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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Learning to Fly: Peanut Butter, Sardines, and Turbans

Haagen Dazs Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream

During my most recent visit to New Delhi my cousin's wife re-introduced me to an old classmate, of whom I had only vague recollections. She was able to convince me that we had been classmates. She recalled that I used to bring peanut butter and honey sandwiches to school for recess. Of course, I had purged that little detail of my school days, along with all of the other embarrassments that caused me not to blend in. Nobody else brought peanut butter sandwiches to school for lunch. This was New Delhi, not Canada (the land of Winnie the Pooh), where I was born and raised for the first three years of my life and where I undoubtedly developed a taste for peanut butter sandwiches.

The school I attended was Modern School (initially the Humayun Road branch and later the Vasant Vihar branch, aka MSVV). This is a rather Westernized and hip private school. And yet no one except me brought peanut butter sandwiches to school. To add to my inability to blend in, unlike Guru Harkrishan Public School (GHPS) up the street on Poorvi Marg, not many kids at MSVV looked like me. So, in more than one way, I did not blend in. I had unshorn hair, worn in a top bun, as is done by observant Sikhs, and covered up using a patka or turban. Sikhs are like India's Jews, a mere two percent of the population, but responsible for disproportionately large contributions in the military, agriculture, transportation, sporting, and many other endeavors. Memories of me wearing a turban are some of my proudest moments, in large part because it made my family happy. Paradoxically, wearing a turban caused me to stand out, which is the direct opposite of blending in, but in a good way. Most kids, as well as adults, want to blend in, that is if they're not going to stand out in good way. Observant Sikhs automatically get to choose the latter.

My turban was welcome protection during the winter months. But for the most part it was a source of ridicule. Among the countless forms of teasing observant Sikhs have to endure in India's schools, friends openly speculate on whether their turbaned mates stand any chance with the most sought after girls. Gone were the days, it would appear, when a turban signified respect, honor and prestige in Indian society.

My former classmate's recollection about my fondness for peanut butter sandwiches had rung true because I still like them and they are, to this day, a favorite option for breakfast. The turban, on the other hand, is no more. I had never liked wearing it although I was quite adept at tying it neatly and looked smart in it, or so I was told. The protection a turban offered me in the winter months was massively offset by the discomfort of unshorn hair, especially during New Delhi's sweltering heat and never-ending hot spells.

To make things worse, my curly hair was particularly unsuited for keeping long. I remember countless hours of working through knots that would form in my hair after washing them and letting them dry for a few hours (see my Afro pictures from college days upon returning to Canada). As a kid I had help from my mom, but later in life I had to fend for myself. And it was quite an ordeal. I don't know what the statistics are globally, but at least in my circles curly hair are a fairly rare feature and so not many people (i.e men) have experience with the torture involved in keeping them long or unshorn. My daughter has inherited my curly hair and it didn't take her long to discover hair straighteners, which vastly simplify her life. The wonders of technology.

My parents used to tell me that I liked sardines. Of that I have no memory. I don't like them presently and no classmate has stepped forward to own the rekindling of that memory. Perhaps that is in store for my next trip to India. And although I remain opposed to sardines, I am very passionately ambivalent to turbans, which I find any excuse to don, including religious and family events. The extent of my indecision is so extreme that I sometimes wish I could wear it to bed and never ever take it off, as if it were stuck to my head like peanut butter.