By: Jyoti Punwani
Small talk with Nandita Bhavnani
Author Nandita Bhavnani on the insight that research for a book on Sindhis gave her on the community’s struggle while leaving their homeland behind.
Partition tales have been dominated by the trauma of Punjab and Bengal. Sindh barely gets a mention. For one, the land wasn’t partitioned; for another, it didn’t see the kind of violence that Punjab and Bengal did. Finally, while Sindhi writers have written reams about it, very little has been translated, as within a decade of Independence the language began going into decline. So, while the rest of India knows little about the Sindhi experience of Partition, the same applies to most Sindhis below 70, for they’ve never learnt to read their language.
This loss of identity and culture – besides, of course, their land – was the price Sindhi Hindus paid for Partition, says Nandita Bhavnani, author of the first comprehensive account of what Partition meant to Sindhis, on both sides of the border. (The Making of Exile, to be launched on Thursday.) She discovered reasons to be proud of her Sindhi heritage only after she began researching the community and learnt the language. “Till then, like many post-Independence Sindhis, I lived in a cultural vacuum. Without learning Sindhi, I couldn’t have written this book. It opened the doorway to Sindhi literature, to Shah Latif’s exquisite poetry, and to biographies of that generation.”
A commerce graduate, six years in the world of finance convinced Bhavnani that “there had to be more to life than this.” Her interest in evolution led her to do an MA in Anthropology, but it was the social anthropology component that had her hooked. It was while exploring the reasons for the peculiar Sindhi practice of not speaking their own language even among themselves, that a lucky coincidence took her to Ashish Nandy’s project on Partition violence in 1997. This was a topic she’d always been curious about, having grown up listening to talk about life in Sindh and the sudden flight from there, leaving everything behind. For her mother, who was 12 when she left, leaving behind a beloved collection of books continues to rankle.
As she interviewed Sindhis, Bhavnani found that for many, this was the first time they were talking in detail about their lives in Sindh. “Maybe they’d been too busy reconstructing their lives; many said their children hadn’t asked much about that time.” There was also the odd migrant like the old woman in the barracks of Pimpri Camp, Pune, who refused to share her memories, saying with a bitter laugh: “Whatever happened in Sindh remained there.”
It became imperative to visit Sindh. “I felt I just had to see those streets, the docks where they waited for the ship to take them to India.” Bhavnani’s first trip to Pakistan in 2001 threw up mixed emotions. On Partition, she found Sindhi Muslims had quite a different take. For them, it had been a time of excitement at being part of a new country; and elation at having been rid of Hindu dominance. A few recalled sadness at the loss of friends; but what still rankled some was a resentment at the Hindu exodus. “There wasn’t that much violence, why did you guys leave?” was the question she was frequently asked. Her explanation, based on what the Hindus had told her – what had made them leave was the fear of violence, and the experience of Muhajirs from India taking over their homes – didn’t convince her hosts, who felt that the Hindu exit had contributed to weakening Sindh, which saw its main cities taken over by the Muhajirs.
Bhavnani’s personal experience was also bitter-sweet. On the one hand, was the warmth and generosity of Sindhi Muslims, the thrill of visiting the Karachi High Court where her grandfather had practised and the neighbourhood where her parents had lived (“seeing the bungalows and imagining the comfortable life they’d had to leave, made me appreciate the community more”). On the other, was the shock of not being allowed to enter her mother’s house. “Perhaps the owner was afraid I would lay claim to it,” sighs Bhavnani, 47. Back again in 2003 she met the same refusal.
While her research has made Nandita feel more rooted, it’s also made her realise that “pushing away ‘the other’ can never be a solution to any inter-community problem”. “As an elderly Sindhi here told me: when you live together, you are forced to adjust. We had more bhaichara (with Muslims) then; now, we don’t feel the need for it,” she says.
Every Sindhi Must Read this Book You can order it Here.
The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and the Partition of India – http://www.amazon.in/The-Making-Exile-Sindhi-Partition/dp/9384030333