The Ulhasnagar Camp No 5 has a Jhulelal temple said to be the largest in the world. It forms a major Sindhi community centre with the Chaliya Vrith, the annual forty-day spiritual fast of cleansing, simplicity and purity, usually in the months of July-August, is one of its biggest events. A langar is held where meals are served to all visitors, irrespective of caste, creed, and religion, morning and night, for all the forty days.
Even after 74 years, this temple remains connected to a village of Sindh, Pir jo Goth, by the lamp that burns in it with a flame that was carried intact from the village when Partition took place in 1947. Pir jo Goth is the native village of a powerful religious family, the Pir Pagaros, whose followers were known as Hurs: an interesting history. Like many other parts of Sindh, Pir jo Goth had many Hindus too, and when Partition took place, they left their ancestral homes and fled across the newly created border. Among them was the family of Pahlumal Verhomal Chichria (now Verhani, the surname derived from Verhomal, father of Pahlumal). Pahlumal, a personal friend of Pir Pagaro, was a wealthy businessman who ran a timber business and managed the family’s landholdings where grain and other cash crops were grown. He owned a cinema in partnership in Pir jo Goth, lived in a large two-storey home, travelled around town in his own horse carriage, and enjoyed shikar. He had even travelled on pilgrimage to Haridwar and Badrinath, exotic expeditions in 1945.
Pahlumal had four sons: Mangaldas, Madhavdas, Harpaldas and Namdev, ranging in age from thirty five to fifteen; His brother Sanwaldas with six sons and a daughter. Mangaldas, Madhavdas, Namdev and Srichand, Mangaldas’s son, were sent to live in Sukkur, a nearby town with more opportunities, where they set up a business selling doors and windows. Sukkur was growing, buildings were coming up, and the business thrived.
In January 1948, after a pogrom targeting Hindus and Sikhs took place in Karachi, Pahlumal knew that he and his family had to leave Sindh. He sent his four sons with their families to Karachi via Sukkur, where they got tickets from a Panjwani family who had bought them but decided not to leave yet, and sailed for Bombay. From there they went on to Gwalior by train because the JB Mangharam family, to whom Madhavdas was related by marriage, lived there. Sadly, Harpaldas died in Gwalior. It was an era in which swift communication, such as trunk calls and telegrams, were the purview of the wealthy. His death was informed to his parents on a postcard. They arrived in Gwalior after some months, but Pahlumal’s niece, who had great influence on him, insisted that they move to Kalyan where she was living and where she felt his family would have a better life.
In 1949 when the family arrived in Kalyan, they had nothing of their own. At first they subsisted on the grains and other staples provided by the government. Even firewood, required for cooking, and cloth, were available in the ration shops. The extended joint family of the ten cousins occupied 12 units of 10’x20’ rooms in Barrack No 1838, Section 38, Kalyan Camp 5. Urinals and lavatories had been constructed some meters away, and this was particularly difficult for the women. They found the nearby slaughterhouses intolerable too. There were no lights – neither inside the rooms nor in the streets – primitive, for a family from Sukkur, where the barrage had been providing electricity to the town for more than a decade. Mosquitoes were in plenty and at night the snakes came out. The children went out every morning looking for empty matchboxes, which a local doctor used, to dispense a soothing salve – much in demand due to the mosquitoes. The boys rummaged through garbage and searched the grounds, as the doctor paid them 1 paisa for every six they took him. The brothers also earned a few paise selling sweets in the local train that ran between the camp and Mumbai. In time, they took up minor jobs in local stores, packing toffees and dry fruits.
Pahlumal died in 1975, at the age of 103. In his youth he had been skilled at handling wild horses. A strong swimmer, when the river flooded he would carry his children on his shoulders and swim them to safety. As he aged, he sang Sindhi songs and bhajans to his grandchildren, and told them stories from the Ramayana and the teachings of Guru Nanank. He spoke of Sindh with fondness, but never with bitterness or regret. He did not complain or dwell on difficult times, he was an optimistic person and his memories of Sindh were of the wonderful life he had led there on his farms with fresh air, good food, pure ghee and other simple pleasures of life. His philosophy was “Jeean halayeen tian wah wah”, said with folded hands and directed to the One Above: “Whatever situation you keep me in, I remain happy”. He held no rancour towards the Muslims for having separated him from his homeland and would say, if asked, that they were good people. His grandson, Satram, remembers hearing from him how it was Muslims who helped the family escape violence when Partition took place.
Although by the time he died the family was well off, in the early years they led a hand-to-mouth existence. One day, Sugnomal Bulchandani, a licensed medical practitioner (LCPS, Hyderabad) and a friend of Pahlumal, came from Sindh to live in Kalyan. He arranged for his elder brothers Khushaldas and Gannomal Bulchandani to provide some capital and take on Pahlumal’s sons as working partners in the timber business. Things began to improve. After about a year, the Sabandasani family, who had also arrived in Kalyan from Pir jo Goth, and had managed to carry some of their money and ornaments with them, started cautiously setting up. They knew that Pahlumal and his sons understood the timber business well, and took them on as working partners in a timber sawmill on the Kalyan Agra Road.
In the early 1950s, the Verhani family received 250 square yards in C Block of Kalyan Camp 4, on which stood a one-room block with a bathroom, kitchen set in its own compound, in exchange for the land they had left in Pir jo Goth. There was still no electricity and the area still had big bushes behind which animals lurked, and infested with insects.
Once their business started picking up, they were able to purchase two blocks and improve their standard of living. By the late 1960s, the family owned a Chevrolet and the business had a truck, in which Namdev would drive the family children to see the Independence Day illuminations at Mantralaya. The homes were now electrified – though there was a weekly 12-hour maintenance shutdown.
The family flourished financially and set up their own sawmill, M/s Madhavdas Pahlumal Timber Merchants in Ulhasnagar, Camp 4, in 1969. However, they suffered tragedies when Namdev died on 7 March1971, leaving small children: Satram, was only eight when he lost his father. Some years later, his only brother, Jairamdas, died at the age of fourteen when he had very high fever which the primitive medical facilities of Ulhasnagar could not cope. “I had six sisters to get married,” remembers Satram. “My father had been prudent in purchasing gold coins whenever he got the opportunity and this helped us to do so. I started working in the business when I was in Class 9 – taking measurements, arranging customer dispatches, helping in business accounting. I continued spending three or four hours working every day, right through my studies until my post-graduation, and even after I received a lectureship in my alma mater, Smt. Chandibai Himathaml Mansukhani College in Ulhasnagar.” Academics was his passion, and when he explained to his brothers and cousins that he wanted to step out of the business, his partnership was dissolved in 2000.
Satram Verhani loves his mother tongue but, seeing his aptitude for education, his father had sent him to an English medium school, unlike the other children of the family who grew up studying in Sindhi medium, in the Arabic script. Having retired as Vice Principal, Satram Verhani continues to engage in philanthropy for education, in particular girls’ education. Ulhasnagar still has no good medical facilities even today. It is a bustling urban centre with jewellery shops, electronic goods, and continuous construction activity. It is also an international centre for jeans production with many traders, manufacturers and exporters. In the 1960s and 1970s, the population was 65 to 75% Sindhi but today Sindhis are hardly 30 to 35% with the rest local Maharashtrians and North Indians. As per Satram Verhani’s memory, till the 1990s there was no masjid in Ulhasnagar. As the jeans’ factories flourished, and with most of the jobbers and tailors being Muslims, there are a few now.
Pahlumal’s grandsons are well settled: Srichand is an engineer; Haresh an ex-professor is an electronics dealer; Kishore is a garment dealer and exporter. The timber-mill legacy Madhavdas Pahlumal continues to flourish, managed by Pahlumal’s great grandson Ravi Ashok Kumar Verhani.
The family lives in a bungalow called Madhav Nivas. The location of their first mill now hosts a giant skyscraper. Ulhasnagar township is a congested and bustling Indian city, a part of the Mumbai Metropolitan region. It has industry as well as educational institutes but getting there is difficult because the local trains are overcrowded and the roads are pitted and potholed. Ulhasnagar also has inadequate drainage, and water supply so poor that even today residents do not have a 24-hour supply. Development has been haphazard and unregulated, rife with corruption. Of late, a number of buildings constructed between 1988 and 1992 collapsed, killing some, and leaving dozens of families homeless. In the early years of the millennium, an Ulhasnagar activist notified the Government of Maharashtra of 855 illegal buildings in the area. A plan was made with the local municipal authorities to regularize them but nearly two decades have passed and it has not been done.