Muni Kundanmal, an 83-year-old Sindhi businessman, met me at the exclusive Capri Club in Colombo last Saturday afternoon. ``What diwali drink could I offer you?’’ he asked. In the next two hours, Kundanmal and I, over half glasses of red wine and Lion lager, chatted about the past and future of the remaining 650 (according to a 2005 community census) Lankan Sindhis.
Outside, cars and buses whizzed past like years gone by as Kundanmal settled down to recount his tale; 76 years in Sri Lanka, changing patterns of Sindhi businesses, the helpless twinge of watching family and children migrate.
The story of the Lankan Sindhis begins with migration too; most were from Hyderabad in the Sindh region of Pakistan. ``The men were already here, trading in garments, going back home on vacations. During partition, around 1947, their families joined them and stayed on. The first Sindhis of course came here in the 1850s to work for the British in (tea) plantations,’’ Kundanmal said.
Some returned to India in the 1950s when it became compulsory to take citizenship to do business. ``Many stayed on. Sri Lanka became home. We may have Indian roots but we don’t consider ourselves Indians at all,’’ Kundanmal said.
They continue to be Hindus. In Narain Chatulani’s office, the air-conditioned air was thick with incense stick fragrance; `diyas’ were lit in front of pictures of Laxmi, Ganesh and Buddha. `Would please take off your shoes?’’ he asked
``The best time for Sindhi business was in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We were the pioneers in the garment industry. Even now there are a few big names in garments, real estate and aviation. But now businesses are going to people with political connections. It’s no longer a level-playing field,’’ Chatulani, whose earlier spacious home is now a Pizza Express outlet, said. It did not help that the Sindhis never had any political representation.
Now, homes are sold off as children migrate to the US and Australia. Chatulani’s son is settled in Sydney. ``The community is shrinking. Inter-community marriages were not encouraged. My wife and I sometime talk about the old times,’’ Chatulani added as he showed me till the door.