This is no desert, sir!

British soldiers enjoying a view of the Sindh countryside c1942
Source: Archive 150 on facebook

Most books are the result achieved at the end of a long journey. My book Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland is an exception because it was where my journey into Sindh started.

Published in November 2012, it is a collection of personal stories and the memories of ordinary people, interwoven with facts and opinions from secondary sources. And it began as a memoir of stories of my mother’s childhood in Sindh when I asked her to tell me what life had been like for her and her family before and during Partition, and how they had coped after that.

The most dramatic insight I had into what the migration had done to my mother, who left Sindh at age 13 in 1947 after Partition took place, led me to use the word ‘vanished’ in its title.

“Our families come from five villages in Larkano district,” she told me, and, thinking hard, slowly named them as I typed into my laptop. “My father’s village was Khairodero. Then there was Naudero, where the Bhutto family comes from; and Panjodero and Ratodero. The fifth name eluded her. “I’ll get it!” she promised, “I’ll think and tell you.” And then she shook her head and said, regretfully, “There’s no one left who can tell me that name.”

I keyed the four names into my Google task bar, and began reading out the other names it threw up. When I said, “Banguldero”, her astonished response, “How could you possibly know that!” gave me the poignant realisation that, to her mind, those villages had dropped off the map and simply stopped existing when she and her family left their beloved Sindh, never to return.

My mother and those of her siblings who were born in Sindh were fiercely proud to be Sindhi. However, they never communicated to us what it meant to be Sindhi, never included us in that umbrella of Sindhi-ness. So though I grew up not knowing anything about Sindh or what it meant to be a Sindhi, I did grow up with an understanding that there was something essential to my mother which I was not a part of. She could read, write, and speak Sindhi – but never shared the language with us. She never spoke about her childhood – her school, friends, favourite games or snacks, or even about the journey they made to Bombay when they left Sindh forever. She never spoke about why they left.

I returned home after my first, life-transforming visit to Sindh in February 2013, with a suitcase filled with ajraks gifted to me and my family with so much love and regard that it was overwhelming. A few weeks later, at lunch with the family at my masi’s place in Bombay, I told them all about my visit and embraced each one with an ajrak. They listened to what I said in silence, each of us was filled with emotion, and each of us missing my grandparents and wishing we could tell them about it too.

Perhaps they would have, if anyone had ever asked, but we didn’t.

Eventually, so many years later, when I did finally ask, my mother spoke without reservation. And I was surprised and moved at the extent of her memories, of all that she had carried inside her without expressing it. She told me, “When I close my eyes, I can still see those places.”

Just two years after I set out on this journey into Sindh with my mother, she suddenly and most unexpectedly, died. It was 28 March 2014, 8 years to this day. I was grateful to be by her side as she passed on, grateful to receive her last blessing. She was 79 years old and had led a fulfilling life; it was not a tragedy. But the regret is everlasting: all those many questions I have for her which will forever remain unanswered. Fragments of incidents from her childhood in Sindh, which she was still telling me, can never be completed.

Sorting out her things over the days that followed, I came across something she had written many years ago and felt both sad and happy to read it, my mother Situ’s contribution from the beyond:

When I was newly married, my husband’s English boss asked me which part of India I was from. I told him, and he replied, “Oh, so you come from the desert!”

When I responded indignantly with information about our River Indus and its many dams, which I had learnt at school, he laughed, and told me about the time he passed through Sindh during the Second World War. The train stopped at an isolated place. Looking out, he saw a jawan from his regiment standing on the platform and gazing contentedly around him. He asked the jawan what on earth he was doing, out here in the desert. The man snapped back, “This is no desert, sir! This is my home.”

Saaz Aggarwal
28 March 2022

Situ Savur and Saaz Aggarwal, Pune (January 2013)
Photo by Uma Kushalappa

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