The three days in Bombay had been delightful. The eight of us, six from Rome and two from Milan, had visited the city's immense port, explored Malabar Hill, and even traveled by boat to the mysterious Elephant Isle. We were forecasting to one another that the next stop on our journey, Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, would probably be somewhat of a letdown.
Happily, the dreary forecast proved to be altogether mistaken. The flight from Bombay with a stop at Delhi was long; but what awaited us in Kashmir more than made up for the tedium and discomfort.
Srinagar is a city of almost 50,000 inhabitants. It boasts extensive public gardens filled with fountains and cascades, and it is dotted throughout with colorful Hindu temples and imposing Muslim mosques. But what captures the attention of the Western tourist above all else is that large segment of the city's populace which is known as Sikhs. They are, as a rule, taller and sturdier than their fellow citizens and easily identified by the huge, tightly-wound turbans which all of their adult males proudly sport.
In our hotel we engaged a guide who, in turn, obtained for us a kind of mini-bus driven by a young, powerfully built Sikh who wore a bright, purple turban. From the earliest minute of our first excursion into the city, the eight of us all sensed a tension between the guide and the driver, a tension which by the end of the second day had led the guide into a number of statements that were clearly offensive to Sikhs. The next morning one of our number warned the guide that we would tolerate no more unpleasantness. The admonition, however, was to no avail. By noon the guide had made several additional insinuations about the driver and his Sikh heritage which caused all of us to fear that the two might come to blows.
Thus at lunch we informed the guide that we had been invited to visit the home of the Italian Consul General in the afternoon, that we wanted the Sikh driver to accompany us, and the we would be grateful if the guide would not come along. He agreed with unexpected gentility and, moreover, the next morning sent another guide to take his place for the remainder of the tour.
At four o'clock in the afternoon of the third day in Srinagar, the mini-bus and Sikh driver were waiting outside our hotel to bring us to the home of the Consul General. When we had all settled into our seats and had traveled perhaps three or four blocks, the driver asked if we could stop for a few minutes so that he might share with us feelings that were welling up inside him. He assured us that we would not be late for the appointment with the Consul General.
He parked the mini-bus under a magnificent flowering tree and positioned himself on the step in front of the door below floor level. Even at that, his head was virtually touching the ceiling. His words were not at all defensive. Indeed, he kidded, for example, about the tendency of all Sikh families to adopt the name, Singh, and ended by suggesting with a smile that perhaps they should consider Smith. Nor was he critical of the guide or any other ethnic group. Rather, he stated that he wanted to tell us something positive about the Sikh people which he felt we might find interesting and which he trusted we would not forget.
Sikhs, he explained, are monotheistic, believing in and worshiping one Supreme Being. Moreover, he continued, all adult males who follow Sikh traditions wear on their person five symbols of the Sikh religion, the names of which all begin with the equivalent in the Sikh language of the letter, "k." These symbols are long hair gathered in the back, a comb to keep the hair in place, trousers that end below the knee, an iron bracelet, and a little ceremonial sword. What they symbolize, he concluded, are five virtues toward which every devout Sikh is bound to strive, namely; faith in the One God, obedience to His Law, courage, self-control, and purity of mind.
"May I dare to hope," he inquired, standing as tall as the mini-bus would allow, "that when you think of my people, you will not recall what the guide has said about us, but rather the virtues we pursue."
With that, he resumed his seat, started the motor, and drove us to our destination.
That evening, after dinner, the eight of us gathered in the hotel lobby to review the events of the day. All had been genuinely touched by the words of the driver and the strength of soul they bespoke. One of the Romans was keeping a daily journal of the trip. He could recall all five of the symbols that Sikhs wear and all five of the virtues to which they are dedicated, but he could not remember which symbol went with which virtue. Nor were the rest of us of much help. Thus, we decided that we would seek an answer from the driver the next day when he took us to the airport. Unfortunately, our plan failed. For the next day the airlines had us picked up by a turban-less gentleman who announced peremptorily that he considered it ill-advised to discuss religion with foreigners.
Last month I was invited to give a talk in the Midwest at a meeting of Catholic theologians. Leaving the air terminal, I boarded a cab to go to the hotel where I was to stay. The driver was a big-boned man in a huge, tightly-wound turban, and the name on the identification card attached to the door of the cab's glove compartment was the familiar Singh. Here was my opportunity, I told myself, to solve the puzzle of the meaning of each of the five "k's."
"Are you from Srinagar?" I asked in as casual a tone as I could muster.
"No," the driver replied.
"Your name would seem to indicate that you are Sikh," I went on.
"Right," he answered.
It was clear that I was making little progress. So I said nothing more for the next several minutes. Finally, however, I could not resist pursuing my theme.
"Are you acquainted with the five symbols Sikh men wear and the five virtues they symbolized?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied.
"Could you perhaps tell me which symbol refers to which virtue?" I continued.
"Yes," he answered; but he said nothing more.
We pulled under the marquis of the hotel. As I got out of the cab, the driver got out too. He reaching into his breast pocket and drew from it a leather folder that reminded me of the passport cases of many years ago. He opened it to reveal a little, pewter base-relief inside, about three inches high. It was the Lord on the cross with the Blessed Virgin on one side and Saint John on the other.
"My Catholic wife taught me our Faith," he announced quietly, "and I always keep this with me. It symbolized the virtues of the five "k's" and all other virtues too."
He touched the folder to his forehead, put it in his pocket, and told me that I owed him nineteen dollars and fifty cents.
As so often happens in matters of Faith, I did not receive the answer I was seeking; but the answer I received was far more satisfying than the one I had sought. The Lord was telling me where to look for the most powerful symbol, sign, and example of virtue that anyone could imagine. "Stand beneath the cross, and open your eyes," I could almost hear Him shout as I fumbled in my wallet for nineteen dollars and fifty cents.