Dr. I. J. Singh

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Dr. I.J. Singh, Professor and Coordinator, Anatomical Sciences, New York University.

A Younger IJSingh.jpg

Dr. Singh is also an accomplished author and a man whose Chardi kala shines forth in his smile and seemingly in his every word, though my meeting with him was very brief I can honestly say it was one of the most pleasurable meetings of my life. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gurtrude Stein, Stein writes as if from Alice's hand speaking of Stein, "I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say that in each case it was before there was any recognition of the quality of genius in them." …Dr. Singh rings just such a bell.

The following is an article written by Dr. I.J. Singh printed in the Community Profiles Section of The Sikh Foundation.

Dr. I.J. Singh writes,

I remember the date August 11, 1960 - when I landed in New York. The move to the United States was a bit of a fluke. I had just graduated from Government Dental College in Amritsar. The Murry & Leonie Guggenheim Foundation announced a competition for two fellowships to Indians for study in Pediatric dentistry. I applied. My father wondered aloud what foundation would award a fellowship to a young inexperienced person with a spotty academic record. Six months later I was on my way to New York.

The cabbie from the airport told me he was a Jew. I didn't know much about Jews. So he invited me to his home for Sabbath dinner and I learnt about the extraordinary kindness of strangers and the complex mosaic that is the contemporary American society.

After the fellowship I stayed to pursue graduate school. The University of Oregon was a fraction of the cost at New York University or Columbia University. So to Portland, Oregon, I went. I had to look at a map and find out where Oregon was or that there was another Portland in Maine.

I acquired a Ph.D. in anatomy from the University of Oregon Medical School and a D.D.S. from Columbia University. The professional pursuit was not always easy. I was a graduate student during the day while working at night at minimum wage (at that time $1.25 an hour), processing several hundred rolls of film overnight.

Sikhs are not new to America; the first Sikhs arrived in this country over a hundred years ago. But they were mostly farmers and laborers. Educated Sikhs started arriving here after the British left India, when opportunities in Great Britain dwindled and gates to America opened through its many scholarship and fellowship programs. When I came to America in 1960 there were probably no more than two or three recognizable Sikhs in New York and that is counting me.

Oregon was even more isolating. But driving around Portland in the early 1960's, one day I saw a sign Punjab Tavern. On entering I encountered an old lady behind the bar. She told me that when she was a little girl, there were Sikhs in the area who used to frequent this tavern that was owned by her father. There were racial problems and all the Sikhs had gone to California or Canada.

In Oregon it was not uncommon for people to see me a lone Sikh with a turban walking about and their missionary zeal would be aroused. Here was a soul that needed redemption. They would invite me to their churches or schools to speak on Sikhism. Initially this posed a problem. What I knew of Sikhism I had learnt primarily by osmosis by living in a Sikh society and a Sikh home not in any systematic fashion. Of India and Indian history I knew mostly platitudes. These invitations in a sense challenged me to either discard the outer trappings of Sikhism or to learn why I was the way I was.

I became a U.S citizen around the time that the ultra liberal Hubert Humphrey ran for the Presidency, the Vietnam War was in full swing and the campaign for racial justice was catching our imagination.

In the early 1970's thousands of women and some men, led by icons like Gloria Steinem, marched down Fifth Avenue in New York to demand gender equality. Of the less than half a dozen recognizable Sikhs in New York at that time, I may have been the only one at the parade. Suddenly, from the leaders of the procession, one woman spotted me and yelled, Come join us, your women need this more than we do. I walked in to march alongside her. I tried to tell her that women in India had more rights under the law and that there were more women physicians and politicians in India than in America. She reminded me of their lack of power in the Indian society and family.

I marched for racial equality and against the Vietnam War, although gingerly. I was not yet an American citizen and was afraid. But this has always been an open society. The year I came here '1960' was the first ever televised debate between Presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. The questioners were blunt, the answers were as honest as politicians ever give, and the postmortem of the debates by journalists absolutely ruthless. I ruefully wondered if Indian society could ever be so open. I still wonder.

Racial discrimination touched us all although the policy was not consistent across the country. I joined a rally against George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama who was then a candidate for the Presidency. He saw me and I think he was flummoxed.

Most Americans have generally been only minimally knowledgeable about Sikhs or Indians. Many people would accost me on the street in my earlier days and would wonder if India had colleges or cars or where I had learned my English. The pride of America was in the fact that almost every house had two cars. Finally I worked out what I thought was a rib tickling parody. I would say that I came from a relatively well off middle class family in India; no cars but two elephants. One of the elephants was old and decrepit and of not much use except for shopping around town while the other was a younger, racier model. But at least I didn't have to ask, Hey Dad, can I have the elephant tonight?�

My answer was partly true. We were a middle class family. I was born in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan. My father had been a star student at Punjab University from high school to his degree with honors in Physics. He was innately the sharpest mind I have ever known and, given the opportunity, might have become a trail-blazing scientist. But he was one of nine children, so he joined the Punjab Public Service Commission and rose to become its Secretary.

My father's approach to his religion was rational and analytical. My mother had a deeply devotional attachment to Sikhism. It took me years of floundering and rebelling to see that Sikhism had to be encountered through the dual lenses of faith and intellect. That was my parents' legacy to us. They also loved books, so we leared early that becoming voracious readers defined the path to approval. The parables from Sikhism on which our mother raised us have stayed with us. I found much later that my paternal grandfather had been the Stationmaster at Nankana Sahib during the Sikh struggle to free our gurdwaras from hereditary mahants. He provided food and shelter to many Sikhs during the struggle and for this was promptly shipped to Moga by the British government.

I started school at Montessori School in Lahore when I was four years old. I remember the partition of India; we escaped one week later on August 22, 1947 with the help of a Muslim truck driver. My father returned a few days later accompanied by an army escort and found the house plundered and occupied. He could not believe that his Muslim neighbors and friends would so quickly put asunder the ties that bound us.

There is one memory of those days that is as vivid as on the day that it happened. One afternoon within days of escaping to Jalandhar, I was playing in the street very close to the railroad tracks. A train stood on the tracks surrounded by Hindus and Sikhs. I heard loud explosions that were gunshots. Then I saw a man come to the tap in the street to wash the blood off his dagger. Later I leared that a trainload of Hindus and Sikhs was rumored to have been murdered on its way to India from Pakistan and this was the payback to Muslims escaping to Pakistan.

Most Sikhs, when they come from India, are at best cultural Sikhs and know very little of the rudiments of their faith. Living here in a predominantly non-Sikh milieu they either become better Sikhs or they abandon Sikhism. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me had I lived my life in India.

So I learned a little of the Sikh ways and also of the lives of my Jewish and Christian neighbors. I grew to explore the philosophic depth and the beauty of the Sikh faith. Now I can assert that I was born a Sikh but I regard myself as a convert to Sikhism. Four years ago I became an amritdhari Sikh. But this journey is far from complete and I remain a pilgrim on an endless path.

While a graduate student in Oregon, I met a fellow student who was working in experimental psychology. Pauline and I married in 1968 and later moved to New York. A daughter was born to us, Anna Piar, a name combined from those of the two grandmothers. She remains the source of much joy and occasional heartache. Our marriage dissolved when Anna Piar was not quite three.

For a number of years I remained single, ambling around New York discovering the beauty and the shallowness of our society. In those single years someone suggested the name of a young Sikh professional woman. I called her. We talked on the telephone several times. Finally we thought we should meet. Then she asked: "Before we meet I want to know - are you a modern Sikh"� I was taken aback but recovered quickly and thoughtlessly replied, "Of course, I am modern. I know which fork to use with which dish at dinner and absolutely never walk out of my house without clothes; I am not entirely primitive. What exactly do you wish to know"� We all know what she was really asking, was I a keshdhari Sikh. I am not surprised to hear such formulations from Sikhs but I am disappointed. I never thought that not being keshadhari had anything to do with being modern. The former is an article of faith for a Sikh, the latter is a state of mind. Needless to say we never met.

In 1990 a Sikh young lady from Delhi, Neena, was visiting her sister in Seattle. She came to New York and before she could return I had a moderate heart attack. I recovered, she stayed and we got married.

I grew up loving literature and poetry but learned soon enough that you couldn't make a living in literature. So at the urging of my father I joined Dental College. In this country, my professional life moved along fairly steadily. After the PhD, I completed a two-year stint as a Special Research Fellow of the National Institute of Health and then joined the faculty of New York University, where I am now Professor and Coordinator of Anatomical Sciences. The academic life practices the principle of publish or perish and I, too, lived by it. Over the years I published and presented over 100 research papers and reports in professional journals and in books; I also trained several graduate students and directed their doctoral research. Within seven year of starting as a new assistant professor I was a full professor, the only keshadhari Sikh at that rank at New York University. I also hold Adjunct Professorships at Columbia University and Cornell University medical schools and have lectured at many medical and dental colleges across the country. With such activity come professional affiliations and recognition and I have enjoyed my share. Whenever I appear before students to lecture I am aware that I am a Sikh, by definition a student.

Soon it will be time to retire from a satisfactory professional career. Has there been discrimination in professional life? Of course, though not overt, and minimally. Yes, there is a glass ceiling but it is possible to push against it. I would not be quite so optimistic in any other society including the land of my birth, India.

A most traumatic period in my sense of identity came in June 1984 when the Indian Army attacked the Golden Temple. Policies of the Indian government seemed selectively designed to single out Sikhs for discrimination, arrests, even torture and killings. I believe that successive Indian governments, by their shortsighted policies, brought the country close to fragmentation. For many Sikhs like me in the diapora this was the defining period for our sense of self.

It was around 1984 that I leared to separate my Indian identity from the American ethos that had come to define me. I started a more serious study of Sikhism - its religion and its culture. I also became much more active in writing and speaking out about Sikhism and our Sikh existence outside India.

On looking back I see that an early indication of a serious interest in Sikhism was when I started to publish reviews of books on Sikhism. Some essays followed which were meant to chronicle my own growth along the path of coming to terms with Sikhism. Thanks to Professor N. Gerald Barrier, a book of essays followed. I was aware that most books on Sikhism enjoyed an embarrassingly meagre run. But I was absolutely floored by the response particularly by young college age Sikhs and my first book went through two reprints. Then the Centennial Foundation (Canada) issued a revised second edition. In 2001 they published a second book of a new collection of my essays on how Sikhism engages many contemporary topics.

It appears that as I am slowly closing my professional career in teaching and research, a new door is opening, which is equally if not more gratifying. I cannot possibly describe the pleasure in exploring and honing the many facets of our Sikh existence in the diaspora.

The past year has been discomforting and disconcerting. For many Americans a man in a turban looks too much like Osama bin Laden. Sikhs have been hassled at airports and in the streets. A man claiming to be a patriot killed one Sikh in Arizona. Such behavior is clearly contrary to American values.

As tense as things get on the street sometimes, America remains a most tolerant and open society. Recently, I met a clearly educated man on the street. After chatting a while he turned serious and somewhat apologetically asked, "Tell me, when your people came here why didn't they leave their religion back home"� I was flabbergasted for a moment. Finally I turned to him and said: "Yes, I can answer that equally briefly. Tell me, when your people came here why didn't they leave their religion back home"� For a moment he was nonplussed but then he smiled. "You have a point," he said.

It has been an extraordinary 42 years and now I know no other home than here. I have changed internally. Some Indians on the street who appear pseudo-westernized look at my external self and wonder if I have remained untouched by America. My Indian friends remind me how American I have become in my ways while my American friends smile at what they call my Indian ways of thinking. I reckon they are both right.

When I talk to young Sikhs my message to them that I have distilled from my lifetime here is that, " Much as it is possible to be a good Jew and a good American, or a good Christian of any sort and a good American, it is just as possible to be a good Sikh and a good American; the two terms are not mutually exclusive."

November 1, 2002


In Nov. of 2003 he made a presentation at the Sikh American Society of Georgia, US


Also see: How modern are you?

Some Books by Dr. I.J. Singh

  • THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SIKHI, Published by The Centennial Foundation, Ontario, Canada, 2006
  • Sikhs and Sikhism, The Centennial Foundatin (2006)
  • Sikhs & Sikhism: A View With a Bias, South Asia Books (December 1997)
  • Sikh Way: A Pilgrims Progress, Centennial Press (2001)
  • Unquestionable Truth, s.n. (1975)
  • Winning Friends, an Essay printed on shikhchic.com [1]

References

  • The Sikh Foundation, Contact at > [2], A Biography on Dr. I.J. Singh