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A Shooting at My Gurdwara





With less than fifty days to publication of my new novel, The Selector of Souls, I was planning to visit the Oak Creek gurdwara on Sunday to give thanks.

That morning, the word 'shooting' meant film shooting, in relation to my novel, The Tiger Claw, which was recently optioned for film. I owed more thanks. But meaning changed in a moment, when my husband and I saw the news on TV that a gunman had entered the gurdwara and there had been a shooting. We jumped in the car and drove a few minutes South.

When we reached road blocks around the gurdwara, I leaned out and shouted to a cop, "I'm a certified Red Cross translator!" 

The Red Cross wouldn't know how to certify me in Punjabi or Hindi, but since 9/11/2001, I've been registered as a volunteer translator. Somehow I thought then that translation, flyers, and other outreach could prevent the kind of hate crimes directed against Sikhs -- brick-throwing, name-calling, beatings and shootings -- that have populated the Sikh Coalition database in a post-9/11 world.

The shooting had taken place an hour before, and the place was ringed with police cars, armored vehicles and firetrucks. Media trucks were parked a few city blocks away. The closest we could get to the gurdwara was a bowling alley across the boulevard. But all we could do was wait and watch.

There wasn't much to see. The gurdwara is built at the end of a narrow street opening into a parking lot before the gurdwara and can't be seen from the road. Most of us had friends and relatives inside. Were they hostages or trapped? Was there one gunman or more?

The police gave periodic updates repeated via translators that mostly said they didn't know. The sangat (congregation) took all the news stoically. Vandalism incidents experienced every day at Sikh-owned businesses and at the gurdwara make people say "these things happen."

police from three forces, Red Cross and Salvation Army were caring, sensitive to cultural differences, and supportive in every way. A welcome change after the many cases of racial profiling experienced in Metro Milwaukee by Sikhs soon after 9/11. A policeman gave me a chat about the differences between Sikhs and Muslims!

I said that doesn't mean that Sikhs want violence redirected toward Muslims, and he agreed.

Together we organized samosas and mango drinks to be brought from nearby restaurants for people waiting for their loved ones. Along with other second and third geners, I was able to translate for the authorities. The people eventually evacuated from the gurdwara were held a little longer for witness statements. The Red Cross arranged for insulin for a few. Everyone had a very long day. 

We now know one gunman Wade Michael Page killed six people and was shot dead. Predictably, he was a shy loner, a Euro-American. If the story becomes that he was mentally ill and hence not responsible, a terrorist
driven by neo-nazi racist ideology will have had his way. But the story can be told as we see it, too.

Maybe it's the story of gurdwara president Satwant Singh Kaleka who worked in a gas station 18 hours a day (kirat karo) to save and build that gurdwara and gifted it (vand chhakko) to the Sikh community so that we remember the name (naam jappo).

Maybe it's the stories of the incredible six victims and the resilience of their families as they take in condolences of politicians and the press, and attend candlelight vigils. Maybe its the story of Lt. Brian Murphy who accosted the killer and is still fighting for his life. Maybe it's Laura Page's story as she figures out what turned her son a killer. Maybe it's a completely different story ...

The night of the shooting, David and I returned home tired and shaken. But we went out for a candlelight dinner. Over coffee and creme brulee, we took the time to affirm our love for each other and give thanks with or without the comfort of a gurdwara.
Because you never know how close you are to infinity.


Shauna Singh Baldwin is a Canadian-American novelist who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her 2000 novel What the Body Remembers won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and her 2004 novel, The Tiger Claw, was nominated for the Giller Prize. Her latest novel, The Selector of Souls, is due to be launched shortly.

August 8, 2012 

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), August 08, 2012, 6:51 AM.

Thanks, Shauna, for this.

2: Surjit Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), August 08, 2012, 11:57 AM.

Bless you and your fellow sangat members. You have handled a most trying time with so much love, compassion and grace. Wish my fellow-Indians could learn from you.

3: Patricia Shenofsky (Toledo, Ohio, USA), August 08, 2012, 12:28 PM.

Thank you for this beautiful, heartbreaking essay. Blessings to you. You are all in my thoughts and prayers. You are a wonderful writer.

4: Pamela Rohs (Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, USA), August 08, 2012, 2:04 PM.

Beautifully written, my dear friend. I will pray for all.

5: Joan Maas (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), August 08, 2012, 2:09 PM.

Thank you, Shauna, for sharing this with us. With love and prayers from next door!

6: Tripat Kaur (Los Angeles, California, USA), August 08, 2012, 2:28 PM.

I am a big fan of your writing. It was moving to be shown the sad goings-on of last Sunday through your eyes ... in your words. Many thanks. Would love to see more of you here ... you paint such wonderful word pictures!

7: Simranpal Singh (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada), August 08, 2012, 2:40 PM.

Can't help hoping and praying that this experience of yours, painful though it was, will end up in the form of a novel from you one day. There's so much more truth in your books than can be found in journalistic reports.

8: Doris Jakobsh (Berlin, Germany), August 08, 2012, 5:57 PM.

Shauna. Have been thinking of you. Thank you for this amazing piece. Again.

9: Judy Bridges (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA), August 09, 2012, 7:47 AM.

Thank you, Shauna, for sharing the view through your eyes. I give thanks for the privilege of knowing you.

10: Jaggi Singh (Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.), August 09, 2012, 11:43 AM.

Sat Sri Akal, Shauna. We watched the events unfold with heavy hearts. Some of our non-Sikh friends called to comment at the lack of lucid answers to the questions posed by CNN. Wish they had gotten hold of you and David. Guru raakha, this too shall pass.

11: Gloria Kazmier (Mukwonago, Wisconsin, USA), August 09, 2012, 2:36 PM.

In a world with so much hate and violence, the Sikh Community and it's people have shown such grace, love, and humanitarianism. They have set a high bar and deserve a place of honor in America.

12: Narinder Singh (Manchester, United Kingdom), August 09, 2012, 2:43 PM.

I have followed your book publications hungrily through the years. Reading this touching account of a tragedy so close to home, you have whetted my appetite. Can't wait for your new book. And I agree with Simranpal Singh above: hope to see this latest experience of yours, painful though it may be, unfold in some fashion in one of your new fiction works.

13: Lora Hyler (Glendale, Wisconsin, USA), August 09, 2012, 11:30 PM.

Beautiful account. I'd like to mention that I was called into service to present the local view of the gurdwara massacre aftermath for Time Inc. I had the pleasure of experiencing the strength and dignity of the Girdwara e vice president and congregation first hand. I also spoke to the woman who shared a home with the killer. See my articles at and input 'hyler' at the search engine. Respect.

14: Joti Sekhon (United States), August 10, 2012, 9:06 PM.

Thanks for sharing your experiences from that sad day. Made me that much more conscious of my heritage. Today's memorial was comforting. Looking forward to your next book.

15: Uma Krishnaswami (Aztec, New Mexico, USA), August 11, 2012, 8:38 AM.

Shauna, what a beautiful, touching article. You bring the light of your reflection as well as your own personal grace to this terrible tragedy. Thank you.

16: Cynthia Mahmood (South Bend, Indiana, USA), August 11, 2012, 10:30 AM.

Shauna, thank you for your service, and for writing about it for all of us to share. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and the entire sangat. What kind of world is it that we live in, that such brutalities happen?

17: Nancy Fulton (Foster City, California, USA), August 27, 2012, 2:39 AM.

Shauna, your articulate and moving article captured the horror and helplessness one feels when we hear of this senseless tragedy.

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