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Like looking into a mirror for the first time

An interview with Fazil Jamili in Aman ki Asha on 28 May 2014:

1. What was your experience come twice in Karachi?

During my two short trips to Sindh, I experienced a wide spectrum of feelings. One was the excitement of visiting a region that is so intimately a part of our lives and yet forbidden to us. Another was frustration and unhappiness with the difficulty of entering and the restrictions on free travel. Yet another was the longing to visit an ancestral homeland, and delight at doing so. A fourth was the fear of being in a country where we are officially perceived as enemies. If war were to break out while we were visiting, what would happen to us? Karachi has the reputation of being a violent and dangerous place. However, most important of all has been the love that we were showered with.

I should also say that my first visit to Sindh was the most exciting and most meaningful trip I have made in my life. The warmth and hospitality my family and I received changed our feelings towards not just Pakistan but towards humanity as a whole.

2. You got visa of Sukkur, Larkana this time but couldn’t make it to visit these cities. What stopped you to go and see your mother’s native village?

I was in Karachi in March 2014 to attend the seminar, Sindh through the centuries, organized by Sindh Madrassetul Islam University. It was a fantastic experience with scholars from all over the world, resulting in a lot of learning and interaction. SMIU had courageously invited Indian writers and academics too, and nine of us accepted. We were issued NOC for visa by Islamabad with the request that we restrict our stay in Pakistan to the dates of the seminar. Though I had a visa, it would have been an abuse of hospitality to stay on, and I decided to visit Larkano, Sukkur and my mother’s native village on some other trip, if at all.

3. When you told your mother all the love you received here in Sindh. What was her reaction?

My mother and her siblings were very surprised but also happy to hear about the love and all the messages to them from people in Sindh. In the past, nobody in the family had ever spoken about Sindh. They had deliberately put it out of their minds. So it was something new and totally unexpected. I felt a lot of latent emotion in them. None of us said it aloud, but I think we all missed my grandparents and wished there was a way for us to tell them about it.

4. As she is no more with us. What are the feelings when you think about love and hate emotions towards this vanished land?

My mother was a fiercely proud Sindhi all her life. When I was young, these feelings were totally irrelevant to me. I never thought about her and her family’s enormous loss and how bravely they had faced it, and only realised it while I was writing the book. I then became very keen to travel to Sindh with my mother. I told her many times that if we went, our experiences would make a good last chapter to the book. She gave me many reasons for not wanting to go. The one most relevant to answer your question is, “They threw us out! Why should I go back!”

So the biggest benefit of my book was that it enabled her to experience closure by reclaiming her lost childhood and by affirming her forgotten link to Sindh.

Personally, I feel rudderless and demotivated to continue my Sindh journey without my mother.

My mother was 79 years old, and she had lived a fairly comfortable life, facing its challenges with courage. Her death was no tragedy. I was with her as she left her body peacefully, smiling all the while. My mother was an agnostic and there was no religious ritual in our home. But because I had worked with her to write the book, I knew that the prayers she was taught as a child were from the Sikh religion, and I arranged the memorial service and meal in her memory at a Gurudwara. While I am deeply grateful for all these blessings, I feel terrible that I lost her so suddenly. I was totally unprepared. There were many, many questions that I wanted to ask her, always assuming that I could do so later. If I write about Sindh and Sindhis, I will always feel pain that she is not going to read and comment on it.

5. Do you think you are in better position to understand Sindh and its people and can write another book on this subject?

I have collected many more interesting stories and intend to compile them into a sequel. Each of them gives a different insight into Sindh, the Sindhi experience, and the Sindhi psyche.

In India we have a one-dimensional stereotype of Sindhis as calculating and profit-oriented. Even when people speak positively about Sindhis, they will use adjectives like ‘hardworking’ and ‘enterprising’ which directly relate to this one-dimensional stereotype. When I visited Pakistan, I saw that Sindhis there too are labelled in a limiting way, different but also deprecatory. One reason why Sindhis are misunderstood is because they have a unique culture which has been misunderstood. I feel that these stories will help people, in particular the Sindhis themselves, to understand that unique culture.

6. Do you think India and Pakistan can ever become good friends?

India and Pakistan were one land, one people with a common history and cultural kinship.

How different are Bombay and Karachi, how different are Delhi and Lahore? People look alike, they sound alike; their body language and core ethics are similar.

When I travel to Calcutta, Delhi, Madras or other places in India, things are similar but not quite the same as they are in Pune where I live. Often there are strong regional variations. People can see from the way I dress and speak that I have come from somewhere else. Yet they know that I am one of them. Why can’t it be the same when I go to Karachi too?

It is vested interests which have kept us apart, and it would be extremely difficult to overcome their power and wealth to become good friends.

7. Would you advise all the Sindhis living in India once visit their homeland in their life?

Sadly, most of the migrant generation is no more. Those who lived in Sindh and have memories of a lost childhood home would be over 70 years old. I doubt if ALL of them would have sufficient motivation to tolerate the rigour of the required paperwork and travel. As for younger Sindhis, they feel much more rooted in the place where they live than their lost homeland. To my mind, for them to come to terms with their identity, a visit to Sindh is only one of the things they need to do, and not one of the most essential.

Having said this, I must also say that when an Indian Sindhi meets a Pakistani Sindhi, for both of them it’s like looking into a mirror for the first time. There’s a feeling of magic and wonder in the air, like when two long-lost brothers suddenly find each other. It is a miraculous, amazing and uplifting experience which I wish every Sindhi could have.

8. How the writers can play a positive role in promoting peace.

Good-quality writing is enjoyable, but it is also much more than that. Through it, readers come closer to understanding themselves. When we understand ourselves better, we realise that one of the highest human priorities is a safe and peaceful existence and a certain degree of comfort, replete with human bonds of love.

9. Anything about Karachi or Sindh you miss when you recall your visit to Pakistan?

What I miss most is easy access to Sindh. I wish I could travel there whenever I felt like to spend time with my friends there, to enjoy the shopping, and to wander down the streets thinking about my mother and my grandparents and wishing I could share these moments with them.

72 years ago, today

The opening of Visakhapatnam Port with the arrival of passenger ship S.S. Jaladurga in October 1933

This is an old story, but moves me every time I hear it. On 14 November 1947, the passenger ship SS Jaladurga arrived in Bombay after a two-day journey from Karachi, carrying evacuees from the newly-created nation of Pakistan. Most of the passengers on Jaladurga that day had never stepped outside Sindh before. They were entering a new life where they would stop speaking their language and set aside the traditions and stories of their ancestors.

Sixty-five years later, having asked my mother to tell me about her childhood, I was astounded to learn that, a thirteen-year-old at the time, she could still remember so many details of that journey, and even the date on which she had landed, with her parents and five siblings ranging in age from four to nineteen, in the strange new city where they would make their home.

This conversation led to many more, and I knew that I was listening to something special – something not many people knew. This filled me with the determination to start telling it! So I interviewed others, read books for contextual and supporting information and this is the book I wrote.

On 14 November 2012, we launched the book with a party for my mother’s family. Her cousins, some of whom I had never met before but whom she had been very close to in Sindh and were so happy to know that their story was being written down, were among the honoured guests that day.

Seven years have passed since that day. Sadly, my mother is no more. Happily, she had seen the very positive response the book, the story of her childhood, received . She had read the reviews and also travelled with me to participate in some of the prestigious events the book was invited for. I continue to listen to personal stories of people who once lived in Sindh, think about the experiences they went through, and talk and write about them.

A small glimpse of Sindh in 1930

I was less than five years old when I was watching a Hindu shopkeeper of our village weighing butter in the house next door to ours.

Ghulam Rasool , some nine years older than me, was standing in that house and he asked me to ask the shopkeeper: “Hoonda will you eat cow’s meat”?

I repeated the words. Hoonda left his weighing scale. He looked at me with anger. I was frightened and ran towards Ghulam Rasool’s house, but the thorny hedge prevented me from entering . Hoonda felt sorry for me. He picked me up, brought me out from the thorny brush and said: “Do not ever say that again”.

The next time he came to our house, I hid behind the sacks of grain. After he left, my mother told me: “He is a Hindu and they worship the cow as a mother. For them, slaughtering a cow and eating it is like you killing me and eating my flesh.”

I was horrified. I wanted to apologise. I had learnt how to offer an apology from my paternal uncle. When I played with his belongings, he would make me touch his feet and then stand waiting with my hands folded until he said “I forgive you”.

So I stopped outside the Hindu merchant’s shop and when I saw Hoonda coming out, I touched his feet and stood with folded hands before him. He immediately picked me up embraced me, gave me lot of sweet stuff to eat and told me “Now you are a good boy, but Ghulam Rasool is naughty. It was he who made you say those words.”

It was a lesson to respect other religions. Since then for me to disrespect any religion means that I slaughter my mother and eat her meat.

An excerpt from the memoirs of MH Panhwar (1925-2007). From a land-owning family of Sindh, MH Panhwar returned to Sindh with a Master’s in Agricultural Engineering University of Wisconsin USA in 1953. Professionally he specialized in groundwater development, earthmoving, agricultural machinery, water logging, salinity control drainage and agriculture. After twelve years as a government engineer, he set up his own consulting company specializing in irrigation, water logging, drainage,
agriculture, scientific equipment and horticulture. He was also a social worker and a passionate student of Sindh studies, and wrote a large number of books on
various subjects.

Addo Abdur Rahman: a tale from Sindh by Amarlal Hingorani

fakir-1Addo Abdur Rahman is the story of a popular Sindhi character told by Amarlal Hingorani and translated by TH Advani. Addo is a Sindhi word that means brother.

Some thought him daft, others considered him a dervish, a wandering fakir, God-intoxicated. He may have been both. In appearance he was lean, rather tall, and wheat-complexioned. His body was not altogether bare, and he went about loosely wrapped in an old quilt. He seemed always in a state of spiritual animation. He visited all manner of places of worship, no matter what their religious denomination, mosque and shrine alike were houses of God, and he was seen frequenting both. On the wharf at Sukkur in Sindh, facing the railway goods office, common people would often gather near the booths and recite shlokas (Sanskrit verses) from the Sindhi Hindu religious poet Sami. Addo Abdur Rahman would also join the gathering and listen with pleasure. Now and again, he would mutter to himself, “Addo Abdur Rahman, are you following it? When will you begin to see light?”
One day he tripped over a stone. He said to himself, “Addo Abdur Rahman, how proud and arrogant you are! Walking with your head cocked like that! If you look down you would not stumble.” He had not gone a few steps when he stopped and began upbraiding himself. “Addo Abdur Rahman, how selfish you are! Was it right to leave that stone where it was? Suppose another wayfarer tripped over it?” And he went back and flung it out of the way.
He was in the habit of talking to himself, as a philosopher to a friend, as one person to another, in constant exhortation. If somebody said to him, “Addo Abdur Rahman, are you hungry? Would you like to eat?” he would turn to himself and ask, “Addo Abdur Rahman, he wants to know if you are hungry and would like to eat.” And he would answer, after thinking for a while, quoting a Persian proverb: “One must eat to live, not live to eat.” In this manner he would always confer aloud with himself before answering a question. It was a good practice because it prevented him from quick reaction to whatever happened. He heard the other carefully and gave a well thought out reply.
Abdur Rahman was quite an accomplished poet and scholar. He wrote Persian poetry, knew Hafiz by heart and a good portion of the Sindhi poets, Shah Abdul Latif and Sami. Of Saint Sachal, the third premier poet of Sindh, he was a devoted disciple. He knew Urdu also. When people received letters in Urdu from Punjab, they would take them to Addo Abdur Rahman to read and interpret them. He was of a quiet and gentle disposition. He coveted nothing, had few wants, and ate sparingly. His godri, the old quilt, was always wrapped around him whatever the season. At night it served as a covering. However oppressive the weather, he had his godri about him and defied the heat, though other men nearly died of it. Who knows what secret converse he held with the Divine Beloved under the cover of his godri?
One day an innocent man found himself involved in a criminal prosecution. He was accused of having stolen a gold watch belonging to a wealthy Muslim merchant. The police had searched him and found it on his person in front of witnesses; the evidence against him was strong and it seemed unlikely that the man would be acquitted. The merchant was a man of influence.
The poor man claimed that he had been falsely accused of making a lewd gesture at the womenfolk of the merchant when he walked past his house one day, and that the merchant had beaten him mercilessly. But for Addo Abdur Rahman, who had by chance appeared on the scene, the man might have been beaten to death. Even after Addo Abdur Rahman’s intercession, the merchant would not be appeased. He said that the fellow had cast an evil eye on his honour and that it was intolerable that he should continue to live thereafter.
Abdur Rahman began to confer with himself, “The merchant will not desist, for his honour is very dear to him. He has a sister, 35 years of age, and yet he will not find her a husband because she will then demand a share of her inheritance.
“No, Addo Abdur Rahman,” he added to himself, “do not lift the veil from another man’s affairs. Better reason once again with the merchant. If he continues to be obstinate, you may speak the whole truth.” However, he had mumbled this aloud and the merchant and others had heard. The merchant decided to drop the case and thus the poor man was saved.
But gossip began to spread all over town. To save his reputation the merchant filed another case. He denied all wrong doing and bought off three of the four witnesses who either did not appear in court or pretended ignorance. There remained only Abdur Rahman. The counsel for defence seriously doubted the wisdom of putting such a man in the witness box. But the accused had implicit faith in Abdur Rahman.
When Abdur Rahman received a summons he said to himself, “Addo Abdur Rahman, you have been summoned to appear in a court of justice. Such a place is worthy of respect.” That meant that he must not go there without wearing shoes. He managed to get hold of a pair for the occasion, not to look respectable, but to show deference to a place worthy of respect. At every hearing he went to the court in his godri, carrying his shoes in his hands, according to the custom of the Sindhi villagers. When he was called to give evidence, he put them on with ceremony. His godri was folded lengthwise and draped like a scarf around the neck. He had hardly stepped in when the liveried peon of the court asked him to leave his shoes outside, as the other men of low status did.
“Addo Abdur Rahman,” said Abdur Rahman to himself, “the court peon is asking you to enter barefooted, and so appear respectful. Tell him you procured the shoes for that very purpose.” He did as he was bidden by his inner self and walked in with his shoes on. When the magistrate saw him, he laughed.
As he took his stand in the witness box, the magistrate asked him why he was wearing his godri around his neck. Abdur Rahman looked inwards and communicated the question to himself in his usual fashion. “Addo Abdur Rahman,” he said, “you are in court now so answer with due care. Tell the magistrate sahib that it is a custom with the Hindus on important occasions to wear a dupatta or scarf round the neck, and that you have done likewise.” And Abdur Rahman duly conveyed his own instructions to the magistrate.
The serishtadar, a subordinate officer, now turned to Abdur Rahman to administer the usual oath: “In the presence of God I swear that I shall speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Abdur Rahman repeated the oath respectfully.
“What is your name?
“Addo Abdur Rahman, the serishtadar wants to know your name.” Then turning to the court, he added, “My name is Abdur Rahman.”
There was laughter in court. The magistrate, after enjoying the situation for a while, began to show annoyance. One of the advocates explained to him that the witness was in the habit of speaking in this manner.
“Your religion?” asked the subordinate officer.
Abdur Rahman closed his eyes and pondered. “Brother Abdur Rahman,” he cautioned himself, “you have sworn to speak the truth. The question is awkward. If you say you are a Muslim, the Hindus will take exception; if you answer you are a Hindu, the Muslims will frown. Brother Abdur Rahman, do not be perplexed! You can solve this problem with this verse from Saint Sachal:
I am neither Hindu
Nor Muslim
I am what I am.
The serishtadar did not know if this answer would do for the record. So he turned to the magistrate for guidance.
“Write him down as a Muslim,” the magistrate ordered.
“Your age?”
“Tell him,” Addo Abdur Rahman said, “that since the magistrate answered my previous question on your behalf, he might like to answer this one also.”
The magistrate was furious.
“You jat!” he thundered, “Make your statements sensibly and properly. Don’t forget you are in a court.”
A smile played on Abdur Rahman’s lips. He said, “Addo Abdur Rahman, the magistrate has called you a jat. Ask the magistrate sahib what a jat is.”
Before Abdur Rahman could address the magistrate directly, the honourable gentleman shouted, “A jat, you fool, is an illiterate person.”
“Did you hear that,” Addo Abdur Rahman? The magistrate sahib says a jat is a man who is illiterate. By this definition, Addo Abdur Rahman, surely you cannot be said to be a jat. You can read and write Sindhi, Persian, Urdu, Sanskrit and Hindi, five languages. Will you ask the magistrate sahib how many languages he knows?”
Addo Abdur Rahman turned to the magistrate to speak, but that learned man brushed him aside. “A jat is one who does not know English,” he said with a note of triumph in his voice.
There was whispering and tittering in the court. Abdur Rahman’s smile broadened. He said to himself in a confidential but audible tone, “Though he himself knows English, he is the son of Topanmal, keeper of the cattle pound. Will you ask the magistrate, if his forefathers who knew no English were jats, and whether he himself is a son of a …”
“None of your presumption, you insolent rascal!” roared the magistrate. “Will you show cause why you should not be charged with contempt of court? I order you to cease talking and submit a written deposition.”
Abdur Rahman stepped out of the witness box, and going to the table indicated, bent over it and wrote as follows:
“Honourable magistrate sahib, Addo Abdur Rahman is not guilty of contempt of court. If anyone is guilty of such an offence, it is you. On this day alone you have abused several witnesses. But this abusive language will not so much as touch the fringe of Addo Abdur Rahman’s godri. Let me give you a bit of advice. Though you sit in judgment over the people, you are not their lord and master. You are their servant. We witnesses have not attended court of our own accord. We have been summoned to assist you in the administration of justice, and this is the treatment you give us! Who will bother to appear in your court if you shower abuse on the witnesses?
Addo Abdur Rahman, in accordance with the oath administered to him by the court, has spoken the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Signed: Addo Abdur Rahman

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.