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Look back in nostalgia

Pune-based writer Saaz Aggarwal’s book on Sindh called ‘Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland’ has been on bookshelves for a while now. The writer visited Sindh in Pakistan after she wrote the book, to quell her curiousity about the land of her maternal grandparents, look at landmarks and relive experiences her mother often spoke about. As Sindhis mark their New Year called Cheti Chand today, Saaz says her first visit to mother's homeland was a “tremendous experience”.


Whiff of history: Saaz Aggarwal, author

This is her account of the visit:
During my growing up years, I had Sindhi relatives but Sindh was not a real place. This fact entered my consciousness somewhat dramatically when I started writing about my mother’s childhood. I understood that the inaccessibility of Sindh meant, to the descendants of the migrant generation, that Sindh had in fact vanished. So it was a tremendous life experience to visit this land full of fresh memories, which lay on the other side of a divide that could never be re-crossed.

There was anticipation, and some apprehension, as we passed the barriers of visa and flight delays and arrived in Karachi. My book, renamed by Oxford University Press as Stories from a ‘Lost’ Homeland on grounds that the Sindhis of Sindh might debate the point that their homeland had vanished, was being launched at the Karachi Literature Festival.


Tribute: Bhit Shah, the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif (1689-1752), considered the greatest poet of the Sindhi language

Karachi, an icon of the Hindu Sindhi experience, is today a cosmopolitan city and it is unusual to hear Sindhi spoken on its streets. There were a few places, such as Kiamari, which I was keen to visit. Kiamari was the dock from where mass migrations took place after Partition -- it was a scene of pain and separation faced with the stoic acceptance which, to me, characterises the response of the Sindhi Hindus to the events that changed their lives.


United we stand: A village dargah which commemorates the ruler Raja Vikramajeet displays the symbols of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism

I was also curious to see the underground Shiva temple at Clifton and the historic Rambagh -- renamed Arambagh after Partition. Back home, I realised I had been unable to tick any of them off my list, thanks to a whirl of distracted tours of the city, meals at its finest eateries, and intense new friendships. I knew I just had to find a way to go again.

Meanwhile, our day trip to Hyderabad (in Pakistan), where my mother grew up, was a nostalgic excursion. We drove in from Kotri, on the same bridge that my mother and uncle described to me when I interviewed them for my book. But they had spoken of a great, gushing river quite different from the sandy, stream-streaked riverbed we saw.


Pain of partition: Refugees gather at the Karachi docks. Clearance was restricted to two thousand people per day as port authorities pleaded their inability to manage more. Pic courtesy/Indian Institute of Sindhology

I had expected change – no place could be just as it was 65 years ago. Yet, the ruins of the fort on the hill are surely what my mother saw from her childhood home. We visited the famous Bombay Bakery, planted trees at Hyderabad Radio, drove past the courts my grandfather must have practiced at, and ate rabri at Gadi Khato which couldn't have tasted much different back then. My great-grandfather was station master at Hyderabad railway station till 1911. We were received with courtesy by the present Station Superintendent. I could see furniture in an inner room that must have been there in my great-grandfather’s time.

On our last day, we drove into rural Sindh and visited the Hemrajani family at the village named Thano Ahmed Khan. We enjoyed devotional music and Sindhi hospitality at a Hindu temple, received blessings from a 100-year-old ‘Mata’, ate a meal that tasted like my grandmother had cooked it - and drove away laden with presents, including kharchi (money given to visiting children) given to my children.

Not a single Hindu family from this area left their homes during Partition, thereby offering a showcase of how good governance is all that is needed for communities to coexist peacefully. A village dargah commemorates the ruler Raja Vikramajeet who abdicated his throne for the life of a monk, and displays symbols of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism - typical of the age-old syncretic religion of Sindh. My most vivid impression from this visit was of the fundamental secularity of Sindh through the ages.


Hemu Kalani (19), a Sindhi freedom fighter, was captured while participating in the Quit India Movement. He was granted mercy on the condition that he reveal the identities of his co-conspirators. Hemu refused and he was hanged in 1943.

The Sindhi Muslims we met, one and all, were eager for contact with their counterparts across the border. They felt a burden of guilt and regret, especially at the loss of culture and language that the migration had wrought.

Irfan Ali Shah, a young agriculturist and former member of Provincial Assembly of Sindh, told me: ‘The love for those who migrated is tremendous in our elders’ hearts; it is hard to describe. Muslim Sindhis love their Hindu Sindhi brothers more than any other community. We can understand each others’ feelings; we share a language, culture and heritage.’


Map of Sindh. Illustration/Saaz Aggarwal

I have never considered myself a Sindhi, but leaving Sindh was a wrench, partly because of the tremendous, ingenuous affection we received from people we knew we might never again breach the barriers to see. It’s easy to relate this to a mawkish symbolism of visiting your maternal grandmother’s home and leaving with your suitcases bulging with gifts, your heart heavy, and your eyes brimming. 

 An excerpt from the book, Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland by Saaz Aggarwal

Situ’s story: Kites and umbrellas
One of the things I remember about my childhood in Sindh is that we could go out and fly kites whenever we wanted. Even in the dreaded heat of summer, when we children would be forced to stay indoors, away from the blazing afternoon heat, the evenings would be windy. We played gilli danda and spun tops, and played marbles outdoors or sitting on top of our large marble dining table. Boys flew kites in the lane outside, or on the terraces. My brother Kanna would let me hold his kite so that I too could feel it soar in the wind. There would be competitions and the older boys would coat their strings with manjha to cut their rivals’ kites down.


Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland, Published by Black-And-White Fountain, Price: Rs 400

We could fly kites all year round because in Sindh it hardly ever rained. There was just a few days of rain when it would pour down and we would stay home from school. This usually happened in July or August, when we have our festival Thaddadi. On that day no fires are lit in the house so no food is cooked and special meals are prepared the previous day. This meant there would be time to celebrate and we would sit around and watch the elders play cards.

In Sindh, we had no umbrellas, no raincoats -- nobody in Sindh owned one. I had seen umbrellas in pictures but the first time I saw a real umbrella was after we arrived in Bombay and started a new life as refugees. We had experienced many changes and seen new and surprising things, and the non-stop pouring of the Bombay monsoon was another thing that we had to get used to.

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