The Sardar’s Hat

The Times of India | Sep 3, 1999

IN March 1989, 20 military observers from India joined the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia. Of the lot, Chetinder and I were the only Sikhs. From the time we walked into the officers mess of a South African Defence Force (SADF) infantry battalion in Katima Mulilo, a small town in the Caprivi Strip by the hank of the Zambesi, the two of us were something of a novelty. Our turbans marked us out and we found ourselves topping the popularity charts, particularly with the ladies. Dubbed ‘Indian maharajas’, we were on everybody’s guest-list.

Remarks like “Your hat is very nice” were commonplace. We soon got used to embarrassing questions such as “Do you wear your beret even while sleeping?” There was always a lot of explaining to do regarding the intricate process of ‘tying’ a turban. It was not easy for our new friends to understand that, unlike a hat, a turban is not a rigid structure.

An unforgettable incident occurred during the Raising Day dinner of the South West Africa Territory Force (SWATF) battalion at Omega. Halfway through the evening, an obviously ‘high’ retired South African major staggered up to me and demanded to know why I was wearing a hat in the mess when the rules did not permit him to wear one. He was adamant that I take off my hat. It was only after vigorous persuasion by colleagues that the situation could be saved.

After a few months as a military observer, I was called to the Namibian capital, Windhoek, by the Force commander, Lt Gen Dewan Prem Chand, and appointed editor of the UNTAS journal — a task for which I had to travel all over the country. Once again, my turban was a big draw. I soon discovered that in most of Namibia the turban was not such a novelty after all; however, it was a form of headgear that adorned the heads mainly of women. The women from Gobabis in the Kalahari desert wore huge multicoloured turbans in the shape of a battleship hanging high above their shoulders. The Herero women wore short, wraparound turbans with high, pointed ends. Elsewhere, the female headdress was more of a cap than a turban. Their turbans were quite obviously designed to keep the heat of the desert sun out. But mine appeared to be designed to attract attention.

As in the Caprivi Strip, I was swamped by invitations. It was not possible to go to the marketplace without being besieged to pose for photographs. If I went to the bank and joined a queue, the teller would leave her seat, take my cheque and serve me first. My protestations were of no avail. If I went to a restaurant with friends, children would pull out their autograph books. Numerous guys offered to buy me drinks. A pretty young lady wanted to know how a turban is tied. I graciously invited her home for a live demonstration. Alas, she never turned up. Another sweet young thing wanted me to promise that when I left Namibia, I would gift a turban to her as a souvenir.