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Little Punjab

Magazine

Mark Sweet05 December 2014

BB20

Jarnail Singh

We meet in his dairy on Joll Road in Havelock North. Jarnail Singh took over last year, after being made redundant when Park Estate Winery went into receivership. He had worked there as a viticulturist for 22 years.

I suggest Ya Bon for coffee, and outside a shop being decorated, we pass a tradie smoking a cigarette. Jarnail turns to me and says, “Dirty cigarettes”. His eyes are so piercing I wonder if he’s seeing fag butts hanging off my aura. Later he tells me he could smell my smoke as soon as we met.

Jarnail Singh

Jarnail insists on paying for coffee, and as soon as we sit down he tells me the DHB has told him he can no longer sell e-cigarettes. “They help people stop smoking. It’s crazy. I have customer who comes all the way from Dannevirke to buy from me and he said he saving hundreds of dollars.”

Jarnail is talking about a ‘cigarette’ that delivers nicotine as a vapour, without smoke. They were developed as an alternative to nicotine patches, and gum, to help smokers kick the tobacco habit, but the Ministry of Health banned their sale in August until more research is undertaken.

“It’s very bad habit,” says Jarnail, “and you think Health Board do everything they can to help people get off the smokes.” He shakes his head in frustration. “I just don’t understand.”

Jarnail Singh is a devout Sikh. He doesn’t drink alcohol, eat meat or eggs, and certainly wouldn’t smoke. In respect, tainted with apprehension from his ferocious dislike of cigarettes, my roll-your-own’s stay firmly in my pocket.

I ask about his wearing of a turban, and Jarnail explains that devoted Sikhs never cut their hair, which is one of “the Five K’s, Kesh”. The others are Kangha, a small wooden comb; Kara, an iron bracelet; Kacchera, special undergarment; and Kirpan, a short dagger. Jarnail lifts his shirt revealing a silver sheathed knife tucked into his belt, and he shows me a letter from Hon Christopher Finlayson confirming the right of Sikhs to wear the Kirpan in public. The Five K’s are symbols of the devotee’s commitment to the Sikh way of life.

And what about the name Singh, I ask? “Singh means lion,” Jarnail says. “Every baptized Sikh man is called Singh and every woman name is Kaur. Kaur means princess.”

This practice was ordained by the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708). He was the last of an unbroken lineage that began in 1469 with Guru Nanak. The eleventh, perpetual living Guru, is the Holy Book of the Sikh religion, Guru Granth Sahib.

Taking the ubiquitous names, Singh or Kaur, is a demonstration of the rejection of the Hindu concept of caste. In Hinduism, one’s last name identifies class and rigidly determines one’s position in society. Caste is totally incompatible with Sikh belief in equality.

In Hawke’s Bay there are around 150 Sikh families who comprise the vast majority of the Indian community (around 85%). It seems hugely disproportionate considering Sikhs comprise less than 1% of India’s population.

“About 10-15 families came here in the early 1970’s,” says Jarnail. “Then from ‘87 to ‘95 lots more Sikhs come. Here we are free to work and live good life,” he says. “In India we are suppressed.”

Sikh history is filled with conflict and epic battles as successive generations have defended their homeland and culture against both Hindu and Islamic invaders. The last major incident was in 1984 when Indian government troops stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest site in Sikhism.

“In our history it says if someone makes attack on Golden Temple, then after 150 days, that person must die. Any attack on Golden Temple is revenged,” says Jarnail.

Indira Gandhi was the prime minister who ordered the attack, and 153 days later, she was shot dead by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Her assassination triggered mass anti-Sikh riots, where official figures estimate up to 3,000 Sikhs were killed in New Delhi alone.

But as Jarnail Singh says, “We lost heaps of lives you never hear about.” Some estimates of reprisal deaths are as high as 30,000 killed throughout India.

On a lighter subject I ask about the tradition of arranged marriage. “Both parties must be happy,” Jarnail says. “If parents are happy, and the couple happy, then we get married.”

Before we part I ask Jarnail who I should talk to next to understand Sikhism in Hawke’s Bay. He kindly gives me names, and he invites me to the temple on Eastbourne Street, East, on Sunday night.

Harminder Singh

At the Flaxmere New World I approach two turbaned young men stacking shelves. I assume their names are Singh, but one, standing on a ladder with a packet in his hand, says he is not Singh. I’m confused. He tells me he is not yet baptized, so, he’s not yet a Singh.

So what determines when you get baptized?

The young man looks at me with a very sure gaze, and says, “I’ll know when I’m ready.”

We are joined by another turbaned young man who seems to have picked up our conversation by osmosis. “We know when God tells us,” he says. “I knew in my mind and heart when I was ready, but my grandfather, he was 65 before he got baptized.”

I’d come to talk to their boss, Harminder Singh, but he’s away until Monday. I say, I’ll come back to talk to him, but I don’t.

Kulwant Singh

On the way out of Flaxmere, along Henderson Road, I stop at Gagan’s Fruit and Vege Shop.

Kulwant Singh and his wife Sukhwinder Kaur own and operate a 40 hectare orchard and market garden, supplying to the local market, their gate sales shop, and the apple export market.

Kulwant Singh

“I first came to Hawke’s Bay in 1990 to visit friends.” Having completed his Bachelors degree, Kulwant was in his first year of a Masters in political science at university in India, with the intention of being a lawyer. “But,” he tells me, “I was so impressed by the peaceful, nice country, I stayed.”

Kulwant comes from a farming family in the Punjab, croppers of mainly sweetcorn and sugar cane, so working on the land is in his blood. He first worked on an orchard and saved to buy a small stone fruit block in Bay View. Five years later he bought the property in Henderson Road, and in 1998 he returned to India to marry.

“Our families know each family long, long time,” he says. “We sat down and talked. I told her what I wanted out of life, she told me what she wanted out of life, and we liked each other.”

And what about equality in Sikhism? “Yes,” Kulwant says, “men and women are equal. There’s no barrier to women. Traditionally men work outside and women work inside the home and look after children, but it’s not set in stone.”

Kulwant and Sukhwinder have two teenage children being educated at Woodford and Lindisfarne, and they have relaxed many of the traditions of Sikhism.

“When I first came in 1990 I wore a turban, but to fit in I cut my hair and took off the turban,” Kulwant says. “We eat meat and drink socially. For me the main thing about Sikhism is honesty and service.”

Kulwant is referring to the concepts of Kirat Karni – to live honestly and earn by one’s physical and mental effort, and, Vand Chakra – to share wealth within the community and practise charity wherever there is need.

Palwinder Singh

One of the most successful Sikh businessmen in Hawke’s Bay, Palwinder Singh, is as elusive as he is entrepreneurial.
I called by Big Barrel’s head office in Tamatea to make an appointment, which his personal assistant said she would arrange. Several phone calls later and I was told Mr Singh was unavailable for interview because he was, “a very private person”.

Big Barrel’s first store opened in Marewa in 2003 and now, according to its website, has 24 stores nationwide.

Like many Bay ‘drinkers’ I shop at Big Barrel and am impressed by the quality of customer service delivered by the young men behind the counters.

Ranvin Singh

In Havelock North, Ranvin Singh, has slipped seamlessly into Kiwi culture since arriving from Punjab five years ago. He is married to a local Sikh girl, plays soccer for Hibernian and cricket for Celtic, and he cherishes the freedom of living in New Zealand.

Ranvin Singh

“We can live independently here. Nobody can hurt us.” And he says, although it isn’t so bad now, “Between ‘84 and ‘95 if you are a Sikh boy you get killed just because you are Sikh.”

However, discrimination is still rife, and Ranvin tells me he spent three years training to join the police in Punjab, along with other Sikh boys, none of whom were chosen, not for lack of merit, but sheer prejudice.

“In Punjab the Hindus think they’re better than anyone else,” and, he says, “Politics is dirty in India. Very corrupt. If people have a political relationship and they want someone’s land they just grab the land.”

The conflict between Hinduism and Sikhism is ancient, and wasn’t helped by the founder of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi, insisting that Sikhs were a branch Hindu.

But as another Big Barrel boy, Ganesh Singh, from the Clive shop tells me, one of the reasons the first guru broke away from Hinduism was his disgust of Sati, the custom of a widow being burnt alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. Guru Nanak was insistent that men and women were equal and should be treated as such.

Diwali: Festival of  Lights

At the Soundshell there’s a carnival atmosphere – food stalls with long queues, families with picnics sit on the grass in front of the stage, and hundreds of people cluster on the fringes enjoying the performances of Indian song and dance, but dark clouds muster in the south.

Lanterns are strung up to symbolise the ‘festival of lights’ that greeted Lord Rama when he returned home with his wife, Sita, after killing the demon god Ravana, who had kidnapped her. Rama is a one of the many mythical Hindu deities, and as such is incompatible with the essence of Sikhism. The first line of the Holy Book is, “Ik Onkar” … “There is only one God.”

Sikhs do celebrate on the same day as Diwali, however, as it coincided with the release from prison of the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, in October 1619.

The Guru was imprisoned by the Emperor Jahangir along with 52 other high-ranking noblemen. In an act of clemency at Diwali the Emperor agreed to the Guru’s release and ordered that any other prisoners who could hold onto the Guru’s cloak be also freed.

Cleverly, Guru Hargobind had 52 tassels stitched onto his cloak, and ever since Sikhs have celebrated their release as the festival of Bandi Chhor Divas – “freedom day”.

Beside me stands a young man I assume is Indian and I ask him if he is Sikh. “No,” he says with a smile. “I’m Muslim from Bangladesh.” And he tells me Muslims don’t celebrate Diwali, but he’s come because it’s fun and he likes fireworks.

The wind has picked up and a shower of rain dampens the proceedings. With many others I seek shelter, and miss the fireworks which conclude the celebrations.

Manmeet Kaur

I’m twenty minutes late for my interview with Mohinder Singh, owner of the MP Food shops and Bollywood Restaurants, in Hastings and Gisborne. He has a cigarette salesman with him, so I fill my time wandering around the shop, staggered at the variety of canned and packaged food products from all over Asia and the Pacific, stacked tightly in narrow aisles. Later I learn there are over 3,000 separate items, and Mohinder tells me he is not comfortable selling cigarettes, but has conceded to customer demand.

Manmeet Kaur

In a back room three men and a woman are shelling onions, and I take the opportunity to ask if, in their experience, women and men are treated equally in Sikh society.

The men in turn affirm, that in Sikhism, women have the same rights as men.

The woman’s name is Manmeet Kaur and I ask her if she’d talk to me outside. She explains, “Muslim woman are not equal, but women in my culture are equal. I have brothers and sisters and we were all bought up the same.”

And what about arranged marriage? “Yes, my parents have someone for me. I like him, and I’ll go back and marry and then come back here.”

Mohinder Singh

Arriving in New Zealand in 1989, Mohinder Singh recalls that planes were landing at Auckland airport every week, “…with up to 50 Sikh boys on one flight.”

For ten years he worked tirelessly in orchards, picking asparagus, driving taxis, and operating a food caravan, before accumulating enough capital to open his first Bollywood Restaurant in Whanganui in 1999.

That same year he returned to India to marry. “My mother helped find my wife, but if I didn’t like her, and she didn’t like me, then we can say no. Parents make good decisions, but it is up to us.” And Mohinder observes that the “success rates of arranged marriages very high, but success rate of love marriages, not so high.”

Mohinder Singh

To my question he replies, “Yes, I treat women equally. Of course, some men want to control, and some women want to control, but with my wife, we talk about everything. Sometimes we disagree but we keep on talking.”

Mohinder Singh is reluctant to talk about the political situation in Punjab after the 1984 Golden Temple incident. His father was killed in the ensuing pogrom against Sikhs, and it is painful for him to recall those dark days.

“Being Sikh I have to go to the Temple but when I go the police say I must be a terrorist. You get picked up. They might shoot you. They wanted to kill all Sikhs in Punjab. Even if I go to another place in India and they find out my name is Singh, they say you’re a terrorist, and put you in jail.”

Mohinder was twenty-one when he came to New Zealand and was one of thousands of young Sikh men who found refuge in other countries, especially the UK and Canada. “Parents tried to save their kids from being killed and send them away,” he says.

Before we part, I ask Mohinder if he will be attending the Diwali celebrations at the Soundshell in Napier on Saturday night. He says he probably will. Even though Diwali is essentially a Hindu festival, it is also celebrated by Sikhs as it has significance in their history.

The Temple

The outside of the Sikh temple in Eastbourne Street, Hastings, is concrete block and stucco, painted grey, and could be the front to a warehouse. Only a small sign gives a clue to what may lie behind the plain exterior.

Racks, stuffed with hundreds of shoes, line one wall of the entrance. Mine join them, but I don’t realise until later that everyone has bare feet, and I should have taken off my socks.

As it is, Jarnail has me retrace my steps when I walk through the swing doors without covering my head. He has a stash of orange scarves for feckless visitors like me.

The hall, around a thousand square meters in area, is divided in half by a glass partition, behind which is the temple. There are dozens of people in the first room, some helping themselves to food from a servery, others sitting on the many cushions clustered in groups on the floor.

“When we go into temple,” Jarnail tells me, “follow me, and we bow, and we sit down. And you can take photos. Just follow me.”

Through thick glass doors we enter into another world and the feeling that immediately strikes my mood is reverence. Either side of the hall is filled with people sitting cross-legged on the floor. Women on one side, men on the other, all listening intently, to a man reading from the Holy Book of Sikhism.

The priest is speaking in Kulmaki, the language of Sikhism, similar to Punjabi, but not the same.

One universal creator God. Truth is the name. Creative being personified. No fear. No hatred. Image of the undying. Beyond birth. Self-existent – is the first creed of morning prayers, which begin at 4:30 every morning. Another prayer session is held every evening.

But it is Sunday evening when the Sikh community gather en masse to celebrate their religion and culture, and while the adults listen to the readings and pray, children play in the hall and spill on to the pavement outside, yakking and chasing one another as happy kids do anywhere.

And as I leave the warmth of fellowship generated by the Sikh community, I think, “What a blessing all round it is, that Sikhs have found a ‘Little Punjab’ in Hawke’s Bay.”

Mark Sweet05 December 2014

BB20

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