Clifford Geertz’s idea of culture as “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life,” (Geertz 2000 p.89) shapes much of my thinking on the idea of a common group culture. In my work, I hope to elicit the whys and wherefores of the social categorisation and construction of Peraktown Sikh common identification. Roger Brubaker highlights a dependence on ‘groupism’ and the importance of treating a group not just as a unit of social analysis but as a “contextually fluctuating conceptual variable,” (Brubaker, R. 2004. p. 11) requiring explanation of why in this particular space and moment did this sense of commonality occur and how it evolves in meaning over time and space.
I started my research interviewing three elderly women I barely knew. The pilot study focused on the Japanese Occupation of Malaysia. The initial interview took the form of a conversation between the three, reminiscing on their shared experiences of this period in history and their recollection of the major events as they lived them. They spoke openly of traumatic occourences, hardships and family drama with no hesitation despite my presence and the bulky recording devices. As my thesis took shape, the initial informants sourced additional subjects for my work. Each new interviewee agreed to meet me as the community grapevine spread the news that the Headmaster’s granddaughter wanted to study the Peraktown Sikhs for a PhD. They articulated the same message; I was one of their own, as the granddaughter and daughter of Peraktown Sikhs, and this was for further postgraduate study, it was important to them to ensure that I had access to their stories, no mater how compromising or unflattering they were.
I inherited a clearly defined place within this community despite not speaking their language or even English with the same accent, not being familiar with their religious texts nor demonstrating a shared belief through my appearance and most intriguingly, having never met many of them before. As Anthony Cohen explained, belonging “implies much more than having been born in a place – it suggests we are part of the fabric of community – we see it in the forms of social organisation and association in the community.” They felt I had a right to sift through their memories, their ephemera and to participate in their lives, as their histories were also my own history. As I continued my research gathering, I attended family gatherings and functions at Gurdwaras, private homes and restaurants in Kuala Lumpur. The Peraktown Sikh community introduced me to other Sikhs, as coming from a good family and currently at university reading for a PhD. They described me as well-read on the Sikh religion and usually commented on how I looked very nice in my Punjabi suit. They assigned significance to certain aspects of my identity; my primordial ethnic and cultural affiliation, the family I was born in to, my practice of the Sikh religion including the appropriate dress and finally, my educational level, all of which form part of my sense of self-definition.
In this naming, of myself and by others, I was situated within a family, a caste, a social position and a religion, assigned a place in the fabric of the Sikh community and claimed in belonging as a Peraktown Sikh. The easy disregard for language or common religious practice fore fronted the question of what else defined membership to the Sikh community of Peraktown. These encapsulate the primordial definition of their group identity, best described by Geertz as
an attachment that stems from the subject’s, not the observer’s, sense of the “givens” of social existence—speaking a particular language, following a particular religion, being born into a particular family, emerging out of a particular history, living in a particular place; the basic facts, viewed again from the actor’s perspective, of blood, speech, custom, faith, residence, history, physical appearance, and so on. (Geertz 1993)
The Peraktown Sikhs evolved beyond the fixity of primordial definition, willingly discarding or altering norms and values in pursuit of the ultimate goal of bettering the family position. They incorporated English and the colonial education system as a marker of status. Women felt greater freedom beyond the home and hearth, with the encouragement and support for further studies and careers. Religious practices relaxed with acceptance for the cutting of hair for example. Yet despite moving beyond the rural inheritance to embrace their new physical and mental environments, the Peraktown Sikhs remained in the interstices, no longer fitting in to “back there” nor integrating fully in to life here.