Being recognizable as a Sikh continually poses risks, Kaur said.
"In India we had a long tradition of being especially close to Hindus. Hindus and Sikhs married each other. My husband's paternal grandmother, for example, was born a Hindu but, once married, converted of her own free will to Sikhism. There were even many Hindu families that had a custom of raising their first son as a Sikh. This all changed in June 1984, when Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian army to invade the Golden Temple, the most holy site for all Sikhs. At the time, there was a kind of revival of Sikhism going on, and the Indian government interpreted this as a separatist movement, as a Sikh demand for a purely Sikh state. It all ended disastrously for everyone. Many Sikhs were murdered. Many were imprisoned and tortured. There were Sikhs who saw the invasion of the Golden Temple as a direct provocation, an assault against them as a religious minority. In January 1986, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards who were Sikhs. There was more violence against Sikhs. Throughout India, Sikhs experienced persecution. People couldn't get jobs. They had no way of making a living. Although things have recently started to improve a little, at that time it was difficult for a Sikh to stay in India. It was a very tragic situation."
I asked Kaur what Sikhism meant to a Sikh like her, someone who'd lived at such a distance from these enormous events.
"I think the Sikh emphasis on the equality between men and women gave me a sense of self-esteem. Now, gender equality is of course the ideal in Sikhism. That doesn't mean that culturally men and women are always treated as equals. But at the very least, there is the religious belief that gender equality is a Sikh value. It's something that our religion teaches, and it's something that we believe in. And so I grew up with the idea that I, as a woman, could do anything. For a while I was a stockbroker on Wall Street. I was right there in the trading pit where there were few women. It was an interesting experience. And I think that it was my faith that gave me the self-confidence that I had every right to be there and that I could do the job as well as anyone else.
"You see, I grew up identifying myself not so much as an Indian, but as a Sikh. My mother and father were always working a great deal. But my grandparents lived with us. My grandparents would pick us up from school and bring us home. Most of our religious teaching, the foundation, was laid by our mother. But the continuation of the experience was my grandfather and my grandmother, so we were well versed in what Sikhism was.
"I remember being five, six, and seven, sitting on my grandfather's lap, asking him stories about the gurus, and his emotionally telling these stories to me. The whole of Sikhism, pride in being a Sikh, was instilled in us at a very early age. I don't remember identifying with being an Indian. I remember specifically being reminded that I was a Sikh, and, I think, again, that was because my father and brother looked very different and because I did not cut my hair. And because our parents and grandparents wanted us, from the time we were very young, to remember why we did these things.
"I remember when my faith became real to me as an adult. I was at Stony Brook University and I had just taken an exam, a bio exam or some exam, and I was going to the library. It was raining, drizzling, a cold night. All of a sudden, these words came to me, words from a prayer that my mother had taught us. And I realized that what my mother had us say was, 'Oh, please God, don't let us see a bad time.' All of a sudden, it just made sense. I remember saying aloud, 'You know what? It makes sense.' All these years I just said the Sikh prayers. I just wanted to fit in. My parents did it. My parents told me to do it. My friends did it. But with that one realization, I understood what I'd been saying all those years and I understood that I belonged.
"There's something in Christianity called, I think, the 'Jesus Prayer,' where you just keep saying it. You just do it as a ritual. You keep doing it. Well, if you're doing something good, that good becomes a part of your heart and eventually becomes a part of your soul. And if you're doing something bad, it also becomes part of you. In this, the 'Jesus Prayer,' you keep saying Jesus' name again and again. You're doing it as repetition, but eventually it seeps into your heart and becomes a part of your soul, and then all of a sudden you can't imagine being without it. And I think that's what it was when my mother had us do this Sikh prayer again and again. Eventually, the mere repetition of it, the ritual of it, took on an essence of its own. I felt so enlightened that I knew that this was where I needed to be.
"After that experience, I changed in a profound way. I mean, obviously, I could have fallen in love with somebody non-Sikh and chosen them to have a dual lifestyle at home. But after that experience, I wanted to be a Sikh. I chose to be a Sikh. I wanted somebody to share my religion with. Not being able to share something that's so integral to you is a very lonely existence. Not that I think that there's anything less about being Jewish or Catholic. I think that's fine. This just became my personal goal in life. I wanted a husband that I could take with me to the gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship. I wanted someone that I could sing the Sikh hymns with. I envisioned my family with a turbaned husband and a boy and girl, doing the things my mother and father did with me and my brother. And I envisioned my mother and father being able to talk to my husband, and I envisioned my brother being able to talk to my husband. Sikhism, it's a family thing, too."