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Identity, cultural harmony and religious freedom

Sarbjit Singh Sabharwal  - Leader file photo
Sarbjit Singh Sabharwal
— image credit: Leader file photo

April is definitely a unique month, a time to begin seeding gardens, enjoying evening strolls, encouraging children to go out to play in yards, and of course marvelling at all the spring flowers starting to bloom.

However, for a large percentage of Surrey citizens, it is also a time of celebration and preparation for one of the biggest outdoor celebrations held in North America: Vaisakhi.

Vaisakhi is officially the beginning of the harvest season in India and is considered by many as India’s new year. This time of year is marked with cultural and religious events by many religious faiths.

The biggest event is Surrey’s Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan (translated as a flowing river of hymns), or Vaisakhi parade as it is commonly known.

For the Sikh faith, the parade celebrates the inauguration of the Sikh identity created in 1699 by our 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji. In mid-April of each year, hundreds of thousands congregate on Surrey streets to partake in the festive nature of the event, which involves a procession of the Sikh holy book followed by a long line of devotees, groups and community associations.

Along the route families and businesses have prepared fantastic home-made Indian dishes to be handed out to all, free of charge.

It is a very inclusive event and all are welcome. In fact over the past few years, my brother Baljit Singh Sabharwal and I have made an effort to help integrate our community with the mainstream community. That includes hosting unique events like our Vaisakhi Gala and Seva awards, and creating marketing campaigns to invite the mainstream community to participate and celebrate with us.

As I see it, Vaisakhi is so much more than what it seems on the surface. It’s a celebration of the unique identity of Sikhs, while also being a great way to celebrate such things as freedom, cultural harmony, and humanitarianism. These values I owe to my years of struggling with keeping my identity during my school and professional years. Along the way, there have been individuals that have stood out as shining examples of what I believe Vaisakhi celebrates today.

I want to share one such moment of my life – a story about a fantastic teacher and what he did that changed my life.

It was 1981 and I was just about to sit down in my Grade 8 Social Studies class at William Beagle Jr. Secondary when a friend of mine teasingly made a remark about my turban.

It was the first year I had started to wear a turban in school and I was nervous.

In those days, there weren’t any Sikh turbanned boys, let alone people of Punjabi heritage in our school. Surprisingly, my humourous response to my friend not only made me laugh, but him as well. It was a light moment that alleviated his nervousness and my insecurity.

However, what my teacher did next is something I haven’t forgotten in 33 years. He looked at me and asked that I follow him to the principal’s office.

I thought I was done for; maybe my joking sparked something in him or maybe I said something inappropriate.

I sat there outside the principal’s office panicking about what might happen. Was I facing a suspension? Would I be sent home early? I was only 13 at the time and plenty of fear was coursing through my mind.

When we both went in, my teacher, Mr. Bentley, sat me down and started off the conversation by explaining to the principal that I was a model student. My grades in his class were well over 90 per cent.

He then went on to say he was so happy to see how proud I was of my religious and cultural identity. He said that even though I stood out like a sore thumb, I had integrated so well with all the other students.

I suppose there are no real words to express how proud I was at that moment. If one believes in angels, Mr. Bentley’s act of compassion and humanity certainly would have qualified him as one.

He gave me the strength to realize that although I was different, I should be proud of who I was.

This moment was life-altering for me. I carry it through to this day, and if this article finds its way to Mr. Bentley, I would like to express my gratitude to him.

You see, this teacher not only taught me about Social Studies but also that I should be proud of my identity – in fact celebrate it – while at the same time being able to blend in with all the people within my community.

I grew up with this philosophy, applying it to my life. It’s why I volunteer with such great events like the Surrey Fusion Festival, an event where we take cultural harmony and celebration to its maximum. It’s why I also volunteer on Surrey’s Diversity Advisory Committee, along with other volunteer activities.

These values are exactly what Vaisakhi is about – a celebration of identity, cultural harmony, and religious freedom.

This year I would like to personally invite all the members of my city to come and attend the Vaisakhi parade on April 19. If anything, it will help to foster better intercultural relationships, break down barriers and give the public better insight into the Sikh community.

Happy Vaisakhi!

– Sarbjit Singh Sabharwal

For more Vaisakhi stories, check out The Leader's special supplement published April 15.

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