My good daughter, why you are covering your face?
I jumped and turned. An old man in a dusty crimson turban offered me a tiny jasmine bud on his open palm.
I stared at him for a moment, and then spoke cautiously.
I’m covering my face because everyone is staring, I said simply. I didn’t give him the disgusting details.
Later, I would stumble across a section in the Lonely Planet that read:
“Many female travelers experience sexual harassment in India- predominantly lewd comments and invasion of privacy, though groping is not uncommon. Most cases are reported in urban centers of North India…”
I was in Chandigarh, an urban center in North India, and lewd comments were only the beginning of it. I had been catcalled, followed, leered at, and groped, all in my first hour in town.
I wrapped a scarf around my head and shoulders, covering my face so that only my eyes peeped through, like a Muslim woman’s. It helped immensely.
My name is Narinder Singh, said the old man. I accepted the fragrant jasmine bud he offered. His eyes were kind.
I’m Sarah, I said, relenting. Nice to meet you.
Once we were introduced, Narinder Singh took me out for chai. In the shop, he pulled a stack of papers from his worn briefcase. He sifted through them, and then extracted one and handed it to me. It was a photocopied article from The Chandigarh Times.
The title was, “The Guardian Angel of Travelers.” Next to the article was a photograph of Narinder Singh. He stood beside his bicycle, grinning broadly. I read the article.
It said that Mr. Singh had been helping travelers in Chandigarh for many years, guiding them to affordable accommodation, showing them the hidden sights of the city, teaching them Hindi, and generally leading them to all manner of positive experiences.
He began teaching me Hindi as we sat eating sweets.
If young man bothering you, Sari-ji, he said, adding ji as a respectable suffix, You say ‘jelay-jo!’ Zees means ‘go away!!’
Now, repeat after me- ‘Jelay jo!’
Jelay-jo! I said affirmatively, mentally daring any young punk to approach me again. Now I had the beginnings of an arsenal.
Mr. Singh continued. And if you like some-zing, or you want to agree, you say ‘Acha!’ Try now- ‘Acha!’
Acha! I said, nodding towards the sweets. I like those a lot!
Mr. Singh ordered more sweets and another chai. Just then a young British woman walked into the shop. She smiled broadly at Mr. Singh. Mr. Singh stood up with his arms open, and cried, Jenny-ji, I am so glad you have come!
They embraced, and then Mr. Singh explained to me that had met Jenny the day before. After showing her the tremendously beautiful rock garden the city is famous for, they spent the rest of the afternoon touring the city. Jenny looked very happy to have found Mr. Singh again. She sat down at our table to share the sweets.
The three of us spent the rest of the evening together. Mr. Singh took us from the sweet shop to Zee best, cleanest washroom in all of Chandigarh! We washed our hands and tidied up. Next he lead us to a Hindi temple, so we could sample the local religious culture.
As we approached, Mr. Singh said, Please, my dears, take off your shoes and cover your heads.
Once inside, he took us on a tour of the idols.
Zees is Shiva, zee god of Creation! he said with a flourish.
And zees one… do you know who zees one is?
The idol he gestured to was the shape of a man, but had the head of a monkey.
It’s Hanuman! I said excitedly. The monkey god!
Mr. Singh nodded sagely, then put a finger to his lips.
Yes, Sari-ji, zees is correct. But here, you do not call him zee Monkey God. You call him zee God of Bravery!
I nodded my head, corrected.
Before we left, Mr. Singh lead us to the front of the temple. We took a seat and watched an Indian woman making an offering at the shrine. Just then, the head priest approached us. He offered Jenny and I each a shiny swath of paper. It was red and gold in color, and tasseled at the ends.
You put zem on your necks! said Mr. Singh, his eyes shining in happiness.
The priest returned a moment later with two small coconuts, and with a shy smile, offered them to Jenny and me. We accepted the coconuts with smiles and thanked him. Then Mr. Singh swooped us up and told us we were off to see a Sikh temple.
At the Sikh temple, we also took off our shoes and covered our heads. Mr. Singh brought us into the office of the head priest, who he apparently knew well. That man was sitting behind a large desk, and he had a very commanding presence. I had the feeling that he was a very good man. He had strong features, and straight, white teeth. I felt compelled to watch him. He was surrounded by four or five younger men in turbans. They spoke to him quietly, or filed papers. After a few minutes, he ended the conversation he was having, rose from behind his desk, and came out to meet us.
He offered both Jenny and I a silver bangle bracelet, a sign of Sikh culture. He was wearing one, as was Mr. Singh, and every other person in the temple. He offered us each a ball concocted of pure sugar, wheat flour, and butter. Mr. Singh told us to put them on our tongues and eat them. Then he showed us how to rub the butter into our skin.
Later, he took us to a small dhaba. The owner was his friend. That man beamed on us the entire time we ate, sitting behind the counter with his hands in his lap. About halfway through the meal, he brought out a worn, bound notebook, opened it, and placed it on the table. It was filled with pages upon pages of notes written by tourists, commending Mr. Singh for helping them out in Chandigarh. The notes were signed from people of all nationalities- Australians, Japanese, Koreans, Americans, Canadians, Germans, Dutch, French… I turned the pages and read the notes, and realized that Mr. Singh had been helping tourists in Chandigarh for over twenty years. I later found out that his name appears in the ‘Let’s Go’ guidebook, and that he was also mentioned in the New York Times, after helping a reporter who visited Chandigarh.
The next morning, Mr. Singh picked me up at nine-thirty. He took me to the camera shop so I could buy a new charger for my battery. The owner, his friend, gave me a ten percent discount. Then he took me out for chai, and told me all about the Partition of India, something I was curious about. One of my favorite things about Mr. Singh was his youthful enthusiasm. He was seventy-three, but he jumped like a child when I would ask him a question. He was so excited to answer the question and educate me.
Why do so many Sikhs have the last name Singh? I asked him. He turned to me immediately. In fact, Sari-ji, every Sikh has the last name Singh, he said with a nod of the head. Now ask me another question!! Any time there was a considerable pause in the conversation, he would say that.
Ask me a question! Ask me any-sing, any-sing at all!
Mr. Singh told me that he believed in the practice of Open Palm. This meant that any time you had wisdom to share, you would share it. Because if I have wisdom, and I keep it all inside, what good does that do the world? he asked, clapping me on the back.
After showing me the local movie theatre, and having another cup of chai, he insisted on getting me back. Sari-ji, if you are to get to Shimla in time to find accommodation, you must be catching your bus soon! he said, nodding his head sagely.
He escorted me back to my hotel, waited while I packed my things, and then patiently explained which bus I would catch and how to get there. Before parting ways, he handed me another tiny jasmine bud. It smelled delicious, and I tucked it behind my ear.
Now, my dear, you must never be covering your face, because if you are hiding, how will you ever learn about zee world? asked Mr. Singh, looking into my eyes very seriously. You must walk wees your head up high, and say jelay-jo if anyone ever bothers you, acha? I nodded in agreement.
Yes, Mr. Singh, you are right, I said. We hugged and parted ways.
I walked all the way to the bus stop with my head held high. There was a new confidence in my step, and Mr. Singh’s words ringing in my ears.