Feeling Sikh to the Stomach

by maxmosher


Phil and Liz, who share the first names of their queen and her husband, were a British couple on our tour. They had married quite young and had been married for quite some time. Liz was a lovely woman, very interested in everything. She should have been a teacher. Phil had a white beard and what must be described as a twinkle in his eye (an Indian man on the street once yelled “Santa Claus!” at him). Liz had wanted to come to India her whole life. Phil had not.

Part of the difficulty was that back home in London Phil wrote health and safety manuals. India is not the place you want to go when your career is making sure everything is un-sketchy and above board. The fact that a taxi driver once took a cell phone call while driving a van-full of us down a winding mountain road, with Phil demanding that he hang up (“I’m not joking! Put down the phone, please!”) was, in hindsight, one of the more minor safety infringements we witnessed.

In India you routinely have to drum out what was drilled into you as a child, stop looking for that seat belt and enjoy the ride.

After a visit to the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, and a walk through Old Delhi, where we saw our first monkeys, greedily eyeing some bananas, Kuldeep took us to a Sikh temple.

“Now, at this Sikh temple,” he began, pronouncing Sikh like ‘sick’, “You will be welcomed by a man who is very knowledgeable about religion, very knowledgeable about history, but he is the type of man that if you ask him a question, he will answer it for thirty minutes. So please keep this in mind.”

Outside the temple we took off our shoes and washed our feet under an open tape. Both the water and the marble floor were freezing cold. We were led into what felt like the temple’s waiting room and we met the verbose gentleman. He wore a brightly coloured turban.

He welcomed us and began to explain the Sikh religion. This went on for quite some time and eventually worked in an allegory about Snow White. I’m not kidding. It had something to do with the Evil Queen and not liking what she saw in the mirror and how the ignorant of us, when confronted by reflections we don’t like, try to change the mirror rather than ourselves. It’s an interesting philosophical point but which has nothing to do in the slightest with the story of Snow White.

When the talk was finally over orange handkerchiefs were handed out for us to tie around our heads before we entered the temple. As we began putting them on I heard someone beside me ask if he had to. It was Phil.

Phil began a conversation with the longwinded gentleman about religion.  Not only did I think he was insane for beginning a protracted debate about spirituality (with this man in particular), but I was also embarrassed as a white Westerner. Inside, I was rolling my eyes.

Now, I’m not religious at all. In the ongoing battle between the Hitchens atheists and the Blair faithful, I am unmovable in the former camp. But when you’re in freakin’ India and you get welcomed into a Sikh temple, just put the God-damned bandana on and be respectful.

But Phil kept to his guns and the rest of us went into the temple leaving him and the gentleman outside debating. We walked around the main altar and sat quietly on the carpet watching the faithful pray. Then they showed us the low-tech kitchen where women were rolling dough. Many Sikh temples have kitchens for the needy.

When we went back to the waiting room, the cosmic debate was just winding down.

“I think you should read a bit more about science,” Phil was saying, with a smile.

Unsurprisingly for a small group travelling together, we eventually learned everything about each other, including the tidbit that Phil and Liz had escaped a cult as a newly married couple. They left with no money, young children and family members who shunned them. This shed some light on Phil’s stubborn scepticism.

And, despite his complaining (which was always done with a smile) I think he rather enjoyed the madness of India. And anyways, the deal had been that if he took Liz to India she would go RVing around New Zealand with him. Thus are strong marriages made.