Reviewed by Sarah Ansari
“There are three ways in which we use memory: through amnesia, nostalgia and selection. The collective memory of a community contains each of these. We use amnesia and nostalgia to give us selective memory”. These insights drawn from the work of Pierre Nora, the French intellectual responsible for pioneering work on the relationship between history and memory, underpin the exploration of collective as well as individual remembering in Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland. On its pages fragments of memory are pieced together by Saaz Aggarwal in a very personal search for the Sindh left behind by Hindus who departed in the years following Partition. Taken as a whole, the stories included here shed fresh light on how their narrators, both men and women, and their families remember the past, and in the process also draw attention to the challenges of resettlement that awaited them across the newly constructed border between India and Pakistan.
Partition-related migration, after all, was a two-way process, and Sindh witnessed both comings and goings on a massive scale in the years after 1947. While Pakistanis today are familiar with the considerable demographic upheaval that drew Muslims from other parts of the subcontinent to the province, the story of the non-Muslims who migrated to India has taken longer to be told. As with their counterparts crossing the border in the other direction, getting used to their new surroundings was far from straightforward, though the support from the wider Sindhi Hindu diaspora could often prove invaluable. Of course, Sindh in reality is not a vanished land — just ask the many millions who live there today — but the kind of place that it once was certainly no longer exists, particularly when viewed from the perspective of its pre-Partition Hindu communities, who, as this study reminds us, enjoyed a distinctive culture sustained for generations by the social, economic and political realities of the lower Indus Valley.
Structured along scrapbook lines, Stories from a Vanished Land interweaves factual information drawn from secondary sources — academic books and articles — with first-hand accounts, photographs, poetry and even cherished family recipes which together evoke a bittersweet nostalgia for times lost and even opportunities missed. While unwelcome reminders of communal politics and the violence associated with Partition occasionally intrude, there is also warm affection and appreciation for the people as well as the place left behind by these migrants. According to many of the testimonies included here, Sindhi Hindus could often be on the receiving end of genuine acts of kindness from local Muslims. One of them, Aruna, later reminisced about her train journey to India in 1947:
“The soldier remained at his post throughout the journey. In the political barter arrangement, one train was exchanged with another at the border town, Kakad. On the opposite platform was a train stuffed full of people, with many perched precariously on the roof, and shouting anti-India slogans with gusto. After the train crossed the border, the soldier got off the train. He brought us food packets which volunteers were distributing, and quietly walked away, not turning once to see us waving goodbye. Looking back, I marvel at the sheer faith my father had in his Muslim student [the soldier in question], entrusting his beautiful daughter and the others of his family to this commando: a reflection of the peace and harmony with which the two communities lived in Sindh, following their own separate faiths as respectful neighbours.”
More than anything, the book targets an Indian readership, many of whom, Aggarwal suggests, are ignorant of Sindh’s distinctive history and traditions, preferring easy stereotypes over complex realities. Hence a desire to put the record straight drives her project: as the dedication states, families like that of Aggarwal “left their homes in Sindh without looking back, crossed a new border and made new lives for themselves in a new country far away from the land of their ancestors without complaining, without asking for anything, building their own fortunes and contributing to those around them in a large number of ways”. To take the example of Aggarwal’s mother, Situ, who in her own words “became a Bombay girl” following her family’s migration to India: “We Sindhis did not suffer the kind of violence and loss of life or extent of trauma that some other Partition-affected communities did.”
On occasion, it must be said, the narrative can read a little naively. There is not, perhaps understandably bearing in mind the author’s approach, a great deal of critical reflection. Sindhi Hindus, for instance, are compared rather simplistically with other diasporic
people — Jews, Tibetans and Palestinians — exiled permanently from their ancestral homelands but under very different circumstances. Examples of individual involvement in organisations such as the RSS are mentioned but not questioned. But in many respects, this is oral history pure and simple, a collection of living people’s testimony about their own experiences, for good or bad. Not before time, historians have come to recognise that the everyday memories of everyday people, not just of the rich and famous, command historical importance, and if we do not collect and preserve those memories, those stories, one day they will disappear forever. So, as with any personal collection of reminiscences such as this, elements of selectivity combined with personal subjectivity are inevitably present. But is this necessarily a bad thing? After all, as one of Aggarwal’s interviewees points out, “one can learn a lot about the Sindhi community by examining what they have forgotten and what memories they nurture. Why have they forgotten some things? Why do they nurture others?” These are important questions which we might all ask ourselves when thinking about our own pasts and how we have come to be where and what we are today.
The reviewer teaches history at the University of London
Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Land
By Saaz Aggarwal
Black-and-White Fountain, India
320pp. Indian Rs400