A mother tongue Partition consumed intact: The depletion and revival of Sindhi language and culture

Writer-translator Saaz Aggarwal on the conundrum of the ‘mother tongue,’ the need to re-examine the Partition, and resuscitation of the Sindhi alphabet.

After my session at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 21, 2023, I sat in the author-signing hutch, and one of my visitors was a young woman who had grown up in the US. She shared with me her distress at not having a mother tongue, and I spent a little time trying to reassure her that there was actually no such thing, that whatever she did have was all she needed.

I had serendipitously learnt this the previous day from the generous genius Ranjit Hoskote, co-worker at Times of India in the early 1990s, when I told him that my session was on “The Call of the Mother Tongue: Loquations and Dislocations.” He smiled and explained that “mother tongue” was a philological invention of German Romanticism, and that in India, for millennia, we have been multilingual subjects, our home languages one of several at our disposal. I will admit that the concept of “home language” made me feel better about my own situation, and I tried to pass this along to her.

Saaz Aggarwal (L) and Archana Mirajkar at the 2023 Jaipur Literature Festival. | Jaipur Literature Festival.

When Partition gave Sindh intact to Pakistan, it was believed that the non-Muslims would continue as a peaceful and prosperous minority there as they had been for centuries. And when they found themselves exiled, a large majority of Sindhi parents stopped speaking to their children in their own language, wanting them to have a better chance in the new world by mastering local languages wherever they settled.

The government of the newly-truncated India played its part in the annihilation of Sindhi, by not listing it as an Indian language. The writers and intellectuals of the community – a large number at the time – took the help of a young lawyer (later the most famous lawyer in India, Ram Jethmalani) to contest the horrid omission. In 1967, Sindhi was accepted in Schedule VIII of the Indian Constitution as an Indian language. It is a consequence of those 20 lost years that, today, only a handful who had the benefit of a “Sindhi-medium” education, still survive.

The Sindhi alphabet. | Picture credits: Lakhmi Khilani, Indian Institute of Sindhology.

From what I’ve understood through the course of my interviews, Sindhi literature was of overarching importance to the Hindus of Sindh, with their large population of writers, academics and intellectuals. In the lead-up to Partition, many of them were freedom fighters involved in writing, printing and distributing literature to create awareness of the importance of freedom from British rule – this was propaganda against the Crown and a serious view was taken of it. Many of them spent substantial time in jail for these “seditious” activities. Sadly, when the goal of freedom was achieved, they themselves lost their homeland for good.

Glory, but strewn with mortification
I was delighted and gratified when JLF invited me as a speaker for the 2023 festival. The democratic space of JLF, its festive energy, earnest readers, well-loved writers, colour, light, music, inventive displays, eager volunteers – a planet of book-lovers – was always an unimaginably lovely time of year back when JLF was new and I had the good fortune of writing a books column for Sunday Mid-day.

It was a place where you could be standing behind Alexander McCall Smith in the lunch queue; even share a shuttle to your hotel with Hanif Kureishi! One day at an overcrowded session, a member of the audience stood up and observed indignantly that Vasundhara Raje Scindia was standing. Festival director Sanjoy K Roy politely suggested that he offer her his seat.

An opportunity to be on the other side of the table there made me so very happy. But also sad to have to convey, in my session, on “mother tongue” the story about how Partition depleted Sindhi language and Sindhi culture. While Archana Mirajkar spoke of the vibrancy of Marathi Literature and her solidly glorious discourses, Granthyatra, all I could do was whine on and on about how no language can be expected to survive among a people who never hear it spoken on the street. My work is not in Sindhi. It’s about heritage, storytelling, lost nuances, and conveys messages from our shared ancestry to coming generations.

Sindhis form a global diaspora with a large majority settled in Mumbai and its environs. There are small communities settled in various parts of India – but also in and around many ports around the world. These were trade outputs which started coming up soon after the British illegally occupied Sindh in 1843. After Partition, the families were able to set up homes there and local communities burgeoned. Another fascinating aspect of the Sindhis is their tendency for multi-faith worship. In Sindh, religious ritual and religious boundaries did not form tight defining borders for worship. And yet, when push came to shove, they found themselves on the wrong side of the fence.

Invisible but all-pervasive
On December 26, 2022, The New Yorker carried a delightful, evocative essay, “Seventy-Five Years After Indian Partition, Who Owns the Narrative.” The word Sindh was not mentioned even once.

This is not unusual: Sindh is invariably absent from Partition narratives; sometimes it earns a patronising mention. The only two exceptions I know of that have embraced Sindh as part of mainstream Partition are the 1947 Partition Archive and the Partition Museums in Amritsar and Delhi. Very few independent researchers – notably Aanchal Malhotra, Rashi Puri, Ishika Chatterjee – have pursued Sindhi interviews along with Punjabi ones.

Why the largescale boycott?
Could it be because there was less violence in Sindh, could it be that the absence of trains full of dead bodies, the absence of acts of barbarism from the Sindhis themselves that disqualifies them? Could it be that a province that was not partitioned cannot consider itself a part of the Partition narrative despite the huge, complex and fascinating repercussions Partition brought to it? Could it be that a community that has no access to its motherland has no right to its Partition identity even though Partition is what now underlies the identity of every Sindhi? It’s not because they were too few.

Though the actual numbers will never be known, it is believed that nearly a million non-Muslims were displaced from Sindh; around 2.5 million from Bengal; around 5 million from Punjab. The Sindhi story is huge. And it’s a truly extraordinary one with a lot of adventure, a lot of diversity, and some remarkable features such as the extraordinary manner of dealing with refugee status – quietly picking up the pieces, moving on, making it big. Could that even be considered particularly relevant in today’s world?

At JLF too, there were Partition sessions – without a single acknowledgement of Sindh. Until – suddenly and unexpectedly! – a mention arose. It was by Sudha Murthy, introducing Chitra Banerji Divakaruni and Aanchal Malhotra at the launch of the former’s book Independence. Voicing her appreciation that they had both written on Partition, she pointed out that they had only covered Bengal and Punjab and she now exhorted Chitra Banerji Divakaruni to write her next book on Sindh.

Sudha Murthy spoke at the right moment, for we stand at the beginning of a new era! Young people yearn to know more. Social media handles with “I am proud to be a Sindhi” hashtags have huge and growing populations of followers. There are easily-downloadable apps from which you can learn the Sindhi alphabet. Sindhi singers, and more and more are emerging, are assured of huge enthusiastic audiences. Creative output in Sindhi is nascent but with technology supporting the growing interest, good things surely lie ahead. When I started writing about the Sindhi diaspora ten years ago, there were just seven or eight of us in the space. Today there are more than a 100 and the number is growing.

Loquations and dislocations
When I am asked about my mother tongue, I generally end up holding forth on the marvellous story of Khushiram Kundnani, founding principal of National College, Mumbai, who carried his college with him from Hyderabad Sindh. That’s where my parents met, brave pioneers of that marvellous fledgling institution “love marriage.” They did not know each other’s languages, Sindhi and Konkani, we lived in the Nilgiris where my third language at school was Tamizh. When filling forms I despondently inscribe “English” in the “mother tongue” field.

Some months ago I came across this quote by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “If you know all the languages of the world but not your mother tongue, that is enslavement. Knowing your mother tongue and all other languages too is empowerment.” It made me ponder the brazenness with which I cope with my disability. And it reminds me of the enormous number of times I’ve heard people I’ve interviewed say.

  • I wish I had learnt the language when I had the chance!
  • If only I had made the effort to speak to my children in Sindhi!
  • They used to speak Sindhi to each other, never to us. When we heard them speaking Sindhi, we knew that they were saying something they didn’t want us to understand!

My mother was 13 years old when Partition took place. When I was born, 13 years later, she gave me the pen name she had chosen for herself – but could never use because she had lost her language. Why would any young person want to write in a language which nobody could be bothered to read?

But I am grateful. It is a pen name that gives me a distinctive by-line.

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