1984 through Indian Eyes:
Literary Accounts of Operation Blue Star and the Anti-Sikh Pogroms
By Lori Way
Part III – Her Name Is Kaur, edited by Meeta Kaur
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Operation Bluestar in Amritsar, India, in June, 1984, and the anti-Sikh pogroms that took place the following November in New Delhi, Lori Way continues her series of essays discussing works of literature focusing upon these events. See also Part I and Part II of her series in which she discusses Roll of Honour by Amandeep Sidhu and Amu, by Shonali Bose.
“In many ways, I think the greatest impact Satwant Uncle Ji had on me was through his death. By embodying compassion throughout his life, Uncle Ji made me realize how important it is to truly care for and serve each person you meet.”
Harleen Kaur, page 235 from Her Name Is Kaur
Although 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the attacks on Sikhs within India, Sikhs and non-Sikhs worldwide also paid tribute during the week of August 5th to those who were killed on American soil in 2012. Volunteers honored the victims of the Oak Creek, Wisconsin massacre through acts of seva (selfless service to others), which included such activities as serving free community meals and cleaning up their local park areas. In my own hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, our Sikh community honored the victims with six small acts of seva over the course of six days, culminating in a canned food drive and rose planting at the Dashmesh Sikh Gurudwara. (For more information on our events, see my previous posting as well as the News-Sentinel article by Carl Jylland-Halverson.)
Two local college libraries within the Fort Wayne area partnered with the Sikh community to honor the victims through displays of Sikh-related literature, and Meeta Kaur graciously contributed to these displays with copies of her new anthology, Her Name Is Kaur. This book, which is subtitled “Sikh American Women Write About Love, Courage, and Faith,” is a collection that takes the reader down countless emotional roads, including remembrances of 1984 and Oak Creek.
What sets these stories apart from what one may think of as typical of the “love” genre is that they display the full spectrum of what love entails – love for family, community, and God in addition to stories of romance. Many of the authors included in this work are accomplished professional women who reveal the struggles and satisfaction that go along with their success. It seems clear that these women are not waiting for men to save them or complete them. Even in moments of despair, they look to their Sikh identity for resilience and recognize their own self-worth as Kaurs.
The book is broken down into five sections, with five chapters per section, drawing inspiration from the five articles of faith as well as the five rivers of the Punjab. The last section of the book contains the story titled “Amritsar” by Gunisha Kaur. She describes how her father was badly beaten and left for dead during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The family later moved to the United States, and the painful memories of 1984’s violence were temporarily buried (reminiscent of the characters from Shonali Bose’s Amu; see my July 2014 article.)
It took a decade and a half for my parents to explain our family history to me. What I learned about our life in Punjab and our politically charged asylum moved me. A place within me felt a unique connection to Punjab that shifted to the forefront of my conscience. It troubled me that, for nearly two decades, I had not known the history of my own family and community. I wanted to know more, and I wanted to share this knowledge with others. I was thirsty for answers, for understanding. (qtd. in M. Kaur 223)
Gunisha developed a stronger connection with the people of the Punjab after learning her own family’s history, stating, “I embraced the responsibility I felt to provide a voice to those in the faraway depths of Punjabi villages, whose words cannot be heard by the rest of the world” (qtd. in M. Kaur 224). This sense of responsibility directed Gunisha toward a life of activism in which she could use her skills as a physician to draw attention to the plight of those still suffering in the Punjab.
Another story from this section highlights Harleen Kaur who, like Gunisha, was moved to activism in response to tragedy. Although her family resided in Michigan at the time of the Oak Creek massacre, Harleen grew up among the members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. She received the news of the shooting while at her local gurudwara in Plymouth. Harleen recalls: “I wish I could say the rest of the day was a blur and move on. But, the reality is, I still remember every excruciating detail….The day went by painfully slowly as we waited for any news. When we received a list of the six victims, one stood out to me: Satwant Singh Kaleka” (qtd. in M. Kaur 232). Memories of Kaleka’s kindness to her while she was learning to play kirtan came rushing back to Harleen, and she experienced “a full spectrum of emotions” in the days, weeks and months following the incident. As she reflected on her childhood within the Wisconsin sangat, Harleen writes that “They were my pillars and my foundation, and when they were violated, it shook me from the core” (qtd. in M. Kaur 233). It was during this painful period following the Oak Creek shooting that she decided to begin wearing a turban, an external signifier which declared her Sikh identity to the world.
The events of 1984 and Oak Creek served as turning points in the lives of many within the Sikh community, as demonstrated by the stories found in this book. Simran Kaur’s chapter, “Love: The Most Lasting Form of Activism,” illustrates how these tragedies are intimately connected with Sikh identity as well as activism. She writes that “Without a doubt, my faith played a major role in my growth as an activist. It would be impossible to separate my activism from my faith; I am an activist because I’m Sikh and the essence of Sikhi is in its activism” (qtd. in M. Kaur 218).
In addition to the stories of activism found in this book, there are also many gripping tales of interpersonal conflict as well as romance. Those who are familiar with the modern Sikh-American community (as I’m sure most of the readers of this column would be) may find their own experiences represented in the pages of Her Name Is Kaur. Meeta Kaur’s addition of supplementary material will also help non-Sikhs understand the words and concepts presented by the anthology’s various authors.
Perhaps there is no better tribute to the victims of 1984 and Oak Creek than to share their stories and to keep the history of the Sikhs alive. Meeta Kaur has succeeded in doing this with Her Name Is Kaur, yet she also lays the foundations for future exploration of Sikh literature and memoir. It is my sincere hope that this book is just the beginning.
Her Name Is Kaur is available on Amazon.com. Order through Amazon Smile and a portion of your purchase will go to a charity of your choosing. You can find out more about Her Name Is Kaur at http://www.sikhlovestories.com.
Kaur, Meeta, ed. Her Name Is Kaur: Sikh American Women Write About Love, Courage, and Faith. Berkeley, CA: She Writes, 2014. Print.