The Advantages of a Turban: An Interview with Suresh Bhalla

By Navneet Alang

In just about any image meant to convey Toronto’s diversity, you’ll see a smiling Sikh man with a coloured turban. It’s fitting. The entire premise of the turban and other Sikh symbols is that followers of the faith should stand out easily.

But if Sikhs stick out in this city, they often do so as the “model minority”. Sure, there’s the odd controversy over a kirpan or two, but the typical Canadian story about a Sikh is usually pretty ordinary, focusing on the low-key, diligent work ethic that Sikh doctrine espouses.

Suresh Bhalla is not that kind of Sikh. Speaking with a confident, almost Californian twang, Bhalla has a personality and life to match the conspicuousness of Sikh attire (he's often seen in a bright, multi-coloured turban). His story is one a bit more unusual than most immigrant narratives.

In the late sixties, Bhalla left India for a two-year stint with Bank of America in San Francisco and, amidst the turmoil of anti-war protests and cultural change, gained a taste for living in the West. He arrived in Montreal in 1975, where he started his Canadian banking career, which would eventually see him head up the derivatives group at Royal Bank in Toronto. Later in life, he moved into philanthropy. He was a major donor to the The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum and, until very recently, served on the boards of Human Rights Watch and Toronto Community Foundation.

It is, by most  measures, an unorthodox life, but one in which Sikhism as a faith and an identity has increasingly played a part. It's that which is the subject of this interview.

Bhalla lives in Rosedale, but spoke to me about his life and religion from his vacation home in Anguilla.

NA: As a child, to what extent was Sikhism a part of your life?

You know my father was in the air force. So we were not very religious, really. There were the usual visits to the gurudwara on special occasions. But that was about it. There was very little religion, if any, at home. We did not have the holy book at home, or had any annual services like an akhand paath. On average, I'd say there were maybe 2 to 3 visits to big gurudwara in Delhi each year.

NA: Have you always worn a turban?

Yes. We have a ceremony in our family tradition, where at about 13 or 14, where you’d go to a temple, say some prayers, and that’s when you’d start wearing a turban. So that’s where it started for me, when I learnt how to tie it, and have had once since.

NA: When you arrived in San Francisco and, later, Canada, what was the reaction to your wearing a turban?

You know, when I was being interviewed for immigration to Canada, the person interviewing me basically turned round and said, pointing to my turban, “do you intend keeping that one when you’re in Canada?” And I said “yes, I do.” And he said “well, let me honest with you – and I’ll deny it if you ever tell this to anyone – no matter what Canada says, there is discrimination there, and you will find it."

But I would say that overall, looking at wearing a turban in Western society, I’ve been able to use it to my advantage. One thing, of course, is that you’re noticed and remembered more easily. I’ve walked down the street in Vancouver and had someone yell “oh, hi Suresh!” and I didn’t have any idea who he was. He must have remembered me from a seminar I led or something.

But somehow I have this feeling that when you wear a turban, people’s expectations of you were lower. You know, like, “what does this guy know that I already don’t?” So it was very easy for me to surpass those expectations, to impress them with whatever little I knew. Now, I don’t know if that’s just my experience, but over the years in banking, I found I could use it to my advantage.

Now mind you, while I say that, I’m sure that there were instances of discrimination. I once had a boss who was English, and he’d worked in Kenya, and he’d dealt with Sikhs before, and I had a lot of problems with him. He made a lot of effort to impress upon me that he wasn’t racist, but it was so obvious.

But looking back, the advantages I derived were far greater than the disadvantages.

NA: Is it different now?

Oh now, my God, they’re reaching out to you to be part of their board. I think visible minorities are now sought after, especially if you’ve gotten any credibility in the area they’re looking at. I’ve been on the board of Toronto Community Foundation for six years, I’ve been co-chair for Human Rights Watch for six years. So, they’re looking for us.

NA: Earlier you said religion wasn’t much a part of your life while you were young. To what extent is it a part now?

I would say it’s increased over the years. When you come and live in a foreign land, you begin to think a lot more about religion, I think as you get older, you think a lot more about it. You also want to pass on those values to your children. There’s a whole mix of reasons why you progressively drift more into religion.

In Canada, we have an akhand paath every year, and have for almost 25 consecutive years. I couldn’t imagine, when I was growing up in India (chuckles), that I would believe so much in a ritual that I take a lot of pride in and that I wanted to expose the next generation to. I also take a lot pride in being part of the community and wanting to do things for and with the community.

So for all those reasons, one has become... I wouldn’t say more religious, but more conscious of one’s religion.

NA: A related question, then, one I’ve thought a lot about. It seems that, right or wrong, there has been this shift by some to think of religion as backwards. How do you square being a very modern individual and balance that with being a religious person?

You see, I believe very very strongly, as my father did, and as he told his grandchildren: religion is between you and God. Religion has nothing to do with what others believe in: you know, don’t drink alcohol, don’t cut your hair, do these rituals, wear these sorts of clothes. All those things... if you go back to Guru Nanak (Ed: the founder of Sikhism), he stood against these rituals people used, even though they’re physical manifesatations of the religion.

People like myself will pick and choose what we want, because we’re not answerable to somebody else. People will say “how come you cut your hair, or how come you’re drinking, or how come you smoke?” That’s my life. Yes, there are beliefs I have about my religion. I’ve never cut my hair. That’s between me and my beliefs. The basic premise is that my religion is between me and God, and it’s a vehicle to communicate between a supernatural force and myself as a human.