Two recent news in Indian media caught my eye: the banning of Rohinton Mistry’s book Such a Long Journey, and a probable cancellation of President Obama’s planned trip to the Golden Temple during his upcoming trip to India. The two engaged me perhaps because I am a writer and a Sikh, or because of the incongruous congruity between the two situations.
Mr. Mistry’s book was hastily banned after the Shiv Sena, a fundamentalist Hindu party headquartered in Mumbai, burned copies of the book in front of television cameras and threatened to burn the author too if he returned from Canada where he resides. Such a Long Journey was first published in 1992, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and has been a part of the literature syllabus of Mumbai university for four years. Meanwhile, according to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, "the President has decided, or the White House has decided, not to send the President to the Golden Temple because of concerns about him having to wear a headscarf."
Such a Long Journey was banned because it is apparently derogatory to the Shiv Sena and slights the Marathis. President Obama’s reluctance stems from the perception amongst some right wing Americans that he is Muslim, one that would be strengthened by his proposed visit that would necessitate him covering his head as per the traditions of the shrine. In both cases, the moot question is: is it a perception that can be corrected by denial?
Mr. Mistry has issued a statement denouncing the burning and banning of his book. President Obama and the White House have repeatedly reiterated the President’s Christian affiliation. What next?
In Mumbai people have organized readings from Mr. Mistry’s book, and uploaded video recordings on Youtube. Discussions are being held on censorship, the idea of free speech and its constitutional guarantee. The only way to beat ignorance is by creating awareness. Public readings draw the attention of people to the book, who can read it and then judge for themselves. Something the twenty-year-old proponent of the ban chose not to do. It is easier to burn a book as your launch pad than read it and make sense of our conflicting reality.
What is President Obama to do? A man of principles and courage, he came to power by fighting stereotypes. What cause withholds him then, as Mark Antony famously said, to continue the fight? Admittedly, as President he has to account for realpolitik. But the post of the most powerful man in the world also wields tremendous influence, influence that he must parlay in the battle against misplaced perceptions.
Let’s begin with the Sikhs and their shrine. Sikhism emphasizes the equality of all human beings and rejects discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or gender. Sikh teachings stress individual hard work, community service and an optimistic view of life. India’s current Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh. The Golden temple is the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. In the spirit of religious harmony, its foundation stone was laid in 1588 by a Muslim Sufi saint. Several notable people have visited the temple including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, and the Dalai Lama. Most Sikh men wear a turban as part of their faith, which has led to them being mistakenly attacked as Muslims in the US.
President Obama’s visit to the Golden Temple is a chance to raise awareness that people who cover their heads are not all Muslim, backward, or violent.
Post 9/11 the headscarf has acquired demonic proportions. However, despite a widespread misconception in the West, the tradition of covering one’s head is an ancient one that was prevalent in cultures across the world. From the Egyptian Pharaohs to the Mayans of Central America to the European men of the Renaissance, the practice of wearing some form of headgear persisted over millennia. The same for women. The veil grew as a status symbol for high society Sassanian women and turbans were fashionable in Europe until the middle of twentieth century. As a neat solution for a bad hair day it was coined cache-miserie. Contemporary headwear is commonplace in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia, and Africa – Sikh pagri, Turkish fez, Pashtun lungee, African turban or Jewish kippah – whether as accessory, instrument of faith, or as protection against dust and sun.
A covered head is a requisite mark of respect in many religious places – Sikh temples, Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues. Even the Vatican requires that bared arms and legs be covered when visiting the premises.
A headscarf is not suspect, the thinking that stereotypes it thus is. President Obama, this is your chance to bust the stereotype, and in the process, enlighten your countrymen.