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Sindhis and Partition: ‘The entire community behaved as one in that moment of trauma’

Saaz Aggarwal is a writer and painter who lives in Pune. Her book ‘Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland’ documents stories of Sindhis who migrated to India after Partition. Excerpts from an interview with the author:

pune Updated: Aug 14, 2017 23:41 IST
Anjali Shetty
Anjali Shetty
Hindustan Times, Pune
sindhi,partition,stories from a vanished homeland
Saaz Aggarwal is a writer and painter who lives in Pune.(HT Photo)

You have been actively involved with the research of the Sindhi Hindu community? What prompted this decision?

I’ve been a writer since a very young age and over the years I’ve specialised in helping people writing their memoirs. After my father died, I was looking for ways to keep my mother engaged and asked her to tell me about her childhood in Sindh. She was 13 when Partition took place and 78 when she started talking about her early life and all the things that had happened to her and her family, for the first time. I was absolutely astonished at the extent of detail in her memories of a time she had never spoken about before – imagine keeping all that inside you and never sharing it with anyone. Besides, it was a fascinating story. The Hindus of Sindh were a diverse people, but had come together to be prosperous and prominent in a land of little rain (but with a grand and whimsical river), a land where they were a religious minority. The historical reasons for this were so very interesting – but hardly known at all, not even by the Sindhis themselves. I also realised that in India we have Sindhis all around us and we never think that they have come from somewhere else. It is a seamless integration which is such a tremendously commendable achievement – and yet, the Sindhis tend to get more sniggers than praise.

Your research states that very few young Sindhis know their mother tongue today. What more can be done to change this fact?

Children learn any language that is spoken around them. For Sindhi children – their mother-tongue has been run over by the Indian nation and dealt mortal blows by some of their own forebears. Until 1967, when it was admitted under Schedule VIII of the Indian Constitution, Sindhi was not even considered an Indian language. In those 20 years, parents had been busy trying to give their children an easier start to the new life by speaking to them in local languages. A generation which grew up without their own language could not pass it on to their own children. Since Sindh was not partitioned with a part given to India, as was done with Punjab and Bengal, the Sindhis have no place of their own where Sindhi is spoken on the streets, and there is no context for the language to develop.There has also been a debate about writing Sindhi in Devnagari and even English. While this can help the new generation to communicate in Sindhi – it cannot allow them to read the treasures of literature and philosophy of their language. When people are ready to learn and study, to speak and read, to pass it on – it will happen. Institutes will arise; things will fall into place. Maybe the time is ripe – maybe not just yet.

Has Bollywood's Sindhi stereotype of loud, money-minded businessmen worsened the situation?

The stereotypes have created a mindset of Sindhis as vulgar and scheming. While Sindhis of the migrant generation were extremely proud of their culture and history, and had great respect for the way in which their people adapted to their new situations, later generations have borne the brunt of prejudice. Many young people prefer to distance themselves from the taint of association with the community. In 2011, I met someone at a party in Pune and when I told her I was writing a book about Sindhis she gave me a suspicious look and asked, “Are you Sindhi?” I hotly denied it, so she went on to tell me, “Those Sindhis are so smart and cunning! You know Sindh Society in Poona? It was given to them free! Can you believe this, the government gave it all free to them!” In the years since then I have come to see this lady as an intelligent, creative and fun-loving person, whose company I thoroughly enjoy. It has made me realise how deep and blinding monolithic stereotypes can be. Here is the truth about Sind Society. There were a few Sindhi families living in Pune during Partition. The Shahani family established Modern Book Stall here in the early 1920s. Tarachand Tolani was a professor at the College of Engineering, Poona. Colonel Radhakrishna Advani was Inspector General of Prisons. Tolaram Mirchandani was Chief Conservator of Forests. They, along with a few others, saw with agony the hordes of their community forced to flee from their homeland. Instead of watching helplessly, they began to petition the government for land to rehabilitate the displaced ones. In the late 1940s, the area beyond the Viceregal Lodge, in which the Poona University is now located, was jungle. A large tract was set aside to be offered to the Sindhis on a 99-year lease at the rate of 4 annas per square foot. However, there was so little demand for this land, which the Sindhis felt was too far away from the town centre for their needs, that a large tract was returned to the government.

On India's 70th Independence Day, what is your suggestion on the changes that can be made with regard to language conservation and restoring culture?

I think we should start by acknowledging the fact that in 1947, the Hindus of Sindh were a happy and prosperous lot who had been assured that they would continue living in Sindh as they had always done. And then, when they were rudely shoved out, and abruptly made homeless and penniless, there was no whining and complaining. Instead, they put all their misery, fear and confusion aside and buckled down to rebuilding their lives. They looked around them and started doing things useful to others which could earn them a living. The amazing thing (made even more amazing by the fact that it has never been applauded as it should have – or even noticed) is that it wasn’t just one family or group of families who did this. It was the entire community, which behaved as one entity in that moment of trauma.

First Published: Aug 14, 2017 23:27 IST