As Pakistan slips into turbulence yet again, Saaz Aggarwal, author of a book on the Sindhi experience of Partition, recalls visits to the land her mother once called home in this first person account.
There are times when you reach into the wardrobe, grope around expectantly and encounter only its impassive, wooden back. And there are times when you peer past the coats and a chilly breeze hits your cheek. With mounting excitement you gaze through the wintry landscape and spot that beloved lamppost. It was the same sort of feeling that overwhelmed me when I opened my passport that day in March, and found that I’d been granted a visa to Pakistan.There are places in this world that hardly anybody knows about, and even fewer have access to. When you travel there, you come back changed. You have visited a forbidden land; it has left its mark on you. That’s what happened to me.
The passport application that got Saaz's father, Ramanand Savur, his India-Pakistan passport.
Until then, Pakistan had been a villainous, danger-strewn place that existed with the purpose of killing Indian soldiers. Occasional blips revealed a different reality. A Pakistani couple once stayed in our home for a week. We were so alike that it was uncanny. We became friends. They pointed out an oddity we had previously taken for granted: Pune has many Karachi Sweet Marts.
Our two cities obviously had a fundamental connection that had never been explored. One day, their adult daughters visited. In the course of enthusiastic conversation, one of them asked me, “You are Hindu? Really? Hindu? I can’t believe it!” She stared into my eyes, and shuddered. It struck me then how completely we had been conditioned to view each other through distorted mirrors.
Some years later, after two generations of silence, I began to learn about my blood connection with the horrid enemy country. My mother, Situ Savur (née Bijlani), told me a little about her childhood in Sindh. I wrote a book (Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland), and found myself accepting an invitation to her vanished homeland. The back of the wardrobe gently gave way, and in I stepped.
It was Narnia in the rule of the White Witch. In February 2013, as I attended the Karachi Literature Festival for the launch of my book, a bomb killed 200 people in Quetta. There was outrage and fear. People went about their lives silently, bravely, helpless in the face of evil over which they had no control.Under these forces, the quality of creative output we saw, in literature, music, art, fashion, fine dining, and even on the country’s brightly coloured lorries, was outstanding. It was heartrending.
Saaz Aggarwal and her daughters Ekta and Veda pose with shopkeepers and a friend at Zainab Market, Karachi in 2013. (Below) An archival image of a relief cheque dated 1950; signed by Prime Minister Nehru, it donated Rs 1,200 towards the rehabilitation of the Sindhi community.
Another important thing happened. The warmth and hospitality that my family and I received changed our feelings not just towards Pakistan but towards people in general. Leaving was a wrench. The parting pangs were reminiscent of the desolation of early childhood off-to-boarding-school homesickness. Perhaps they arose from cellular memory of my grandparents’ Partition pangs.
A year later, the chasm opened anew. I returned to attend a seminar organised by the Sindh Madressatul Islam University (SMIU). With disbelief (and gratitude) I had seen my book read and enjoyed by Sindhis around the world, praised by academics and historians. But I was unprepared for the newspaper report referring to me as ‘the Indian scholar Saaz Aggarwal’. The… who? It was like being called the ‘Daughter of Eve’.
This trip would be unforgettable in a sad way. Hours after I returned, my mother died. She was 79, had led a good life, and passed on peacefully. It was not a tragedy. But I was unprepared.
Just two years before, she had begun handing over to me the baton of a previously concealed heritage. Her neglected memories surfaced and, like grimy treasures, glistened with the polish of attention. What we excavated brought me new life realities, new interpretations of myself. The process was therapeutic for her too. She woke from happy dreams of loved ones from olden times, re-established links with cousins, recalled lost traditions. I felt devastated that she had abandoned our project — abandoned me — so suddenly.Clearing out her house, my brother and I came across something she had written years before, a lovely little anecdote that was missing from my book: my mother’s contribution, from beyond the grave, to the paper I submitted to SMIU.
We also found a 1957 document belonging to our father, Ramanand (Bob) Savur. It was a red hardcover booklet, a historic ‘India-Pakistan Passport’. Supporting correspondence told us how the chasm had opened up before him. I remembered the tears that filled his eyes whenever he watched TV coverage of calamitous events in Pakistan.
We knew that he (a south Indian Brahmin who met my mother in college in Bombay) had visited Pakistan as a young man, and that his passport had been misplaced by the police, causing him anxious moments at departure.
For me, too, leaving Pakistan had been difficult. Both times, complications arising from bureaucratic requirements had caused panic at the border. As I wait for my next Narnia episode, wondering when and how it will happen, I ponder on these minor traumas, dying tremors of the uprooting of a generation from its homeland.
(Saaz Aggarwal is a writer. She lives in Pune)