Image: Gabi Lardies
Image: Gabi Lardies

The Sunday EssayMarch 31, 2024

The Sunday Essay: Queer Sikhs on the cusp of tomorrow

Image: Gabi Lardies
Image: Gabi Lardies

Some thoughts on my queer and Sikh identities, and how they mesh and collide.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Sundays were exciting, as they promised crispy bread pakora and chai over Punjabi chatter. If I was lucky, there would be jelabi, an orange spiral of sweet goodness prepped in the hot, crowded kitchen. I’d gulp it down in a single bite, sitting under the paintings of martyrs being scalped and buried alive. 

Afterwards, I’d run into the kitchen with sticky hands and an empty plate. I could feel the heat on the hairs of my arms from the giant puddle of oil in the wok; hear the sound of metal clanging against heads of garlic; see the kind face of a man pouring more water into the refill zone and turbans shining under the fluorescent lighting. The langar hall promised a warm meal for all. 

My nani (maternal grandmother in Punjabi), with her round sunglasses and white shawls, hoisted me onto her knees to tell me stories of Sikhi and the origins of langar. Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Sikh guru of ten, was given 21 rupees to start a business. He met weary and tired religious travellers on his way to the city. He offered to give them money, but they said receiving money from a well-off man felt degrading. So Guru Nanak brought food and cooked it, sitting on the floor with the religious folks and exchanging stories. This created the tradition of langar, where we all sit together on the floor to symbolise our equality in God’s eyes. 

So we sit on blue mats, our feet equally cold in the heatless room. My father spends more time in the langar hall than in the prayer room. This is where he chats with the men he met in small Onehunga flats when they were starving migrants. Everyone is welcome to langar; for this purpose, the langar hall and kitchen are always separate from the worship room. There is no need to thank a God you do not believe in to accept our kindness. 

The most significant act of devotion as a Sikh is to take care of the world around us, because we believe we are simultaneously part of God as well as God’s creation. Through cooking meals, donating money, volunteering and teaching children or elderly people, Sikhs are worshipping God. This act is called seva. 

At age 12, I followed my nani’s loose pastel scarf into the gurdwara (Sikh temple) when I noticed a group of elderly women, heads covered in devotion with bright scarves, reciting the Punjabi alphabet. Their voices sounded tender yet powerful, an elder again becoming a child. Nani explained that she was the only educated girl out of her six sisters. Despite nani’s desire to attend university, she felt unsafe being the only woman to attend the local campus. 

At home, I would ask my father how my dadi (paternal grandmother) would reply to his letters, back when it was a dollar for every minute he called home. She would ask a village girl to read it out loud to her, sipping chai in her pale and sunny home, the words a blur of jumbled letters. How strange for my religion to create a new text for lower caste people and women, only to leave generations of women uneducated in the name of culture. I imagined my nani as a girl, curled up in her grandmother’s bed with a stomach full of fresh milk, bedtime stories of Sikh liberation and a light turned off to promise a better world tomorrow.

Our eternal Guru is Guru Granth Sahib, the central holy scripture written in Gurmukhi. The room where I visit the Guru has white fabric drawn across the floor. At the back of the room, I watched people bow down to the Guru one by one, their heads covered in turbans or scarves an act of worship. The Guru sees them as equal, but my local Sikh temple committee has decided it is crucial to segregate which floor men and women sit on. Often the faces of the committees are men, while women are silently ushered towards the kitchen.

An elder’s hand is often coarse and heavy from the weight of their familial pressure to reject schooling in exchange for cooking. All their bright scarves are devoted to a Guru they could not see. I pray for them, as they are a part of me; their joy at reading is mine. Often middle-aged mothers born from a lineage of illiterate women operate the classrooms that teach literacy within the temple.

Through people’s acts of seva, I learnt how to read Gurmukhi. We often discussed religious stories, and I became fascinated with the concept of gender in Sikhi. God does not have a gender, as they (God) existed before the manmade idea of gender. God is formless, transcendent. We dance with them, we are them, we are a part of their creation, and if we align ourselves right with the prayers and avoidance of maya (illusions of the world like drugs, beauty standards, wealth and competition with one another) we could join them in the centre of the universe. 

In Sikhi, the word for God is ਵਾਹਿਗੁਰੂ (pronounced wa-he-gu-roo), translating toteacher of the air”. As we speak, we transmit knowledge; within this knowledge, God is present, guiding our hands gently. What is more genderfluid than the air itself? 

On the other hand, my Sikh identity is at odds with my queerness. Sometimes, at parties, my shoe kicking into the dirt of West Auckland backyards, I’d make comments about God, and they would be met with dismissive laughter. Religion is a bit of a joke in queer communities, and after centuries of being at odds with one another, who can blame them? Religion and queerness mimic the patterns of an overdomineering mother, wishing to craft her child out of the clay from the lakeside, and a child with fast feet. Neither realise that they cannot exist without each other; in their moulding and destruction of one another, they create one another. 

Over the coffee table covered with Punjabi newsletters and biscuits, my nani laughed about a story of two women marrying. I often think of being a child, listening to my nana’s (maternal grandfather in Punjabi) prayer as the sun dips away. The gentle pull of his hands as he moves over the prayer book. The birds easing to sleep; the sweet scent of mothballs from my grandmother’s shawl. Queerness is a religion: a devotion to discovering oneself. Maybe it’s selfish to want more than one religion, to want a God and a girl to understand it too.

Since I was a child, sprinting through the hallways wearing a bandana and jeans instead of a salwar kameez with a dupatta, I knew I was different. My bisexuality often manifests as isolation from the right way of performing femininity. Men and women occupy different spaces in the temple, sitting opposite one another for cultural rather than religious reasons. In protest, I often followed my nana to the men’s section; a long-haired girl wearing a loosely wrapped scarf with her boyish jumpers. 

When I am in front of the guru, I remind myself that he knows who I am, as he has created me as much as I have created him. Gurnanak (another way of saying Guru Nanak Dev Ji) often becomes an imaginary friend whenever I hear homophobic remarks in the gurdwara. I imagine his disbelief that we are still thinking about gender as a set of rules to follow – doesn’t this count as an illusion of the world? 

I often think of the twelve-year-old version of Gurnanak who refused to wear a religious string that only upper-caste boys were permitted to wear, his steely calmness when he explained, as a child, that he is not brought closer to God by pretending he is better than God’s other creations. 

While the challenges of Punjabi homophobia and transphobia exist, I have to remember that Sikhi is a religion created out of a warzone. I am resilient, both as a queer individual and as a Sikh. We transform the world, carving spaces of equality. In my home, there is always food for all, and gender is just an illusion we mess around with.

Keep going!