My Sindh book review: Shakuntala Bharvani weaves together academic detail, personal history to tell story of her homeland
Shakuntala Bharvani used the lockdown to re-ignite a much deeper connect — that with her lost homeland, which has resulted in a book marked by nostalgia and occasional touches of humour.
A disclosure: Shakun is an old college friend, part of an irreverent quintet. Nina and Neena have passed on, Aban is incommunicado in Germany, which leaves just the two of us. But Mumbai being Mumbai, we had been too absorbed in our professions for the past 40 years, and, when we finally renewed those old bonds, we were shackled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Shakuntala Bharvani, a much revered professor, used the lockdown to re-ignite a much deeper connect — that with her lost homeland. Ergo, this highly readable book. Promise, that’s an objective opinion.
Radcliffe’s blue pencil left a trail of red that is still not erased. Partition can still create the very real pain of an amputated limb.
Punjab and Bengal still survived, with a degree of virtual unity despite the division. Sindh had no such luck. Sindhis made the world their home, but their heart continues to beat for the original one. And they try to revive what was with that surefire therapy — storytelling. Some years ago, Saaz Aggarwal documented Partition stories, reinforcing the truth that we heal not by blanking out those horrors, but by articulating them.
Shakuntala’s book also tells Sindhi stories, but very differently. Hers is a book of history and nostalgia, those two collectives leavened by very personal touches. And I’m glad to see that she hasn’t lost the droll humour that had marked her out as a lanky collegian. The book begins with her brother Ajit dragging her to the Calcutta Zoo soon after she had landed from Bombay on a red-eye flight, and herding her to the reptile enclosure into which she would have willingly thrown her insistent sibling. But the crocodile embodied a ‘shining tale’. That of Mangho Pir who had arrived in Sindh from Baghdad, fleeing the marauding Mongols, and had been protected by a monstrous crocodile.
This sets the pattern of the book. Impeccable research, personal memoir alternating with each other, both recounted in a chatty style. So we get fully referenced historical facts about Sindh, of the Chaaryari quarter of Mirs, and how the rich and proud province was secured for the British Crown by Lord Napier, with the famous but fictional coded telegram, using the Latin ‘Peccavi’, meaning ‘I have sinned’. But we also learn about the place of salt in the ceremonial of a community which grew on the periphery of the Rann of Kutch. We hear of her father managing to spirit out gold guineas and cash in an ingenious belt while escaping the Partition bloodbath, a sartorial saviour which later emerged as ‘the secret pocket’ her mother sewed into clothes whenever the family went on holiday, or even when the children were on out-of-town school trips.
Seamlessly weaving academic detail with family history, this professor quotes Markovits, Langley and Richard Burton (the explorer-historian, not the actor) to describe the wealth, wonders and ‘unfaithful wives’ of Shikarpur, the native place of the Nains, as Shakuntala was in her ‘nee’ days. We feel no disorientation when her brilliant doctor sister, Mira, and her brood of cousins wander through historical episodes and eminences — the furnace in which the Sindhi steel was tempered. One of my favourite chapters is the one on ‘Nani’, actually her grandmother-in-law, peppered with anecdotes and the Sindhi script.
This is a go-to book if you want a Sindhi history as complex and palatable as sai bhaji.
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