Losing Home Finding Home
By Saaz Aggarwal
Illustrations by Subhodeep Mukherjee
Losing Home Finding Home by Saaz Agarwal looks like a picture book. It is a slim volume, the size of a legal pad, and has equal measures of text and black and white illustrations. The appearance of the book beckons the reader toward itself. The title too speaks to the modern mind, which tends to look for new homelands, losing identity in the process and then frantically searching for roots once again.
Saaz Agarwal, an established writer and artist, has made the migration of Sindhi Hindus her main focus. She has written two previous books, Sindh, Stories from a Vanished Homeland (2012) and Sindhi Tapestries (2021). Both the books deal with the Sindhi Hindu diaspora and the Sindhi identity.
When asked why she felt the need to write another similar book, Agarwal says that since the Sindhi refugee story has started to come out only about a dozen years ago, it still has only a shaky place in established Partition literature.
Losing Home Finding Home concentrates on a historical sliver, a really thin slice, from the traumatic events of the Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947 — namely, the displacement of Hindu Sindhis and their rehabilitation.
A collection of personal accounts of Sindhi Hindus, who had to uproot from their homeland after 1947 and replant themselves in India and elsewhere, is a modest but important addition to Partition literature
This one-way Sindhi migration was quite small in scale when compared to the two-way migrations of Punjab and Bengal. Yet Agarwal’s effort has brought to the fore the circumstances of those who had been largely forgotten because of their relatively insignificant numbers, the lack of violence at their departure and their subsequent astronomical success.
A glance at the history of Sindh at the time of Partition shows that people of all creeds generally lived in religious harmony. Even as sectarian sensibilities were inflamed elsewhere in the country, there were very few incidences of bloody disturbances in Sindh. In Karachi, only one such instance was recorded.
Agarwal’s account is also largely devoid of civil disorder. When relating the Karachi incident, the author mentions how a Muslim family protected Sindhi Hindus during the riots. In the narration of the departure of the author’s own family, an unnamed friend features as the collaborator who helps the family reach Keamari safely. The accompanying illustration, however, shows a very Muslim looking figure aiding them.
The departing Hindus either went to Bombay by ship from Keamari or they went by train to Rajasthan. In both cases, according to Agarwal, they took ample baggage with them, another proof that they were not fleeing for their lives. In some instances, books, lab equipment and even furniture were taken along to facilitate the opening of educational facilities on the other side.
Losing Home Finding Home does not presume to be a scholarly discourse about Partition. It is a collection of stories of actual people who were uprooted and it is the authenticity of these reports that captivates the interest of the reader, as do the excellent illustrations by Subhodeep Mukherjee. The stories, themselves, are not of trauma but of shared experiences.
An anecdote about Ali Gohar Malkani and his Hindu friend Moloo is quite fascinating. The friends bade a tearful farewell as Moloo left in 1947. Moloo asked his friend to make use of all the things he was not taking with him. The Ali Gohar family did respectfully use some of the things. But to this day, an heirloom carpet with Moloo’s father’s name woven into the pattern is in the safekeeping of Ali Gohar’s grandson. He is still trying to locate the rightful heirs.
Most of the migrating Hindu families seem to have been financially comfortable. Agarwal’s father was a lawyer. Once in Bombay, he needed only a bit of initial support from Bhai Pratap (a Sindhi philanthropist), to settle comfortably in the new city. Even bad times are not so bad for the well-to-do.
Other Sindhis, who ended up in Bombay, whether professionals or businessmen, were housed by the government in Kalyan Camp. Kalyan had been a British army transit camp used by departing or arriving British troops. After the British left, the vacant camp was used for sheltering the refugees. Initially it was both uncomfortable and inconvenient.
The refugees had to huddle together with only fabric stretched between families for privacy. But, Agarwal writes, no one complained. Not even those who were so rich in Hyderabad that they used to serve wine to their guests with gold guineas in each glass, as gifts. After several months, the government built housing blocks. Makeshift schools were started and Sindhi was kept as the medium of instruction.
The Sindhi Hindus were entrepreneurs by nature. They soon discovered ways to earn money wherever they found themselves. Slowly but surely, they regained their old status. Agarwal claims that even the skyline of Bombay changed as the homeless refugees turned to building abodes for themselves. Cooperative housing societies sprung up and the Sindhis constructed building after building, changing the look of their adopted city.
The Sindhworkis, those Sindhi Hindu merchants who had set up trading businesses in foreign ports, were also affected by Partition. In many cases, their families had continued to live in Sindh and so had to migrate in 1947 led only by women.
Agarwal laments that, by leaving Sindh, the Hindu refugees lost their land, culture and language. The refugee Punjabi, on the other hand, whether Muslim or Hindu, did lose his possessions but not his language and culture. And the same is true of the Bengali.
The book lists the cultural icons of Sindh which are perceived as lost to the refugees. River Indus merits a whole section. The other places appear amazingly non-Hindu to us, such as the principality of Khairpur, ruled by Muslims, Bhit Shah, Sehwan Sharif and Pir jo Goth (the home of Pir Pagara). For a Pakistani in 2023, it is baffling that Hindu Sindhis are nostalgic about fundamentally Muslim sites more than 75 years after their departure.
Agarwal mourns the loss of her mother tongue also. Even though the early schools that were opened for the Sindhi refugees taught in Sindhi, the language was forgotten as time passed. She contends that the present descendants of Sindhi refugees do not know their language any more.
This is indeed a loss. It could easily have been remedied if the significance of the mother tongue had been realised in time. A close parallel is found in those Pakistanis who emigrate to the West and neglect to teach the next generation the language of their roots.
The author has compiled this short book with love. She has delved into the lives of many Sindhi refugees to present the reader with a collage of stories. All the stories glorify the Hindu Sindhi, his resilience, integrity and industry. Everyone seems to have prospered and made good. Many have become citizens of the world by migrating to other countries, especially the families of Sindhworkis.
Losing Home Finding Home is eminently readable. Even though the subject matter is not necessarily of universal interest, the book is brief enough to keep the reader engaged. The illustrations and photographs add to the readability. The author achieves her goal of documenting events for present and future generations.
Agarwal’s ode to Sindhi Hindus is an addition to Partition literature, albeit a small one, in its own modest way.
The reviewer is a freelance writer, author of the novel The Tea Trolley and translator of Toofan Se Pehlay: Safar-i-Europe Ki Diary.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 5th, 2023