At Large : Letter from the coast
Despite what you've read, and no matter whether you've received the news with enthusiasm or despair, it is not true that California will soon disintegrate. Californians certainly worry about their futures, but based on a week of close observation, they shrug off the dire predictions and soldier on in their peculiar ways. They drive, in great numbers and very fast. They buy cars - and not necessarily compacts - every chance they get. They, poor things, think that buying gasoline at prices of Vineyard proportions amount to a discount. They take lunch al fresco, eating Thai, Indian, French, Mexican, Italian, as well as a fused combination of these and other cuisines, with a diversified gusto that boggles East Coast sensibilities. Nothing disconcerts these bring-it-on Californian creatures.
On a brilliant Sunday, dry and warm, graduations occupied lots of them, but not all. In Berkeley, there was a parade of members of the Bay Area Sikh community. They tramped near the university campus, where on the steps of Sproul Hall, the scene of sit-ins, love-ins, speech-ins during the drug fueled derangement of the sixties, no one sat, loved or speechified, outrage and disaffection with the system having decided to take the day off.
The marchers, saber wielding honor guards, and floats snaked through the snarled Berkeley traffic, blocking a lane here, a street there, were just a few hundred of the 40,000 or so Sikhs who participate in the multi-cultural chemistry of this geographically blessed part of the country. Saffron robes and ruby turbans, drummers and recorded music, even a street cleaning machine, operated by a be-turbanned Sikh to cleanse the street in front of the marchers - it was a moveable circus of devoted celebrants. The occasion was the commemoration of the martyrdom of guru Arjan Dev on May 30,1606. The Sikhs, Hindus, did not want to become Muslims, despite the urging of Muslim authorities, and Sikh demurrers often precipitated their own martyrdom, not to mention five days of persecution and torture, and not to mention being made to sit bare naked on a red hot sheet of iron or being dipped in boiling water, misguidedly intended to sooth the previous, I suppose.
Despite the underlying sadness of the occasion, the parade made its way ultimately to a park, where under tents and over the green lawn and the saffron cloths spread for picnics, there were music and speeches. A young man in a dark blue turban explained that he and his family attended because he wanted his young children to understand the history of the Sikh people. He was afraid that they would lose the thread of it as their lives in America swept them into its heterogeneous goulash.
Known as a peaceful people, the Sikhs are hardly abject, this friendly young man explained. The sabers of the honor guard are one of four characteristic parts of the Sikh costume, the others being facial hair, a comb to attend to it (often carried in the turban wrap), special undergarments, about which we did not inquire further, and, in deference to Berkeley's rules forbidding one to tote arms except on occasion in parades, a small replica saber, not intended for action. Their sabers did not come into play in the disagreement between two Sikh celebrants who had it out at the edge of the park.