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A Sikh Tailor
An essay by Martha Ann Overland

audio Listen to Overland's essay.

Sept. 28, 2001 -- Though Sikhs are a tiny minority in India, they are a very visible part of life here. Doctors, teachers and taxi drivers, they are easily identifiable by their distinctively wrapped turbans - and the symbolic daggers to fight injustice that some still carry at their sides.

The first Sikh I came to know was our tailor. He carried no dagger but rather a sewing bag that always contained just the right button and a hundred different colors of thread. He made dresses for New Delhi’s expatriate ladies but he was best known for his Halloween costumes for their children.

I was introduced to Mr. Singh when one of them said there was an opening on their list. Mr. Singh worked for a different family for each week, she explained, then he moved on to the next name. The last person on the list delivers the sewing machine to the next in line, a bit like a chain letter. She warned me he wasn’t much of a tailor but that it would’ matter. Trust her, she said.

"The first Sikh I came to know was our tailor. He carried no dagger but rather a sewing bag that always contained just the right button and a hundred different colors of thread."

Martha Ann Overland

Mr. Singh arrived on a rickety bicycle the next Monday morning. He was as ancient as his hand crank sewing machine -- which suddenly appeared on my doorstep, as promised. Mr. Singh, carrying his lunch in a little tin box, removed his shoes before he entered our house. I offered him a comfortable chair, but he preferred to sit on the floor, out of the way. Hour after hour, Mr. Singh patiently stitched noses back on stuffed animals, fixed zippers, took in and let out hems. He seemed to having a calming influence on our normally chaotic menagerie. The children liked to be near him while he worked. They dragged out their crayons and drew pictures for him as he sewed.

Our large and rather terrifying dog also took a fancy to Mr. Singh. Every morning the dog lay in wait at the door for him to arrive. Normally this would be a method of ambush. But with Mr. Singh, it was pure adoration. Once he arrived, the dog never left his side, sleeping on the clothes he was trying to mend, with his head in his lap.

Like the dog, we were on our best behavior when Mr. Singh was in the house. My husband and I didn’t argue, I didn’t yell at the children. And they didn’t whine. Mr. Singh took days to sew a single pair of pants….But we hoped it would take him forever, and that he wouldn't leave, and go on to the next family that we knew was waiting for him.

One morning, while riding his bicycle to work, Mr. Singh was hit by a car. His leg was shattered and he spent a month in the hospital. The expat wives quickly ponied up the money for the operation he needed and we covered all his expenses. To make sure he was taken care of, we’ve sent work for him to do at home.

But it never was the same. The list fell apart; the chain letter had been broken. Because what we wanted was not someone to mend our old jeans. Anyone at the market could have done that…even I could have done that! It was that Mr. Singh’s gentle presence drew us closer around him. And while he sewed, he was actually stitching us all together.

Commentator Martha Ann Overland lives in New Delhi.