In New York-based Simran Jeet Singh’s new book, there is no glossary for Punjabi words. Danda, prashad and Baisakhi appear in their context, unaccompanied by parentheses or explanations.
The 36-year-old writer, professor and activist called it a “political decision”. “Let children – and everyone else – normalise what they see as being different or foreign,” he explained. “Just as we learn simple Spanish words like amigo, others could learn some Punjabi words, and that could help make us more human and relatable.”
Singh, whose parents emigrated from India in the 1970s, grew up in South Texas, where no one else looked like him or his Sikh family. He describes the experience as isolating.
As a young child, he remembers flipping through one book after another in search of characters that looked like him, thinking, “If I could find them and show it to my friends, then maybe we would be treated differently.”
He recalls questioning this lack of representation and being told that such characters were not relatable. “Over time, I realised that what they were saying was that people don’t care about our stories,” he said. “That our stories don’t matter. That was a tough pill to swallow.”
Thirty years later, when he went looking for reading material for his young daughters, he still could not find books with depictions of Punjabis and Sikhs. Singh says that while the visibility of the Sikh community in the United States has become more pronounced since the September 11 attacks, it has predominantly been for negative reasons, making the need for positive representation all the more important.
His work Fauja Singh Keeps Going, published last month by Penguin Random House, is an attempt at that. The illustrated book tells the real-life story of Fauja Singh, a British-Sikh centenarian who became the world’s oldest marathoner in 2011.
“The lack of representation really sends a strong message to our kids, that their stories don’t matter and that they’re not capable of being whatever it is that they want to be,” he said. “Our ideas and conceptions of heroes come from books, cartoons and films. I wanted to create a counter-message that challenges a lot of our assumption of who gets to be a hero.”
For the author, the 109-year-old Fauja Singh, with his long, flowing beard and unparalleled determination to overcome obstacles and disability, is that hero.
Born to run
Born in pre-Partition Punjab, Fauja Singh did not walk until he was five years old. With stick-thin legs – for which he was often bullied – Fauja Singh could hardly walk long distances, let alone run.
He did not, however, let these difficulties get in the way of his passion for running. When the death of his wife in 1992 pushed him into depression – a phase depicted in the illustrated book – Fauja Singh immigrated to England at the age of 81. Eight years after that, he began running marathons.
“He was moving to a new country for the first time,” Singh said. “He didn’t have anything of his own anymore and he didn’t speak the language of the people. I really tried to capture that in the book because it was this crucial moment of his life. But it’s also a very typical immigrant story. Hearing him talk about what it took to come out of this was really powerful for me to hear.”
Those significant moments of Fauja Singh’s journey have been brought to life in the book by UK-based illustrator Baljinder Kaur. As a second-generation immigrant, Kaur explores the hidden narratives of the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora through her work.
Kaur’s Punjabi roots, as well as her deep interest in depicting the community’s elders, made her the ideal artist for this book. Fauja Singh Keeps Going features intricate details that are specific to the Sikh community: a parent or grandparent combing a child’s long hair with thick kanga, the tying of a turban, a woman wearing a dupatta with Phulkari design – a traditional embroidery popular in Punjab – and a family eating dal and roti together under a crystal chandelier.
Any time that Fauja Singh is seeking strength in the book, there are depictions of hair and turban. In Sikh philosophy and practice, keeping unshaven hair signifies strength.
“I’m certain that an illustrator who is unfamiliar with the Punjabi-Sikh culture would not have been able to capture the details in the way that she did,” Singh noted. “There’s real power in identity, which I feel no other illustrator would have even been able to pick up on.”
Singh wanted the illustrations to create a sense of authenticity for those who have a South Asian background. “I wanted them to feel like their stories are being represented accurately and also to help introduce people to images and elements of our lifestyles that seem unfamiliar and to just normalise them,” he said.
The fact that the book has been produced by an all-South Asian team – the editor, Namrata Tripathi, and agent, Tanusri Prasanna, are also of South Asian origin – allowed it to dig deeper into specific cultural questions rather than just scratching the surface.
Numerous aspects of identity are also baked into the book. For instance, it depicts the challenge of Fauja Singh’s world record not being recognised because he did not have his birth certificate. “That’s a very Eurocentric and colonialist mindset – the rest of the world doesn’t have the same documents that you had so you find the need to impose these things,” Singh said.
Even while researching and writing the book, Singh was frequently warned that there is no market for such work. “There’s no demand for stories like this,” he was told. “People don’t resonate or connect with stories about people who don’t look like them.” But Singh says he was confident that this assumption was false.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a beautiful and inspiring story,” he said. “I just wanted to give it that chance and the response so far has been incredible.”
The first time his four-year-old daughter flipped through the illustrations and saw Fauja Singh combing his daughter’s hair, she squealed: “That’s you and me every morning!”
“To me, that was such a wonderful moment because that was the first time she ever saw the book and it was an immediate connection,” Singh said. “It was her saying that she sees herself in this book, and that’s exactly what it was.”
Singh now looks forward to those from outside the community taking an interest in Fauja Singh’s story. “I’m really excited for children to learn about Sikhs for the first time,” he said. “I want them to connect with the culture and community in a sort of subtle and humanistic way.”