By Preeti Vangani May. 03, 2017
I’ve come to understand that my Sindhi identity is deeper than the bling and the money and the kadhi chawal. Its roots are about being rootless, about restarting life from zero.
“Do you remember the 1975 blockbuster, Sholay?” my father asks me. “Of course, you know that the director was Ramesh Sippy.”
I hmmm along knowing fully well that he’ll boast about the director being a Sindhi man. But he goes in another direction. “Beta, do you know that Ramesh’s father used to sell carpets to make a living after the Partition?”
This is a new dimension to our Sindhi identity and one that I have tiptoed around, unwilling to be a part of this second-hand Partition grief. For me, being Sindhi was growing up in a household of Sunday lunches that alternated between the heavenly crunch of dal pakwan and the loud voices of my father or aunt or grandmother passionately discussing which shop in the market had the cheapest potatoes, that buying spices from wholesale was much more sensible than 100 gm packets, and borrowing money from a Sindhi lender was wiser than going to a bank, because they are all out to loot us – and we know our math better than any national institution. Not a single communal space, be it the dining table, the kitchen or the bed on which all the fathers played rummy was devoid of the mechanics of bookkeeping and accountancy.
I have made peace with the Sindhis as the “kanjoos-makhichoos” stereotype. I had no choice. Lunch breaks at school were a game of quips: “If you’re caught with a Sindhi and a snake – befriend the snake.” “Do you know why Sindhis have such big nostrils? Because air is FREE.” The more familiar I became with these cultural stereotypes, the more deeply they settled within me.
I never hung out with a Sindhi boy in fear that I’d be covered in a sweater of his hair if our bodies just touched for a second. Over the years, my hatred of Sindhi boys was intellectualised to the generalisation that they were ambitionless and could only be found snoozing in their dad’s offices with iPhones coated in diamond covers. I didn’t want to be a kitty-party wife who made kokis by day and wore kilos of gold to bed. Dalip Tahil in Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke as the irritating, “vari saai”–ing Mr Bijlani scarred my childhood.
On the one hand, I was defending myself in school with “not all Sindhis”, sharing my kheecha-papad as peace offerings. And on the other, I was yelling at my father every time he wanted to claim Juhi Chawla or Akshay Kumar’s success as his own. But dad, you haven’t achieved anything – I’d yell when I was 12, channelling my rebellious urge to unbelong.
In History, we learnt that the word Sindhi came from the river Sindhu. In life, I struggled to swim between the banks of a generous water body and the body of stingy businessmen who apparently drowned in profits. I never felt as proud as my father about our past and history and culture and heritage.
Maybe, it was because I never took the trouble to know it.
My grandfather was born in 1930 in the Nawabshah district which is now in Pakistan. It was a pre-Partition Sindh where 96 per cent of the population was Muslim and 75 per cent of the people spoke Sindhi. They were a colony of what can loosely be termed as literary professionals. He grew up around teachers, publishers, writers in a lane called “vichejo rasto” (an in-between road) with still no roads to “business/entrepreneurship” in sight.
My parents, in their telling and retelling of our story and their “ideologies”, are still wearing their parents’ losses like ancestral jewels.
Being rendered stateless, forced to run away from the violence that followed, he came to India with my grandmother. With two hawaldars as bodyguards, summoned by the district collector, he arrived in a train to Ajmer with some basic belongings and a handful of other Sindhis. A year later he started making a living in Bombay by folding sarees at Shop No 8 in Mohatta Market until his industriousness and prudence got him to buy his own shop and become an owner. This story has come to me in several instalments and after a full decade of me having mocked all the men in my family for what lowly jobs they do, how they are a lot of wasted potential and could have been so much better with more education.
If my grandfather’s first chapter of sorrow starts at the Partition, my father starts writing the textbook with a renewed fever from the wounds of 1992. For an entire week, when I was six, I am told I was lined up on our building’s terrace with all the other kids yelling “Jai Shree Ram” in chorus and was put to sleep to the lullaby, “Garv se bolo hum hindu hain”. While my dad works in what is now a predominantly Muslim market (next to Masjid Bandar), has friends he breaks iftar with, eats haleem out of their plates, is acutely aware that the communal rift is the doing of the notorious political houses, he still burps uncomfortably every time a terror attack hits the news channels. It breaks my heart to hear the confused tension in my grandfather’s grammar when we speak about Hindus and Muslims. The lines of us, them, we are uncomfortably elbowed into the paragraphs of old friendships and a half-forgotten childhood.
I am possibly the first generation in my family to remain untouched by a big dent of separation and displacement. My parents, in their telling and retelling of our story and their “ideologies”, are still wearing their parents’ losses like ancestral jewels. Given the privilege and shelter I was raised under, this grief, this idea of constructing homes from nothing, comes to me as secondary text – or an optional reading list. And when I do read its pages, they are fractured, the stories incomplete, their skies clouded with emotions.
How does your history come to you? As a remixed song with misplaced lyrics, as a lifetime of Khar Gymkhana membership, as a desire to save lest everything be taken away from you again, as a loaded Lakshmi envelope every Diwali, as a daily WhatsApp forward that mixes Sindhi pride like sugar into your morning cup of chai, as a much-debated mention in an anthem. Or is your entire history now simply a giant, gentle snore, slumbering in the afterglow of kadhi chawal?
I’ve come to understand that the Sindhi identity is deeper than all of this. It is about accounts and bling and money, but only at the surface. Its roots are about being rootless. About restarting life from zero. It’s like the director Rohan Sippy says, “Since we don’t have a region, the new Sindhi identity is the spirit of entrepreneurship. It is about resilience and an optimism to survive anywhere.”
Through my history, I have finally made my peace with my present. Yes, I’m Sindhi.
Preeti Vangani is a writer, poet and spoken word artist. Fuelled by films and chai, she is currently an MFA (Poetry) student at the University of San Francisco.