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Posted: 08 Aug 2013 01:04 PM PDT
We were living in government quarters. I was a boy, still in primary school. There was a knock on the front door. I rushed to see who it was. The visitor was the resident watchman at the Chinese school. I yelled to my mother, in Tamil, "The Chinese School Bengali is here."
My mother came to the door. She said, to me in Malay, "Don't be rude! You should say (Chinese School) Bhai!" She apologized to Mr Singh. "He's just a boy." Mr Singh, clearly not wanting to miss the opportunity to make a point, said "Where did he learn to say Bengali?"
I saw that look on my mother's face and that stiffness of bearing. I knew not to ask her anything about what just happened. I didn't want to be scolded for speaking back to her. I didn't even ask my father that evening. I didn't ask my sisters or my brother. I just thought "life is so unfair. They can always say Bengali when they speak about him, but they don't letme call him Bengali."
Over 45 years later, I learned why Tamil, Telugu and Malayalee Indians in Malaysia called Sikhs Bengalis.
I learned it through reading Kernial Singh Sandhu's book, Indians in Malaya: Some Aspects of their Immigration & Settlement, 1786 – 1957, published by Cambridge University Press in 1969. Sandhu based his book on the dissertation he submitted to the University of London for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
Our Indian elders in Malaysia only told us stories about their villages and their relatives.
Their stories were set in small parts of India – which to them was India. I suspect they didn't know how vast and varied the country was. I suspect they didn't even know how many states there were in India, let alone a state called Punjab. I suspect they'd never met Bengalis or Punjabis before arriving in Malaya.
Which brings me back to the Chinese School Bhai. He, like most other Sikhs in Malaysia, was from Punjab, not Bengal. Calling him a Bengali was like calling a Turk an Arab: annoying! [Did you know that Kamal Ataturk made Turks give up their Arab names?]
Why do/did many Malaysians call Punjabis Bengalis?
Well, it's because unlike most Indians who boarded ships for Malaysia in Nagapattinam and Madras in the state of Tamil Nadu, the Punjabis boarded ships in Calcutta, in the state of Bengal. This was the logic: "They came from Bengal; they must be Bengalis."
Malaysia being my homeland, I had grown up thinking that all Punjabis are Sikhs, and that anyone whose name includes Singh is a Sikh, a (religious) follower of the teachings of Guru Nanak. After all, every Singh I knew in Malaysia was a Sikh. It was only in my thirties that I learned it is not so.
In India, there are many Punjabis who are not Sikhs! There are many Singhs who are not Sikhs!
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