My Sikh Best Friend and I
I met my best friend in grade two. It wasn’t BFF love at first sight, but over the years
she and I became inseparable. We played together, hung out at each other’s homes,
had kid adventures and laughed all the time.
By the time we hit high school, there were council campaigns, sleepovers, crazy
homework all-nighters, unstoppable giggle fits in the library and coming-of-age
adolescent adventures. There was nothing we couldn’t confide in each other.
My best friend is a Sikh. I’m a Hindu. It never mattered one bit.
When her family had an important function at the gurudwara, we would go. When
my family had an occasion to celebrate at the temple, her family would come. It’s
just the way it was in the late 70s and early 80s in our communities in Montreal.
Politics was about the furthest thing from our teenage minds. We were more
preoccupied with our dreams for the future and our boy crushes to be concerned
with all that. In some ways, we were sheltered by our youth.
But it was inevitable that we sensed our parents’ growing uneasiness, overheard
snippets of conversations of the horrors taking place between Hindus and Sikhs in
India in the mid-1980s, and ultimately understood the gravity of the changing
situation. For the first time, there seemed to be a distance growing between the two
communities in Canada.
In fact, one of my family’s closest friends, with three kids who were the same ages as
my sisters and I and with whom we share so many of our fondest childhood
memories, were Sikh. Suddenly, we stopped seeing them. I remember my dad
explaining to me that we were all just taking a bit of a break from one another…that
it was the best thing to do in order to let things cool down and save the friendships
down the road.
I was lucky. I had good role models. So did my best friend.
At the height of the atrocities, she and I finally addressed the elephant in the room –
the elephant in our friendship! – over lunch in the school cafeteria. I remember it
like a scene from a movie…the two of us focused exclusively on each other almost
like there was a spotlight on us, fading all the noisy high school kids around us into
the background. It felt like our friendship was hanging in the balance. How would
we handle this tension between our two communities? Would it change things between us? Would we become defenders of our own faiths? Would we blindly
champion the actions of wrongdoers simply because of our shared religion?
It turns out that two somewhat silly teenage girls could actually get it right.
There was no false pride. There was no willful blindness. The only thing there was,
was a mutual agreement to say that wrong was wrong, regardless of who did it. I
was ashamed that Hindi mobs were taking to vigilante justice against innocent Sikh
men, women and children in the name of revenge for Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
She was ashamed that militant Sikh factions were waging a war with innocent
civilians in the name of an independent state of Khalistan.
This is not to say that either of us denounced our own faiths. In fact, just as she is a
proud Sikh, I am a very proud Hindu! Hinduism is an inclusive, non-missionizing
faith…everyone is welcome. There are several epic legends that have been handed
down through the generations with superheroes and super-villains that rival the
Marvel franchise in entertainment value, but also provide a moral code of conduct if
you look closer. Many of the bhajans, traditions, customs and celebrations fill me
And yet, I don’t love everything about Hinduism. There are certain practices that
disturb, and even more, offend me. Some have to do with the thread of patriarchy
that runs deep in temple practices. Another I experienced in the city of Varanasi,
India, which is often described as a sacred and soulful place, and which I fully
expected to be the heart of pure Hinduism.
What I found instead threw me into a crisis of faith.
There are temples everywhere in Varanasi, often deep within the labyrinth of
covered markets with narrow alleys and merchants peddling wares on either side.
At first I thought it was kinda cool as I was coaxed into the maze and then guided to
this “secret hidden temple”. That feeling soon wore off.
My husband and I were taken from one spot to another where various rituals were
performed and mantras chanted. At each spot, there was a request for a donation. At
first we gave because we wanted to, eventually we gave because we felt like we had
to. Repeatedly we were asked by various “priests” if we were comfortable with our
donation amount and ‘look how much so-and-so from Canada has given’. It felt like a
crude cash grab, nothing remotely resembling a pure spiritual practice. In Varanasi,
I experienced the “business of religion”…of Hinduism. And I didn’t like it one bit.
It took me a while to accept that I didn’t have to like, or even respect, every aspect of
Hinduism or the way in which it is practiced in order to still love my faith. I could
love it and disagree with it at the same time. That’s not a contradiction. I’ve come to
see it as a healthier relationship with my faith, or any faith for that matter. We all
know the tragic pitfalls of turning a blind eye to the flaws of any religion…just look at the state of the world today where unspeakable acts – often not sanctioned by the
teachings of the faith – are committed in the name of religion.
Ultimately, religion should serve the people, not the other way around. And we
shouldn’t be afraid to take a stance against those who abuse the tenets of their faith.
Wrong is simply wrong. And it really should not be so hard to call out, just as two
teenage girls once did long ago.