I had the pleasure of attending the full two-week duration of its chapter in San Antonio, Texas, USA, last year. I penned my experiences while there and posted them on THE DAILY FIX on sikhchic.com.
What follows is Part VII of the daily segments -- we started the republication of the series a couple of weeks ago -- presented here to give you a taste of the life-transforming opportunity for both young and old, which the Sidak retreat is, as it is currently underway and will continue over the course of the next two weeks.
There’s been a sea-change in the career options and choices available to our youth in recent years, especially in the diaspora.
When I was finishing high school, I recall, Engineering was the big magnet for most of us. Or, should I say, the main push, because the energy for the movement in that direction came from our parents and peers. It was further fuelled by the fact that the best institutions in the land were the newly sprung IIT’s -- there were five of them then, Indian Institutes of Technology.
A new area of expertise which was soon to become another major lure, was still around the corner -- MBA! Medicine was big too.
Those who were exceptional students vied for the upper echelons of civil service -- which included the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS). The salaries that came with these jobs were not too hot, but the perks -- power and prestige -- more than made up for the deficit. Those who made it through were renowned for their acumen and their integrity.
All of that is a thing of the past. The same three services have become as corrupt as the worst segments of Indian society. The idea of a civil service helping run a country has been thrown to the winds: now, it is a sure-shot short-cut to making a quick buck … and a lot of bucks, at that.
Those who couldn’t make it into the professional schools or the civil service, went into business … and, by hook or by crook, became rich.
Those who had neither intelligence nor education nor ability nor integrity nor scruples, somehow drifted into politics, either by hanging around other politicians, or taking the more direct route by becoming a goonda (mafiosi) and daada (godfather). With a little bit of luck -- or persistence -- one got elected, and then it was an easy road to amassing untold wealth.
Again, that too has changed in the intervening years. Now, the true goonda in India employs his own coterie of politicians and civil servants early on, puts on the mantle of a corporation, and proceeds to build his own empire -- his personal cosa nostra.
Times have changed, however, for those who wish to and can live a straight life -- that is, one based on, say, the three pillars of Sikhi. And for those who live in the diaspora, in societies where the word 'freedom' has added meaning, including a young man‘s and woman’s ability to pursue any and every dream.
I look around at the Sidak attendees as they stand up tonight before the group, one by one, and each delivers a short speech on a topic of his/her choice. I marvel not only at the variety of subjects that interests them nowadays but also the multiple perspectives they bring to the table.
Each has a whole slew of interests, both in personal life-style and in what they want to do with their lives. They are brave and fearless in the subjects they choose at school and university. Those who are already in the work force are in extraordinarily interesting jobs and promising career paths.
But that is not all. Each hungers to do more. I see it in their eyes. They want to change the world by serving their community. They spew cliches when you ask them what and why and how, but their lives are anything but.
“I want to make the world a better place,” one of them actually says to me.
“I am bowled over by Sikhi and its worldview,” confesses another. “I just want to be worthy of it.”
My favourite: “I have so much. I want to be able to give back.”
It appears we’re long past Generation X … and Y. And the ‘Me’ Generation too.
This is a new generation altogether, one intent to do well financially, but also one that defines ‘success’ differently. It seeks meaning in life. Which, the way I read it, seems to translate into ‘success’ being a means, not an end.
"But oh that I were young again …“! sang W B Yeats once. I now know exactly how he felt!
Sidak instructor Arpinder Kaur encapsulates all that I see in her proteges.
Herself a former Sidaker, every morning and evening she helps teach them gurdwara protocol through nitnem, and at other times guides them in kirtan lessons on the harmonium and tabla.
Like everyone I speak to here, she too has lived a life that could easily be the stuff of an epic.
As a three year-old, Arpinder and her family followed their father to Nigeria where he was teaching at a University. A couple of years later, she -- along with her mother and a younger brother -- headed back to Amritsar, Punjab, while her father headed for the US to pursue a nascent career.
It wasn’t until she was 14 that the family was finally able to be together in the United States to finally make it their home.
Schooling in Virginia, where her father had found work, was not easy initially. Language and cultural issues were challenged to the young teen, but she managed to overcome them. She was shy and withdrawn, but soon found solace in a gurdwara in nearby Washington, D.C. The company of others of her age, seva, and kirtan classes, gave her the respite she needed, as well as top up her self-confidence and esteem.
It was a very private and personal journey -- others in her immediate family weren’t spiritually inclined, but did not discourage her either. She found strength in the sangat, which in turn helped her do well in school. Out of the blue, she announced one day that she would henceforth wear a dastaar.
Didn’t please her parents. But there was no stopping her.
She was clear in what she wanted to do as a career. Flying to the US for the first time, as a 14-year-old, she had been invited by the pilot into the cockpit and allowed to sit with him for a while during the flight.
It was in those moments, she tells me, that she decided it was going to be her future: she wanted to be a pilot.
Easier said than done!
When she announced this to her parents during high school, they at first didn’t take her seriously -- “It was a mere whim, a phase I was going through, they thought!“ They simply refused to support the idea. Then, they actively opposed it: how on earth will you get work as a pilot, they demanded.
And the big one: Think about what it’ll do to your marriage chances!
With no backing from home, Arpinder was doomed to three years of studying for a degree in Management Information Systems. She suffered through it, knowing it wasn’t her and that there wasn’t anything she wanted to do with it.
As graduation appeared on the horizon, so did a young man from Kansas.
Arpinder had met Pritpal Singh a few times at a relative’s, whenever he was in Viriginia for a holiday. And they had also met at a Sikh camp. Before long, his name was proposed to her parents, they proposed the idea to her …
One thing led to another. Ultimately, both said yes. They were married in 2003, shortly after her graduation. She moved to Kansas where Pritpal lived with his family, and where he was practicing medicine.
Not long thereafter, Arpinder mentioned to her husband her dream to become a pilot. He was unhesitatingly supportive. And surprise of surprises, so were his parents.
Pritpal's work was a couple of hours away from Kansas; the only place to get flying lessons was in Kansas!
Everyone chipped in to make it happen. Arpinder moved in with her in-laws in Kansas and joined flying school; Pritpal and she would be together only on weekends.
It took two years. But persistence finally bore fruit. One by one, she made it through every stage: first, her Private License. Then, her Instrument Writing. And, finally … her Commercial Flying License. Followed by her Instructor's License.
When they moved to San Antonio, Texas, in 2005 to follow a job opportunity for Pritpal, Arpinder applied for a job with American Eagle, a subsidiary of American Airlines based in nearby Dallas.
She qualified easily but there was a bit of hesitation on the part of the airline: they didn’t know what to make of Arpinder’s dastaar!
A letter from The Sikh Coalition explaining the Sikh tenets and the significance of the Sikh turban did the trick. Arpinder was hired as a flying instructor in 2005, and she taught for two years.
She started flying for them in 2008.
And has been since. She’s a First Officer now, flying as a co-pilot, expecting to move up to a full-fledged Captain in the new year.
In the meantime, Arpinder and Pritpal have brought two young Sardars into the world: Insaf, now 6, and Jivat, now 3.
Before long, as the children grow older, Arpinder hopes to move up to a larger airline and even bigger responsibilities.
Here at Sidak, both Arpinder and her husband serve as instructors. They have flown in from Dallas, where they now make home. Insaf and Jivat are students in Junior Sidak, when their noses are not buried in their iPhones playing lord knows what.
6-year-old Insaf speaks impeccable Punjabi, as he tells us about learning Arabic from a tutor, and looking forward to starting in Grade One at an English-medium school later this summer. Jivat ignores us, oblivious to the world, courtesy his gadget.
They’ll be ready, before long, for Sidak, I bet you.