Poonam Ganglani persuades an elderly lady to share her memories of land, language and loss
Iring the doorbell of apartment number 430. I’ve been here hundreds of times, but there’s a strange feeling rattling inside me as I lean against the peeling blue and grey walls of the old building on Pantheon Road in Egmore, and wait for my grandmother to open the door. Each time I walk over to her house, I absorb the buzzing activity in the tiniest corners of this northern neighbourhood of Chennai. It has formed the setting of our lives for many years. Standing there now, I notice for the first time that the label over my grandmother’s door is mostly intact, even after forty-five years. The ‘M’ and the ‘E’ of ‘Mohini L Saney’ are slightly chipped, but otherwise, each of those small black shapes stares back at me stoically.
Unlike many North Indians, I do not call my maternal grandmother Nani. She has always simply been ‘Wado Mama’ or ‘Big Mother’ in Sindhi, the language of my community, which has its origins in Sindh. The region, which draws its name from the Indus River, was at the heart of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation and is home to the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro. Unlike Punjab and Bengal, sliced like pieces of meat during the Partition of India in 1947, Sindh, with its rich history, culture and language, remained intact in the new Muslim nation of Pakistan. Hindu Sindhis like my grandmother, a minority community in the region, journeyed across the border and rebuilt their lives in newly independent India, forever cut off from the homeland.
Twice removed from that experience, I have had no physical connection with Sindh. The nose on my face, the complexion of my skin, the food on my plate and the bhajans in my ears, these form my only links to the land. I want to know why that connection isn’t deeper; why I am left with only the dried-up tendrils of these immensely rich roots. I want to glimpse the grit of Sindh’s gallis, the structures of its homes. Mostly, I want to know about the experiences of displacement from the homeland and the eventual relocation to Chennai as an adoptive land, one strikingly at odds with Sindh in psyche and culture. Wado Mama, 90 years old and the oldest person in the community I’ve had the chance to speak to, is one of the few remaining windows I have to my heritage and family history. As the event of Partition recedes further in time, I fear that this last window too may soon close.
Today I am wearing a bright yellow kurta with green chikan work and have lined my eyes meticulously with black surmo. Wado Mama’s eyes sweep over me, from head to toe, and absorb the sum total of my appearance in a few brief seconds. She tells me that I am shining—“Chori, chimki pay”—genuinely pleased.
Wado Mama is the only person I need to speak to in Sindhi anymore. So as we settle ourselves, cross-legged across from each other on her white bed, I cobble together a sentence in a language I’ve never fully learned. I ask about the city of Hyderabad in Sindh, where she was born in the late 1920s, the eldest of 13 children. “It was a clean place,” she tells me. “Very green all around. Life was good there.” One Sindhi gentleman I’d spoken to described the open drains where people sat across from each other, chatting about what they’d eaten for breakfast that morning while “taking a shit”—was this true? Her memory holds no such images. She dismisses it with a wave of a wrinkled hand, veins blue and bulging.
Like the leaking tap in the kitchen, Wado Mama’s words trickle sparsely at first. I know that her name was Dhanvanti at the time, ‘Dhana’ for short. Where did Dhana live? Did she play hopscotch in the lanes of Jhoore Malani or shop with her sisters in the bazaars of Pushori Paro? “We lived in an area called Myaha Faqeer, in a rented house with two rooms, one bathroom, one small kitchen and four balconies,” she tells me. Owning property was a symbol of wealth, and it strikes me that my grandmother wasn’t among the wealthy Hindu Sindhi families in Hyderabad. Another Sindhi gentleman from Chennai whom I’d chatted with had a home in the same city, palatial in comparison, at roughly the same time. It had two rooms on the ground floor, three rooms on the upper floor, a verandah and even servants’ quarters, purchased for 14,000 rupees around the turn of the previous century.
My grandmother nods as she listens to these details, her bangles refracting the golden light from the window. “There were many big houses there, all of them with huge halls, but the rooms were small. Our house was small, but we were happy. We never wanted for anything. Baba used to bring us fish and mutton all the time.”
I ask when the cracks had started to show. Was there animosity between Hindus and Muslims in the community, in those years preceding Partition? “No,” she tells me. “We were never afraid. Soon after Pakistan happened in 1947, we took only our clothes with us and we left. We didn’t have much to begin with.” As she knots a plait in her grey hair with a swift, precise motion of her fingers, I start to wonder if her memory is selectively casting light and shadows on her past. But her voice, like the rough bark of a tree, is strong and confident. “Even in the trains, there were no fights. Everything was free, even the tickets!”
I think about other narratives I’ve heard—of bombs wrapped up and thrown into the balconies of Hindu homes, of houses left behind with all the furniture in place in hope of an eventual return, of trains with the capacity of 100 carrying 500 people, and of people travelling ticketless. As I watch Wado Mama toss her hair back, fully plaited, I decide not to share these stories.
My grandmother’s eyes, with a bright blue rim around her fading black pupils, are more animated now. “The food in the dharam-salas was free too,” she recalls. “They gave us dal, bhaji and gidamri. We were hungry, so we enjoyed eating these even more. They helped us in Hindustan.” Her description of the refugee camps matches what I’ve heard from another gentleman. Dal, vegetables and tamarind rationed out by helpful government servants, small huts in a thick forest, open toilets—I piece together an image of this transitory home.
It was in the city of Ajmer in the desert region of Rajasthan that my grandmother’s family alighted from the train, spending a few days in the refugee camps before moving on to rebuild their lives. “Each time the train stopped, Baba would get down and examine the station. Ajmer looked good, so that’s where we decided to go. I must have been around 18 or 19 years old then.” The shared border between Sindh and Rajasthan perhaps made Ajmer a natural choice for a section of the community to rebuild their lives in. Close by, in Kutch, Gujarat, the Sindhu Resettlement Corporation worked towards the rehabilitation of refugees. Others from the Hyderabad Sindhi community scattered like seeds across different cities and countries, including Bombay, Ulhasnagar, Madras, Singapore, Panama and Nigeria. As a trading community, many had established links with these lands even before Partition, and so they chose to plant themselves wherever conditions were most favourable to their survival and growth, some finding great success along the way.
Wado Mama looks tired. I ask if she’d like me to make her some tea, but she refuses. As she rubs her eyes, her long eyelashes seem to brush away more cobwebs of time. “I got married in Ajmer when I was 20 years old and your grandfather’s house was very big, like a haveli. We lived with his two older brothers and their families, so we had three houses, side by side,” she remembers. “They had their own property in Hyderabad, in Pakistan, so they made a compensation claim with the Indian government when they moved to Ajmer. It was far from the main city and the surroundings reminded me very much of Sindh.”
I look at my grandfather’s fading photograph on the bedside table next to Wado Mama, draped in jasmine flowers. I remembered Dada as a man who never minced his words, always no-nonsense, the occasional toothless smile lighting up his beady eyes. “Your grandfather was a teacher in Hyderabad,” Wado Mama says. “Later, in Ajmer, he was an accountant.” I ask what he was like as a husband and she is amused. “He was attached to me and had a lot of love in his heart, although he didn’t always show it. He was a very honest man, always disciplined in his ways.”
Dada and Wado Mama didn’t have children immediately. “By the time we’d been married for two years, my mother-in-law started to worry. My sister-in-law couldn’t have children and she was afraid the same thing would happen to me.” Wado Mama was fed rose petal jam, gulkand, and eventually had her first child, a baby boy, when she was 23 years old. Seven more followed, four boys and four girls in all, of which my own mother was number four. “Tamaam suhini hui. She was very fair,” she tells me, her eyes bright at the memory of my mother as a young girl. “Even fairer than you!”
My mother had once told me that during their days in Ajmer, when the children were on school holiday and Wado Mama had some free time, she loved to dress up and rally her sisters-in-law for an evening trip to the cinema. I think about this as she sits before me, and 70 years fall away—I see her looking into a mirror, creating even pleats in her sari and carefully adjusting her earrings, no longer Dhana but Mohini now, the name given to her by her husband’s family as per the customs of the community. “People used to say I looked like Madhubala!” she tells me. I try and take a picture of this lovely woman, but she protests. “I’ve become very old now,” she says, and the creases of her hand shield her face from my view.
In 1974 Wado Mama and Dada moved to Chennai, the city called Madras at the time. By then, the Sindhi community’s relationship with the city was already established. The father of one gentleman I spoke to, KV Vaswani, ran the export wing of Kishinchand Chellaram’s textile business, a popular Sindhi entity established in Madras in 1916. Having migrated to the city at the end of 1947, he exported fabrics of the yarn-woven bleeding madras from an office in Ritchie Street. Vaswani himself was born in Madras in 1948, by the dim light of a cycle in the city’s southern suburb of Tambaram.
Another Sindhi gentleman, Kishinchand Chugani, told me that his family had been in Madras since 1928, with a shop in the textile hub of Godown Street. Born in 1934, he went to Hyderabad, Sindh to study and returned to Madras at the time of Partition, learning to speak Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam and Kannada over the years.
Triplicane, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, was also an address for ready-made garments shops owned by Sindhis. Among them was Renu’s, run by Ram Samtani for over 20 years until the mid-1980s. Born in Hyderabad in 1941, Samtani’s family migrated to Jodhpur, Rajasthan after Partition, before moving to Madras in the mid-1950s. The families of others like Suresh Chandiramani innovated with other types of businesses; leaving behind a laundry business in Hyderabad, they moved to Ajmer first, then to Madras, where they made a living selling incense sticks.
My conversations with various people from the Sindhi community in Chennai make me think of that rare quality it possesses as a city—an ability to allow its inhabitants their own space, keeping its spirit and traditions intact, but never imposing, never overpowering; inviting people to engage with it in the way that they please, reflecting a special sense of curiosity. As I contemplate these notions of the city, I hear Wado Mama negotiate the price of tomatoes with the vegetable seller at her door; she bargains in Sindhi as he quotes his price in Tamil. I am of little use, caught between two languages which have forever seduced me, but have revealed themselves only in fragments.
It was Wado Mama’s father, the owner of a ready-made garments shop in Egmore, who encouraged her to move to Madras with Dada and their children. Having moved away from Ajmer soon after Wado Mama got married, eventually relocating to Madras in the early 1950s, he helped them set up in the city, engaging her oldest son as an apprentice for a short time. Her sons eventually established their own businesses in the garments trade, taking the oldest to Hong Kong, but anchoring the rest of them in Madras. For Wado Mama, Madras became the canvas for some of the most important events in her life. It was the city that witnessed the marriages of all her children and the births of many grandchildren; her fiftieth wedding anniversary and Dada’s passing; her younger years and, now, her old age. “Your grandfather and I used to go for evening walks at Marina,” she tells me, referring to the city’s famous beach. “We’d eat samosa, pakoda and kulfi there. On Sundays, the whole family would go out, sometimes to the beach and sometimes for a movie. Of all the places I’ve lived in, I like Madras best.”
Marina Beach, forever an accomplice to young love, formed the backdrop for the initial courtships of her children as each of them got married, all to partners Wado Mama chose for them. I ask about my mother’s story in particular. “When she was 19 years old, my sister-in-law proposed your father as a suitable match. She knew him through family in Bangalore, so I went there on my own to meet him. I wasn’t convinced at first,” she admits. “But then your father and his family made a trip to Madras, and they met your mother at Ashoka Hotel in Egmore.” The match was fixed soon after, followed by a customary walk at Marina Beach, the sound of waves punctuating nervous words between the new couple.
Wado Mama is sleepy. I can tell by the way her eyelids fall, like curtains of a window shutting out the view for now. I watch her and marvel at her stream of memories, but mostly, at her ability to recount them so pragmatically, as if they are no more than images in a photo album. I wonder about the strange nature of memory, both individual and collective—its tendency to filter and choose, to block or embellish, so that it sometimes projects exactly what is required of that moment in time. There is a certain lightness in most of these stories I’ve heard from the Sindhi community, a clinical approach to a harrowing event, an instinctive movement forward rather than backwards, a sense of fluidity in dealing with the transition from one home to another. And perhaps, in that process, the threads of connection with Sindh, its language and culture have inevitably frayed. I ask Wado Mama if she ever thinks of Sindh, yearns to go back and reconnect with her heritage. Her answer resonates with what I’ve heard from almost everyone else I’ve spoken to:
“What for? It’s a closed chapter.”
The writer wishes to thank the National Geographic Society and the Out of Eden Walk, whose 2018 Journalism Workshop supported the creation of this project. This essay was published in the July-September 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was Memory.