 11:22 AM.
This is the repeat of the Jay Leno's joke controversy where the entire Indian establishment, including their Foreign Minister, played as a mischief-mongers in portraying Sikhs as intolerant and fundamentalist, etc. Then there was the staged demonstration with naked swords in front of the American Embassy after the Wisconsin tragedy. The shameless stooges who call themselves 'high priests' and SGPC Masands should worry about India which is sinking in poverty and corruption, and Punjab which is drowning in drugs and apostasy, instead of getting involved in diaspora affairs at the instigation of Indian agencies.
3: Gur Singh (Chicago, Illinois, USA), September 29, 2012, 2:59 PM.
Avtar Singh Makkar is one the biggest, shameless jerks around. He is part of the gang which has hijacked the Sikh institutions for its vested interests and is constantly destroying the image of Sikhs. We as Sikhs are grateful to Madam Rowling for choosing Sikh characters in her novel as it will at least encourage millions of readers to learn a bit more about Sikhs.
4: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), September 30, 2012, 2:24 PM.
The small group in India - a front for our traditional detractors who are India's version of the Taliban. I look forward to reading the book.
5: Billoo Kaur (London, United Kingdom), October 02, 2012, 6:36 AM.
I am cringing at the comments some people are making about J K Rowling. They are behaving with the mentality of the very worst kind of extremist that reminds you of the kind of thinking of some Islamic extremists. J K Rowling has written about the racism and prejudice and bullying that a Sikh girl faces - how do you write about that without describing that racism and prejudice? Sometimes I just want to hold my head in my hands and despair of the ignorance of some of these people in India. This is an author who actually admires us and describes the experience of prejudice and bullying many Sikhs face with sympathy and solidarity. Sikhs versus JK Rowling? Could anything be more absurd?
6: Jaspreet (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), October 06, 2012, 7:31 AM.
I have read about 400 pages of the book. So far, I haven't found anything offensive. There was a part that made me cringe, about the Jawandas not going to the local gurdwara because it was mostly run by "chamaars'. Sukhvinder is troubled by it because, she says, Guru Nanak abolished caste. We should, however, be made to cringe at the evil social systems some of us do practice in real life, inspite of being Sikhs and having escaped Hindu influence. I think Sikhs shouldn't just buy the book to support Rowling but should also write Rowling letters of appreciation ... which explains why Makkar and his buddies are being used by the desis to counter the same.