THOMAS DENEUVILLE, 34, RIDGEWOOD, QUEENS
THOMAS DENEUVILLE, 34, RIDGEWOOD, QUEENS
(Portrait by Axel Dupeux)
WORD ON THE STREET: Is suicide ever justified?
THOMAS DENEUVILLE: Hmf. I have to think for a second. I mean, I can understand why people would do it. There are reasons that seem valid enough.
You know, some people get into terrible debt, lose their job, their wife goes away or whatever. They just find themselves without any kind of way of maintaining a decent way of living. There are even more terrible things, like losing your family in a plane crash. But I am way too optimistic to say that suicide is acceptable. Of course it is easy for me to say that because I have never had this kind of experience. I’m not judging people who do commit suicide.
Have you ever known someone who’s killed himself?
I’ve known people who have tried, repeatedly, to commit suicide. One could say that ones who try to commit suicide don’t really want to kill themselves, because killing oneself can be blatantly easy and simple: You just go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and you jump.
Is that a common place for people to kill themselves in Paris?
Oh, I don’t know. Bridges might be more common.
What do you think about the Christian idea of suicides going to hell?
I am religious but I don’t believe in hell. I think Christianity builds on the general idea of guilt. They keep you inside the church because they are good at pushing your buttons. But I think when you’re in a state where you’re about to commit suicide, in that state of depression, the idea of going to hell doesn’t make a difference. Your life is already like hell–actual hell might seem better!
How long have you grown your beard?
Since I converted to Sikhism five years ago. Part of my commitment is to not cut my hair.
I just read that Sikhism is the fifth largest organized religion in the world.
Yes, that’s right. What I found really appealing is that on the spiritual side, there is only one God. Also, there is no heaven or hell. Reincarnation, karma is part of Sikhism, and meditation is part of the practice, just asseva, which is a selfless service to the community. The values that are carried by Sikhism are very humbling. You’re supposed to make a decent, honest living by working, which is really a virtue for Sikhs.
Do some people think you’re just going through a Sikh phase?
Oh, absolutely. A very good friend of mine who lives in Belgium always says to me with a smile on her face, “So… are you done with Sikhism yet?” [Laughs] I appreciate that people say things like this because it does test my faith. You know, we’re just a bunch of clichés and maybe I am just a white dude looking for his spirituality like so many others. I cannot say for sure, but I really think in Sikhism I’ve uncovered something very important in my life–it changes it on a daily basis. I maintain the idea of Chardi kala, which means to keep your spirits high. Especially when confronted by something like suicide.
If you kill yourself do you fail as a Sikh?
That’s a very good question. I read forums but I haven’t come across anything about Sikhism and suicide. I don’t know how the community would look upon this.
It must happen.
Oh, absolutely, yeah. But Sikhism is a very young religion, so some issues have not been addressed. Some people may have some retro positions. I assume Sikhism and suicide might be one of those issues. Homosexuality is another taboo issue that we don’t really talk about.
What do you mean “retro positions?”
Well, for example, every Sikh is supposed to carry five symbols, and one of them is a dagger. As a symbol, I carry a small one [pulls out a two-inch-long metal charm]. I also carry this comb.
For your beard?
Yeah, but it’s really just a reminder that you need to keep your body clean. Some people take these ideas very literally and carry actual knives, which is OK, but you hear stories of people actually killing each other with them! In certain temples shit happens just like in churches. When the real tenets of Sikhism were established around 300 years ago people carried swords for protection–there is a history of persecution against Sikhs. In 2011, however, carrying a sword is not relevant.
In France, do many young men convert to Sikhism?
No, not like in the US. For white Sikhs, the point of entry is through Kundalini Yoga–that is how I got into it. If you go to New Mexico, for example, you have huge white, or Gora Sikh, communities that practice Kundalini and Sikhism. I’m not really part of the white Sikh community anymore because I’ve detached myself from Kundalini.
How do you interact with the Sikh community in New York City?
I go to temples in Flushing or Richmond Hill, Queens, for instance. There is also a Manhattan Sikh Association that organizes a service once a month for those who can’t easily commute to the outer boroughs.
How do you interact with Sikhs? Is it naïve to assume you have rapport?
I don’t usually bring up Sikhism, but I might say “hi” or “thank you” in Punjabi. I’ve studied so I know about the story of the gurus, I know my vocabulary, etc. so sometimes we have interesting conversations.
How do you explain reincarnation?
Well, my idea of it is that we are not human beings having spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings having human experiences. I believe we are all part of the same entity, which some people call God, that has been reincarnated as a human being, the most elevated form of existence on this planet. We are here to experience something new, grow and maybe reach another level of consciousness before eventually going back to the source. That’s how I consider reincarnation, and it feels very to real me.
Do you think you’ve ever been other people or animals?
No, no. I mean, maybe one day I’ll do some hypnosis and try to get in touch with my past lives, but—and I know this sounds weird—but that idea is almost too new age-y for me. I don’t really need to go and dig so I can say I used to be a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars. When I was a kid I had some impressions deeper than mere déjà vu, and those are enough for me.
What about people who do seek out their previous lives?
Well, when I first started reading about reincarnation I came across this guy Ian Stevenson who went around the country interviewing children who were doing weird stuff. Then he would do some research in the neighborhood. He might conclude that this kid shares the spirit with a man who, in 1835, was thrown in a well and drowned—and this is why the kid has this strange fear of water. It’s just interesting.
If someone commits suicide, will they be born again in a lesser form?
I don’t know if suicide is negative for karma or that you’re going to descend to a lower form of consciousness, but from what I’ve read it’s pretty hard to be reincarnated as a human being. It’s a unique chance in our spiritual life. An argument against reincarnation is the fact that the world population keeps on growing.
There you go.
And I’m not sure I have an answer. I mean, God cannot really prevent human beings from multiplying…
Do you think some people are empty, spiritless vehicles, just buzzing about?
… No, no, no. We all share the same light, but I do think some human beings will never touch the light inside themselves, their divinity, their entire lives. But that’s OK—you can still be really happy.
Have you ever had a negative interaction with a Sikh because you’re white?
Not really. Once I went to a workshop about Sikhism in New Jersey, and overall the community was incredible. I was one of two white people among probably 200, and many were interested in us. Sometimes a Punjabi Sikh who was born into it will say to me, “Oh, your beard is longer than mine!” But sometimes I get really negative vibes from people, too, but whenever you enter a new community, there’s always going to be people who are like, “What the fuck are you doing here?” But you cannot change that.
What’s the best Punjabi food place?
Punjabi on Houston by 1st Avenue (it is actually 114 E 1st St, between 1st Ave and Ave A). They play devotional music. I enjoy going there. Sometimes I get weird looks. Sometimes I get smiles. It just depends. Sometimes I get stabbed! [Laughs]
What do you order?
I tend to get the Punjabi Khadi Pakora, which is chickpea dumplings in a curry yogurt sauce.
That sounds delicious.
Yeah, it is.