Former Sikh diplomat reviews ‘The Sikh Next Door’

The book by Manpreet J Singh tackles the seemingly simple questions of being a Sikh – what is the Sikh identity? And is it always the same, everywhere?

The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition by Manpreet J Singh

By Navtej Sarna | Book Review | Scroll.In |

While reading The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition, three incidents sprang to mind. A quarter of a century ago, I was walking along the inner streets of New Orleans. I had taken off my turban for the afternoon and worn my long hair in a ponytail, perhaps to blend in better. A smart gentleman in a beret was having tea with his wife on a balcony. On seeing me he leaned over the wrought-iron railing and said: “You are a Sikh from the Punjab.”

My attempts at blending into the crowd having been hit for a six, I quickly claimed my Sikh identity and asked him how he had guessed. Was he perhaps a frequent visitor to Punjab? He replied that he had never visited India but “there’s something in your walk and something about your nose.” I accepted his reply as a compliment.

The second incident is from the 1980s. I had to make an unplanned train journey in an unreserved railway compartment in West Bengal. The trauma of 1984 in which innocent Sikhs had been murdered in trains was still fresh; I decided to replace my turban with a black knitted cap. A few minutes later, my co-passenger addressed me as “Sardarji” and that was that.

The third incident, more recent, was a diasporic dispute between a young Sikh and a compatriot from another part of India. When tempers rose, the Sikh, who no longer wore a turban and had shorn his long hair and beard shouted: “Oye, I may not wear a turban but I am a Sikh,” and in a show of the proverbial Sikh machismo pulled out his belt to better make his point.

Pluralism in Sikh identities

At one level these incidents may be passed over with a smile. But they reveal the complexities of a communal identity. What is the Sikh identity? And is it always the same, everywhere? Do the stereotypes that so readily attach themselves to it do it any justice, or are they only partially representative, if at all? How does a Sikh adjust to the wider world, to a diasporic existence, to racism and to inevitable othering? Is he feared or does he live in unspoken fear? And so on and so forth. These are some of the difficult questions that Manpreet J Singh has set herself in this competent, much needed and deeply-felt work which has already been successfully published abroad and now comes to Indian readers.

Her fundamental premise is that the Sikh identity is not homogenous but envelops within itself various heterogeneities that have different historical trajectories. Each of these streams is impacted by its lived experience and worldview which can sometimes be different from each other. While there is an increasingly accepted physical and cultural image of the community – well-built, boisterous, colourful, turbaned, there is insufficient understanding of the reality of this image across the community. And of those strands that may fall short, or differ from it. Do those strands then struggle to catch up with that image, or do they submit to its dominance and agree to live with what the author calls a “skewed perception of the community?”

This is a premise that one sees being played out daily in the media, the cinema, in party conversations, and in cheap jokes being traded on WhatsApp. What we see mostly, to quote the author, are “images of men in bhangra regalia dancing in mustard fields and the obtuse Santa-Banta stereotype, between the dichotomous images of valorous soldiers and hated terrorists, the blingy sardar of Bollywood movies and the exotic Nihang.”

For the full article, click here.‘The Sikh Next Door’: A rich study of a complex community as it grows in space, time, representation


Navigating Traditions: The Journey of a British-born Sikh (Asia Samachar, 5 Oct 2023)

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