As India gets ready for its 75th Independence Day, celebrations are due but not without remembering the people who were displaced in the process and now call this city their home. Two members of the Sindhi community in Mumbai talk about how the Partition of India changed their families’ lives
The old and new barracks at Chembur Camp. During the Partition, the barracks were given to working class refugees from Sindh as compensation for their loss of property. This image is for representational purpose only. Photo: Tanvi Phondekar
Independence Day often awakens celebratory memories in people but it is not always so for the Sindhi community. Their memories, which have been passed down to at least two generations already, are about India’s violent Partition.
As many may know, on August 14-15, 1947, the Indian subcontinent was separated into two independent nations of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Since the Partition occurred on the basis of religion, it also displaced about 15 million people in the process. The Hindu Sindhi community, who originated from the region of Sindh across the border, were among those affected. Two Sindhi Mumbaikars talk to Mid-day about the many stories they have heard growing up from grandparents and relatives who had to leave behind everything they knew and loved during that period of turmoil.
City-based media professional Junisha Dama says her family has accepted the effects of the Partition. However, the recollections of her grandparents have been permanently etched in her memory. It is not only the stories narrated by others but also some of her personal experiences that revealed to her how much trauma they must have borne.
“I realised how much violence my grandparents may have seen when my grandfather was affected by dementia towards the last few years of his life. He would often get confused at night and wake up forgetting where he was. One night he came into my room, woke me up saying we had to run. He kept saying, ‘Bahar danga ho raha hai, hummein Hindustan bhaagna padega, jaldi karo’ (There are riots outside, we have to run away to India, quick).”
Reliving the past
Growing up, Dama says most of the accounts of her grandparents were quite depressing. “They would tell me about the violence they faced in the train while coming to India. It was all very gory and grim,” she says. “My nani (grandmother) was a teenager and had witnessed someone getting stabbed in their place of business in Karachi because a mob barged in and simply started killing people.”
Similarly, Nishit Vaswani too heard a lot from his grandparents and other relatives. “Whenever there is a family get-together, every once a while there are these moments of retrospection about a not-so-happy tale of Partition. It is about how they had to abandon their lands, lock up their multi-storied homes and leave for the other side overnight,” he says. It wasn’t only the moving but also the process of leaving which gets spoken about often. “One moment they had everything and the other just a trunk full of clothes and utensils. With almost no money, it was difficult to find work, they would sell and trade anything they got their hands on,” adds Vaswani, who works as an independent finance professional in the city.
Dama's ancestors had opened a flour mill only six months before the Partition but had to sell it at whatever price they got because they had to leave. “My grandad would say, 'Karachi mein toh badshahi thi’ (We lived royally in Karachi), and we were reduced to paupers and had to rebuild our lives from scratch,” she adds.
Coming from a lavish lifestyle, which meant owning businesses in undivided India, Dama grew up listening to how even though Sindhis who came to Mumbai got houses in Ulhasnagar, it was nowhere close to the amount of land and grandeur of the past.
Happy for the present
Having only lived those experiences by hearing about them, a younger Vaswani—who may have not understood the full extent of the event—used to joke with them, asking why they didn’t carry any of their jewellery or money here. “They would despairingly say there wouldn't be any fortunes to enjoy without having one’s life and the decisions were made on their feet.” The stories were passed from his grandparents to his parents and then him. It was a highly political decision, they believe, which benefitted nobody and only caused loss of life and property.
While the Vaswanis view the Partition as unnecessary, Dama laments that it cost the community their culture. “We lost our state/province and didn't get any state to call our own when we moved here. It led to a loss of keeping the culture alive as the entire community got displaced. I don't think the leaders back then even realised that Sindhi Hindus would be losing out too. We essentially lost our entire home and region.” While this does anger her often, she sees beauty in the fact that the community has never complained or fought and instead moved on and rebuilt their lives.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Dama and Vaswani’s families finally reached Mumbai but not before stopping en route at different places. The 28-year-old says her family first reached a refugee camp in Navsari, Gujarat before the men in her family moved to Mumbai and bought the present family house with whatever money they had. The fact that Mumbai was good for business was something that appealed to them.
Vaswani’s family great-grandfather had already come to Mumbai, when he had to move to military camps and dharamshalas in Nashik. He also spent a brief time in Kolhapur, where he set up a stationery shop before quitting that and going to Gujarat to look for work. Everything eventually led him back to work for the government airlines in Mumbai and settle down here.
Dama is happy that her family has managed to retain their culture through the language and cuisine, and points out that it is probably because they live as a joint family. However, the fact that some people still call them ‘Pakistani' or ‘immigrants’, when technically they were a part of ‘undivided India’, brings back unwanted memories.
Vaswani’s family often thinks about how they were lucky to have found saviours in locals in Sindh who helped them hide in their trucks and migrate without any harm. They took the sea route to Mumbai from the Karachi harbour and managed to settle down temporarily at the military camps in Deolali, Nagpur before finally reaching Mumbai, where they are happy all these years later.
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