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The Sikh


Jun 1, 2004
This little piece called 'The Sikh' was written by my mother Rose Stanton in 2003. It describes her meeting with a Sikh man in the post-war period in Victoria in the mid 1940s.

There were three regular hawkers who raised my excitement levels when I was a child in a country town. I vividly recall their visits the year I turned eight.

There was the Rawleigh’s man in his little car with display cases crammed full flavourings, spices, ointments, unguents and other marvels. It was like seeing an Aladdin’s cave when he opened up the cases to display his treasures.

My mother always bought a bottle of vanilla extract from him. It had a marvelously heady scent and made a delicious flavouring for cakes, puddings, biscuits and icings. Occasionally, she would be tempted to add some soothing balm to her purchases.

There was the swarthy little Singhalese (Sri Lankan) in his old-fashioned little van full of intriguing rolls of material. He would unleash a swathe of exotic silk in pea{censored} colours, or filmy gold-thread embroidered chiffon or workaday cotton prints across one arm and drape a mock skirt around his waist, causing me to giggle because he looked so incongruous.

Finally, there was the magnificent Sikh. Tall, black beard, neatly curling, flashing brown eyes, and those intriguing turbans in different bright shades each day. He drove an old-fashioned covered wagon with a placid, sturdy bay horse pulling it along. Its harness of red leather was trimmed with little silver bells that jingled enchantingly as he drove up to the front gate.

He used to park his wagon and tether his unharnessed horse in the park next door to our house when his day of door-to-door sales was over. I could sneak out and join him at his campfire as he cooked charparti in a pan and ate them with his long brown fingers. Dusted with cinnamon and sugar, they were delicious. He would cook more and more of them until I had had enough. He ate his charparti with a vegetable in a blackened pot. Then he boiled his billy and made tea. This too, he would share with me.

The novelty of this brown-skinned gentleman from beyond the seas enchanted me. He was welcoming, kindly, and very correct in his manners and behaviour. When my mother saw what I was doing, she brought him little gifts of vegetables from our garden or fruit from the orchard just so she could check up that it was safe for me to visit him. Sometimes she brought him hot scones or bread rolls from the oven or a pot of homemade jam. As time went by, it was I who brought the little gifts to him. Meticulously, he would give me a little trinket in return—a jangly bracelet, a hair ornament, a dainty necklet, an exquisite lacy handkerchief. I felt like a queen.

Always, I was full of questions. Why did he wear a turban? How did he make charparti? Where did all those trinkets and treasures in his wagon come from? Patiently and politely, he would answer my questions. But as the sun began to set and the sky darkened, he would send me home bursting with new facts I’d learnt and wanted to share with my family.

One evening as I left him and his wagon, I remarked that I was going home to have a bath. 'You Australians think you are so clean!' he declared. 'You sit in your dirty bathwater to rinse yourselves. That’s dirty, not clean!' I gaped at him, a little stunned by his surprising attack. ‘How do you get clean?’ I demanded. ‘You don’t even have a bath or bathroom.’ ‘But s/.till I clean myself every morning and every night,’ he told me with a smile. Intrigued, I asked 'How?'

He turned and went into his wagon and came out moments later carrying an enamel basin. In it were a dipper and a cake of soap. A fresh white towel was draped over his shoulder. He went to his water barrel which was lashed onto the back platform of his wagon, and half –filled the basin with cold water.

He set the basin down on the grass beside the wagon and fetched a billy of hot water from the campfire hook. He removed his full-length shirt and squatted beside the basin, scooping some of the water over first his head and then, his body with the little dipper. Then he lathered his head, body, and limbs with soap. This completed, he scooped up more water and more water in the dipper and rinsed first his head and then his torso. To rinse his limbs, he stood up and ladled dippers of water onto his legs and his arms. Then he spoke for the first time since I had asked him how he bathed. 'See. I am clean with clean water.' Then he began to towel himself dry.

I couldn’t get home fast enough to share with my family the fact that Sikhs had clean baths and we had dirty ones. My mother was decidedly unimpressed.

Looking back at that moment, I think it was probably the thought of what the Sikh was or wasn’t wearing as he demonstrated his clean bath for me that had my mother worried.

By the time I went to high school, the Sikh had stopped his regularly visits to my little country town. We thought nothing of this. The war, with its petrol rationing and with so many men going off to fight in one of the armed services, saw many resident and itinerant men disappearing from the town.

I never thought about the Sikh again until one day, when I was walking down a busy city street, I noticed this tall turbaned gentleman. He was elegantly dressed in a business suit waiting at a tax rank. 'Heavens!' I thought. 'Doesn’t he look like my Sikh hawker?' Then I chuckled because I guessed that just as all Chinese are suppose to look alike to we westerners, all Sikhs probably did too. While these thoughts flitted through my mind, I had stopped dead in my tracks staring at the turbaned stranger.

Suddenly, to my embarrassment, I realised that I was now being stared at. The gentleman walked towards me, hand outstretched, saying, 'Rose? Can it be my little Rose?'

'Not so little now,’ I laughed, as I took his hands in mine.

'Isn’t it silly?' I said. You remember my name and I don’t even know yours. You never told me. I always called you ‘The Kind Sikh Hawker.’ ‘Well,’ he said with a smile, ‘It’s Dr. Kind Sikh Hawker now. I’m a doctor at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

'How come?' I demanded. 'That’s quite a transition!'

'It’s a long story. Put briefly, my mother died when I was just a toddler so my father took me on his hawker’s wagon and I made his rounds with him. A little white goat provided the milk I needed and my father did everything else. He always wanted me to become a doctor and he began to save to make my education possible. He died when I was just sixteen so I became the Sikh hawker until I had enough saved to go to school to qualify for university.'

'I always remember the night you told me that I had a very dirty bath, like all Australians. It started me thinking about attitudes to other peoples’ cultural backgrounds. It opened up my mind to accepting with an open mind and heart, the practices of people of other cultures. That was a wonderful gift you have me that night.'

'Do you still sit in your dirty bathwater?' he teased.

'No I clean myself under the shower first and only climb into the bath to soak myself once I’m clean.' Dr. Sikh laughed. 'And I just shower now, not bathe. We both learned from the other.'

He took my arm and said, 'Would you like to join me for a cup of coffee, my old friend?' 'I’d rather have tea,' I replied. We both laughed as we walked off to a nearby café to renew our friendship.

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