On Grandfathers and Grief

As I write this, my eyes are swollen from crying.  It’s not that I’m not accustomed to the news.  Taxi drivers shot.  Kids bullied.  Gurdwaras set on fire.  And the routine “hey Osama” on the street.  For ten years, I’ve documented hate against Sikh Americans, as well as Muslim, Arab, and other South Asian Americans.  I was twenty when I began this work a few days after 9/11.  Now I’m thirty.  I didn’t know I would be doing it for ten years.

But that’s not why I broke down tonight.  This most recent news — the shooting of two elderly Sikh men in Sacramento — has touched upon a deep grief in me.  Today, my grandfather would have turned ninety.  We would have fed him spoonfuls of pineapple upside down cake and whispered wishes in his ear, as in my family’s tradition.  He would have smiled, soft eyes beneath his white turban, and raised his trembling hand to bless us.  My mother would have given him a new sweater; my aunt, a new cane.  And I would have written him a poem.  He had collected my writings from a young age in a bright red binder, saying that he was keeping them safe for me.  He was a poet and always encouraged me to use words.  Tonight, I turn to words to write not praise but pain.

Those two elderly Sikh gentlemen, who both wore turbans, were gunned down on a daily afternoon walk in their neighborhood.  My grandfather looked like them.  Like them, he used to take afternoon walks too, hands clasped behind his back, humming evening prayers.  But he died a peaceful death — even a magnificent death — surrounded by his family who dabbed amrit (sacred nectar) on his lips before he took his last breath.  Not like Surinder Singh, who was killed moments after a passing Ford truck rolled down the window and fired shots in his back.  Gurmej Atwal, the friend who was with him, lies in the hospital in critical condition.

Surinder Ji’s granddaughter, Navi Kaur, spoke at a press conference this morning.  Her words were simple: “Our grandfather was a peaceful man who adopted this country as his own… He was a beloved father and a grandfather. He is with God now and we just want justice for this senseless, cowardly act.”

Navi and I are both granddaughters who loved and cherished our grandfathers.  But to the rest of the country, our grandfathers look like foreigners, even terrorists.  Their image matches Osama bin Laden’s, and ten years of education and advocacy hasn’t changed the way most people see them.  The recent shooting has not yet been confirmed as a hate crime, but local officials say that it’s likely.  Given the timing — days after the circulation of an anti-Muslim protest video and days before Peter King’s congressional hearings — the shooting matches a pattern that has held for the last ten years: anytime anti-Muslim rhetoric reaches a fevered pitch, hate violence against Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians resurfaces.  And turbaned Sikh fathers, sons, uncles, and grandfathers are always on the forefront.  They are your taxi drivers and convenience store workers, doctors and lawyers, children and elderly neighbors.  They are our family.

I take heart in one thing.  I’ve received calls and emails from people across the country offering support.  Many are heart-broken by news of the shootings and despair that not much has changed in ten years.  But one thing has changed: unlike ten years ago, there is a groundswell of people who want to build brave new ties to heal and repair this country.  Unlike ten years ago, there’s all of you.

We’re growing the Common Ground Campaign into a broader-based movement called Groundswell and invite you to join.  Sign the Charter for Common Ground.  More coming soon.