“Be proud of your heritage. Today I am recognized because I’m a Sikh, because I wear turban and I have a beard. Without this I would not have got the kind of recognition and reception I’m getting currently.” – Jasbir S. Tatla
He feels a sense of satisfaction and a sense of achievement which he never expected. The feeling is quite different for him, something that he finds it difficult to express in words. A first turban wearing Sikh to join the Canadian Air Force makes 2Lt. Jasbir Singh Tatla stands tall within the Indo-Canadian community. Jasbir shares his journey, its ups and downs with Darpan.
April 2003: On behest of a friend, Jasbir Singh Tatla applied for the Air Field Engineer position in the Canadian Air Force. Coming from a family which has a history of serving in the armed forces this was not a surprise. At this point in time Jasbir was earning his living as a cab driver. However regular talks with his grandfather back in India was pushing him to look for a job which would match his qualifications and experience. This opportunity with the Canadian Air Force came at the right time. He applied and thus began the long wait.
June 2007: Finally, with the much awaited call the long wait comes to an end. Initially he used to call up to check his status but got the same reply each time: your security check is under process (the security background check took longer because he was born in India). After a while he stopped calling. With a lapse of four years, Jasbir had almost forgotten about his application.
But by now his situation had completely changed. It would have been lot more easier for him to join in 2003 than in 2007. Now he had lot of family responsibilities: he was a father of two, had to support his wife, parents. Could he take a cut in his income? He was on the edge. It was a difficult decision to make. But one that he had to…it was a moment of reckoning for him. Incidentally, the discussions he used to have with his grandfather on phone helped him arrive at a decision.
Jasbir mentions that whenever he would talk to his grandfather, Mall Singh Tatla, he would ask him, “What are you doing with your education? Why are you wasting it doing these odd jobs there? Come back to India. Don’t waste your education.” According to Jasbir, the money, big house didn’t matter to his grandfather. What mattered to him were dignity, respect and status. So when this opportunity was put in front of Jasbir even though he was hesitant he took it up because of his grandfather. “I was following the family tradition. In my family, my great grandfather, Inder Singh Tatla was a Dafedar with the Indian army cavalry serving in the First World War, my grandfather, Mall Singh Tatla was a supervisor in the Judge Advocate General’s branch in the Indian army and my father, Gurdarshan Singh Tatla served as a radar technician in the Indian Air force and is a retired flying officer. So in a way it was quite natural for me to follow their footsteps, even though belatedly”, says Jasbir.
After overcoming the obstacle of making the decision many more challenges lay ahead for Jasbir. One of which was the basic officer training of 13 weeks, which included field training, essentially spending time in a jungle. During this period they were not allowed any outside contact. It was the most difficult thing for him. Being an emotional man, used to sleeping with his sons around, this was quite an experience.
Sharing his training experience Jasbir says, “It was like living in a cell. Five o’clock was the wake up call, then running for an hour on the beach in the cold in shorts while the officers were all in their jackets. We would return for a quick shower, breakfast and then inspection time at 7.30. For inspection we had to lay out everything in order. If we had five faults then we would fail the inspection. Then we had to the drills, learned how to clean our rifles. We were given leadership classes because we would be more involved in leading a group. Sometimes when we had classes in the dark auditorium after lunch, because of tiredness we would almost fall off to sleep. Our day would end at 11 at night.”
“As a cab driver I would get up in the morning, go to work, sit and drive around for 12 hours, return home, eat and sleep. Absolutely no physical activity. My father and my wife had their doubts too. They thought that I was not fit enough to go through the physical rigors of the training.” - Jasbir S. Tatla
For Jasbir personally it was tough. He was 80 per cent sure that he would not succeed in the training. When he joined he was over weight, not physically fit and at the age of 35 not as young as some of his colleagues. His sedentary life style as a cab driver did not help much either. Jasbir says, “As a cab driver I would get up in the morning, go to work, sit and drive around for 12 hours, return home, eat and sleep. Absolutely no physical activity.” His father and wife had their doubts too. They thought that Jasbir was not fit enough to go through the physical rigors of the training. But once the training started they encouraged him. The support from his colleagues too was excellent and kept him motivated and going.
There were times during the training when he would think what he was doing there. They were constantly watched over even though at times they felt that nobody was watching them. Recollects Jasbir, “If I did something wrong, they would not tell me then and there, but when the whole platoon would be standing the officer would call out, Mr. Tatla, come here and then say, look at this guy, it was very embarrassing.” But he remembered the advice given by his father. His father had told him not to get disheartened by it. Jasbir says, “My father told me this would all be part of the training. They will check you out, how tough are you, how you deal with stress and stressful situations. If you break down, then you don’t deserve to be there.” His father’s advised stood him in good stead. Few of his colleagues who could not handle the situation did drop out of the training.
Other significant challenge that Jasbir faced during the training was food. Being a vegetarian he did not have much to eat. The first two weeks of the training he survived on bread, milk and salads. But with the physical training he was doing this was not sufficient to survive on. He wrote to his superiors about this issue. Jasbir says, “It is not that you ask for something and you get it. Things go through a certain process and only if found suitable your request may be met with.” However once his cook and sergeant found out that he is vegetarian they would try to accommodate his dietary needs. The cook would try and make dishes without meat. Sometimes vegetarian pizzas were available but with 130 people and first come, first served basis Jasbir may not get that pizza. “You don’t get any special treatment, everybody was equal there,” says Jasbir.
With the mention of equality we turn to the obvious. Did he feel he was different, was he treated differently, because he looked different? “I did feel a bit out of place at first. I think all the perception rises from the fact that they are not culturally aware or don’t have enough knowledge about the religion. But once everybody got to know me, know more about Sikhism things changed. After this I settled in quite comfortably.” Jasbir talks about the gas mask training, a course he found tough to pass and also where the issue of his beard came into picutre. There was some sort of chemical weapon thrown in and they were asked to wear the gas mask. But with his beard the mask would not seal properly and the thing would sip in. The smell was unbearable and it would make the eyes teary. Jasbir just faked that he was not feeling anything but it was hard nevertheless. “And for this reason they wanted me to shave my beard and I understand their view,” says Jasbir.
On being asked how the training has helped him, Jasbir says, “It has helped me become more disciplined. Being an emotional person it has also helped me overcome it. Like whenever I returned from India, for the next two months I would not open my suitcases. I would miss my sisters, Jasvinder Kaur and Kamaljit Kaur. I would not feel like doing anything. It would take me sometime to overcome that. This training has helped me deal with the emotional side of myself.” Asked about his diary writing, Jasbir adds, “Penning down in the diary is my outlet. I can write anything in it and I don’t share it with anyone, not even with my wife. I write about incidents during the day, how I dealt with a particular situation, my feelings, anything that helps me let it out of my system. During the training my diary was my faithful ally.”
Also the physical grinding has toughened him up mentally as well. Like spending time in the jungle, sleeping in tents where sometimes they barely got to sleep for three hours, going through the combat training in the jungle, all these experiences has helped him. “Using the rifle with all the sparks going around took a while to get used to,” adds Jasbir. Once he got bitten by a spider, his whole back was swollen and he got to spend a day at home. Even though he was in physical pain he had to return to training the next day.
Who else were with him during the training was my next question to Jasbir. His response to this was swift and sweet. He is all praise for his colleagues, his roommates. They were there for him all the time. Like at night he would pray and his roommates would go quiet and ask others also to remain quiet to allow him to pray in peace and silence. He also mentions about his three women colleagues who whenever they would find cookies would pass it on to him saying that he can have it as he doesn’t really eat anything else. On the last day of the training when they had to walk 13 kilometres with 55 pounds bag on their back the whole group supported each other, they sang, pulled each others leg and when one was down the others would lift that person up. “The camaraderie was to be seen to be believed. And my buddy was like my brother”, mentions Jasbir. Elaborating on the buddy system Jabir adds, “We had a buddy system wherein we were not allowed to be away from our buddy for more than five meters. If we were found to be away from our buddy then we immediately got to do push-ups. How many times did Jasbir get to do push-ups? “Oh a lot”, says Jasbir laughing. “And there was no particular figure; we kept doing it till we fell flat.”
Rewinding the clock we discussed about his life as a child growing up in India. His father always pushed him. “He wanted the best for his children,” says Jasbir. Jasbir was good with his studies but liked to spend more time playing. His father wanted him to put in more effort. After not doing too well in grade 12th he repeated it to get admission in Engineering and then went on to do his Masters in Technology, specializing in Hydrology and Water Resources Engineering. Meanwhile he got married and came to Canada. He had applied to join the Indian Armed forces but was not encouraged by his father. Jasbir mentions about the discrimination the Sikh community faces in the Indian Armed Services. “Even though one gets into it, it is very difficult to get promotion being a Sikh,” says Jasbir.
After his arrival in Canada he treaded the route that is common for all newcomers. He worked at a Dollar store and was given the opportunity only because he could speak Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu and could attract customers. While he was doing these odd jobs, his wife Pawandeep Kaur Tatla felt guilty. She felt that she got him here and now his education was going waste. But after Jasbir got his commission she is proud of him.
What message would Jasbir like to give to the Indo-Canadian community? “Be proud of your heritage, of who you are, says Jasbir. He adds, “Today I am recognized because I’m a Sikh, because I wear turban and because I have a beard. Without this I would not have got the kind of recognition and reception I’m getting currently.” Jasbir wants more Indo- Canadian to join the Canadian Forces. “Not many in our community are aware of the pay and the benefits the job has to offer apart from the status it brings with it,” adds Jasbir. He plans to actively participate in future recruitment drives in the areas dominated by Indo-Canadian community.
Since we were discussing our community, would we get to see two junior Tatlas, Sahib Singh and Jugraj Singh maintaining the family tradition? Jasbir says that though he would like them to maintain the family tradition he would not force them. The elder son is more interested in science while the younger one is too young. But they do imitate their father doing the march-past in their backyard. Here we are hoping and wishing them all the best to carry on the long standing Tatla family tradition!
Finally when asked about the best moment from the training which he would savour all this life, one can see Jasbir’s eyes lit up. He responds with a pride in his tone, “My officer saluting me when I got my commission. He was the one who pushed us all during the training. That particular moment when he saluted me will stay with me throughout my life because it is the commission that has got me the respect.”