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My 'fearsome' Sikh Has The Stamp Of Authority

Chaan Pardesi

Oct 4, 2008
London & Kuala Lumpur
My 'fearsome' Sikh has the stamp of authority

STEPHEN SCOURFIELD, Travel Editor, The West Australian October 3, 2010, 3:30 pm

He is a fearsome-looking Sikh. His dark blue turban is wound tightly and precisely around his head, its elliptical lip firm, a piece over his crown. A tight, silk tulip. Where it settles in an upside-down V on his forehead, the tight red cap beneath it shows in a perfectly horizontal line.

He has a short, grey, perfectly and neatly tied beard and a moustache with waxed ends.

The precision of all this is quite beautiful but he wears a stern expression.
His glasses sit on the end of his nose.

He is an immigration officer at New Delhi's international airport and it is he, and he alone, who will allow me to leave India.

I stand before him. "Good afternoon, sir." If I have learnt one thing, it is that addressing senior, proud, self-possessed Sikh men "sir" is a good and respectful thing.

Sikhs follow a monotheistic religion founded in Punjab in the 15th century by Guru Nanak, who lived from 1469 to 1539 and preached that spiritual liberation could be achieved through meditating on the name of God.

They are known for being religious and good cooks. Social justice and harmony are central to their belief, though Sikhs have never been shy of militant action. After two Anglo-Sikh wars between 1845 and 1849, Sikhs joined the British Indian Army in great numbers and were awarded 14 Victoria Crosses in World War II.

The Sikh looks fierce but there is nothing malevolent about him.
He looks up at me, over his glasses, and fixes me with a steady scrutiny; this man standing before him, hat in hand, calling him "sir".

He looks down at my passport and reads it slowly, then my boarding pass, then my outgoing passenger card.

"Step Hen Spen Sir." The syllables of my first names are read slowly and deliberately out loud. His mouth forms a great arc, the corners pointing down as he thinks about them. Then, having considered them, his mood seems to brighten and he nods, once, to himself.

The fearsome Sikh draws breath and reads the next line. "Scour." Pause. "Field." As if the two are divorced from one another; quite separate entities.

He looks up at me, to study this Scour Field who stands before him, silently requesting his approval to go home, then he looks down again.

"Writer." The Sikh doesn't look up. Perhaps he is considering which of India's fields I might have been scouring for stories to tell. "That is good," he says, his tone just perceptibly warmer.

"Thank you, sir." It sounds quite ridiculous.

"Good," he says, as if that piece of conversation is concluded.

He retraces a D and a 7 in the flight number I have written in block letters in their little boxes, as if they are not good enough - certainly not good enough for a writer.

He wobbles his head, only just perceptibly.

It varies from region to region throughout the 32 States of India. The people of Kerala are really quite enthusiastic head wobblers but, in my experience, Sikhs are more likely to use it conservatively.

It is the visual equivalent of the ubiquitous Hindi word "accha", which can mean anything from "I understand" to "good".

The wobble is most often used in the affirmative which, despite his corrections, is a good sign in this instance. Equally, it might be used just to acknowledge someone's presence or to say "thank you". It has several times been explained to me that a slow, soft wobble is a sign of friendship.

I am vaguely aware that, as all this has been progressing, a number of people have passed through the immigration desks either side of me, but I realise how I am delighting in this little play going on, in which we are the only two actors.

The Sikh has paused again, and then he reaches for his stamp, lifts it to check all is correct with the digits showing and there is enough ink, and then he deliberately and very sternly stamps my passport, my boarding pass and the outgoing passenger form. He looks at each intently, studying the marks he has made, and then he looks up at me over the top of his glasses: "You may go."

"Thank you, sir," I say to the fearsome Sikh.

I collect the documents he has put back on the shelf before me, and he looks at me, narrows his eyes and smiles warmly and intimately.

We both understand the formality and ritual that has passed between us.
"Namaste." He says the respectful Hindu greeting not in passing, but directly to me, fixing me with his blue eyes.

I have turned to go, but now stop and face him full-on again. "Namaste."
And we both bow out heads a little.

My fearsome Sikh, indeed.

Removed commercial material.


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