BOOK REVIEWS | Finding their feet


BOOK REVIEWS | Finding their feet

Finding their feet

If factual accuracy is the most important key to unlock the dark room of history, anthropologist and Sindhi historian Nandita Bhavnani’s book The Making Of Exile: Sindhi Hindus And The Partition Of India is faultless. Focused on the most ignored minority in Partition histories, particularly in those written in English, Bhavnani’s work was much needed.

For those personally scarred by Partition psychosis, this book could bring meaningful perspective. To the younger generation, for whom being Sindhi is just about a surname without any inheritance of loss, it will reveal why the “resilience” that the community is known for is actually the net gain their grandparents incurred from the alienation and incongruities of resettlement. And for second-generation immigrants now in their mid-years, like this reviewer, who have been raised on Partition stories—some befuddling, some boring, some lionesque—yet have never been able to wrap their heads around the enormity of its impact on their parents and families, reading this book will be an exercise in reflection.

Mounted on the large canvas of Partition’s deficits, the crumbling of a community, its mindsets, friendships, properties, trust, the horrors and highs of rebuilding, this book charts a difficult terrain. Seeded in Bhavnani’s mind about 15 years back, it mixes history with anecdotal storytelling. In it are the numerous micro-histories of a cross section of Sindhi Hindus from different castes and classes, from Ajmer to Bombay (now Mumbai), from Pimpri to Adipur-Gandhidham in Kutch, known as the New Sindh. These are places where a majority resettled after they were thrown out of their land in Pakistan but were never given any in India.

Bhavnani has interviewed teachers and merchants, those who were politically inclined during the freedom movement, staunch disciples of Gandhi-Nehru, leaders, writers, philanthropists and bards, and used poignant quotes from the revered Sindhi poet-saint Shah Abdul Latif.

The information in the book is exhaustive—from the Karachi pogrom to the love-hate relationships between Sindhi Hindus and Sindhi Muslims, to why many of us exclaim “Hai Allah” instead of “Hey Bhagwan”. Bhavnani reminds us that Sindh, in fact, saw the least violence during Partition, dwells on folk tales related to the Sindhi god Jhulelal, and the strategies of resettlement in India. Some bits are uncannily insightful: why izzat (respect) was more important to the community than freedom, prosperity, even education; how emotions of fear and hope wrestled on the railway platform of Bombay, every inch of it taken over by refugees; how mind and matter clashed in refugee camps; how the spiritual bent of Sindhi Hindus towards Sufism contributes to their sense of realism.

But there are parts in the book where the micro-histories look overcrowded. Some don’t contribute to the empathy of the plot; instead they split it. There is a clash between history and story. History wins; the story falls behind. The descriptive bits are brilliant, but the analytical ones needed more depth. For this reviewer, who has personally known many people mentioned in the book, some of whom are no longer alive, the big takeaway was the overarching rumination about what really defines the angst of a minority not wanted in Pakistan and not welcome in India, and its prosperity in present-day India.

Pertinently, the narrative tracks the “other” that stalks Sindhi Hindus. This “other” isn’t just the Muslim in person or the “idea of the Muslim”—it is, rather, the confused, fragmented, decimated self. The Sindhi Hindu self after Partition that wishes away Sindhiness in a (desperate) bid to integrate into India.

Bhavnani could have delved more into the cultural self-definition of Sindhi Hindus and dissected the repeatedly ridiculed stereotype of them being papad-eating mercenaries besotted with bling. Why are we an unpopular minority despite never having been seen as physically violent or politically riotous? A deep-seated anxiety still makes some Sindhis ashamed of being identified on the basis of their community. So a Raichandani becomes Rai, a Sipahimalani becomes Sippy and an Uttamchandani calls himself Uttam. Did these anxieties also hack our customs? Where did the laada (Sindhi wedding sangeet) sung to a dholak on the beat of a spoon disappear?

In spite of these reservations, one tends to agree with political psychologist Ashis Nandy when he says in the foreword that “this book will become a crucial part of a community’s self-reflection and, perhaps, even a part of its ongoing self-construction”.