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Manhattan's Young Turban Professionals

Discussion in 'Sikh Youth' started by Aman Singh, Nov 10, 2009.

  1. Aman Singh

    Aman Singh
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    Jun 1, 2004
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    Manhattan's Young Turban Professionals


    Mandeep Singh was having dinner with a friend in Queens (New York, U.S.A.) several years ago when the subject turned to their common religion, Sikhism.

    Mandeep had grown up in India unquestioningly embracing the faith of his parents. As a college student in Delhi, India, he attended a gurdwara with a congregation well into the hundreds and a paid staff of a dozen, leaving him feeling devout yet somehow peripheral.

    By this time, working as a technology consultant in New York, Mandeep had a different sensation, not exactly unsettled but acutely curious. So when his friend mentioned that a local Sikh association had a page on Facebook, not exactly the place Mandeep was expecting to find religious direction, he eagerly clicked to it.

    The information there, posted by the Manhattan Sikh Association, included one particular phrase that piqued Mandeep's interest: "youth gurdwara." It led him, on a Thursday night in late 2007, to the rented multipurpose room of a luxury condominium building in Battery Park City.

    There, in a setting usually deployed for residents' meetings and children's birthday parties, white cloths covered the carpet and white sheeting obscured the mirrors. At the far end of the room sat the throne - palki - that held the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth.

    What most caught Mandeep's eye, though, were the other members of the congregation, or sangat. They were, like him, young professionals, the BlackBerry crowd, and as the worship service, or divan, proceeded over the next several hours, these amateur clerics took turns leading the reading of sacred poetry and the singing of devotional hymns.

    Ever since that first visit, Mandeep has been a regular participant in the Manhattan Sikh Association's divan, which is held the third Thursday of each month. In so doing, he forms one part of the Sikh version of what religion scholars call the emergent movement, a growing trend toward small, nimble, bottom-up, laity-led congregations that especially attract young adults.

    In evangelical Christian circles, the movement includes the scores of microcongregations of the Journey. The Jewish version, known as minyanim, or prayer groups, turns up in Brooklyn's Altshul and Washington's Tikkun Leil Shabbat, among other places.

    And for about 300 of the estimated 500,000 Sikhs in the United States, the divan in Battery Park City is not your chacha's - in Punjabi, your uncle's - gurdwara.

    "The one thing you feel here is a lot of young blood," Maneep Singh, now 28 and working as a contracts analyst for Bloomberg LLP, said after last Thursday's divan. "Since everyone is your age, you can ask the naïve questions, and by asking, you can learn the underlying principles. It encourages you, because it is being done by your peers."

    Amit Singh Guleria offered a similar view. At the age of 26, commuting into Manhattan daily from central New Jersey, working long hours as a construction engineer, Amit had sought a religious experience that fit both his generation and his lifestyle.

    "When you're living the life of someone in your 20s, it gives you a different energy," Amit said. "When you go to a traditional gurdwara, you feel more like an observer than a participant. Here, the onus is on us. And that's a responsibility we want to have."

    The route to such responsibility began in a Greenwich Village apartment in early 2007. The apartment belonged to Pritpal Singh Kochhar, who headed a foundation for Sikh culture and also led international trips for the Sierra Club.

    The population of Sikhs in the United States was steadily rising, but a spiritual leader of the American community, Harbhajan Singh Yogi, had died in 2004. Pritpal believed that it was vital for Sikhs to continue building new congregations in the manner he had.

    Using e-mail, social networking and old-fashioned word-of-mouth, Pritpal put together the initial 15 members of the Manhattan Sikh Association. In October 2007, it held the first divan in Battery Park City, drawing about 50 people.

    "We were wondering, Who are these people? Where are they coming from?" recalled Ms Simi Singh, 43, a product manager at JPMorgan Chase.
    The answer to Simi's rhetorical question is that they were coming, and still are coming, from the ranks of the young, well-educated and upwardly mobile. The divan includes doctors, lawyers, bankers, engineers, computer consultants, graduate students and at least one chef. Perhaps half are the American-born children of immigrants, half are immigrants themselves, and either way they have a foot apiece in tradition and dynamism.

    For while news media coverage of Sikhs in the United States has tended to focus on controversy - bias crimes against Sikh men, who are mistaken for Muslims because of their turbans, or civil rights suits by Sikhs to allow men to wear turbans and keep beards in various workplaces - the more prevalent, day-in-day-out experience is of finessing the balance between accomplishment and assimilation.

    The monthly divan deftly navigates between heritage and modernity. When worshippers enter with bare feet and covered head, when they bow before the scripture, they are fulfilling centuries-old obligations. The service follows the time-honoured sequence of readings, hymns, a discourse called katha, the distribution of the sweet sacramental food - karah parshad - and finally the sharing of a communal meal known as langar.

    But the words of the liturgy are projected from a laptop, both translated into English and transliterated phonetically for the many members who cannot read Gurmukhi, the script of the Sikh religious texts. One set of projections carries the logo, "Sikhi to the Max."

    The worship leaders, while literate in Gurmukhi and fluent in spoken Punjabi, are not professionals trained in one of India's Sikh religious colleges. A shifting array of volunteers play the tabla and harmonium and sing the hymns, tasks given over in more institutional gurdwaras to specialists or paid professionals.

    And while a typical divan in a conventional gurdwara might last four or five hours, this one held to its announced itinerary, finishing in two.
    Its effect was no less for the punctuality. "You get peace of mind here," said Mandeep Singh. "Even after a day of work, you get the meditative effect."
    [Courtesy: The New York Times]
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