A special Sindhi fabric

The coloured strip at the top of this page is Ajrak.
Some years ago, a Pakistani couple, Tehseen and Ashraf Agha, came on a visit to Pune and stayed with us for a week. It was the first time I had ever met anyone from Pakistan and it was an experience to learn how very similar we were – as a people, we looked alike and we had not one but two languages in common: Hindu/Urdu as well as English spoken the Indian(or Pakistani!) way. We enjoyed their company very much and became friends. One of the gifts they brought for us was an ajrak bedspread.
It was pretty and I really liked it, but had no idea what it signified. They told me to ask my mother, who was Sindhi and had lived the first thirteen years of her life in what then became Pakistan. But my mother had no idea either and this surprised them because, they said, ajrak was something very special to Sindhi people.
I took great care of my ajrak (which means that I’ve never used it and keep it in a safe place, and take it out to look at it and feel happy every now and again).

When I started writing this book I came across ajrak again. I learnt that Sindh in days gone by was a large producer of indigo and cotton, and exported them to the Arabian nations. The word ajrak means ‘blue’ in Arabic and the cloth was traditionally used as a turban or waist band by men and a shawl by women.
The geometric patterns of the ajrak reflect the symmetry of cosmic processes, a Sufi concept. Ajrak patterns are usually a rich crimson and blue, with dots of white and black used to create jewel-like patterns.
Although ajrak is now made in Gujarat and Rajasthan too, Sindh is where it originated. It is said that the colours become more brilliant and luminous with wear.
Sindhis have a special feeling for the ajrak and wear it at home and on festive occasions alike – through birth, marriage, and death. And ajrak is a fabric without class barriers – it is used by rich and poor alike.

A triumph of will and enterprise

I’ve been looking for a good cover photograph for my book. One idea was to have a portrait of a Sindhi family sitting at the docks with all their things, waiting.

I haven’t found one I could use as yet.

These photographs are the most famous ones of the event – taken by the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White, for Life magazine. Two give a view of the crowds as people left Karachi with all their belongings. In the third, we see women and children stepping down the gangplank, just before they took their first steps into Bombay, for them a new land that was going to be their home, or a base from which they took stock before they resettled themselves.

It’s not surprising that none of the families themselves stopped to take photos as they left their homeland forever.

My facebook friend Dinar Ali Qadri knew I was looking for images, and shared one of these on my page. These photos do hark back to a difficult time and evoke feelings of sadness. But instead of feeling sad, I think we should get used to the idea that these people sitting there, going through one of the most difficult times they would face in their lives, went on to succeed and prosper, and brought success and prosperity to others too.

Happy Independence Day!

Every year as the 15th of August approaches, thoughts about my grandparents crowd into my mind. As our Prime Minister addresses the nation from the Red Fort, children across the country turn out in their school uniforms to salute the flag and honour the memory of the great leaders of our independence struggle, and India celebrates yet another Independence Day holiday, I try to peer back in time to feel and understand what independence for India, and the birth of our sovereign nation, meant to them.

In August 1947, my grandfather Kishinchand Bijlani was five months short of his forty-second birthday. My grandmother Devi was thirty-nine. They lived in Hyderabad, Sindh. He was a prosperous lawyer with a practice that extended across Sindh and sometimes took him to Bombay. They had six children; a seventh was on the way. Kishno, as his friends called him, was a Gandhian – they were one of the few families in the neighbourhood whose children ran about in the angan, the wide, multi-purpose courtyard of their house, playing happily with the children of the sweepers, Rajasthani women with colourful swinging skirts, mirror-work embroidered bodices, and bone bangles clattering all the way from wrist to elbow.

Of course Independence Day was a day of rejoicing for them; the vindication of decades of struggle against imperialism. But as the day approached, unfolding events carried the message that major change, not all pleasant, was on the way. How would they adapt? What did the future have in store?

Musing nostalgically thus, my facebook status on the day last year, 15 August 2011, read: “thinking of my grandparents and wondering why, when we celebrate Independence Day, we don’t also pay homage to the millions who suffered displacement and tragedy at Partition.”

In addition to a number of supportive comments and ‘likes’, I received the following private message in response: “Saaz, with all due respect, time we forgot those memories. They don’t let us go forward. It’s time we buried hate which is redundant.”

Indignant that my minor homage to my grandparents’ bravery and calm acceptance should be misinterpreted as a message of hate, I tried to think back to any instance of hatred, or even lesser negative emotion, they had ever expressed in connection with Partition. There was none.