Sindhi Journeys

Aamer Hussein reviews two new Sindhi translations.

Footprints in Time
By Ghulam Fatima Shaikh
Translated from Sindhi and annotated by Rashida Husain
Oxford University Press Karachi 2011
107 pp.

The Pages of My Life
By Popati Hiranandani
Translated from Sindhi by Jyoti Panjwani
OxfordUniversity Press New Delhi 2010
179 pp

Ghulam Fatima Shaikh's Footprints in Time is subtitled Reminiscences of a Sindhi Matriarch. The eponymous matriarch has the author's pride of place on the cover, but slightly lower down, in small letters, Rashida Husain (Shaikh's granddaughter) is credited as the translator of the book. This slender volume is, in fact, a collaborative enterprise from the start, and is festooned with paratexts and notes which effectively transform the book in English from a set of memories into a sociohistorical document. It includes contextual essays by the author's granddaughter and grandson, and a foreword (also translated from Sindhi) by Dr Bughio, the original writer in Sindhi, from whom we learn Shaikh was multi-lingual but semi-literate; she dictated her story at the age of seventy-five to Bughio in a complex process that entailed listening to her transcribed memories read back to her, which she then corrected and expanded. Bughio thus implicitly reassures us that the memoir—a mere 92 pages—is very much Shaikh's own work: 'she was a treasure house of Sindhi culture and tradition. Her narration in Sindhi was occasionaly interspersed with verses from Shah Abdul Latif and typical Sindhi idioms'.

Translator Husain concurs. '(Shaikh) was a great raconteur and narrated this tale in bits and pieces...when she narrated an incident in her graphic style, listeners would remain spellbound, till she ended her tale. Although semi-literate, her memory, with every detail etched in her mind, was phenomenal.' Husain translates her idiom into the lucid, formal English of a colonial time gone by, though the translation, she complains, 'conveys neither the flavour of her idioms, usages and innuendos, nor her body language.' Thus, while we might approach the English version of the book as a work of cultural as well as literary translation, we are also encouraged by both transcriber and translator to view the book as an example of an oral tradition and of the storyteller's art.

And Shaikh is a storyteller who knows what she wants to narrate. Much of her tale centres on her travels, with her husband, from provincial to the (then) Ottoman territories of what are now Saudia Arabia and Turkey: a living account of a journey into 'unknown lands' which has the vividness of a diary and the retrospective quality of an elegy, chronicling the passing of an age and the creation of a new world order as the WW1 changes the political and psychological map of a continent. She also interweaves a poignant though unsentimental personal account of a woman whose faith in the cosmopolitan nature of Islam led her to follow her husband (a doctor by training) into voluntary exile from colonial India. She constantly struggled to meet economic needs by sewing and managing small businesses in her years in Middle Eastern lands.

Husain points out that Shaikh went on to live a rich, full life when she came back to the subcontinent, training as a nurse and midwife at the outset of WWII, seeing her children well-educated, and opening a school in Sindh in the late 40s, in what was now the new land of Pakistan. But these memories are left out of Shaikh's narrative: she was perhaps too old and too impatient to return to them. We can assume, though, that her pan-Islamic sentiment, and her awareness of the growing divisions between Muslim and Hindu on her native ground, would have made her sympathetic to the creation of a Muslim homeland.

Here we uncover an abiding irony of the book and of Shaikh's Sindhi heritage, which was destined to be irrevocably divided and dispersed by partition. The framing chapters of the book are about her father, who converted from Hinduism to Islam when she was an infant, alienating his powerful clan and spending much of his life as a fugitive, mirroring the migrations of the early Muslims in the time of the Prophet Mohammed, and setting an example for his daughter and son-in-law (also a convert) of migration as spiritual metaphor. Theirs is a fascinating story of internal displacement, transferred loyalties and new allegiances: the converts married among themselves at first, but as Shaikh's grandchildren's accounts reveal, there was to be a network of marital alliances within a generation with other Muslim groups in Sindh, creating a rich and hybrid pattern which contradicts narratives of regional homogeneity.

Other histories, written by Hindu Sindhis, complain that a thriving community was further diminished by conversions, some enforced, but Shaikh recounts an entirely different story: her heroes are men who left their affluent homes in search of spiritual values that took them away from the world of trade into a realm of knowledge. (Though she never stages herself as heroic, we can be left in no doubt that she, too, chooses their path.) She shows no regret for the diminishing of a community, though half her family must have chosen to migrate to India at partition; in many ways her writing is prescient, as she details a phenomenology of rifts between people who shared land, language and blood but felt themselves increasingly divided by religious affiliations.


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The other side of the Sindhi Hindu story is told in The Pages of My Life, a memoir by Popati Hiranandani, a Sindhi woman of letters who was born in Hyderabad at about the time Shaikhs had returned to resettle there after their travels. Like Shaikh's, Hiranandani's memoir is just over 90 pages long. But whereas as Shaikh extols the virtues of travel, migration and the crossing of boundaries in search of new, fluid and mutiple identities, Hirandani laments the passing a way of life in her native city and the exodus of a people. The safe and settled Hindu community to which she belonged had responded quite differently from the Muslims and the converts to the onset of a new century, met the colonial world halfway by accepting a degree of westernisation (Hiranandani was later to translate some of her own work into English) and greeted the rise of nationalism by subscribing to a notion of nation that was later to betray them when they migrated to an independent India.

Hiranandani's life embodies this trajectory. Her oddly scattered memoir, which follows no set path but strings random reflections together in a pattern that moves between nostalgia and bitterness, evokes Hyderabad as the ideal city from which her beleaguered community migrates, only to find itself discriminated against and othered in the brave new world of independent India. Unable to return to her lost homeland, she makes her home in literature, though this, too, is a contested space: the language in which she writes seems unable to put down lasting roots in alien soil. At this point Hirandani concludes that the Sindhi culture to which she belongs and which she ferociously defends in her fictional and non-fictional writings is syncretic and uniquely composite: its entwined strands of Arabo-Persian and Sanskritic strands are illustrated in its indigenous forms of Sufi poetry, loved by Hindu and Muslim alike; its script (to which Hirandani clings, even when her fellow-writers advocate a switch to Devanagari) is an amplified adaptation of Arabic. In her many essays on Sindhi literature, the highly educated and articulate Hirandani wrote passionately about Sufi Muslim poets and ambivalently about Persian influence on poetry. She diligently chronicled the contemporary growth of Sindhi literature in India, but completely ignored its parallel development in Pakistan where, in spite of multiple hazards and conflicting linguistic hegemonies, it continues to be written and read.

She was herself a prolific writer of fiction: fourteen of her stories, most of them very short and several translated by herself into an easy, often appealing Indian English with Sindhi cadences, are helpfully appended to this memoir as an index of her themes. The fictions range from pictures of life in Hyderabad to stories of Sindhi migration and pieces of feminist protest which have little to do with Sindhi identity (Hirandani bemoaned the fact that Sindhi writing in India was increasingly, if inevitably, unmoored from its cultural anchor). In much of her writing she is, however, unable to explain the dispersal of a syncretic way of life except by pointing out the fears that partition and the ever-increasing Muslim majority in Sindh engendered in her sheltered community, which took up arms in self-defense though there seems to be have been little need for them as no major conflicts took place in Hyderabad.

Discernable between the lines of Hirandani's memoir is a lightly-mantled feeling that history may have been unfolded differently: that imagined ethnic differences, owed to the newly-constructed religious identities imposed by colonial and semi-colonial education and ideologies, might have been differently resolved had the Hindus chosen not to leave. This is vividly, if sentimentally, illustrated in her very short story 'Longing Hearts' in which a Sindhi Muslim visits a Hindu friend in Bombay after years of separation. Since Hiranandani has herself translated the story, we can hear the voices of her protagonists exactly as the author intends us to. They both lament the passing of a pluralist and inclusive way of life that is at odds with the attitude that the author adopts (at least in part) in her memoir. Joyo, the Muslim, voices this Sindhi disaffection with history:'We have become aliens in our own land, while you, without your roots, are being treated like strangers everywhere. We feel helpless and you feel insecure, though you are in the midst of people of your own religion. We have the same past, but our future is laid out in different directions. Thoughts of our future make our hearts heavy with grief. There is the same festering wound of uncertainty in your hearts too.'

The reader wonders how Ghulam Fatima Shaikh would respond to the history of these words.



Aamer Hussein is a contributing editor at Asymptote. He was born in Karachi in 1955 and has lived in London since the 1970s. A graduate of SOAS, he has been publishing fiction and criticism since the mid-1980s. He is the author of five collections of short fiction, including Insomnia (2007), and two novels, Another Gulmohar Tree (2009) and The Cloud Messenger (2011). He has also edited an anthology of writing from Pakistan, called Kahani (2005). His first selection of an essay and four works of fiction in Urdu, from which this story is taken, will appear in the journal Dunyazad (Karachi) later this year. He is Professorial Writing Fellow at Southampton University.



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