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Simi Singh Juneja Headshot

The Sikhs Next Door

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The Sikhs gunned down today in Wisconsin could have been my parents. Besides my mother being the founder and president of every organization she can think of to organize and be president of, she is also a founding member of her Sikh gurudwara in Virginia. This is a story I wrote about how they first met and fell in love. I believe now more than ever we need to tell our stories.

My parents had an arranged marriage. I can tell you the story about how they saw each other for the first time, in my sleep. I have heard it at every dinner party before the age of ten, and every road trip we have ever taken as a family. The details are always argued about.

"No Papa, I said it this way!" my mother would retort.

"No Mama, it was 1958 not 1959," my father says.

Even more, I can tell you how my father's eyes light up, and my mother starts giggling. He is 75 and she is 73. They saw each other briefly. It was decided, and they fell in love with each other after they were married. I actually believe they fell in love with each other the first time they exchanged words -- Urdu words. I know because I have every single one of their Urdu love letters that document where they stand on love, family, poetry and how they will choose to live their lives.

This is some of his first person recollection that I wrote down during one of our long road trips when Dad was in story telling form -- which he always was -- except during the Olympics when he wells up during opening ceremonies and no one can interrupt him.

I saw your mother on the road which leads to her village around 1958 or 1959. Prior to this meeting, her father had come to check me out for matrimony in Khalsa college when I was a professor there. So I then took it upon myself to go to her college for "Athletic Day" and there her father and mother recognized me. So on a dusty Batala road, her mom on her side, and my friend on my side... I don't think we spoke directly to each other. In between there was another glance I got of her.

A meeting was arranged at the Golden Temple. That arrangement was never communicated to me. When I came home, my grandmother told me I was supposed to meet the party from Batala at 11:30 a.m. It was already 12 noon so I took my bicycle and pedaled for two miles to reach the bus station to see if I could at least catch them on their way back to Batala. Lo and behold, Babuji, Bibiji, your mom and Jeeti Auntie were already sitting in the bus which was about to leave. I was drenched in sweat while I boarded the bus to say hello. There I briefly talked to everybody and apologized for not being at Darbar Sahib. My heart sank and it was a disappointing meeting.

Time passed, and I casually asked my maternal grandfather whether that girl got married. He understood my underlying sentiments and made a special journey to their house to see if the girl was willing. Her parents mentioned they were still looking for a suitable boy.

After this episode things started to sizzle. (I choke back open mouthed laughter because I can't picture Dad, sizzle, and in an Indian accent.) It was June, the hottest month in India, noon time. I knocked at the door of her older brother's house in Delhi. The aya opened the door.

"Is the man of the house here?"

"He is at his factory, how could he be here?" she answered abruptly.

"Is the lady of the house here?" I asked.

"She has gone to see her mother in Anand Parbat."

Thereafter, I asked if there was anybody else in the house, visiting or otherwise. "Yes, one Memsaheb has come from Batala and she is having a siesta." I begged her to wake the young lady up. She muttered something under her breath and disappeared behind the curtain. I waited.

Half awake and half asleep, a young lady pushed the curtain aside. Her hair was tangled and her veil was torn. I got the impression she recognized me, but she pretended not to and abruptly posed a question, 'Aapki taareef?' (An Urdu greeting which literally means: "How shall I praise you?" But the gist is "Who are you?")

Not to be outdone, I gathered myself up and replied in Urdu, "Jitne keejiey, utnehi kam!" (Roughly translated, it means: "However much you praise would be that much less!")

Even though it was searing hot weather, she froze like a snowman!

(I roll my eyes at the hyperbolic simile.)

Simi, I tell you, she. Could. Not. Move! She was stunned.

(Understand that on this particular road trip, it is just me and Dad, so he takes full advantage of the fact that Mom has no opportunity to interrupt him and express her version of events which usually sound like she was nonchalant.)

At that time, I humbly asked if I have her permission to step in the house. If I don't, then I shall leave: "Agar main jaanki aman paon, to deheliz aboor karun, agar aapki ijazat na ho to zeene se neeche uthar jaon?'"

She did not say anything but delicately stepped aside, and I walked in. She gestured toward the sofa for me to sit down. She went into the kitchen to get me a drink. She was so nervous, she started peeling the grapes for me to eat. Hahahaha.

(He is delighted at his interpretation of her reaction.)

When I hear these stories I feel alive. I feel connected to a meaningful past. It may be the words, but more so, it is in the moments when my father pauses and takes a breath. It is in the way he says, "my grandmother" as if he is still at that age and his grandmother is gently scolding him to be on time. I wish I was there, on the back of his bicycle, urging him to peddle faster towards his destiny. I wish I was there on the bus so I could reassure him that he would get the girl, and that he would get us.

I like the way he assumes that everybody meets at the Golden Temple to arrange the first meeting for matrimony. I never tire of hearing how it all started.

This story first appeared on the Smithsonian's Indian American Heritage Project Blog.