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A return to roots

Friday, August 10, 2018
Pic courtesy: Sufiyan Khatri

Over the last decade, a new generation of post-Partition Sindhis has been rediscovering its identity, says Menka Shivdasani

Nishita Mehta (graphic design and visual research); Radhika Kapoor (daughter of late Gita Simoes); Brinda Somaya (founder-trustee, The HECAR Foundation, publishers); Nandita Bhavnani (author); Tina Nussirabadwalla (art director), in front of a photo of Gita Simoes, co-creator of the book at the launch of Sindhnamah

Last week, when Nandita Bhavnani launched  Sindhnamah, a magnificent 304-page, large-format publication that she worked on with the late Gita Simoes, there was barely any standing room at the spacious new premises of the Pundole Art Gallery at Ballard Estate. The book, published by The HECAR Foundation, showcases the rich cultural heritage and history of Sindh and the Sindhi people; the treasures of their homeland, the textiles, crafts, jewellery and much more. The conversation at Pundole may have been largely in English because many Sindhis have grown up never learning their mother tongue, but 72 years after Partition, the community that had lost touch with its roots clearly feels the need to reclaim its heritage.

It’s a transition that has been taking place for some years now. In the mid-1990s, when this writer was working on translations of Sindhi Partition poetry with Anju Makhija and the poet Dr Arjan Shad Mirchandani, few people were talking about the havoc that Partition had wreaked upon the displaced community. As we worked on the project, which was subsequently published by Sahitya Akademi under the title, Freedom and Fissures, poets like Kimat Harisinghani told us they had not written poetry about the Partition—a fact that Shad disproved when he delved into his personal collection and found a poem by the same writer. The Marathi poet Niranjan Uzgare attended the launch of the book at Jai Hind College in 1998; he was stunned to discover that there was an entire community that had suffered so much and had chosen not to speak about it.

In the Foreword to the book, Shad had written: “The first generation of Sindhis after Partition, having interacted with the second generation, could influence them with some impressions of their cultural heritage. However, the third generation is only marginally influenced by these second-hand impressions and is in danger of losing their heritage completely”. A few young writers, such as Vimmi Sadarangani and Mahesh Nenvani, did express dismay over the loss of their heritage, but for the most part, Sindhis were perfectly happy in a state of cultural amnesia, speaking in English and refusing to recognise the lacuna in their lives.

There were some, like Ranjit Butani, a first-generation post-Partition Sindhi, who realised that a vital part of his heritage was being lost. In the year 2000, he launched the magazine Sindhishaan, which offered a space for Sindhis to talk about how much their community had been through. The magazine spoke of how a million and a quarter refugees crossed the border to seek relief in Indian territory and noted that in 1948, Bombay (now Mumbai) was home to 1,29,000 refugees.

In the 25 miserable relief camps that had sprung up in the city by 1949, housing about 2.1 lakh inmates in deplorable conditions, earning a living against insurmountable odds had become a priority; the last thing on their minds was preserving the culture they had left behind. The Sindhis who fanned out to other parts of the world as well needed to assimilate in order to be accepted; speaking the language or retaining their traditions no longer seemed to matter.

All this has begun to change in the last decade. As we began losing the stalwarts of the generation that had lived through Partition, the younger generation began recognising the urgency of excavating and rediscovering these roots. In 2012, Saaz Aggarwal, brought out Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland. In 2014, Nandita Bhavnani released The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and the Partition of India. Anju Makhija translated the work of Shah Latif, known as the Shakespeare of Sindh, under the title Seeking the Beloved. Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory studied Sindhi identity through objects; the Partition meant little to her until she encountered items that had belonged to her family in Undivided India—things like a gaz, a ghara, a maang-tikka, a pocketknife, a peacock-shaped bracelet, and kitchen utensils, all of which her great-grandparents brought with them as they fled their homes.

The renewed interest in Sindhi roots has taken multiple forms. On the literary front, several books by Sindhi writers have been published despite a general lack of readers—publications by institutes like the 26-year-old Indian Institute of Sindhology in Adipur; books on the history and rich literature by scholars such as Mohan Gehani; poetry collections by young authors such as Mukesh Tilokani in various scripts—the Persio-Arabic script that few Sindhis in India today can understand; the Devanagari script that is increasingly being used in order to reach out to youngsters, and the Roman script that is gradually taking hold in an Internet age that has the potential to bind Non-Resident Sindhis across the world. In 2008, MARG brought out a coffee table book, Sindh: Past Glory, Present Nostalgia, and some years later, in June 2013, Bangalore-based Sleek Advertising Pvt. Ltd brought out We the Sindhis, a 178-page, all-colour publication that spanned everything from the history to folk art to authentic Sindhi recipes.

Sindhis have also made a tremendous contribution to education through institutes such as Jai Hind College and Basantsing Institute of Science, and the Hyderabad (Sind) National Collegiate Board; the latter runs 17 colleges and seven schools. These institutions have been working to introduce a new generation to the language, and when this writer visited Jai Hind recently, it came as a pleasant surprise to see how fluently youngsters were speaking the language!

Asha Chand, an activist who runs the non-profit Sindhi Sangat, recognises that it may be too late to encourage second and third-generation post-Partition Sindhis to connect with their mother tongue. She believes it is essential to encourage children to get comfortable with the language as soon as possible and through her efforts, 40 schools have started teaching Sindhi in the Arabic script in the last year.

Among the several initiatives Asha Chand has taken through her organisation Sindhi Sangat (http://www.sindhisangat.com) is an international Sindhi nursery rhymes competition; the 2018 competition, from July 15 to September 15, invites children in Junior (up to five years) and Senior (five to eight years of age) to recite nursery rhymes that are provided on the site and upload videos to them through WeTransfer. Asha has also launched a mobile app called ‘Learn Sindhi’ and has been petitioning relentlessly for a DD-Sindhi TV channel; her petition reads: “Unfortunately there is no Sindhi State in India, which can ensure promotion of our beloved language and a DD-Sindhi TV channel as part of it. Sindhi language is enshrined in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution Hence, the Government of India is duty bound to promote Sindhi language.”

Technology and the Internet age have done much to fuel the resurgence in a new generation reclaiming its Sindhi identity. Last year, on the 50th anniversary of Sindhi’s acceptance in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution, the National Council for Promotion of Sindhi Language and C-Dac Pune, released software to take Sindhi digital. Aruna Jethwani of the Council said on the occasion: “It now becomes very easy for writers, poets, authors, historians, students, teachers and everybody who would like to read / write / communicate in Sindhi language, with Sindhi fonts and graphics too on all platforms. With the help of a Sindhi keyboard many e-Books will now be made.” The mobile application allows for convertibility of the script from Sindhi to English on the keyboard and vice-versa.

While initiatives such as translations will take time to fructify, there is no doubt that today Sindhis are increasingly reaching out to their roots, and recognising that their ancestors had made tremendous sacrifices. As Saaz Aggarwal notes in Sindh: Stories of a Vanishing Homeland: “… wondering why, when we celebrate Independence Day, we don’t also pay homage to the millions who suffered displacement and tragedy at Partition”.

As India celebrates its 72nd Independence Day, this is something to think about.

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