An excerpt from Unbordered Memories: Sindhi Stories of Partition, edited and translated by Rita Kothari.
The Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series brings a number of stories, through text and multimedia content that will attempt to draw a comprehensive picture of those weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever.
Introduction by Rita Kothari
Amar Jaleel, one of Pakistan’s most respected and controversial writers, writes in Sindhi – an official language in both India and Pakistan. He is technically a Muslim. However, his personal creed, spiritual outlook and politics recognise no borders of religion, nation and tradition. A follower of the 17th-century Sufi saint Sachal Sarmast, Jaleel draws radical courage from Sufism and fearlessly critiques any abuse of human dignity in the name of religion and national borders. He mocks the absurdity of containing subcontinental identities within the confines of nations and of equating nations with religions.
He wrote his most controversial story, Sard Lashun Jo Safar (The Journey of Cold Corpses), in the face of unrelenting censorship in the Pakistan of Zia ul-Haq. In the story, Jaleel takes us to Kundkot, a village in interior Sindh, where Hindu families live in a colony called Nanak Mohalla. We are then taken to the house of Gopal, technically a Hindu (his Hinduism as incidental as Jaleel’s Islam). While Gopal is busy reading a Sindhi translation of the Quran, a bunch of religious fanatics are raping his sister Savitri. Unlike most Hindus of Sindh, Gopal had chosen not to leave Pakistan to go to India. Perceiving himself to be an integral part of Sindh, he made his family stay back in the new state of Pakistan. His troubles started not in the 1940s, but three decades later, when religious fanaticism flared up with state support. The story shows how Gopal, an ordinary man from a village, had a sophisticated and unbiased understanding of religion. The rest of the story is much too gruesome and violent to be narrated here. Not surprisingly, the story was banned in Pakistan. In India it remains unknown beyond a tiny circle of Sindhi writers. To my knowledge, this is the only story in the Sindhi language that explicitly addresses Islamic violence against Hindus and, contrary to our expectations, it is not situated during Partition but after, and written not by a Hindu who suffered, but by a member of the majority community in Pakistan who empathised with the suffering.
Does that mean that the Sindhi community did not face violence? Or did not perhaps fulfil the expectations of ‘violence’ of the kind that characterised Partition stories? Both questions need to be answered. The Hindu minority of Sindh migrated to India during Partition and also the subsequent years, amidst immense fear and insecurity. When Punjab was caught in a maelstrom of hatred and hair-raising violence; the Hindus of Sindh were, at best, wary. Unlike the Partition experiences of Punjab or Bihar or, to a lesser extent, Bengal, the case of Sindh represents an exception because violence was not constitutive of the Sindhi experience of Partition. There were remarkably few episodes of physical violence in Sindh. Cases of robbery, hooliganism, and distress sales of property were far more common than bloodshed. Three months after Partition, when Acharya Kripalani (president, Indian National Congress) visited Sindh, he noted that, “There was only a slight exodus of the Hindus and Sikhs from Sindh. It did not suffer from any virulent fanaticism. To whatever faith the Sindhis belonged, they were powerfully influenced by Sufi and Vedantic thoughts. This made for tolerance.” Given today’s context and cynicism, this may seem archaic if not untrue. Frontier regions, and the two that I study – Kutch and Sindh – do diffuse some continuities and strait jacket definitions. Sindh was “a transition zone between ‘India proper’ and the vast region which was often called Khorrassan, in which were included Afghanistan, Baluchistan and southeastern Iran” – Sindh had been only intermittently included in the great Indian empires.
Until the British annexed Sindh in 1843, it remained relatively peripheral from the main centres of power in India. Sindh’s geographical location as a frontier province and its relative isolation from the pan-Indian empires shaped its unique character as a land of immigrants, typified by ebbs and flows of civilisation, one that paved the way for eclectic and non-textualised religious practices. The story below (Mohammad Gadiyavaalo) by Ram Panjwani captures the fear, the suspicions, the possibility as well as the absence of violence. The elite Hindu, called Deewan by the Muslims of Sindh, is the one visiting the Karachi club and waiting for his car to pick him up. Mohammed is miskin, a poor man. His innocuous question inspires suspicion, although the episode is one in a series of socio-economic transactions that characterised the Hindu-Muslim relationships. The largest sacrifice made at the altar of Partition was trust; and the subcontinent continues to feel the aftermath of that loss. What restores the narrator’s faith in this story is the shared stories and music; the verses of Shah Abdul Latif that has contributed to the Sindh story of Partition.
In other stories of the same collection Unbordered Memories and also my larger study The Burden of Refuge, we see that some of the most disturbing accounts from the lives of the Sindhi Hindus stem from their life in post-independence India, not Sindh at the time of partition. The alienation, lack of acceptance, a rupture of history and culture in the lives of those who had lost territory as well characterises the nature of violence among Sindhis. It is not physical, that’s all.
An extract from Muhammad, the Coach Driver, a short story written by Ram Panjwani, edited and translated by Rita Kothari
Partition was effected. Migrations had begun. I was still in Karachi. It was 6 January 1948. At 11 in the morning I was returning home from college. After crossing Burns Road, I came to Artillery Road. A coach came up to me. I looked up to see Muhammad’s face. He addressed me gravely, ‘Come on in. Why are you walking today?’
‘What’s happened?’ I asked, surprised.
‘You don’t know, deewan, death is dancing on the streets. There’s daylight robbery and stabbing right next to your house.’
I got into the coach, and on the way I saw the police trying to disperse crowds. Such drastic things were happening in Karachi and I had been so ignorant!
When I reached home, Muhammad said to me, ‘The military forces are arriving. Don’t come out of the house. If they impose martial law and curfew, I’ll come and stay with you. I will be your guard.’
Curfew was imposed. For a day or two, the demons of death walked through the streets. I did not need Muhammad at that time because a driver named Sukhi lived with us and he continued to reassure me. Meanwhile, the military took charge of the situation, terror subsided, and Hindu migration intensified. Those who had been determined to live in Sindh, under any circumstance, were also now desperate to leave.
Every morning, Muhammad would visit me. Willingly, he took me wherever I wanted to go. Once, while I was in his coach, he asked me, ‘Deewan, will you be leaving too?’
‘What do you desire?’ I asked.
‘You would have to go, deewan. Outsiders have come. Their motives are not good.’
‘Whatever He wishes me to do,’ I said. ‘Deewan, do let me know once you decide to leave.’ ‘You want to come to Hindustan with me!’ I joked.
‘If someone as loving as you is not valued here, how would a poor man like me be valued there? I will not come to India, but I will certainly come up to the border to see you off! Will you go by plane or ship?’
Thinking of my belongings, I replied, ‘By ship.’
‘Use this poor man’s coach to go up to Kiamari docks. I’ll feel reassured if I see you off myself.’
The day of departure did arrive. Muhammad brought me to Kiamari. He took down the belongings from the coach, and offering a salaam, he said, ‘May grace follow your footsteps. May Allah give you a long life.’
I was carrying a sandalwood walking stick with me. I offered it to him, ‘Keep this as my parting gift, its fragrance will keep my memory alive for you.’
Shutting his eyes, he inhaled the fragrance, and said, ‘I’ll never forget you. But, deewan, I have a request to make.’
‘Yes, Muhammad,’ I said.
‘When you reach India and recall the atrocities committed by Muslims, do please remember this poor Muhammad. Deewan, all human beings are not alike. All Muslims are not bad.’
I gathered my poor Muhammad into my arms, ‘My brother Muhammad, you are such a good human being. May Allah keep you safe and happy.’
A full-grown male was sobbing like a child. I could not control myself either.
There were also other friends at the port. I bade farewell to all of them and boarded the ship. The docks were swarming with people, but my eyes were fixed on Muhammad, the poor coach-driver. His face, and his voice, ‘Deewan, all Muslims are not bad,’ reverberated in my ears.
The ship set off. My friends who had come to see me off had left. But Muhammad continued to stand at the port. I waved a kerchief in his direction, while he raised the stick and waved. I heard an inner voice.
Tum zapt ki duniya meri barbad naa karna Main yaad bhi aaun to mujhe yaad na karna Raton ki kabhi tum meri nindiyan na urana Aankhon se kabhi tum mere aansu na churana Bhule se kabhi tum mere sapnon mein na aana Barbad hun barbad ko barbad naa karna
Main yaad bhi aaun to mujhe yaad na karna
Try not to disrupt my little world Try not to remember me, even when you remember me Try not to ruin my sleep at night Try not to take away tears from my eyes Try not to enter into my dreams Try not to ruin me, for I am ruined already Try not to remember me, even when you remember me.
Fifteen years have gone by. I miss Sindh, I miss my companions, but most of all I miss poor, humble Muhammad. Surprisingly, I don’t miss my Hindu friends, but the memory of this humble and selfless friend haunts me. How do distances matter in love?
Shah has rightly said:
Ke odha e dor, ke dora bhi oda sipri Ke samhaljan na kadan, ke a visran moor Jiyan meenh kandia poor, tiyan dost varako dil sen.
Some are near yet far, some far ones are near, beloved, Some are never in memory, some utterly unforgettable, Like a pot around a buffalo’s neck, friends engulf our heart.
Ram Panjwani was a towering figure in both the literary and social worlds of the Sindhis. He is remembered especially for making Jhulelal processions a regular part of Sindhi life, a cultural move to consolidate the post-partition and dispersed Sindhi ‘community.’
Rita Kothari has worked extensively on borders and communities; Partition and identity especially in the western region of India. She is the author of many books and articles on the Sindhi community.