Thursday, December 6, 2007
The Singhular Warrior
In the old days you might have seen him steering a bullock-cart along the trunk road, oblivious of impatient hoots from motorists. Or, if you were up early enough, you might have heard the clink and rattle of his antique bicycle laden with milk bottles. These days you're more likely to find him wielding a shotgun outside some bank - or waving his hands in the courtroom.
Then again, you're just as likely to spot him in highly animated conversation with a clique of boisterous cronies, unwinding in some kedai kopi with an astonishing number of Guinness empties on the table (plus a few quart bottles of Sahip under his chair). And later you'd catch him snoring beside a warehouse on his charpoy (a well-ventilated bed with ropes stretched across a wooden frame).
You could also run into him in the mid-day heat and be forced to suppress a giggle, seeing his thick black beard so daintily cradled in a sheer nylon net. And, with a bit of luck, you could be witness to a positively breathtaking sight when he lets down his hair - all the way down to his knees (recalling some cryptic lines from the late great Beatle and honorary Sikh, Mr John Lennon, who told the world to 'Come Together' and 'Grrrrrow your hair.')
I remember, too, childhood tales of the Turbaned Terror: 'Now don't be naughty or the bai-ee will come and get you!' Indeed the fear would have been very real if you happened to be a civil servant who'd just received his pay packet. For there was a time when our Turbaned Terror was a dominant figure in the money-lending trade (and I still feel that our current debt crisis would never have occurred had we left the credit business in the strong, umbrella-brandishing hands of these Singhular Warriors).
And, to be sure, you must have heard the occasional Sikh (sic) joke or two, e.g.:
Name the Sikh who loves early morning swims. Kuldip Singh.
Name the Sikh who loves early morning swims but always stays underwater. Kuldip Singh Gill.
Name the Sikh who never accepts a hard drink. Jasbir Singh.
Name the Sikh who puts iced water in his brandy. Yam Singh.
How about the Sikh who sticks to packet drinks? Yeo Hiap Singh.
Who will be the last Sikh left on earth? Jaswant Singh.
Name the Sikh who pisses everybody off. Tuna Singh.
You see, the name 'Singh' is what distinguishes members of this hirsute breed from the rest of the world. It means 'lion' - and every young Sikh (or Singhlet, as the wags would have it) is raised as a potential Khalsa or spiritual warrior. Among other considerations, a Khalsa must wear a protective nagle at all times and carry a double-edged dagger (far more protective - though modern societies tend to discourage such a practice). Also, the Khalsa must never be shorn or shaved - but nowadays you'll find a growing number of 'renegades' who have undergone voluntary deturbanisation in the spirit of ethnic transcendence (though I suspect it's more for convenience).
The first thing one notices about these contemporary clean-cut Singhs is that they are an exceptionally handsome race with well-chiselled features (hitherto concealed under those look-alike tribal turbans and heavy beards). And, as to be expected, Sikh traditionalists view this trend with alarm. All clans tend to be clannish, I suppose - especially when awesome, silver-bearded 90-year-old patriarchs still try to run the show.
But, with or without his turban, a warrior the Singh remains. Many are in the police force, some as top-ranking officers. Others are quite happy monopolising the market for night watchmen. However, the warrior spirit manifests itself most dramatically in the realm of Law: some of our finest legal minds have emerged from the Khalsa fraternity.
As for Sikh women... well, very little is known about them except that they spend their days rolling flour to keep the menfolk supplied with their daily chappati. And they're all named Kaur, meaning 'lioness' - and they all seem to have at least five big brothers, each over six feet tall (which explains why I know so little about Sikh women).
There have been times when I really regretted not being a Singh. Like when I was forced to wear a short wig just to enter Singhapore (oops!) or when I had to give up riding a motorbike because I can't stand crash helmets.
kedai kopi - Malay for coffee shop.
bai-ee - Punjabi for 'brother' (usually spelt bha'i).
Yam Seng - what the Chinese yell when downing watered-down brandy.
Yeo Hiap Seng - well-known brand of packet drinks (and many other consumables).
Tuna Singh - sounds like a popular Chinese expletive meaning 'Up yours!'
chappati - unleavened panbread, a Sikh staple.