The following is an article written by Dr. I.J. Singh printed
in the Community Profiles Section of The Sikh Foundation.
Dr. I.J. Singh writes,
( Profiles Section of The Sikh Foundation.)
I remember the date August 11, 1960 - when I landed in New York.
The move to the United States was a bit of a fluke. I had just
graduated from Government Dental College in Amritsar. The Murry
& Leonie Guggenheim Foundation announced a competition for
two fellowships to Indians for study in Pediatric dentistry. I
applied. My father wondered aloud what foundation would award
a fellowship to a young inexperienced person with a spotty academic
record. Six months later I was on my way to New York.
The cabbie from the airport told me he was a Jew. I didn't know
much about Jews. So he invited me to his home for Sabbath dinner
and I learnt about the extraordinary kindness of strangers and
the complex mosaic that is the contemporary American society.
After the fellowship I stayed to pursue graduate school. The
University of Oregon was a fraction of the cost at New York University
or Columbia University. So to Portland, Oregon, I went. I had
to look at a map and find out where Oregon was or that there was
another Portland in Maine.
I acquired a Ph.D. in anatomy from the University of Oregon Medical
School and a D.D.S. from Columbia University. The professional
pursuit was not always easy. I was a graduate student during the
day while working at night at minimum wage (at that time $1.25
an hour), processing several hundred rolls of film overnight.
Sikhs are not new to America; the first Sikhs arrived in this
country over a hundred years ago. But they were mostly farmers
and laborers. Educated Sikhs started arriving here after the British
left India, when opportunities in Great Britain dwindled and gates
to America opened through its many scholarship and fellowship
programs. When I came to America in 1960 there were probably no
more than two or three recognizable Sikhs in New York and that
is counting me.
Oregon was even more isolating. But driving around Portland in
the early 1960's, one day I saw a sign Punjab Tavern. On entering
I encountered an old lady behind the bar. She told me that when
she was a little girl, there were Sikhs in the area who used to
frequent this tavern that was owned by her father. There were
racial problems and all the Sikhs had gone to California or Canada.
In Oregon it was not uncommon for people to see me a lone Sikh
with a turban walking about and their missionary zeal would be
aroused. Here was a soul that needed redemption. They would invite
me to their churches or schools to speak on Sikhism. Initially
this posed a problem. What I knew of Sikhism I had learnt primarily
by osmosis by living in a Sikh society and a Sikh home not in
any systematic fashion. Of India and Indian history I knew mostly
platitudes. These invitations in a sense challenged me to either
discard the outer trappings of Sikhism or to learn why I was the
way I was.
I became a U.S citizen around the time that the ultra liberal
Hubert Humphrey ran for the Presidency, the Vietnam War was in
full swing and the campaign for racial justice was catching our
In the early 1970's thousands of women and some men, led by icons
like Gloria Steinem, marched down Fifth Avenue in New York to
demand gender equality. Of the less than half a dozen recognizable
Sikhs in New York at that time, I may have been the only one at
the parade. Suddenly, from the leaders of the procession, one
woman spotted me and yelled, Come join us, your women need this
more than we do. I walked in to march alongside her. I tried to
tell her that women in India had more rights under the law and
that there were more women physicians and politicians in India
than in America. She reminded me of their lack of power in the
Indian society and family.
I marched for racial equality and against the Vietnam War, although
gingerly. I was not yet an American citizen and was afraid. But
this has always been an open society. The year I came here '1960'
was the first ever televised debate between Presidential candidates
Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. The questioners were blunt, the
answers were as honest as politicians ever give, and the postmortem
of the debates by journalists absolutely ruthless. I ruefully
wondered if Indian society could ever be so open. I still wonder.
Racial discrimination touched us all although the policy was
not consistent across the country. I joined a rally against George
Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama who was then a
candidate for the Presidency. He saw me and I think he was flummoxed.
Most Americans have generally been only minimally knowledgeable
about Sikhs or Indians. Many people would accost me on the street
in my earlier days and would wonder if India had colleges or cars
or where I had learned my English. The pride of America was in
the fact that almost every house had two cars. Finally I worked
out what I thought was a rib tickling parody. I would say that
I came from a relatively well off middle class family in India;
no cars but two elephants. One of the elephants was old and decrepit
and of not much use except for shopping around town while the
other was a younger, racier model. But at least I didn't have
to ask, Hey Dad, can I have the elephant tonight??
My answer was partly true. We were a middle class family. I was
born in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan. My father had been a star
student at Punjab University from high school to his degree with
honors in Physics. He was innately the sharpest mind I have ever
known and, given the opportunity, might have become a trail-blazing
scientist. But he was one of nine children, so he joined the Punjab
Public Service Commission and rose to become its Secretary.
My father's approach to his religion was rational and analytical.
My mother had a deeply devotional attachment to Sikhism. It took
me years of floundering and rebelling to see that Sikhism had
to be encountered through the dual lenses of faith and intellect.
That was my parents' legacy to us. They also loved books, so we
leared early that becoming voracious readers defined the path
to approval. The parables from Sikhism on which our mother raised
us have stayed with us. I found much later that my paternal grandfather
had been the Stationmaster at Nankana Sahib during the Sikh struggle
to free our gurdwaras from hereditary mahants. He provided food
and shelter to many Sikhs during the struggle and for this was
promptly shipped to Moga by the British government.
I started school at Montessori School in Lahore when I was four
years old. I remember the partition of India; we escaped one week
later on August 22, 1947 with the help of a Muslim truck driver.
My father returned a few days later accompanied by an army escort
and found the house plundered and occupied. He could not believe
that his Muslim neighbors and friends would so quickly put asunder
the ties that bound us.
There is one memory of those days that is as vivid as on the
day that it happened. One afternoon within days of escaping to
Jalandhar, I was playing in the street very close to the railroad
tracks. A train stood on the tracks surrounded by Hindus and Sikhs.
I heard loud explosions that were gunshots. Then I saw a man come
to the tap in the street to wash the blood off his dagger. Later
I leared that a trainload of Hindus and Sikhs was rumored to have
been murdered on its way to India from Pakistan and this was the
payback to Muslims escaping to Pakistan.
Most Sikhs, when they come from India, are at best cultural Sikhs
and know very little of the rudiments of their faith. Living here
in a predominantly non-Sikh milieu they either become better Sikhs
or they abandon Sikhism. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened
to me had I lived my life in India.
So I learned a little of the Sikh ways and also of the lives
of my Jewish and Christian neighbors. I grew to explore the philosophic
depth and the beauty of the Sikh faith. Now I can assert that
I was born a Sikh but I regard myself as a convert to Sikhism.
Four years ago I became an amritdhari Sikh. But this journey is
far from complete and I remain a pilgrim on an endless path.
While a graduate student in Oregon, I met a fellow student who
was working in experimental psychology. Pauline and I married
in 1968 and later moved to New York. A daughter was born to us,
Anna Piar, a name combined from those of the two grandmothers.
She remains the source of much joy and occasional heartache. Our
marriage dissolved when Anna Piar was not quite three.
For a number of years I remained single, ambling around New York
discovering the beauty and the shallowness of our society. In
those single years someone suggested the name of a young Sikh
professional woman. I called her. We talked on the telephone several
times. Finally we thought we should meet. Then she asked: "Before
we meet I want to know - are you a modern Sikh"? I was taken
aback but recovered quickly and thoughtlessly replied, "Of
course, I am modern. I know which fork to use with which dish
at dinner and absolutely never walk out of my house without clothes;
I am not entirely primitive. What exactly do you wish to know"?
We all know what she was really asking, was I a keshdhari Sikh.
I am not surprised to hear such formulations from Sikhs but I
am disappointed. I never thought that not being keshadhari had
anything to do with being modern. The former is an article of
faith for a Sikh, the latter is a state of mind. Needless to say
we never met.
In 1990 a Sikh young lady from Delhi, Neena, was visiting her
sister in Seattle. She came to New York and before she could return
I had a moderate heart attack. I recovered, she stayed and we
I grew up loving literature and poetry but learned soon enough
that you couldn't make a living in literature. So at the urging
of my father I joined Dental College. In this country, my professional
life moved along fairly steadily. After the PhD, I completed a
two-year stint as a Special Research Fellow of the National Institute
of Health and then joined the faculty of New York University,
where I am now Professor and Coordinator of Anatomical Sciences.
The academic life practices the principle of publish or perish
and I, too, lived by it. Over the years I published and presented
over 100 research papers and reports in professional journals
and in books; I also trained several graduate students and directed
their doctoral research. Within seven year of starting as a new
assistant professor I was a full professor, the only keshadhari
Sikh at that rank at New York University. I also hold Adjunct
Professorships at Columbia University and Cornell University medical
schools and have lectured at many medical and dental colleges
across the country. With such activity come professional affiliations
and recognition and I have enjoyed my share. Whenever I appear
before students to lecture I am aware that I am a Sikh, by definition
Soon it will be time to retire from a satisfactory professional
career. Has there been discrimination in professional life? Of
course, though not overt, and minimally. Yes, there is a glass
ceiling but it is possible to push against it. I would not be
quite so optimistic in any other society including the land of
my birth, India.
A most traumatic period in my sense of identity came in June
1984 when the Indian Army attacked the Golden Temple. Policies
of the Indian government seemed selectively designed to single
out Sikhs for discrimination, arrests, even torture and killings.
I believe that successive Indian governments, by their shortsighted
policies, brought the country close to fragmentation. For many
Sikhs like me in the diapora this was the defining period for
our sense of self.
It was around 1984 that I leared to separate my Indian identity
from the American ethos that had come to define me. I started
a more serious study of Sikhism - its religion and its culture.
I also became much more active in writing and speaking out about
Sikhism and our Sikh existence outside India.
On looking back I see that an early indication of a serious interest
in Sikhism was when I started to publish reviews of books on Sikhism.
Some essays followed which were meant to chronicle my own growth
along the path of coming to terms with Sikhism. Thanks to Professor
N. Gerald Barrier, a book of essays followed. I was aware that
most books on Sikhism enjoyed an embarrassingly meagre run. But
I was absolutely floored by the response particularly by young
college age Sikhs and my first book went through two reprints.
Then the Centennial Foundation (Canada) issued a revised second
edition. In 2001 they published a second book of a new collection
of my essays on how Sikhism engages many contemporary topics.
It appears that as I am slowly closing my professional career
in teaching and research, a new door is opening, which is equally
if not more gratifying. I cannot possibly describe the pleasure
in exploring and honing the many facets of our Sikh existence
in the diaspora.
The past year has been discomforting and disconcerting. For many
Americans a man in a turban looks too much like Osama bin Laden.
Sikhs have been hassled at airports and in the streets. A man
claiming to be a patriot killed one Sikh in Arizona. Such behavior
is clearly contrary to American values.
As tense as things get on the street sometimes, America remains
a most tolerant and open society. Recently, I met a clearly educated
man on the street. After chatting a while he turned serious and
somewhat apologetically asked, "Tell me, when your people
came here why didn't they leave their religion back home"?
I was flabbergasted for a moment. Finally I turned to him and
said: "Yes, I can answer that equally briefly. Tell me, when
your people came here why didn't they leave their religion back
home"? For a moment he was nonplussed but then he smiled.
"You have a point," he said.
It has been an extraordinary 42 years and now I know no other
home than here. I have changed internally. Some Indians on the
street who appear pseudo-westernized look at my external self
and wonder if I have remained untouched by America. My Indian
friends remind me how American I have become in my ways while
my American friends smile at what they call my Indian ways of
thinking. I reckon they are both right.
When I talk to young Sikhs my message to them that I have distilled
from my lifetime here is that, " Much as it is possible to
be a good Jew and a good American, or a good Christian of any
sort and a good American, it is just as possible to be a good
Sikh and a good American; the two terms are not mutually exclusive."
November 1, 2002
In Nov. of 2003 he made a presentation at the Sikh American Society
of Georgia, US