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Sidak Returns This Summer:
Sidak, Part I





SIDAK is an annual retreat designed as a leadership development program for young adults. It is run by The Sikh Research Institute ("SikhRI"), and is being held this year for two-weeks between July 27 and August 9, 2014 in Mission, British Columbia, Canada.

I had the pleasure of finally getting to attend the full two-week duration of its chapter in San Antonio, Texas, USA, last year, when I also penned my experiences there and posted them on THE DAILY FIX here on

We reproduce the daily segments here, starting today, in order to enourage you to consider attending what I found to be a life-transforming opportunity for both the young and old.   




Every so often, I am reminded of a documentary film I saw a dozen or so years ago. It had the curious title, “What the #$*! Do We Know !?”

It lived up to its promise.

An oddball of a movie, it was intriguing in its premise -- couched in quantum physics terminology -- that our personal beliefs, thoughts and actions shape our own realities … that there is a connection between what goes on inside our minds with what transpires in the outside world, at least within our personal sphere.

Here’s what got me thinking about it today.

It’s Saturday, 5.30 in the evening. My bags are packed, and neatly stacked in my car. I have a three hour ride to Buffalo, from where I’m to fly early the next morn for San Antonio.

I'm on my  way to attend a two-week long retreat organized annually by SikhRI -- the Sikh Research Institute.

Titled "Sidak", it is designed to be a period of study and contemplation, of exploring ways to understand gurbani better, to know and learn from our history, to hone skills needed to address the issues of the day ...

I pull out of my driveway. Two blocks away, still in the village of Mount Forest, I swing into the local gas station to fuel for the journey. 

I park before a gas pump, click my gas-tank cover open, step out of the car, grab a nozzle, make a selection, undo the tank cap, and shove the spout into the receptacle.

I know the tank is close to empty. Gives me time to look around. I do.

It is then that I see the spectacle that surrounds me.

There are Sardars everywhere. Swarming. What I had ignored as a jumble of sounds bouncing back and forth across the vehicles parked in and around the gas-pump bays, now deciphers into a multiplicity of bellowing “O-Y-E !”s being thrown from every direction, and a babble of Punjabi words accompanying them.

The men are spilling out of four different vans, three parked in the bays, one next to the door into the store and cashier’s till.

“What the …” I mutter, audibly, and immediately let go the lever of the nozzle. I loose my voice. I swing around, looking left, looking right, then behind me, and again, on the other side, to see exactly what’s going on in the sprawling yard of the gas station.

Being Mennonite country, it’s certainly not a one-horse town, but I know for sure that it’s a one-turban town. In fact, there ain’t another one within dozens of miles in any direction. The only other Sardars I have seen here during the three years I’ve been here are those visiting me, or an occasional fleeting glimpse of a turban as a truck shoots by on the highway.

I gawk at them, trying to figure out the ways of the universe.

The men don’t take notice of me … after all, I’m no oddity for them; they’re surrounded by Sikhs!

Two of them are standing beside the van parked by the store. They are facing each other, a mere three feet or so apart. They’re talking to each other. Sort of. More like talking over each other. Neither is listening, but they’re both speaking at the top of their lungs. Each one has one hand on his crotch, Michael Jackson style, but scratching and massaging themselves like there’s no tomorrow.

One is twirling his moustache with his free hand. The other is gently brushing his lush, flowing beard with gentle, loving vertical strokes of his half-open palm.

If I didn’t know better, I would’ve taken it as a mating ritual.

Not without reason. Tall and burly, almost all of them are in white or otherwise light coloured -- pastel, all -- kurtas and pajamas. And Punjabi juttees. They sport smudges of dirt not only on their clothes but on their hands and faces. The turbans are of every colour in the rainbow, and more. Bright, neon-like. Some in tartan-like prints. One is actually Burberry. 

All of the men are in their sixties, or more. Each, handsome as hell. Fierce. Grim. And completely oblivious of -- no, indifferent to -- anything and anybody other than themselves. Peacocks, all of them, strutting around with gay abandon.  

One is standing a short distance from the whole scene, his unravelled turban in his hand, most of it slung over his shoulders. He is carefully retying it -- meticulously, I might add. My eyes linger on him for a few seconds, marvelling how he can do it without a mirror in sight!
Inexplicably, they are yelling out to each other, from bay to bay, van to van, even those standing in tight clusters of two or three.

I look around. Embarrassed. I’m not entirely sure why. This is the hub of the village, right on the main street, which is but a stretch of the highway that runs through the region, connecting the busy south to the cottage country in the north.  

I notice other -- read, non-Sikh -- drivers pull into the lot, and see their faces freeze, nonplussed at the vision that meets their eyes.
I feel my blood pressure rise. I can’t look away, or shut the Sardars out of my sight ostrich-like, because they’re everywhere. And a bunch are standing smack in the middle of my path to the cashier indoors.

I do what I have learnt to do in these situations in the last few years. Slowly, ever so slowly, I disengage my brain and switch it off. I can feel the wheels gradually grinding to a halt. Let it go, I say to myself, it’s all right.

I finish filling my gas-tank. Putting the nozzle back in its place, I lean against the car and survey the scene once again. This time, consciously making an effort not to be judgemental. Mind switched off. Heart in operational mode.

I begin to relish the scene.

These men, at least a score of them, possibly twice as many, are the finest specimens of humanity I have seen for a long time. Their walk … yes, every step they take, is as if they own the earth.  

I should tell you, I have pursued the shadows of Ranjit Singh, the great Sikh Emperor of yore, and of his progeny, for much of my life, digging for their stories and their histories. I kid you not, the vision that I have had of the figures who followed young Ranjit as he took Lahore in 1799 and created a united Punjab, is the same that unfolds before my very eyes.

I notice the camera on the passenger seat of my car. But I shake my head. No. I don’t want to prick the magic of the moment. 

It’s the same faces, the same sinewy bodies, the same ballet of movements. The only difference is that instead of horses, these dismount from vans.

There are dozens of them, I see now. And recognize them as farmers. They were farmers in Punjab and they are farmers here.

I remember now that a bunch of Sikh contractors in nearby Brampton are doing a roaring business by providing farming help to the huge, money-rich but labour-poor farms that litter this entire countryside. More deft with the lingo, they liaise with the farmers, and negotiate an hourly, daily or price-by-the-job rate.

Then, they meet the demand for labour by dipping into their inventory: old babas from Punjab’s farms who have moved here in retirement to be close to their children, but are chomping at the bit while idling their time away baby-sitting their grandchildren.

They are work-horses, they have known nothing but hard work under the sun and the heavens ever since they were past playing gulli-danda, and are simply not happy campers at home twiddling their thumbs. Sitting around and doing nothing creates achy joints, not the other way around!

I know them, at least generically. True, they have come here s-t-r-a-i-g-h-t from the villages in Punjab. Yes, they are not very sophisticated in “our” ways. No, they didn’t stop en route to get preened and groomed, or to go to school to learn English or western mores and mannerisms.

But they are the salt of the earth. And hey, they obviously have value … it is their labour that keeps these farms viable and puts food in the super-markets and on our table. They are the same breed that helped build the country’s railways at the turn of the century -- a century ago! And helped man the nation’s lumber mills, and nurture its mega-farms. The descendants of the earliest wave of these stalwarts now own those same lumber-mills and farms and a good chunk of the province of British Columbia!

I look at the Sardars stretching and prancing, yelling and bellowing, before my eyes, and remember that I know many of their children who run successful businesses and own monster homes in the metropolis of Greater Toronto, and their grand-children who are doctors and lawyers and dentists and teachers and entrepreneurs ...

Their contractor emerges from the store and recognizes me from a bygone era. He’s a hail-fellow-well-met Sardar in his own right, another giant specimen, who proceeds to lumber towards me, then grabs me and near-crushes me in an embrace, as if we are long-lost friends. We exchange cards, he promises to visit -- along with his entire entourage -- when I’m back from my travels.

After exchanging pleasantries with everyone, I hit the road.

Having just experienced a whole gamut of emotions, I can’t shake off the incident from my mind as I point my car southwards and head for the border.

It’s a good reminder, one that I need at regular intervals, sometimes more frequently than I think I need.

The motley crowd I had just witnessed and experienced, first in infantile embarrassment and then in its unbridled joie-de-vivre, is what Sikhi is all about, isn’t it?

Sikhi is about learning, but not limited to the learned and the lettered. It is about spiritual heights, but not as a bailiwick of the pious and the priestly.

It is about empowering A-L-L people, not just the rich and the privileged and the so-called educated and the sophisticated. So, as we chart our way into the future, we need to remind ourselves that the ultimate test, the touchstone, of all that we achieve, is whether we have remembered to take along with us those whose hands are gnarled by the nitty-gritty of life.

As I drive through Queenston, bypassing Niagara, and plummet towards the Lewiston bridge and the US border check-point, a skein of Canada geese fly past me. Heading south? Already?

I follow their chevron and, glancing up at them, I’m reminded of how their leader switches mid-air from one to the other, with ease and without effort, seamlessly, on their endless journeys. They always reach their goal.

My thoughts turn to Sidak and the two weeks of scholarly treat of a retreat that lies ahead for me. I like the fact that it is has no instructors who one could term in the traditional sense as ’scholars’. The leaders of  each session are laymen who live real lives, not in ivory towers. There are no kudos to be handed out to politicians. Each instructor and each attendee -- all, Sikhs teaching Sikhs -- will head back to real lives at the end of the fortnight.

It is the grounding in reality, the standing firmly on the ground, that makes Sikhi so special.

With this thought, I too fly south.           


For more info on Sidak, or to register, please CLICK here.


More tomorrow ...

First published on July 29, 2013; republished on July 7, 2014


Conversation about this article

1: Harinder Singh (Bridgewater, New Jersey, USA), July 10, 2014, 6:44 AM.

I return to Sidak for the 12th time in a row to shape the next generation of Sikh leadership grounded in Sikhi. Love their quest, challenges, and energy.

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Sidak, Part I "

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