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The Ayatollah Comes to California

Our grandfather came to visit us in Vallejo, California.  He left Satkoa, his small village populated with distantly related Kahlons, near Amritsar in Punjab, India. My grandfather was in his early 80s, liked to dress in white or light beige, had a large white turban and a long white beard and mustache that had never been cut in his lifetime. He was a tall, gentle man that helped me memorize the few and only lines of prayer from the Guru Granth Sahib, I ever learned. He was a life long farmer. When my sisters and I looked at him we saw my father’s father, Bapuji, the strange and sometimes smelly old man who liked to give us hugs when he wasn’t praying. What we couldn’t see, or anticipate, at least at first, was what most white Americans saw when they looked at my grandfather. Gone was the gentle, pious grandfather who liked to give firm pats on the head to show affection. He was replaced by the evil and malicious Ayatollah Khomeini, displaying his fanaticism in the form of a long white beard. They also saw smoke and flames when they looked directly at him for too long. 

During our grandfather’s visit there was the occasional towel draped over a head in a passing car, enthusiastic honking, finger pointing and hard stares. This was nothing new. We were used to similar acts of patriotism when our father wore his turban. We were veterans of such ignorance. Our parents only advise was to ignore and turn the other cheek. Following this biblical commandment would mean years of bullying to come for me. But more serious than the social taunting was when my father would get pulled over by the Highway Patrol nearly each time he wore his turban. Not wearing it had become an economic necessity. My father first cut his hair after he arrived in the U.S. and was told he wouldn’t find a job with a turban. He liked to wear his turban on weekends and temporarily resume the proud identity of a Sirdar.

Together with our grandfather we were refused hotel rooms in Washington DC. This was towards the end of the Iran Hostage Crisis. To hotel owners, my sweet grandfather became the living embodiment of the 7 o’clock news starring the Iranian Supreme Leader. Sometimes this mistake of transferring what one heard on the radio or saw on the television to what you experienced in real life was more benign. After hearing a report on the radio about the then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Ghandi, a school mate asked me if that was my father. It was a moment where I could just laugh at the simple country people in America.  My classmate’s parents were probably first cousins or something. How else could they produce such a dolt for an offspring? But in any case, I had a responsibility to educate the natives and help them understand that the pictures they saw on TV and the reality they saw around them wasn’t the same thing. No, I couldn’t hold this lack of knowledge and multi-generational inbreeding against them. However, how my classmates and their parents regarded my actual father and grandfather, was another story.

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