NON-FICTION: HOMELAND DREAMS

Published November 14, 2021
The burial place of Guru Nanak is in the Pakistani city of Narowal, Punjab, but it is worth noting that the majority of Sindhi Hindus are followers of his teachings, having been initiated into the Nanakshahi faith by Udasi priests
The burial place of Guru Nanak is in the Pakistani city of Narowal, Punjab, but it is worth noting that the majority of Sindhi Hindus are followers of his teachings, having been initiated into the Nanakshahi faith by Udasi priests

How does one write about an ethnic group that was abruptly displaced by the Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947? It is not an easy task. One has to seek out those refugees and ask them to reflect on their and their families’ often difficult experiences. And this is exactly what Saaz Aggarwal has done in her recent publication, Sindhi Tapestry: Reflections on the Sindhi Identity — An Anthology.

The book presents historical realities with a reference to the present and will serve as a useful reminder of their origins to Sindhis scattered around the world, especially the younger generations who grew up not in Sindh, but in their adopted homelands. A treasure trove of emotions and information, Sindhi Tapestry is a stepping stone towards a better understanding of Sindhis’ roots and branches, no matter what religion they follow, or what part of the world they now consider ‘home’.

To that end, Aggarwal sought some role-model Sindhi refugees who are now scattered around the world and at the pinnacle of success in their respective fields. As the author explains, the initial idea of the book was to compile the works of young Sindhis, and she has been very meticulous in her choice of writers, most of whom have postgraduate degrees or have completed doctoral studies in various disciplines.

Her book ended up with 60 excellent contributions from Sindhis of all ages. Of these, 33 — 34 if you count Aggarwal herself — live in India. Twenty-five contributions are from Sindhis living in countries other than Pakistan or India. The longest essay, ‘Reviving a Lost Heritage’, is penned by Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro, a Sindhi anthropologist living in Pakistan.

Fleeing one’s homeland is a fraught experience in itself. And as one sees it be occupied by others, it leads to further pain and hurt. The fleeing group can only watch helplessly as its history lapses and its culture and language dissipate.

As they tried to merge into the environments of their new homelands — and succeeded fairly well in doing so — the Sindhis featured in Aggarwal’s book saw their originating identities grow nebulous and, despite their best efforts, their connection with the land most of them would never see again become increasingly tenuous.

An excellent anthology of writers muses on what it means to be displaced from one’s origins and to be Sindhi outside in the world

For most of the old guard, migration was not a choice. There was no intrinsic desire to leave Sindh of their own free will and so, wherever they settled, they carried ingrained within them traditions and habits peculiar to the Sindhis of an undivided Subcontinent.

The culture and lifestyle that they enjoyed in pre-Partition days was suddenly gone but, having lost it, they made every effort to re-establish it. Of course, the lifestyle was not to return in full, only in bits and pieces. The generations coming after had only glimpses of that lost way of life, and that, too, as hand-me-down memories from their elders.

Aggarwal’s book is full of fascinating details about the evolving culture of a community in transformation, and is replete with tributes to Sindhi people and places in Sindh which formed their original identities, making them who they were. They were also prompt in reconstituting their icons from their past in their new homeland, organising recitals of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and Sachal Sarmast’s poetry, performances of Sindhi dances, and more.

The anthology is also remarkable in terms of gender balance, with an equal number of essays from men and women. Editor Aggarwal informs us that “Sindhi women had a somewhat better status, perhaps starting from some decades before Partition” and, upon reading the book, you feel that this claim is not out of place.

Some of the essays deserve special mention. One is ‘Walking in the Fog’ by Subhash Bijlani, a professor at the University of Maryland in the United States. Bijlani reminds us that “Sindh was never divided. Punjab and Bengal were partitioned with their culture and language intact in their truncated states. Sindh was given away whole. The 21 percent Hindu population of the 20 million Sindhis were made homeless and stateless” (stress original).

One can feel the pain in Bijlani’s reminiscences when he speaks of his past as though walking along a path swathed in fog: “The low visibility accentuates a sense of abandonment.” Before Partition, Bijlani’s father was a judge in Sukkur, and the writer informs us that “there was no stigma attached to playing with the children of the staff, largely Muslim, or the ‘labour class’.”

He claims that, in contrast to any other Hindu group in India, Sindhis were devoid of caste, and bypassed mainstream orthodox Hinduism. He reminisces about how religious tolerance had brought about a fusion of Vedantic and Islamic cultures, as Sindh developed as a secular haven exemplified by Sufi saints such as Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and Sachal Sarmast. These saints preached tolerance and coexistence.

It is worth noting that most contributors to this anthology have touched upon the fact that the majority of Sindhi Hindus are followers of the teachings of Guru Nanak. However, they are not the same as Punjabi Sikhs, who are more greatly influenced by the 10th guru — Guru Gobind Singh — who gave his followers a militant outlook. In contrast, Sindhi Hindus were initiated into the Nanakshahi faith by Udasi priests.

In his essay mentioned earlier here, Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro takes us through a lost heritage of some religious sites of Sindh, from Shikarpur and Sadh Belo to Makli and Nagarparkar. He discusses ashrams, asthans, dharamshalas, marhis, maths, mosques, samadhis, shrines, temples and Sikh durbars — the various places of worship of a variety of religious sects — and shares enlightening information about them.

Another fascinating essay is ‘The Sindhis of Calcutta’ by Sajni Kripalani Mukherji, former professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She tells us how visible the Sindhi community has been in the capital of India’s state of West Bengal. Her point of departure is back in Sindh, where Sindhis could be divided into three groups: the Amils, the Bhaibands (baniyas or merchants), and the Shikarpuris, who formed a kind of in-between group.

Mukherji gives interesting details about how these Sindhis interacted with each other and with non-Sindhis in Kolkata. Nearly all Sindhi Hindus of the erstwhile Calcutta prided themselves on being Nanakpanthis, or followers of the most peaceful and eclectic Sikh guru. She regrets that the simple sense of community with Muslims has been lost.

Lastly, I must mention Aggarwal’s own essay, in which she ponders on some grand icons of Sindh that have now been lost or spoilt in different ways. Some other notable essays are ‘Behind the Rainbow’ by Murli Melwani, ‘A Star that Once Shone Bright’ by Bob Ramchand, ‘My Language and Me’ by Kajal Ramchandani and ‘What it Means to Me to be Sindhi’ by Mushtaq Rajpur.

A remarkable characteristic of most Sindhis appearing in the book is that they took the trauma of Partition and migration in their stride. They learned new languages, fostered fresh relationships and enriched their surroundings. Nostalgia was surely there, but it was not allowed to impede progress.

Perhaps this could also be considered the only shortcoming of the book — the stories are all about the successful ones, as if there were no failing, underachieving or unsuccessful Sindhis. For each outstanding refugee Sindhi, there may be dozens, or even hundreds, of those who kept struggling, yet there is no mention of them. Maybe Aggarwal’s next book might focus on those Sindhis who kept trying, but ended up as just common citizens. Some of their stories should also be worth reading.

Until then, the people of Sindhi Tapestry are extraordinary people. Despite feeling depleted in the beginning of their new journeys, they managed to emerge as a powerful group that contributed to the development and welfare of their new homelands and, of course, their own families.

The marginalisation that they went through was short-lived and, with their sheer confidence, they overcame the earlier confusion that was a natural corollary of the Partition. The integration process was something they had to spearhead themselves — often noticeably, at times invisibly.

For anyone wanting deeper clues as to what happened to them and how they handled it, Aggarwal’s book could very well be the best source to date.

The reviewer is a columnist and educationist based in Islamabad.
He can be reached at Mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk and tweets @NaazirMahmood

Sindhi Tapestry: Reflections on
the Sindhi Identity — An Anthology
Edited and curated by Saaz Aggarwal
Black-and-White Fountain, India
ISBN: 978-9383465187
432pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 14th, 2021

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