My home of broken memory shards: Reclaiming my Sindhi identity
by Tulika Bathija
“My home” demands many explanations. Even today when I fill a form where I need to provide my address proof, they ask me for my permanent residence address. They condescendingly explain the difference between a temporary home and a permanent home. They ask me, “So, where are you originally from?” Bombay in their opinion is not my home; it’s my temporary home. I tell them we’ve not had a permanent home since the partition. It’s never a monosyllabic answer. The search for this home begins at the abode of Lal Sain or Uderolal.
When I visit the Uderolal temple in Navi Mumbai, the tranquil beauty of Uderolal that centres idols of innumerable Hindu deities, represents a new cultural present, while the marble stairs leading down to an eternal lamp and a small body of water is reminiscent of the buried past. It is the world hidden under the stairs that often makes me question the misshapen identity of a community that has normalised its amnesia.
I attempt to remain connected with my roots through my attire, history, books, literature, food, temples, and stories of revolutionary lovers who broke the mirage of caste and religion to experience the true beauty of in-betweenness. The struggle has always been to distance myself from a Sindhi identity that is misogynistic, boastful of carving a niche in a Hindu India “without reservations,” and one that addresses the so-called ‘lower caste’ as bhangi. Our educational institutions offer admission based on Sindhi quota, even to the third generation Sindhis who indulge in superfluous expenditure. But no one ever takes jibes at them for not achieving positions based on “merit.” When we boast of not availing of reservations, what we are implying is that generations that have suffered and continue to remain oppressed, are being accorded with special privileges. This sense of discomfort compelled me to rummage through the treasure trove of my grandfather’s mind artefacts.
My grandparents lived in a chawl (slum) in Sion Koliwada. they worked the night shift to support their families after having been uprooted from their home in Shikarpur in Pakistan. For many years, my grandfather searched for the land of yesteryears in India by practising his Sindhi writing in Arabic script, and coaxing us to learn the language which unfortunately perished in my household after he passed away. He fascinatingly shared memories of cycling around the farm lands of Shikarpur, a pleasure he sought, but never found in Mumbai. It was never the same for him. Like a silent spectre, I ferried through his memories, trying to hold on to shadows of their shadows. I attempted to find these memories again a few years ago by renewing the tradition of celebrating Cheti Chand.
Cheti Chand marks the arrival of spring and New Year for Sindhi Hindus according to the Hindu calendar. It is celebrated around the same time as Gudi Padva and Ugadi. However, given that the community is scattered across different parts of India, primarily Bombay, Gujarat, and Pune, the celebrations are often overshadowed my majoritarian state festivities and celebrations. Sindhi Hindus of my generation never exchange greetings or messages to commemorate this special day. The festivities are held in community temples or the local Jhulelal or Uderolal temple.
Jhulelal is not only the revered deity of Sindhi Hindus, but also a deeply respected religious figure among the Sindhi Muslim community in Pakistan. The erasure of syncretic traditions in Pakistan, and the gradual Hinduisation of Sindhi Hindus in India did not allow the fusion of cultures and religions to flourish. Also, it is interesting that Sindhi Hindus, when they express shock, they often react by saying ‘Allah!’ This response is subconscious and impulsive even among the younger generation in the community.
Jhulelal — the incarnation of Lord Varun or the water god who rests on a fish encapsulates the myriad identities unique to Sindhi culture — Lal Sain, Uderolal or Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Khwaja Khizr or Zinda Pir. Even though Sindhis never looked back after the partition, the jyot or the eternal light that traveled from Uderolal to Ulhasnagar will invisibly connect the community to their homeland. When I didn’t know where to search for my lost Sindhi self, I turned to Jhulelal.
The merger of traditions, celebration of cultures, and the in-betweenness that I yearned for, was found at the feet of this great saint or God, call Him what you may. His bearded solemn statue stands tall as the lost spirit of Sindh in both India and Pakistan. One need not be religious to understand the teachings of Jhulelal. Historically, he reunited the two faiths and preached the message of communal harmony. Isn’t this we all aspire for in today’s times?
How can I reclaim a space that exists in nothingness? Can I do that by merely visiting this buried past in temples that have assimilated into the India of today? Or by wearing an Ajrak and choosing to not wear a bindi? Or playing hide and seek with my ever elusive language? I don’t know if I can recreate that in-betweeness and the love of Sassui and Punhoon. Is my home in the community that embraced fanaticism or is it the one which is lost in the delusionary harmony of Tharparkar, Shikarpur, Sukkur and Uderolal? I know I don’t want to inhabit both these worlds. I hope I can create my own harmony some day with the broken shards of memories of my memories.
Tulika Bathija is an educator, peace-builder and dreamer, currently based in Japan.