It was a warm November Monday, the short week before Thanksgiving, when I met my brother. It was a day that you were glad to live in California, when the morning chill of the foothills was replaced by a warm wind that came up from the valley, across San Jose, and into Regnart Elementary School. In sixth grade, I was master of that school.
If you visit Cupertino, you will find it hard to understand why Ranjit was so odd to us that first day. The children of Silicon Valley engineers, managers and entrepreneurs are White, and Chinese, and Indian and Black. Everyone is a minority. In the valley, people are allowed to have friends and to marry outside of their race. It is partially because the valley is open and thoughtful, but mostly because in a town where home prices are now six times the national average, Cupertino’s racial communities are united by wealth and opportunity.
But when Ranjit started school in 1974, we were White. Not all of us, of course; there were a few Asian students and one black girl, but they either acted White and were accepted or were quiet and we paid them very little attention.
That first day, Ranjit’s father wore a charcoal suit, a white shirt, and a brilliant blue turban that matched his tie. White teeth flashed under his long, thick beard and mustache when he smiled. He stood tall and straight and walked like a warrior prince. He shook hands with the principal outside the school office, squeezed Ranjit’s shoulder and left. It was the only time I saw him.
Ranjit was there when class started, seated on the opposite side of our room. Newly issued books were piled on his desk. His skin was brown against the rolled up sleeves of his white shirt. Tapping a pencil against blue-jeans, his serious face watched the teacher until lunchtime.
Bringing a lunch to school had two benefits, equally important. The first was that we did not have to eat the food prepared by the cafeteria. The second was that we could finish eating in a few minutes and have more time for playground games. On the last of the sixth grade benches, we swallowed our food without chewing, and I held court. My name is Tim Dolan, but here I was Robin Hood and these were my Merry Men. Billy Thorndike, tall, strong, and loud, was my Little John.
“Are you going to challenge him?” asked Billy.
“What for?” I replied. “Do you think he’s fast?”
“Probably not,” said Billy. “I’ll bet that thing on his head will slow him down. What is that, anyway?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?” I said.
“Good idea,” Billy said. He stood up and talked to the table where Ranjit sat alone. The independent thought and action on Billy’s part was unusual and I found it unsettling. When the Merry Men followed, I was annoyed and stayed at our table, concentrating on peeling an orange and looking unconcerned.
Billy pointed to the fist-sized mass that topped the black fabric covering Ranjit’s head. “What is that on top of your head?” he asked.
Ranjit looked at Billy and the five Merry Men standing in a ring behind him. “It’s my hair,” he answered in his Indian-English flavored voice.
“Why’s it in that thing? It looks like a tumor,” said Billy. The Merry Men laughed and I smiled.
“It’s called a dastaar. It holds my hair. I’m not allowed to cut it,” he said.
“It looks stupid,” Billy said.
“At my school at Mansa, you would look stupid without one,” he said. The Merry Men laughed again. They were easy to please. As long as someone had been insulted, friend or foe, they found humor in the discomfort of the receiving party.
Billy glared. “Are you calling me stupid?”
Ranjit looked at him and smiled. Billy took a step forward with a face that said he was going to ‘do something’. Ranjit kept smiling, but his eyes were hard. Billy stopped, looking unsure.
“Tim’s going to challenge you. He’s going to kick your butt,” said Billy, looking at me.
“Challenge me to what?” said Ranjit.
“A race,” I said, standing up and walking over. Billy stepped back and took his rightful place, behind me. I hoped he would not speak without my guidance again. “We run sixty yards. If you lose, I get your dessert. If I lose, you get mine. What do you have?”
“Kalakand,” he said, holding up a plastic bag with four white squares in it.
“Yuck. Not really a fair trade for my Twinkies, but you aren’t going to win anyway. Do we race?” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, standing up.
I walked towards the thin dirt track that ran along the blacktop with Ranjit and the Merry Men. Alan Boland was my Will Scarlet and our crier. He called out to the loungers and slow eaters, still at their tables, and then again to the handball and four-square players.
Cathy Arnold looked up from her table where she was surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting. She was my Maid Marian. I hoped to rescue her from the eighth-grade boy who walked her home after school. She stood up and arched her back to better show the good fortune of early development.
“Cathy!” I called to her. “Want to be the judge?”
“Sure,” she answered, standing up and walking toward the last basketball pole, the customary sixty yard mark. Her ladies followed.
I drew a line in the dirt with my canvas tennis shoe and we each put one foot on it. “First one to the pole wins,” I said.
The blacktop was lined with sixth grade royalty while the peasant class of fourth and fifth graders milled on the grass side of the track. Cathy waited for a moment and then shouted “Go!”
The flares of my bell-bottomed jeans puffed together like a locomotive steaming down a hill. I was three steps ahead by the time we were halfway through the race. When we finished, Ranjit had gained a little, but the race was over.
“Let’s see what this Kalakand stuff tastes like,” I said to Billy. He made a face.
Ranjit stood facing me. “A good short race. Are you willing to run again?”
“Always,” I said, smirking at Cathy. “Double or nothing on the dessert, but tomorrow you need to bring something good.”
“How far is it all the way around the track?” asked Ranjit, pointing with a thin, brown finger to the circle of dirt track that ran along the perimeter of the fence and blacktop.
“My dad says a full lap is one-third of a mile. He runs here,” said Cathy.
“Let’s race for three laps. One mile,” said Ranjit. Before I could answer, he drew a new line in the dirt and put a foot on it. I winked at Cathy, grinned at the Merry Men, and stepped to the line. Cathy favored me with a smile and then started us on our second race.
A mile seemed like a lot of work for a noon-time contest, but I was not concerned. This was my track and I loved to run. After baseball practice at the junior high, I ran the mile with the eighth-grade boys. Only a few of them beat me. At the end of the first lap, I was well ahead of Ranjit. My brown, shoulder-length hair flowed behind me like a banner.
When we passed the pole for the second time, I could hear Ranjit behind me. We pounded past the baseball backstop together and ran for a quarter lap shoulder-to-shoulder. I could hear the Merry Men and Maid Marian’s ladies shouting my name as Ranjit began to pass, but their encouragement and my determination and adrenaline were not enough when he sprinted the last 200 yards.
It was not a close finish. Ranjit was waiting as I walked the last twenty yards to the pole. He held out his hand.
“Another good race. Perhaps we can run again another time,” he said smiling.
“We’ll see,” I grumbled. Ranjit continued to hold out his hand until it became clear that I would not take it. His face grew serious as he lowered his arm and turned towards the school building. Stepping briskly with his head up, he walked like his father, a young warrior prince.
Cathy looked at me, frowned and then ran towards Ranjit. Her friends, Maid Marian’s ladies, looked lost for a moment until they too followed Ranjit and Cathy towards the school.
The Merry Men knew that they shared in my humiliation. They were sullen, but unsure where to direct their anger. Fat and friendly Frank Kerchner, my Friar Tuck, found an outlet.
“That bun on his head didn’t slow him down. He must store energy in it,” said Frank. I laughed with the rest of the Merry Men.
“He’s probably used to running from tigers in the jungle around his house,” said Billy.
“I’ll beat him next time,” I said as the bell rang. As we walked back to class, I thought about Ranjit’s hand, the one I refused to take. I was glad that my parents had not been watching. Worse than a loser, I was a bad sport. Why did he have to offer me his hand? It was bad enough that he had won. Did he have to humiliate me by being chivalrous too?
He did not speak to me the rest of that day or the Tuesday or Wednesday that followed. I watched him as he listened to the teacher and talked to some of my classmates. Worse than ignoring me, he did not seem to care that I was there. With the teacher’s permission, Cathy moved to a desk across from Ranjit so she could help him adjust to our class. I tried to talk to her at lunch, but she had no use for me.
“I never thought you could be so mean, Tim,” she said.
My shame made the classroom seem small and airless. When I looked at Ranjit or at Cathy, I was no longer Robin Hood. I was the scruffy leader of a gang of forest bullies. Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house provided some relief and I hoped that things would feel normal when I returned to school on Monday. I ate until my stomach hurt on Thursday. On Friday, my father and I hiked the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains with Tricket, my Boston terrier. Saturday I played basketball in the park with Billy, Frank, and Alan.
Sunday afternoon, after Mass and a lunch of left-over turkey, Dad and I lay on the floor of our living room playing chess. When the telephone rang, Mom picked it up in the kitchen. Something about the tone of her muffled voice made us stop and listen. Dad’s quick and worried look told me to wait as he walked into the kitchen. I heard low voices before the car drove away. Dad returned to the game.
“Something’s happened, Tim. Mom needs to go and talk to someone. To help them. It’s not anything you need to worry about. Let’s finish our game.”
Several hours later the telephone rang again. Dad took the call behind the closed door of my parent’s bedroom. I heard Mom’s voice as I hung up the kitchen phone. After thirty minutes, Dad called me into the bedroom.
“Tim, do you know a boy named Ranjit?”
“Yes, he’s in my class,” I answered warily.
“His father was hit by a drunk driver last night. He died this morning. It’s really terrible. Ranjit and his father moved to Cupertino just a little over a week ago. Do you know him very well?”
“No. Not really,” I said.
“His mother died in India when he was three or four. Now he’s lost his father.” He pushed his long brown and grey hair back and then held his neck with both hands. “Tim, your Mom is over at the Cupertino Police Station. The police brought Ranjit there. Uncle Jack called her because Ranjit doesn’t have any close family here in the U.S. He’ll probably have to go back to India, but it may take a while to sort out. Mom and I are going to let Ranjit stay here for a few days.”
“Here?” I said. “Why can’t he stay with Uncle Jack?”
“Mom’s little brother is a great cop, but there’s no way he can manage a twelve year old boy. If we don’t take Ranjit, he’ll end up in Santa Clara County’s protective services, a foster home.”
“Where’s he going to sleep?” I said.
“I assume he would sleep in one of your bunks. Tim, sharing your room with Ranjit is a pretty small sacrifice compared what he’s going through. Is there some reason why he shouldn’t stay with us?”
“No,” I said.
My father looked at me strangely, trying to understand my reluctance. “Mom will be back with Ranjit in a few minutes,” he said. “Let’s try to get your room ready before they get here.”
Dad and I put clean sheets on my bottom bunk and picked up clothes, Hot Wheels cars and track, a half-finished Monopoly game, and various other valuables that littered the floor of my room. I imagined Ranjit here in my room, sleeping in my bed, using my things. Did he take that strange thing off his head at night? What was underneath? What other weird clothes or habits did he have? Would he tell my parents how we treated him on his first day at school?
Ranjit carried a small, black, canvas duffle bag when he arrived with Mom. He looked at me with a serious face for a long moment.
“Hello, Ranjit,” Dad said. “Please treat this as your own home while you stay with us. We’re very sorry about your father.”
“He’s with my mother now. They are one with God,” said Ranjit. It was eerie to hear his voice, so clear and free of emotion.
I looked at Mom. Her eyes were red and full, ready to cry. She quickly wiped them and said, “Tim, why don’t you show Ranjit your room and let him put his bag away.”
We walked into my bedroom and he put his bag at the foot of my bed. Lying down on the bottom bunk, he folded his arms on his chest and stared at the top bunk. I stood at the door, not knowing what to do or say. Finally, he closed his eyes. I shut the door and left him, joining my parents at the kitchen table.
“Ranjit is probably in shock right now,” Mom said. “Uncle Jack said that he hasn’t cried at all since his father passed away. It would be better if he had some family in the area or some close friends, but he says there is no one. He knows a few people at the San Jose Sikh Gurdwara – that’s his temple – but it doesn’t sound like they are good friends. I’ll call the Gurdwara tomorrow and see if there is anything else we can do for Ranjit.”
“How long is he going to stay?” I asked. Something about my tone made Dad look sharply at me.
“His aunt is coming from Punjab next week. Uncle Jack called her yesterday. She’ll take Ranjit back to India with her,” Mom said.
I avoided my room for the rest of the evening and Ranjit did not come out until Mom called him to dinner. He sat with us, but ate very little and spoke less. Mom looked at him the way she did me when I was sick or hurt. It made me feel strange. I wanted to be noble and kind, like my parents, like Robin Hood, but my emotions were as clogged as the rain gutters we cleaned in October.
After dinner, Ranjit showered and went to bed. I followed an hour later. His long, black hair, still damp from washing, spread over the pillow as he slept in my bottom bunk. There was no sign of the dastaar that had covered his head. I wanted to wake him and tell him I was sorry about his father, to tell him I was sorry about everything. Instead, I climbed into my bunk and listened to him breathe.
When Mom got me up for school, Ranjit was already awake and dressed. I heard Mom speak to him as I ate breakfast.
“You don’t need to go to school today, Ranjit,” she said. “You can stay home and watch television or read. Take it easy until your aunt comes.”
“My father worked for many years to get me into school here, in the United States, in Cupertino. He would want me to go,” he said.
“I really think it would be better if you stayed here, Ranjit,” she said.
“I’m going to school,” said Ranjit. His eyes here hard, the way he looked at Billy that first day.
My mother paused. “Okay, you and Tim can walk together. I’m going to send a note for Mrs. Gunderson. If you don’t want to stay in class, she’ll call me and you can come back here.”
The cold morning wind blew dead leaves and twigs across the road as we walked to school. We passed a deer that had come down out of the foothills to eat a neighbor’s flowers and had been killed by a car. Ranjit looked straight ahead and I looked at the ground as we walked. Finally, the silence was too oppressing.
“My house is probably the worst place you could have ended in,” I said.
“Why?” he replied. “Your parents seem like good people.”
“I don’t mean my parents. My friends weren’t very nice your first day at school. I’m sorry about that,” I said.
“Your friends? I thought it was you,” he said.
“I was trying to say I’m sorry, but forget it,” I said.
“It’s forgotten,” he replied.
We arrived at school without speaking again. Mrs. Gunderson read the note from my mother. She glanced at me and then at Ranjit and told him to let her know if he needed anything.
At lunch, Ranjit sat by himself and I ate with my band of outlaws. Frank had questions.
“We drove by you on the way to school this morning and saw you walking with hair-piece boy. You guys buddies now?” he said.
“No,” I said. “His father was killed so my parents are letting him stay at your house until his aunt comes.”
“What happened,” said Billy. “Did his Dad get eaten by a tiger?”
The outlaws laughed until I stood up and pushed Billy.
“Shut up!” I shouted. “It’s not funny!”
The push seemed reasonable for a member of my gang that was out of line, but Billy did not see it that way. He pushed me back and I hit the ground. I jumped up and swung my fist as hard as I could, hitting Billy in the jaw.
It was a mistake. He looked dazed for a moment and then he hit me three times, once in the nose, once in the right eye, and once just below the ribs. His last punch, delivered with all of the skill and power he learned from his father, send me to the ground holding my midsection.
Mom picked me up early from school that day, not Ranjit. I was waiting in the principal’s office with blood on my shirt and a swollen eye. When Mom brought Ranjit home he came into my room and sat on the edge of the lower bunk while I rolled Hot Wheels cars down a track, one after another.
“You fought bravely today,” he said.
“Bravely? My best friend beat me up,” I said.
“Cathy told me what happened. She heard from Frank. I think you were brave,” he said.
“I didn’t do it for you Ranjit. I don’t know why I fought with Billy,” I said.
He lay back on the bed and closed his eyes.
The next day at school, Billy seemed genuinely sorry to have caused so much damage so quickly. I forgave him and he was again my right hand. We walked around the playground arm-in-arm, telling and retelling the story of our fight. For a moment, we were Robin Hood and Little John again. We had fought with quarterstaffs on the bridge and he had won, but I had won his respect through archery.
But I could not remain Robin Hood while Ranjit sat alone at lunch. No one made comments about him or his hair or his father, but he was not included in games or conversation. Losing his father made him more alien and I could not find the courage to approach him in front of my friends.
At school and at home, Ranjit never complained or cried. On Wednesday evening, Mom opened the door to a tall Indian man in an orange turban.
“My name is Granthi Bhagat Singh, the custodian of the San Jose Gurdwara on Quimbly road. We spoke on the telephone Monday. May I come in and speak to Ranjit?” Mom showed him to my room where Ranjit sat alone with his schoolwork. They spoke for about an hour and then Bhagat Singh joined Mom, Dad and me in the living room.
“Ranjit’s loss is very deep. It will take time to heal. I was surprised when he told me that he is still going to school,” he said. “It’s good of you to share your home with him during this time. I told him that there are Sikh families he could stay with, but he seems to prefer to stay here. I understand that his aunt will arrive tomorrow.”
“She’s been delayed,” Mom said. “There’s a problem getting a visa. We expect her this Monday.”
“We’ll keep his father’s ashes until she arrives,” he said.
On Monday, it was December and Ranjit’s aunt was delayed again. Ranjit and I continued to share my room and to walk to school together, but we rarely spoke.
On Saturday, Dad took Ranjit and me hiking on the trail from the winery. The forest was wet and dark under a cloudy sky. We crushed bay leaves and smelled them and then filled the paper bags from our lunches to bring home the scent of the forest.
We went to Mass Sunday morning. Dad offered to stay home with Ranjit, but he wanted to go with us. He sat quietly, with his dastaar and his brown, handsome face, watching and listening to a homily on the duty of Christians to bring others to the faith. Later, when we were alone, I asked my father if we should try to teach Ranjit about Jesus.
“We need to respect Ranjit’s religion, Tim,” he said.
“How can we respect his religion if he doesn’t believe in Jesus? How can he go to heaven?” I said.
“Maybe there’s more than one way into heaven,” he said. “We’ve brought Ranjit to Mass because he’s curious. If it is right for him, he’ll become a Catholic. In the meantime, we are going to visit his temple this afternoon. Who knows? Maybe you’ll want to become a Sikh.”
I waited for him to laugh, but he only smiled a little. That afternoon, at the San Jose Gurdwara, Mom brought several cans of food for the Langar, the free kitchen. We took off our shoes and covered our heads before entering the temple. Mom knelt on the left and Dad and I knelt on the right. Ranjit approached the Guru Granth Sahib, their holy book, and knelt down, touching his head to the floor. He sat on his heels, alone, without moving. The only sound was a cough from another worshiper and a dim hum from the city that drifted through the door. After a few minutes, we moved outside to wait.
When Ranjit came out, he smiled for the first time I could remember since he started school. It made him seem less strange and for a moment, I liked him a bit. Together in the backseat of the car, I wanted to ask him questions about the temple, but he stared out the window, quiet and unapproachable.
The next week at school was tedious. The holiday break was approaching and it was difficult to stay focused. Ranjit’s aunt had still not arrived. Dad wrote a letter to U.S. Immigration. On Friday, we bought a Christmas tree. After it was decorated, Dad read “The Gift of the Magi” to Ranjit and me. When he was done, Dad asked him if he liked the story.
“It was a good story. They both made great sacrifices. A Sikh woman would never cut her hair for a watch chain.”
On Saturday, we picnicked at Steven’s Creek Park. We ate and skipped rocks over the water. Tricket dashed back and forth along the edge of the reservoir, barking at our stones, but afraid to venture into the cold water. Finally tired and panting, he went back to sit by the car. Ranjit and I counted skips and found smooth, flat stones for each other. As the light began to fade, we packed up the car to head home.
I stood by the car and called Tricket. When he didn’t come, I searched the area, calling him over and over. Dad, Mom and Ranjit joined me. It grew dark and cold, but we could not find Tricket. When it started to drizzle, Dad called us back to the car.
“Its cold and getting wet. We need to take you boys home,” he said.
“Tricket is still out there! What if he’s hurt?” I said.
“Tomorrow we’ll look for Tricket again,” he said.
“We’ll find him,” said Ranjit.
“I shouldn’t have been skipping stones with you!” I shouted. “I should have been playing with Tricket!” Ranjit walked away as I started to cry. Mom and Dad stood with me for a few minutes and then opened the door to the car. I got in.
We knew the second time Dad called that Ranjit was gone. Mom and I waited in the car while Dad searched for him with a flashlight in the dark. He was not in the area. Dad called his name, knowing that a person who does not want to be found, won’t answer. After an hour, Dad got into the car, dripping from the light, steady rain.
“Go and call the police,” he said. “I’ll wait for them here.”
“I want to stay with you and look,” I said.
“No, Tim. I’m sorry. Go home with Mom,” he said.
In a small way, I understood Ranjit a little better that night. I cried when Tricket was lost, but not when Ranjit disappeared. It was too serious and I was too shaken for tears. I knew he left because of me. It was my fault that he was alone in the forest, wet and cold. I wanted to cry, but like Ranjit, I was too shocked.
Dad called once around midnight to say that rangers were helping with the search. I finally fell asleep a short while afterwards.
The rising sun was shining into my room through a cloudless sky the next morning. I looked up to see why my bed felt damp and there was Tricket, curled up and asleep at the foot of my bed. Ranjit sat in a chair watching me.
“Ranjit!” I said. “They found you!”
“I walked back with Tricket. Are they looking for me?” he said.
“I think so. Dad is with the police. Where did you find him?” I said gently scratching Tricket’s head. He woke up and licked my fingers.
“He was on the trail behind the reservoir,” he said. “He must have chased a squirrel or something and got turned around so he just headed towards home. I got lost trying to find my way back to the car so we found a dry spot under a fallen tree. We waited for the rain to stop and then I just followed Tricket over the hills and back into town. He led me all the way home.”
“Weren’t you scared?” I said. “Thanks for finding him, Ranjit, but we were all really worried about you.”
“It was wrong to make people search in the rain,” he said. “I tried to tell myself that no one would follow me, that no one cared, but I knew it wasn’t true. I went to look for Tricket because I couldn’t stand the idea of you losing someone the way I have, even if it was only a dog.” He looked at the floor and I could see tears on his face. I got out of bed and stood next to him with my hand on his shoulder.
“I’m so sorry about your father, Ranjit,” I said.
He put his hands over his face and began to cry. They were deep, satisfying sobs that were drawn from a well of heartache. I understood him now and knew that he was not just scared and tired. Ranjit was the bravest person I knew.
I left him to go and wake Mom when he was quiet. She called the police to let them know that Ranjit was home. When we returned to my room, he was asleep.
The following Tuesday, a few days before Christmas, Ranjit’s aunt arrived. She was a tall, striking young woman wearing a salwar kameez; white pantaloons covered a knee-length white blouse with intricate embroidery at the bottom, on the sleeves, and around her long neck. She draped a white cloth, a dupatta, over her head.
She was gracious and grateful that we had provided Ranjit with a place to stay. We said good-bye and exchanged addresses so we could write to each other. Mom cried a little, and hugged Ranjit, embarrassing him in front of his aunt. Ranjit and I shook hands and then looked at each other and laughed. After they drove away, I went to my room and sat alone, thinking of the fun Ranjit and I had together over the last few days.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I walked to school and ran a mile on the track. I had run each day since Ranjit left. When I returned home, Ranjit’s aunt was in our living room. She was rising to leave as I walked into the room. When she was gone, we sat down in the living room together.
“Ranjit wants to continue in school here in Cupertino,” Mom said. “He wants to stay with us.”
“Mom and I think it would be great to have him here,” Dad said. “What do you think?”
“How long can he stay?” I said. My parents smiled.
That afternoon, we found a poster of Guru Hargobind, the sixth of the ten Sikh masters. The warrior-priest is shown on horseback, sword in hand, rescuing the Emperor Jehangir from a tiger. I bought the poster and put it on the wall of our room.
In the evening, Ranjit arrived with his aunt. This time, he had all of his clothes, neatly packed in several suitcases. A dresser and some other things would arrive later from the apartment he shared with his father. We invited his aunt to stay, but she had a cab waiting to take her to the airport. She embraced Ranjit and then my mother.
“Ranjit Singh is in your hands now,” she said, looking at me.
We attended Mass at Midnight that night, but Christmas morning Ranjit and I were awake at dawn. Four red felt stockings hung over the fireplace. I let Ranjit choose one of my gifts and open it. Later, we set up track so he could race his three new Hot Wheels cars.
In the days that followed, Ranjit and I ran together on the track at school. Sometimes we would run our one mile race. He usually won, but I beat him occasionally. When school started again, I asked the teacher to move me to a desk behind Cathy who still sat next to Ranjit. My friends accepted Ranjit because I am their leader, I am Robin Hood. They needed someone to set an example of tolerance and understanding and they were willing to follow.
When we reached High School, my parents adopted Ranjit, but it did not matter to us. He was already my brother. He lives in San Jose, near our parents, with his wife Cathy and their three children. I live in Boston with my family, but each Christmas Eve we attend Mass together and on Christmas Day we go to the Sikh temple. I am still Robin Hood, but Ranjit is my Richard, the Lion-Hearted.
For Jessica, Rebecca, and Cameron who already understand tolerance.