Charlottesville Sikhs reflect on Wisconsin massacre

Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja at his home. John Robinson photo. Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja at his home. John Robinson photo.

One wall in Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja’s dining room is occupied by floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves packed with teapots of every shape and size.

“You have to work for your tea,” he said, chuckling, as he and his friend Dr. Narinder Arora settled at the table. “Pick a pot.”

The array and the invitation are evidence of a hospitality built into both men’s beliefs. Huja and Arora are Sikhs, adherants to a centuries-old Indian religion whose followers are receiving an unprecedented amount of attention after the recent shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that left six dead and communities around the country shaken.

Sikhs in southeast Asia aren’t strangers to violence, having witnessed and been victims in the conflicts over sovereignty in India and Pakistan in the last century. In the U.S., they stand out. The turbans and full beards worn by men lead many to label them incorrectly as Muslim—which does nothing to justify the violence, Huja said. It does make them want to talk about their faith.

Huja, 70, came to the U.S. as a teenager to attend Cornell, and became Charlottesville’s city planner in 1973. Arora, 71, a pulmonologist, arrived here a year later, when he joined UVA’s medical school faculty. Neither expected to remain in the U.S., they said, but they put down roots and stayed.

Both men are accustomed to answering questions about what it means to be Sikh, and do so with passion. Huja, particularly visible as a public figure, even keeps a neatly typed, three-page guide to the religion on hand that outlines the basic tenets: Believe in one God, control the ego, respect humans equally, pray, give, work hard.

At times, they miss being surrounded by a community that shares their beliefs. The nearest Sikh temple is 70 miles away in Richmond. Arora goes weekly; Huja stays close to home and worships at Charlottesville’s Unitarian Church instead.

But they don’t mind being different. It comes with the territory.

“Sikhs are a minority in India, too,” Huja pointed out. “It’s not a problem to us. We’re used to being a minority.”

The things that make them stand out—their beards and uncut hair, their turbans, the steel bracelets on their wrists—are meant to. Symbols of Sikhism for centuries, they are the outward manifestations of the faith.

“We are who we are,” Arora said. “We are not hidden under our skin. That’s how you recognize a Sikh.”

And when you look like a Sikh, said Huja, you’re reminded to act like one.

“Your actions and deeds are more important than your philosophy,” he said. “So if I were walking down the street and threw a piece of paper on the ground, you would readily notice. A guy in a turban doesn’t do that. So I have to think about my behavior.”

Both said they’ve faced prejudice, even cruelty, especially since 9/11, when a lack of understanding and tolerance turned many Americans suspicious of anyone who wears a turban—just a hat in some parts of the world, Huja pointed out. Arora said that once, after a difficult day in the ICU, a fellow doctor shouted at him to go back to India, an encounter that left him quivering with rage, but one he resolved through peaceful conversation.

“People do say things which are not pleasant,” Huja said. In his 40 years of public service in Charlottesville, he’s experienced his fair share of slights and prejudice. “I don’t get angry,” he said. “I just try to see if I can be of some help in explaining. Most people you can talk to.”

But not all. The two men had few words to describe their feelings in the wake of the Wisconsin shootings.

“I was shocked,” Huja said. “It’s just senseless, whether Sikh or anybody else. It’s just very sad that people have to get to that stage.”

Arora stared into his teacup for a moment before speaking. “There were 100 people in that temple,” he said, all preparing for the weekly meal offered to anyone who walked through the door. “Children were learning Punjabi. They all had to be pushed away.”

The temple president tried to stop the gunman, Arora said, facing the killer head-on with the short, curved knife many observant Sikhs wear, a symbol of divine power and a reminder of battles of old, when Sikhs defended the Punjab region from invading warlords.

“He came to protect everyone,” Arora said. “Then he was shot two times.”

It’s part of their faith to love everyone, Huja and Arora said, but they’re afraid that despite Sikhs’ efforts to quietly teach others about their way of life, there are some people no one can reach, people whose minds are turned to hate.

“There are people like that living all over the country,” said Huja. “They’re amongst us here.”

“But good people are much more available everywhere you go in the world,” Arora interjected gently. “The bad are few and far. They make the headlines, maybe, to show they exist.”

True, his friend said. And the good, the majority, must keep conversing their way toward greater understanding. Keep smiling and talking to the child who points and says, “Are you a genie?” Keep pouring tea for friends and strangers alike.

“People need to learn that the solution to problems is not killing each other, it’s talking to each other,” Huja said. “If you don’t talk to each other, you can’t understand each other.”

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