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After the schism

It's difficult to interview Saaz Aggarwal, mostly because she's a friend and conversations with her tend to morph into gossip sessions interspersed with comic interludes during which she demonstrates her flair for mimicking a range of Indian accents.

books Updated: Jan 26, 2013 18:11 IST
Manjula Narayan

Sindh; Stories From A Vanished Homeland
Saaz Aggarwal
Black-and-white fountain
Rs. 400 pp 320

It's difficult to interview Saaz Aggarwal, mostly because she's a friend and conversations with her tend to morph into gossip sessions interspersed with comic interludes during which she demonstrates her flair for mimicking a range of Indian accents.

It's a useful talent for a writer to have and one that must have been handy when writing Sindh; Stories From a Vanished Homeland, which intersperses oral histories of the Hindu refugees who fled Sindh in the aftermath of Partition, with family pictures, recipes, excerpts from official documents, and Aggarwal's Sindhi mother Situ Savur nee Bijlani's memories.

"My father had been ill for a long time and taking care of him had been my mother's full-time occupation. After he passed away, when I was looking for ways to help her occupy her time, I got this idea of writing something we could share with the family," she says.

She was amazed at how much her mother remembered especially as, until then, she had never spoken about her childhood.

"She even remembered the date on which their ship arrived in Bombay - 14 November 1947. She was 13 years old," says Aggarwal who began reading more about Sindhi culture after hearing about her lawyer grandfather's high profile cases.

A family project soon became a more ambitious project. "I realised how little we in India know about the Sindhis. I knew I had to try and write something highly descriptive," she says. The result is a book that's difficult to label - is it a collection of oral histories of a people whose memories of Partition have been undocumented?; is it a family memoir interspersed with instructions on how to make "Koki (also known as Loli)"?; is it an attempt to reclaim a place for freedom fighters like 19-year-old Hemu Kalani who was hanged at Sukkur jail on 21 January, 1943, for participating in the Quit India Movement?; Or is it a lament about the community's "bad branding"?

Once the reader gets over the compulsive need to push the book into a neat genre box, it becomes apparent that this enriching read offers fresh insights into a people who collectively cut away from their past in a way that's at once shocking and admirable.

"They were too busy getting ahead in life to think or talk about the past, and they stopped reading their own language," Aggarwal, who lives with her family in Pune, wrote in an email.

The loss of the language in its original script has not led to a corresponding loss of all aspects of Sindhi culture with the community's identity still tied to its traditional cuisine.

Aggarwal is eager to dispel the notion that Sindhis are crass and avaricious, a stereotype propagated by old Hindi films. "There are thousands of smart, soft-spoken, wonderful Sindhis who are invisible!" she says sharing a mail from a reader who recounted her childhood memory of a man who sold saris door to door. "One day he came round with his usual bundle announcing that this would be the last time he would come! He then told Mother that he had managed to 'buy' a practice. And then it came out. He was a doctor - a skin specialist - who had left Sindh with literally nothing other than the clothes on his back with his wife and mother. By peddling saris... and very strict budgetting, he had managed to buy a practice… One of the memories I have of this very fine man was that he never spoke much about himself and never bragged. And he never looked back!"

It's a story of enterprise that was replicated in numerous Sindhi families. "I remember my mother's indignation when I was a kid about Gandhi, apparently, wanting to send the Sindhis to the Andamans so they would not be a burden on India. I remember thinking that they should have gone there.

They would have made a Hong Kong out of it!" laughs Aggarwal whose book features accounts of Sindhi business families, whose menfolk traded in places as far afield as Egypt, China and Europe, functioning as strict matriarchies.

It is also a source of incidental information on Sindhi Sikhs - which makes you recall LK Advani's former daughter-in-law's statements about the BJP leader's religious identity. "The syncretism of Sindh was amazing. You will see a picture of Guru Nanak, and the Guru Granth Sahib, in every Sindhi Hindu home," says Aggarwal pointing out that the census of 1891 had required Sindhis to fill out a form mentioning their religion. However, Sindh had just become a part of Bombay Presidency and the forms did not mention Sikhism. As a result, many identified themselves as Hindus.

"My mother's cousin told me his father, a sessions judge in Sukkur had arranged for a trainload of Sindhi Sikhs to be transported across the border in chains, with an armed guard proclaiming them prisoners, for their safety," says Aggarwal who has been invited to this year's Karachi Literature Festival. It's a trip she is keen to take but one that doesn't interest her mother. Situ, one of the many refugees who got off the ships from Karachi at the Bombay docks in 1947, has quite definitely moved on.