Two unimaginable things have taken place in Bakersfield's Sikh community over the past several days.
One brought hurt. One brought hope.
The hurt arose from news of a ghastly homicide: a newborn infant, born to an unwed 15-year-old Sikh girl, was thought to have been purposely drowned in a bathtub and buried in a backyard flower bed. The teen girl's mother was charged with murder, her father was dead from an apparent suicide and her older cousin was gone, his whereabouts unknown and specific role not fully clear.
The hope arose from an unusual meeting of hearts and minds last week. Sikhs of all stations in life set aside their culture's confining mores and rigid protocols for a community discussion of sex, child abuse and family violence.
Not the least stunning aspect of this sudden, dramatic turn of events was the location selected for the conversation: the Stine Road temple, Guru Angad Darbar Sikh Gurdwara, where such things are simply not discussed.
"It was revolutionary for us," said Raji Brar, founder of the Bakersfield Sikh Women's Association. "We just had a discussion about sex abuse in the temple! Wow! Something happened in that (Sikh family's) home that needed to come out and be discussed."
Kern County is home to an estimated 20,000 Sikhs — adherents of a monotheistic religion founded in the Punjab region of northern India. As in many deeply religious communities, some things are simply left unspoken and unexamined.
An examination has begun.
"People are trying to speculate on what happened (to the Sikh family), but in the meantime people are reaching out to those who might need our help or may be suffering in silence," said Jasmeet Bains, a 33-year-old Sikh woman. "The more we can embrace each other with the truth, the better."
The consensus from that March 3 meeting, and the conversation that has since continued, is this:
● Bakersfield (and undoubtedly the country) has a Sikh-to-non-Sikh understanding gap. News of the baby's death led to Facebook comments that made it clear many looked at the incident as a some kind of honor killing common to Sikh culture.
Shame, according to the narrative, had driven this Sikh family to kill one of its own — not just ordinary shame but a peculiar kind somehow unique to immigrants from Punjab. One family, one horrifying act, suddenly somehow represented an entire culture.
"People will say some pretty ugly things behind the veil of a computer screen," Brar said.
The awful truth is U.S. teens of all races and ethnicities deliver and then kill their babies, with or without an adult's help. Most recently, Ohio authorities arrested a blond, blue-eyed, honor-roll cheerleader for disposing of her newborn. If that baby's death has prompted anyone to suggest that infanticide is a cultural norm common among people of Western European descent, I haven't heard it.
● Bakersfield needs a Punjabi crisis line that Sikhs of all ages and genders can call to address things that, until now, have been relegated to the shadows.
"We don't talk about sex, we don't talk about child abuse, we don't talk about sex abuse," Brar said. "That needs to end.
"A lot of topics have come to the forefront. One was that this (unidentified 15-year-old) wasn't one those girls who were more 'modern,' it was a girl being raised in a traditional (Sikh) home. So people need to know it could happen in their home."
Counselors from Kern County Mental Health attended the meeting at the temple and spoke to the audience about the need for frank communication — and the need to help these specific victims, now.
● Concern for the welfare of the 15-year-old and her preteen brother has grown since the death of their father, Jagsir Singh, 47, whose body was discovered Thursday at the family home on upscale Shining Crag Avenue, west of Stine Road and south of Panama Lane. He had been out on bail, having been charged as an accessory to murder.
Many, too, are discussing a funeral service for the infant. A proper funeral.
Many Bakersfield Sikhs were already in a collective state of shock and mourning before Singh killed himself — a second tragedy that was on every lip when I visited the temple Thursday.
Singh's wife, Beant Kaur Dhillon, 43, was in custody, allegedly having told police she drowned the baby. Singh was dead. A relative, Bakhshinderpal Singh Mann, was at large, wanted for his alleged role in burying the baby and aiding in the cover-up. Local Sikhs wondered if his involvement ran deeper.
If and when he is apprehended, America's favorite bogeyman, the illegal immigrant, will cast its familiar shadow in this tragedy, too. Mann is undocumented.
The truly long shadow darkening the story of U.S. Sikhs is, of course, the 9/11 terror attacks — crimes with which they had no association. That didn't stop some Americans from attacking and intimidating Sikhs anyway.
Seen one dark-skinned person in a turban/astaar/kufiya/burqa, apparently, seen them all.
"The defining moment for us was 9/11," Brar said. "People called us terrorists. Somebody threw firecrackers at my mother's house. People couldn't distinguish between Muslims and Punjabi — not that all Muslims were responsible.
"That forced us to step out of our comfort zone. So we made an effort. So all of a sudden here's this model community. And we are just trying to dispel this myth" associated with 9/11.
In the process to defining themselves for the benefit of the broader American public, they created a different myth: That of a perfect, uniquely idyllic community.
But infanticide was not the way anyone wanted to dispel Sikhs' image as peace-loving, hardworking model citizens determined to carve out their own productive niche in this proud nation of immigrants.
Many Sikhs do fit that description, without a doubt. Bakersfield's leaders have long spoken of Kern County Sikhs as almost super-citizens, salt-of-the-earth types bred with an integrity the rest of us can only hope to aspire to.
The late Harvey Hall, mayor of Bakersfield for 16 years, always spoke highly of local Sikhs; in 2016 he appeared in TV public affairs ads promoting their annual parade.
One of his predecessors, the late Mary K. Shell, ate with them, paraded with them, celebrated with them during her time as a county supervisor, and afterward.
And this was former District Attorney Ed Jagels' characterization, quoted so often it has actually started to grate on some Sikhs: "There's virtually no crime in the Sikh community. Please bring us more Sikhs."
Please bring us a more realistic understanding of a people with more in common with the rest of us than we may know.
"We're human," said one Sikh elder, who asked that his name not be used. "We are good people, but we are human."
That frailty, a frailty we all share, is very much on display these days in Bakersfield's Sikh community. And so the healing begins.