Kindness in the Time of Partition

by Saaz Aggarwal

It is common knowledge that the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent was a time of extreme violence between the Hindus and Muslims. In Punjab, men even killed their own daughters and wives, believing that they were protecting them from a fate worse than death. Every family experienced loss of life and limb, rape, abduction, separation and various forms of trauma.

Even as desperation and inflamed emotions led to a maniacal frenzy of vicious destruction, other, softer, human emotions continued to manifest, all along the new border as well as the areas in which riots and conflict prevailed.

In my ten years of interviewing Sindhi Partition survivors, one of the things that has struck me most is the many examples of kindness and affection between the communities. The Sindh story is different for many reasons, most significant of which is that Sindh was never partitioned. Sindh also saw less violence. A turning point took place on 6 January 1948, when a pogrom was conducted. Of the many who were saved by members of the other community who went out of their way to help and protect them, at risk to their own lives, here are a few.

Kartar’s story

I was born in 1934, in the village Taib in Larkano district, a small village belonging to the Jaisinghani families. We were zamindars. The Bhutto family’s lands adjoined our village and we had frequent disputes over water, which was sometimes scarce, but there was friendship and congeniality between us too. The houses were made of brick – there was no concept of cement or concrete in those days. We were well off, had a horse-driven cart with seats for four, and a motorcycle, and employed a number of farmers who lived on the land and tilled it. The house was large and our rooms were upstairs. Downstairs was the autaak, a big room where the menfolk gathered. Their food was served to them there. In Taib, we ate our meals sitting on cots. Women sat separately in their section of the house. We had kitchen, bathroom, and toilets inside the house. During the hot weather, we slept in the angan, the courtyard.

My father, Jessaram Jaisinghani studied in Shikarpur and then worked as a teacher in Dharamsabha High School. My mother and we children were taken to live with him in Shikarpur when I was six years old. I had my primary education in Shikarpur.

We spent our holidays in Karachi and on 14 August 1947 when Pakistan was born, that is where we were. We had been thinking about migrating to India but were still there on the fateful day of 6 January 1948.

That morning, my elder brother Nand was to take our chachi to the city. Our neighbours on the ground floor were Muslims who had migrated from Bihar a few months earlier. They must have known something was going to happen, because they rushed to Nand and begged him not to leave the house that day. They invited us to come and hide in their house where they would protect us from harm. We were grateful, but what could we do? How could we go and stay with people we hardly knew, who were of the other community?

These Muhajirs – as the migrants to Pakistan during Partition are known as – understood our dilemma. They came to our house, hung curtains on the windows and hoisted the Muslim League flag in the balcony. They assured us that if a mob came they would point to the balcony and say that no Hindu lived in the house. The mob came twice, but our kind neighbours saved us.

`That day I saw terrible things that I will never forget. People were being butchered in the streets. The Muhajirs told everyone who came that there were only Muslims in the building and nobody disturbed us.

We left Karachi for good, sailing to Okha port in Saurashtra. From Viramgam, we got into the Bombay train. But it was 30 January 1948, the day Gandhi was assassinated. Our train was terminated at Ahmedabad station and everything was at a standstill. We stayed for one week on Platform Number One. There were curfews. After some days, we moved to a sesame oil mill which had been converted into a camp for refugees.

My father rented a house on the outskirts of Ahmedabad and joined Mahatma Gandhi High School as a teacher. We had to walk twelve miles every day to the school. It was a hard time but we never felt a sense of poverty since we were always aware that we belonged to a noble, zamindar family. As the years went by, our lives improved. My father became the widely-respected principal of the school. I became an engineer and worked in the corporate world. None of us ever forgot the Muhajirs who saved us on that terrible day.

Triveni’s story

Before marriage, my mother was Saraswati Ramchand Malkani. The family lived in Malkani Ghitti, Hyderabad, Sindh. They were landlords, wealthy for seven generations, owners of bunnyoon and buildings. In c1941 they moved to live in Karachi, in Malkani Mansion on Bunder Road, opposite a Muslim cemetery.

Saraswati was the youngest of three sisters. Her father, Ramchand, had died when she was just forty days old. The head of the family was his brother Dr Sahijram. My mama Gurbaksh went to London to study and became a barrister, and the other mama Ajit Singh was given charge of the family lands, a holding of more than 3000 acres.

When Partition came, Malkani Mansion was attacked by a mob. They ransacked the doctor’s clinic on the ground floor. As they climbed to the next floor, loot maar kayoon – they pillaged the houses on the first floor, then attacked the second floor.

On the third floor they met a Muslim who stopped them, saying that there were no Hindus on the fourth floor. When they refused to believe him, he swore on the holy Quran, insisting that there were no Hindus upstairs. It was this false promise, made on the Holy Quran, that saved my mother and her family. If it hadn’t been for that Muslim, I would not be here today.

Motilal’s poem

The experience of the 6 January 1948 Karachi pogrom is also beautifully depicted in this poem by Motilal Jotwani, a child when the incident took place. His father was a teacher in Karachi and they rented two rooms in a building belonging to a devout Muslim. He was huddled that day along with other members of the family in a small storeroom of the house, old enough to imagine the consequences although his younger brother and sister were not. Allahdino – which means ‘given by god’ – let the rioters take what they wanted, and then spent the rest of the day singing songs of Kabir with the author’s father.

Cities Ran Amuck

by Motilal Jotwani
Streets roared: “Allah-o-Akbar!” “Har har Mahadev!”
In Karachi, on 6 January 1948,
huddled in a store room,
we waited with bated breath.
The world, it seemed,
would come to a sudden end.
“Hand over the kafirs in your house,”
the rioters demanded.
God’s good man, God himself,
Allhadino lied to them:
“The people you are looking for
sailed to Bombay yesterday.”
Allahdino was an ordinary man,
Sindhi and Sanskrit dino in his Muslim name.
Allahdino lied once again:
“The poor creatures migrated to India,
leaving behind their precious belongings.
Do you want those instead?”
And we waited with bated breath …

The number of individual positive acts between members of the two communities during Partition far outnumbers the violence. While the repercussions of the latter were inestimably higher, inestimably more damaging – the support and kindness received from members of the other community must be memorialized too.

A visit to a Hindu village in present-day Pakistan

I spent a week in Sindh with my family when my first book on Sindh was launched at the Karachi Literature Festival in February 2013. On our last day we were driven into rural Sindh on a special visit to the Hemrajani family in the hamlet of Tando Ahmed Khan, close to the well-known Thano Bula Khan in Jamshoro District, an area that continues to have a large population of Hindus.

At Tando Ahmed Khan, we enjoyed devotional music and Sindhi hospitality at a Hindu temple, received blessings from a 100-year-old ‘Mata’, ate a meal in the Hemrajani home that tasted like my grandmother had cooked it – and drove away laden with presents, including ‘kharchi’ – a tradition of gifts of money – for my children.

Although situated off the Karachi-Hyderabad superhighway and just under two hours from each of these cities, Thano Ahmed Khan has remained remote and a small rural world unto itself. To us it provided the extraordinary experience of stepping back in time to the world of my ancestors.

What makes it a fascinating study to all, however, is that during Partition when the Hindus were leaving Sindh to settle in other parts of India and the world, not a single family left Thano Ahmed Khan. They continue to live and work here, following age-old lifestyles and traditions. They have prospered and live in peace and plenty. The Hemrajani family has lands in the village where onion forms the major crop. They also have cotton ginning factories and mills near Hyderabad, as well as agricultural lands, including banana and guava orchards, there. The brothers and their grown-up children travel to manage these businesses but the ancestral village is their home and they live their in a joint family.

Says Bhagwandas Hemrajani, the second of six brothers:

We have never had any problem. We continue to celebrate their festival days and family events and live happily and with brotherhood. Part of the reason is because in this area we have had very good landlords and leaders. At the time of Partition, it was the presence of the local chieftain Malik Sekander Khan, that gave us the reassurance that we needed to remain in our homes. When he passed away in 1985, his son Malik Asad Sekander Khan took over and he is extremely cooperative, attending all our functions and giving us every support. Allah tala hamari madad karta hai. Bahut khushi hoti hai aur sukoon hai.

Thano Bula Khan also has a dargah which commemorates the ruler Raja Vikramajeet who abdicated his throne for the life of a monk. This shrine displays of symbols of not just Hinduism but also Islam and Sikhism, typical of the age-old syncretic religion of Sindh. This, combined with good-quality local governance created a wall of kindness that protected the people and kept them safe.

The parting present

Another touching example of peace, affection and kindness is of Mir Hassan Malkani and the rug entrusted to him by his mother Izzat Khatun.

Mir Hassan’s grandfather, Ali Gohar Malkani of village Malkani near Sehwan, had any number of Hindu friends, but none as dear as Moolo. His being Hindu had never been of consequence – until Partition.

Before Moolo and his family left Sindh for good he came to bid Ali Gohar farewell. Ali Gohar was distraught and begged his friend not to leave but there was nothing anyone could do. Moolo pressed Ali Gohar to use the things from his home that he could not carry – kitchen utensils, rugs and knick-knacks. There was a beautiful metal tray engraved with designs and fitted with gold handles. When special guests visited, the children would be told, “Moolay varo tray khani acho – bring the Moolo tray”.

One of the rugs had been woven with Moolo’s father’s name: Valeccha Kodumal. Ali Gohar preserved it lovingly, hoping that a day would come when he would be able to return the heirloom to his friend. Right until the war of 1965, Ali Gohar and Moolo exchanged letters. Later that year, Ali Gohar died. The letters stopped.

Ali Gohar’s daughter, Izzat Khatun, treasured the rug and when the time came, entrusted it to her son Mir Hassan Mir Hassan grew up in Sindh. He became a doctor and settled in London. His practice on Harley Street established him as London’s foremost hair-transplant specialist. The rug is safe with him as he continues trying to find the family of his grandfather’s dearest friend so that he can return it and tell them how much the friendship meant to his family and how much they mourned its loss.

Captions

DSCF5205: A village dargah which commemorates the ruler Raja Vikramajeet who abdicated his throne for the life of a monk displays of symbols of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, typical of the age-old syncretic religion of Sindh.

IMG_20170412_165001_HDR: In this picture, taken in the home of Dr Gul Metlo in London in April 2017, you can see Mir Hassan Malkani and his wife Farzana with the rug Moolo gave his grandfather Ali Gohar Malkani, with the name Valeccha Kodumal woven in.

Credits

Kartar’s story is excerpted from Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland by Saaz Aggarwal black-and-white fountain 2012

Triveni’s story is excerpted from The Amils of Sindh by Saaz Aggarwal black-and-white fountain 2019

Cities Ran Amuck translated by Anju Makhija and Menka Shivdasani in Freedom and Fissures: An anthology of Sindhi Partition Poetry (Sahitya Akademi 1998)

A visit to a Hindu village is excerpted from Look back in nostalgia, Mid-day, 11 April 2013

The parting present is excerpted from Losing Home by Saaz Aggarwal black-and-white fountain 2022

***

Saaz Aggarwal has a Master’s degree in Mathematics, but over the years established herself as a writer and artist. Her body of work includes biographies, translations, critical reviews and humour columns, as well as themed painting collections and mixed-media installations. Her books on Sindh are in university libraries around the world, and much of her research contribution in the field of Sindh studies is easily accessible online, for example in the links sindhstories, sindhworkis, talks, and free downloads.

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