The Turban and My Sartorial Adventures
I have had mostly pleasant encounters on account of my wearing a colourful and neatly tied stylish turban during my engagements with the Delhi University, Delhi, University of Amsterdam (Holland), Catholic Univ. of Lovain (Belgium), Imperial College, London, University of Bern in Switzerland, University of Dar-Es-Salaam, Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), University of Papua New Guinea, Universiti Putra, Malaysia, Queensland University, Brisbane (Australia), Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand and East West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii.
The encounter at Delhi University was not so pleasant on account of my Navy Blue turban. The HOD of Chemistry got the impression that I was an Akali and could bring in elements of Akali politics in the department. He tried to stop my admission in Ph D programme with a polite advice that I would do better in Indian Air-force. The matter went to the Vice Chancellor of the University and I was granted admission and eventually earned a Ph D degree after four years (lost almost six months in sorting things out).
I wore turbans in dark colours with neat six layers (now 5-layers) with contrast 'FIFTY' and matching shirt, neck tie, trousers and shoes.
In Holland, Belgium and Switzerland, I enjoyed preferential treatment wherever I went. At social level I got invited and photographed extensively.I was surprised when people frequently used to come to me in public places with a request that I like to buy you a drink if you would accept it?
In Amsterdam, my land lady would show my pictures to her relative and visitors with pride.
A Sikh from London spotted me in Amsterdam on seeing my turban. He was an artist from Southall. He was on a tour of various European cities by car. He was able to get me join him on his proposed tour. When we reached Germany late in the night we spotted a rest house. They had only two rooms one with four beds and another with single bed. They lodged my friend with shared accommodation and allocated me to stay in single bed room. My new friend was not so comfortable on the allocation. The manager jumped in that we cannot offer any thing better to the 'Maharaja -with Turban. My friend was a clean shaven Sikh who realised the dignity of Turban.
I was interviewed in Belgium for the research job in 1971. The Director of the Institute on offering me the job remarked it would be great to have you with us as an added attraction to the Institute and in the town Leuven. On social gatherings, I noticed others ordering the same drink the one I ordered. Others who were drinking the same drink as mine were often heard to whisper - look - he is drinking my choice of drink. Early last year, there was a get-together of the Institute and I was invited to join old colleagues.
In Bern, I went to a photographer to get some passport size pictures. He asked me if he could put a picture of mine in his show case - to which I agreed. After a week, I saw a lot of people gazing at me with appreciative glances. I became conscious and I asked my colleagues in the Bern University whether they have noticed something strange about my appearance. At this point I was told that we spotted a 5-foot portrait of you standing on a frame on the pavement outside a photographer's studio.I rushed back to the photographer and confronted myself on a stand. On my request he removed my portrait from the street on the condition that he will display a smaller size in his glass shelf.
During 1972-74, there were two other turbaned Sikhs living in Bern - one was Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh (Ambassador) and S. MP Singh (Consulate Officer). At times people would tell me that they spotted my relatives/brothers in Bern.
On arrival in Tanzania, I was greeted "Banna Singha" - a common respectable address for a Turbaned Sikh.
In Nigeria, I was known as "Alhaji" as most Muslim Nigerians who have performed Hajj normally wear Turbans on social functions. The Amirs in Nigeria also wear Turbans (white or black) in daily life. I enjoyed tremendous respect in Nigeria on account of a Turban on my head. The last (late) President of Nigeria did his Masters' Degree with me. My other students rose to become Professors, Vice Chancellors and Senior Govt. functionaries across the whole of Nigeria.
On the day a prominent Indian political leader passed away, the members of the Indian Community (150+) living in Nigeria took an offence on my maroon coloured Turban. They blamed me that I was jubilant on her death when actually I wore the Turban just as a normal routine. Later on the condolence meeting organised by the Indian Community, I went to the meeting in Black Turban with a written condolence message to be read in the meeting. The organizers did not allow me to read my message and blamed me that I wore Black Turban out of mockery. Some became very stiff with us on social level. After some years they all felt ashamed of their ignorance and became friendly.
I faced one ugly incident on a London street where a stone was aimed at me (did not hit me though) while entering a telephone both otherwise I had no problem in socialising with my colleagues at Imperial College.
In Malaysia, since there are Sikhs in prominent positions especially as medical doctors, lawyers, policemen, businessmen, academics and govt. servants etc, my Turban was amicably accepted at all levels.
In Papua New Guinea, I was the first Indian and also a Sikh appointed as a Professor in UPNG. One one occasion, the Governor General of PNG, attended a function organized by the Highlander students in UPNG and I was introduced to him. A few weeks later, he invited my and my wife to his residence on a party at the Govt. House. I asked him how come I am the only academic invited? He responded you look distinguished with Turban.
During my stay in PNG, four Indian High Commissioners were posted. All told me that when they met the Prime Minister of PNG first time the PM on welcoming them told them that we have a Turbaned Prof. Singh in UPNG.
When I was leaving PNG in 2007, a number of students (who even became big officers in public life) came to see me and told me -"Prof.- please do not leave PNG and stay here - when you will die we shall build a memorial in your honour in our State". An emotional offer flowing with respect.
In Australia and New Zealand, a Turbaned-Sikh (though not many visible) is accepted as such but many time I am asked questions about the length and time taken to fix a turban neatly and the significance attached to colours of Turban.
Since 1989, I serve as a Member, Board of Directors, Pacific Basin Consortium on Environment and Health, East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii. I get invited every second year on a Conference (the next Conference is from 24-27 September 2013 in Honolulu).
On the third day of my last conference, when I went to the Conference Venue in the morning, I saw a big poster (an enlarged cutting from a local Evening News Paper) hanging on the notice board showing me while trying to buy T-Shirts (Bearing Hawaii) from a roadside vendor for my two daughters. The captioned was 'Holiday session shopping on'. Certainly a press photographer took fancy of my Turban to include me in the Evening News. To get over embarrassment, I made sure that this happened outside the normal conference schedule of the day. It was indeed after the Conference Hours!
During a conference in Beijing in 2007, the delegates were taken out to visit the historic Tiamen Square. A number of times, I was singled out selectively by visitors from various countries to pose for a photograph with them on account of my Turban.
In most countries, people asked me to give a demonstration on 'How to fix a Turban'. They do not believe that it takes me 7-10 minutes to fix it using two mirrors.
I have enjoyed wearing a Turban and I cannot imagine myself without it. It is always nice to see a Sangat gathering wearing different colours of Turbans.
With Wahegur's blessings.
Wellington, New Zealand