Glancing Awry at Sikh Immigrant Life

By Rajbir Singh Judge and Jasdeep Singh Brar

It is difficult to type with stained hands, much like it should be difficult to stand on soil saturated by blood. Photography, however, can function to eliminate this vertigo, settling the world we wish to see. It can limit possibilities, incontrovertible evidence of our own framing. Photography, therefore, can be central to the project of settling a legible Sikh-American life. So, for example, the Sikh Coalition's campaign called the ‘Sikh Project’ is a photo exhibition that has elicited great reviews. The exhibition features “38 Sikh American portraits embodying the beauty, resilience and perseverance of Sikh men and women 15 years after 9/11.” Each photo makes a singular turbaned Sikh visible through a sharply contrasted and spotlighted head shot— a repertoire that produces striking similarities with The People of India (although now appearing as Americans.)


The dual mode of clarity and obfuscation in photography, therefore, presents a coherent picture of Sikh life in the United States, much like photography cohered life for colonial officials in the 19th Century in India. And, to repeat, this is an essential aspect of photography itself. It welds, as Allan Sekula (1986) writes, “the honorific and repressive functions together. Every portrait implicitly took its place within a social and moral hierarchy” (10).  Carving space within this hierarchy, the exhibition attempts to make a vibrant and compliant Sikh subject. A subject that is made transparent for an American population by operationalizing a frame central to the state—a mug shot that signals the arrival of an American subject through bourgeois portraiture.


counter relations.png

1.     Counter Relations



Central to the Sikh discursive tradition, however, is contestation—debate about authorizing Sikh life, which is necessarily messy, refusing to be sutured into any singular moment. Contestations refuse the settling gestures necessary to enframing the Sikh community.  This does not mean we can get away from pictures since, as WJT Mitchell (2005) writes, a picture “refers to the entire situation in which an image has made its appearance” (xiv). As phantoms and disembodied motifs, images appear, retract, and linger in this picture, which is, Mitchell continues “a very peculiar and paradoxical creature, both concrete and abstract, both a specific individual thing and a symbolic form that embraces a totality” (xvii).


It is a comprehensive view that remains particular even though it wishes “to hold, to arrest, to mummify an image in silence and slow time” (72). Messy, as we said. Therefore, we are not here to destroy images, provide order, expose, praise, or clarify. Our goal is not to present a better picture of Sikh life in the United States, but to consider a different relation to images themselves—a relation that does not dream of getting beyond them or distinguishing definitively between true and false images.


Reorienting this desire toward images is a difficult task. Still, as Mitchell writes, “we need to reckon with not just the meaning of images but their silence, their reticence, their wildness and nonsensical obduracy (10).”   Are images even powerful or are they much weaker than we think? Against arbitrated truths and falsehoods, we want to embrace the meaninglessness of images of Sikh life; the lack of Sikh life in the contemporary United States. Perhaps, then, our project is not so different from the Sikh Coalition’s. Spotlighting life is, one can imagine, also a sign of something wanting—a sign of a form of life that is lacking. “Look at me,” the refrain goes, “I am not impotent.” A biological metaphor could be coupled with a national imagining to make the biopolitical logic clear: peacocking. “Let me in. Please.” This is, of course, but one elocution of the ephemeral image; destroying the picture’s harmony. It, too, is not the true image though it might be one.


In this temporal obstinacy where causality itself subsides, we want to pause and ask ourselves what happens when we display our particular progressive vision as the correct mode of Sikhi: when we present an accurate image concretized in our modern picture? What happens to Sikhs that do not fit in the arc we wish to compose? Cognizant of such questioning, our goal is not to present an alternative future; a more authentic life; or to determine false life. Again, the Sikh Project does display a form of Sikh life and we are not looking to win a phantom war of representation. Instead, we simply want to dwell in an impasse to, as Lauren Berlant (2011) writes, “suspend ordinary notions of repair and flourishing to ask whether the survival scenarios we attach to those affects weren't the problem in the first place” (49). Put another way, we must ask if those pictures of legible Sikhs, the image of surviving and flourishing in the United States, might be the problem itself rather than the solution it portends to be.


2.     Flourishing


Photography presents an alternative form; another difficult task. Our attempt in this photo essay is to continue an earlier project and question the coherent self that is neatly fixed onto a progressive multicultural US history. A narrative that popular photography and art on Sikhs and Indians more generally also conveys as Shaista Patel (2016) has demonstrated. Against this ideal sovereign subject, this project strives to inhabit the life of Sikh laborers. Our goal is to invite one to consider lived life, perhaps ordinary ones, that remain illegible to our own searching desire for continuous narrative arcs and genealogical redemption. And, yet, by ordinary life, we do not mean another detailing of middle-class Indians written in an equally cosmopolitan tower. The celebrated postcolonial exile is not within our sight. Instead, we descend and glimpsing downward, as Kathleen Stewart (2007) too notes, “The American Dream comes into a sharp-edged focus.  There are only winners and losers now” (93).


In this dream, the originary unity of a diaspora fragments and splits. Or was it always fragmented? As Anannya Bhattacharjee (1992) writes, “the bourgeoisie sees the illegal (Indian) immigrant, the unpaid (Indian) worker and the ill-paid (Indian) laborer in the United States as mere aberrations from its coveted place as a model minority” (35). A fragment that does not exist. Through this exclusion, which is “a particular recall and appropriation of historical memory,” as Kamala Visweswaran (1997) argues, the Indian diaspora is able “to name and rename itself in U.S. society” (17). Yet this is not only a naming in U.S. society, but the subcontinent itself as community self -definitions give way to postcolonial nation-states. Our encounters, as a counter, present the aberration. The impediment to naming, the undoing of the symbolic chain. Bodies that stumble and do not move in time with the diasporic or national clock.



3.     Waiting


Or, maybe not. Time passes and a new current rises. We are not omnipotent or omniscient. We cannot halt time nor glimpse ahead. We only offer this brief analysis in hope to undo the desire that seeks to reveal or unmask the image’s secret, to disclose hidden selves to anchor Sikh life in the United States or, for that matter, India. Our goal, as it coalesces, is, therefore, to dwell in that very uncertainty through images. Though these documents will be cancelled out by “testimony by more authoritative and official texts,” by specials that air on CNN, we still present a discontinuous Sikh life; one that vanishes as we grasp toward it, cut in front of us as series of haltings (Sekula 1986, 64).


In this encounter, to repeat, we are asked to interrupt our incessant attempts to make life legible in a particular framing, to refuse to string together coherence. After all, if we follow our interlocutors and the Sikh concepts they inhabit, how do we cohere a picture of Sikh life when we know we need to undo our particular – though clinging – worldly attachments (moh/maya) for a different relation to time – outside time itself – to be timeless (Akal)? But, then we recall, Akal Security procured Federal contracts to guard detention centers. Or, to deploy euphemisms popular in US declarations of war, Akal Security liberates children from their parents. Brought into this frame, Akal too secures waiting, a different timelessness.


4.     Night Shift (or Chronobiology.)



We are in this time a false attachment that is much too real, but we do not locate ‘becoming’. Or ‘aspiration.’ We do not map the multitude. Again, to repeat, another difficult task since, as Gil Anidjar writes:

our hyperactive vocabulary leaves little room to dwell on destruction and termination, on disintegration or corruption, desolation and demolition, ruination and putrefaction, consumption and consumation (with one “m,” though consummation is implied), devastation or annihilation.





5.     Trifluralin 5


“In August, 1979, trifluralin was brought under Special Review by the EPA because of the presence of a N-nitrosamine contaminant which had been shown to cause tumors and to have mutagenic effects in animals.”

Though we try to dwell in this devastation, we cannot present absence or failure. We do not seek to register total loss. Who wants to be censured for that? This is certainly challenging since death and photography are intimately tied (Sontag 1977; Barthes 1981; Butler 2009). Yet we forget too easily. We must remember the image destroys our very desire for power over their meaning. Of course, proclaiming dominion over our desires by pronouncing what we want is not saying much. We might not know what we want. Our project remains wanting as images, much like life itself, refuse our craving for comprehension and clarification. Both ours and the Sikh Coalition’s.


day shift.png


6.     Day Shift


Yet, in that refusal, the images break apart the legibility of the Sikh-American central to multicultural liberation while offering no easy directions elsewhere. We are left grasping. Liberation from what? Acceptance into which settlement? Maybe we can become activists and create that history. But then what about destruction, which, obliterating its own traces, lodges itself in that very aspiration? Berlant’s questioning cuts through again.


7.     Rust



In this uncertainty, we only try pause in the present deadlock in Capitalist development, if it can be called as such. By pausing, we can no longer articulate a recognizable American past, present, and future that aligns effortlessly with the Sikh tradition since the very disavowals central to the ‘Sikh project’ and its progressive march return as indisputable realities. A palliative to our hyperactive vocabulary until our hopes return. There is no clarity in Sikh life in the United States unless it signals the becoming of future Americans; time ripped apart to determine destiny. We cling to all those possible futures – as Freud (1919) teaches – all the strivings of the ego, nourishing our Free Will (236). The questions become more difficult. If sons and daughters become winners, is the loser redeemed? Is a doctor’s migrant worker mother a winner? Are American sins redeemed once those residing in its borders, with appropriate documentation of course, are baptized into its currents?



8.     Documentation



Is it even possible to refuse the extraction of a laboring present, which is made into a redemptive past by locating a future American flourishing? Is it possible to dwell in the destructive present while asking about vulnerable lives delayed, incongruent with the time of Akal security. Possibly uncreative lives. Looking toward that time, we do not seek to unearth promises of a future. We do not seek to present an excessive liveliness or vitality. Though there is liveliness, who are we to question anthropological certainties? Still, we do not seek to settle life in this settler land. But they are living within US borders and more debts accrue; aspiring toward their own impossible settlements. And, the image, too, is not settled; it cannot be reduced to our desire or your desire or even the message it communicates. And, here, again we must pause and recall – as Mitchell writes:


 What pictures want in the last instance, then, is simply to be asked what they want, with the understanding that the answer may well be, nothing at all (48).


So, then, what are we looking for, what are we creating, if the pictures want nothing and are lacking?





9.     Herbicides, Pesticides.




A layer of white on the ground near the shed. Its shapes obscured. I walk closer to get a clearer look. Answers come and go as my shoes press slightly into the dirt leaving their own faint silhouettes. I approach and stare, the snow dissipates even though it was never there. The intricate mound of bottles takes shape. The reeking air begins to give away its secrets. Pesticide bottles strewn about; the contours of a different future come into focus even as they disappear. Uncle asks if we want some chai. I do. Auntie makes everyone a cup. We all speak and laugh together in air that is becoming poisonous. Uncle coughs and the years toll.


There is repair in laughter, in hanging out, although fleeting as it abjures itself in the slit of trauma that continues to pulsate in agony.


10.  Age


 Rajbir Singh Judge is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life with affiliations in the Department of Religion and Institute of South Asia at Columbia University in the City of New York. His current project examines the ways in which Sikhism at the end of the 19th Century remained a generative site through which Sikhs and their diverse milieu in the Punjab contested not only British rule, but the very nature of sovereignty. More broadly, he specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of South Asia, with a particular emphasis on the Punjab. His most recent publications can be found in the Journal of the History of Sexuality and History & Theory.

Jasdeep Singh Brar recently received his BA in History from University of California Davis. He is an anti-war activist

Borderlines CSSAAME