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Updated: May 4, 2013 16:18 IST

Of dispossession and belonging

Shelley Walia
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Sindh. Author: Saaz Aggarwal.
Special Arrangement Sindh. Author: Saaz Aggarwal.

An account that not only chronicles Sindhi culture but also the pain of Partition.

Is it ever possible to erase the memory of one’s homeland? The pull in the two directions of home and the land of one’s adoption creates a certain schizophrenia that irks the migrant’s being over generations and has a deep impact on the nature of his or her identity. Such is the heartrending story of Partition, affecting not only the Sindhis but each one of us whose ancestors bore the pangs of migration.

In her book, Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland, Saaz Aggarwal draws the attention of the reader to this inherent problem in all diasporas of the world, particularly that of the Sindhis.

With the help of her mother’s recollections of her lost homeland, Saaz derived the inspiration to return to the history of displacement and resettlement of the Sindhis in the post-Partition era. “Reading about Sindh, reading descriptions of the place my grandparents lived in and the people they knew of made me try to see the events that changed their lives through their eyes, and this made me feel much closer to them.” Saaz has indeed made up the inadequacies in existing histories of Sindh by writing a book where the personal becomes the political.

Her book is a tribute to her displaced grandparents who, with utmost adaptability and sensitivity, settle in a new land accepting not only its culture but also, surprisingly, inter-caste marriages. As Lal, one of the narrators, states in his story, the Sindhis were friends with Muslims because “personal relations have nothing to do with religion or history”. Erasure of memory seemed the only way to a more reconciled existence. The book is remarkable for juxtaposing oral narratives with newspaper cuttings, recipes and official documents that together build a three-dimensional chronicle not only of Sindhi culture but of the pain and struggle of Partition.

Fragments of memories of Panjwani giving his sandalwood stick to the coach driver who drops him for the last time before his departure to India; Baby remembering the loss of her bangle while embarking on her journey to Bombay, the only object that she will leave behind; or Aruna and her siblings along with her grandmother left stranded on the platform by the Muslim commando who gets them to safety but walks away heartlessly as soon as the trains between India and Pakistan are exchanged; or the swing that forms a refrain in the memories of many children: these are ways of constructing a three-dimensional picture of the Sindhi Diaspora that is defined paradoxically by memory. To not look over one’s shoulder is a strategy that the migrant tries hard to practise though the rich art, culture, poetry and trade of the Sindh province always had a deep-seated attraction for its displaced inhabitants and historians. The stories take us to the history and geography of the region situated on the banks of the Sindhu (Indus), highlighting the invasion of the Greeks, the Persians and the Arabs, impressing on the inhabitants the impact of a transcultural history full of opulence and institutions of higher learning that infused in their blood the power of mature adaptability, a trait that would hold them in good stead when they would become aliens in a foreign land.

From a life and land of abundance, the Sindhi community was jolted by Partition into a refugee status of minimum subsistence. Here the reader finds well-researched history rubbing shoulder with personal stories from those who continue to have connections with their homeland, or have heard about their land from their grandparents or parents, and still hold on to the indelible memory of culinary Sindhi delicacies like Saee bhaji, Sindhi papad, dhodho, Sindhi kadhi famous all over the world.

Many perished on their journey to India but owing to education and entrepreneurship, others migrated to various parts of the world, like the Jews, leading fairly prosperous lives. But a major part of the community made their way to India carving out a new life in the face of heavy odds. Engaged in making a success of their lives by initiating small businesses, the stoic Sindhis had little time for nostalgia. As Frantz Fanon would say, they were adept at ‘adopting and adapting’ and soon flourished in many parts of India and the globe, though expurgation of history and memories of the lost homeland is never complete.

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