Friday, May 30, 2014

The red India-Pakistan passport




In March 2014, after our mother Situ Savur died, my brother Ravi and I had to clear up her things and empty the house she was living in.

Sorting out her papers, one of the things we came across was a red India-Pakistan passport belonging to our father. It seems as if in those days, special passports were issued for travel between the two newly-separated countries.

Along with the passport was the correspondence which gave us some background: an application had been made on 20 June 1957 and the passport was issued less than a month later, on 16 July 1957. It was valid for one year.

The application for a visa to visit Pakistan is dated 11 July 1957, before the passport was issued. The visa was valid for only Karachi.


In 1956, soon after completing his MSc in Chemistry at National College, Bandra, Bombay (which is where, incidentally, our parents met) our dad, Ramanand Savur, joined Franco Indian, a pharmaceutical company in Bombay. He was twenty-two years old. He was appointed as Statistical Officer, and promoted to Assistant Publicity Manager a few months later. It was in this position that he travelled with his director, M Postel, to Karachi in August 1957, to appoint new agents, distributors and medical representatives. In Karachi, the distributor was Ali Gohar & Co, at an address on Bunder Road.
I knew that my dad had visited Pakistan as a young man. I had heard the awful story of how, as he and his French boss were leaving the country, his passport – this very red India-Pakistan passport! –  given to the police on entry, appeared to have been misplaced by them. My dad was taken into a room full of trunks each of which was overflowing with passports. The kind policeman started looking for his passport, opening one at a time, and putting it aside when it turned out to be someone else’s. This went on and on – it must have felt like hours. Eventually, when my father finally got his passport, he burst into tears of relief.
Sadly, I knew nothing else about this historic visit, not a single thing. Looking at the stamp in the red passport, however, it is clear that my father must have been in Karachi on the occasion of Pakistan’s tenth Independence Day!
What were the celebrations? What did he see and do? How did he feel?
What else did he do in Pakistan?
I wondered whether my dad talked about his forthcoming visit with his future father-in-law, KJ Bijlani, a well-known lawyer of Hyderabad, Sindh who had left his homeland forever with his family and a few belongings, never to look back, ten years before. Surely my father visited some of the dear friends my grandfather left behind when he left Sindh forever? What did they say and do? Was there any way I could find out?
I emailed Sachin Kalbag, who was Editor of Mid-day at the time, and he kindly made space for the story. Then I posted on facebook, tagging all the Pakistani friends who might be able to help. I also sent an email to M Postel, via Anna Pinto of Franco Indian. I never heard back from Franco Indian. The only information I got was from Gul Metlo, a kind Sindhi doctor who lives in London. He wrote saying he had heard that Ali Gohar Shah had been a close friend of a Sindhi Hindu who ran a pharmaceutical shop in Karachi. He would come every evening to visit his friend at the pharmacy. After Partition, the Sindhi Hindu handed over his shop to Ali Gohar Shah to look after, saying that he would come back to Sindh from India after the riots stopped and things returned to normal. This never happened: almost none of the Hindus who left Sindh thinking they would return ever did.
Ali Gohar Shah, who was apparently a typical Sindhi Muslim and Syed with no business background, rose to become a big name in Pakistan’s pharmaceutical industry. It is said that he developed the business from a small shop to wholesale, distribution, manufacturing and a multinational pharmaceutical company as can be seen on http://www.aligohar.com/index.php though apparently he himself moved to Switzerland in the 1970s and settled there.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dame Touch

We were five girls in a class of thirty-two. What I remember most about those days is an intense camaraderie between the girls. We were one unit, thinking alike, walking in step, sharing a bond of affection that was going to last forever. We often knew what the other was about to say before she said it. And we were permanently ravenous, particularly after meals, when we made a practice of haunting the kitchen to ‘scrounge’ for extras. For many of us, even our handwriting was close to identical. It still is.
The boys inhabited a shadow world, a khaki blur. They were an alien species with their own characteristic idiom and figures of speech, and brusque ways of relating, which we viewed with some apprehension. Occasionally a boy would do something dreadful, for which he would get caned. Violence against girls was not permitted.
We sat in the same class but were separated by a heritage of apartheid, which allowed no physical touch and frowned on conversation and even eye contact.
One of the things I remember about those days is the clear conception that Lawrence was originally a boys’ school. We had the impression that a few girls had been graciously permitted to attend but their numbers were kept restricted.
When I tried to verify this information, my friend Joseph Thomas (Aravalli 1957) wrote back with reasons by which it could be concluded that our school, founded in 1858 and though originally intended for girls also, did actually start as a boys’ school and eventually became co-ed in 1949.
Why then, more than twenty-five years after that, did it still seem as if it was a boys’ school that admitted girls on sufferance?
Could it possibly be because in those days, it wasn’t just Lawrence that was a boys’ school but that the whole world was meant for men, and women were tolerated provided they fulfilled certain conditions?
It was indeed a time, as Joseph pointed out, when most parents hesitated to send their daughters away to boarding school even while sending their sons. From this it might be concluded that none of us girls at Lawrence in those days were from oppressive families which discriminated against us on the basis of gender. At home we were given equal opportunity. We had strong female role models in our families. At school, too – if memory serves me right – the Maams were just as strong, opinionated and bossy as the Sirs.
And yet, the girls in my time never achieved on par with the boys.
Years later, when the time came to select a school for my daughter, I was advised to send her to an all-girls’ school. A friend who was an educationist (a few years later she became Principal of Arya Vidya Mandir school in Bombay) told me about studies which showed that girls in a mixed environment tend to conform to preconceptions of feminity. In a co-educational environment, she said, they were found to have a tendency to suppress their natural skills and potential in such a way as to remain subordinate and inferior.
To me this was a new idea, but thinking about my time in school, I felt it might contain a germ of truth. At Lawrence, in our days, it was always the boys who topped the class. In my batch, we never had a girl who ‘came first’. In the year above my class, Nalini Ambady sometimes did; the year below had Hema Nayar and the year below that had Vinita Babulkar, who were known to have broken that glass ceiling. I remember this wisp of trivia from the distant past with clarity, perhaps because it was such a rare and wonderful thing.
In our days, even we privileged ones were nurtured at school to a division of roles. Girls had needlework classes; boys had carpentry. When two of my classmates, Claire Pereira and Kanchana Chandy, jumped through the hoop of fire at the Founders’ PT Display, they were apparently the first girls to ever do so in the history of our school, and were not succeeded by other girls for some years to come.
Whether it was academics, extracurricular activities or athletics, the girls’ achievement paled against that of the boys. But whether this was due to statistical probability or a meek submission to what was then seen as the natural order of things, remains unclear. Nowadays, as everyone knows, Indian girls, despite the continuing deluge of pressure they withstand, fare uniformly better at examinations than their male counterparts. New studies inform us that this is because girls have been socialised to be more sincere (an observation that neatly creates an inherent possibility that perhaps boys are more intelligent).
Every generation faces the churn of roles. As new social ground is broken, new and often frightening spaces of freedom emerge. At the same time, insidious new tyrannies unexpectedly establish themselves.
Our young men are no longer oppressed by the need to be the sole providers of their families. In the past, men often sacrificed their education and their youth to go to work to support their widowed mothers, get their younger brothers educated and their sisters married, before they launched into starting their own families. Today their energy is focussed on ‘careers’, invariably on futile promotion, increment and position, to the exclusion of health, leisure, physical environment, personal growth and relationships.
Our young women, meanwhile, are gradually being emancipated from the traditional wisdom in which a woman’s body is a sex commodity and a baby machine of family proprietorship. And yet, despite the heady ecstasies of sexual freedom, it seems unlikely that they will ever shake off the oppressive demands of their fragile biology, making them perhaps even more prone to abortion, cysts, fibroids and hysterectomy than previous generations (with infertility appearing as an added bonus). Unreformed slaves of public opinion, will they ever be free of the urge to starve themselves, to depilate, and to crave that a diamond ring be offered them on bended knee by an earnest, sincere and dependable male?
When I visit school and interact with the students now studying there, I get the impression that the girls are much smarter, and more confident and sophisticated, than we ever were. The boys appear more vulnerable. Could it be the pendulum swinging the other way? Perhaps the influence of our female HM, an absolutely unthinkable entity in our days? Or just my imagination?
first appeared in The Old Lawrencian, the newsletter of the Old Lawrencians Association, Lovedale 2Q 2015
'Dame Touch' is an evocative expression peculiar to the language used by inmates of The Lawrence School, Lovedale.

Saaz and Rumana: Friendship across borders by Chintan Girish Modi

Rumana and I came in touch less than three years ago. We have spent only a few hours in each other’s company. Thinking about the depth of affection I developed for her in this short time, and my gratitude for her generosity and support, I realise how very lucky I am to have found a friend like her.
We connected on facebook. I was writing a book about the Sindhi community of India and looking for sources on the other side of the border, closer to Sindh than I could ever be. Rumana lived in Karachi and, like me, she was a writer and painter. As we got to know each other (virtually), I soon realised that our ideas and our life priorities were similar too. When I wrote to her, she would write back instantly, and every time I asked for advice, she responded with wholehearted generosity. In this matter I hold her as a role model.
Growing up, I must have been influenced by my mother’s emotional scars from Partition (which interrupted and ended her childhood) as well as the all-pervading fear and suspicion of a certain neighbouring enemy country. Setting out to visit Pakistan in February 2013, I felt a bit as if I was going on a trip to the moon: it was a rare and splendid opportunity, but also an expedition that required courage and tremendous fitness. Perhaps I would never return.
It was amazing to find that the intensity of love with which we had been received and surrounded made leaving Pakistan a wrench. To have friends like Rumana and others we bonded with, to know that we may never, ever see them again, was terrible. The parting pangs took me back to the desolation of early childhood boarding-school homesickness. Perhaps they arose from some kind of cellular memory of the Partition pangs my grandparents suffered.
I must say I’m grateful to facebook, one of the rare spaces on this planet where Indians and Pakistanis can mingle and smile and get to know each other and be friends, without the hostility of barbed wire and manipulative negative propaganda, and try to heal the wounds of grief and bloodshed inflicted through sources with ugly political motives.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Like looking in a mirror for the first time (Interview with Fazil Jamili)

1. What was your experience when you visited Karachi twice?
During my two short trips to Sindh, I experienced a wide spectrum of feelings. One was the excitement of visiting a region that is so intimately a part of our lives and yet forbidden to us. Another was frustration and unhappiness with the difficulty of entering and the restrictions on free travel. Yet another was the longing to visit an ancestral homeland, and delight at doing so. A fourth was the fear of being in a country where we are officially perceived as enemies. If war were to break out while we were visiting, what would happen to us? Karachi has the reputation of being a violent and dangerous place. However, most important of all has been the love that we were showered with.
I should also say that my first visit to Sindh was the most exciting and most meaningful trip I have made in my life. The warmth and hospitality my family and I received changed our feelings towards not just Pakistan but towards humanity as a whole.
2. You got a visa for Sukkur and Larkana this time but couldn’t make it to visit these cities. What stopped you from going to visit your mother's native village?
I was in Karachi in March 2014 to attend the seminar Sindh through the centuries, organized by Sindh Madrassetul Islam University. It was a fantastic experience with scholars from all over the world, resulting in a lot of learning and interaction. SMIU had courageously invited Indian writers and academics too, and nine of us accepted. We were issued NOC for visa by Islamabad with the request that we restrict our stay in Pakistan to the dates of the seminar. Though I had a visa, it would have been an abuse of hospitality to stay on, and I decided to visit Larkano, Sukkur and my mother’s native village on some other trip, if at all.
3. When you told your mother about the love you received here in Sindh, what was her reaction?
My mother and her siblings were very surprised but also happy to hear about the love and all the messages to them from people in Sindh. In the past, nobody in the family had ever spoken about Sindh. They had deliberately put it out of their minds. So it was something new and totally unexpected. I felt a lot of latent emotion in them. None of us said it aloud, but I think we all missed my grandparents and wished there was a way for us to tell them about it.
4. As she is no more with us, what are the feelings when you think about love and hate emotions towards this vanished homeland?
My mother was a fiercely proud Sindhi all her life. When I was young, these feelings were totally irrelevant to me. I never thought about her and her family’s enormous loss and how bravely they had faced it, and only realised it while I was writing the book. I then became very keen to travel to Sindh with my mother. I told her many times that if we went, our experiences would make a good last chapter to the book. She gave me many reasons for not wanting to go. The one most relevant to answer your question is, “They threw us out! Why should I go back!”
So the biggest benefit of my book was that it enabled her to experience closure by reclaiming her lost childhood and by affirming her forgotten link to Sindh.
Personally, I feel rudderless and demotivated to continue my Sindh journey without my mother.
My mother was 79 years old, and she had lived a fairly comfortable life, facing its challenges with courage. Her death was no tragedy. I was with her as she left her body peacefully, smiling all the while. My mother was an agnostic and there was no religious ritual in our home. But because I had worked with her to write the book, I knew that the prayers she was taught as a child were from the Sikh religion, and I arranged the memorial service and meal in her memory at a Gurudwara. While I am deeply grateful for all these blessings, I feel terrible that I lost her so suddenly. I was totally unprepared. There were many, many questions that I wanted to ask her, always assuming that I could do so later. If I write about Sindh and Sindhis, I will always feel pain that she is not going to read and comment on it.
5. Do you think you are in better position to understand Sindh and its people and can write another book on this subject?
I have collected many more interesting stories and intend to compile them into a sequel. Each of them gives a different insight into Sindh, the Sindhi experience, and the Sindhi psyche.
In India we have a one-dimensional stereotype of Sindhis as calculating and profit-oriented. Even when people speak positively about Sindhis, they will use adjectives like ‘hardworking’ and ‘enterprising’ which directly relate to this one-dimensional stereotype. When I visited Pakistan, I saw that Sindhis there too are labelled in a limiting way, different but also deprecatory. One reason why Sindhis are misunderstood is because they have a unique culture which has been misunderstood. I feel that these stories will help people, in particular the Sindhis themselves, to understand that unique culture.
6. Do you think India and Pakistan can ever become good friends?
India and Pakistan were one land, one people with a common history and cultural kinship.
How different are Bombay and Karachi, how different are Delhi and Lahore? People look alike, they sound alike; their body language and core ethics are similar.
When I travel to Calcutta, Delhi, Madras or other places in India, things are similar but not quite the same as they are in Pune where I live. Often there are strong regional variations. People can see from the way I dress and speak that I have come from somewhere else. Yet they know that I am one of them. Why can’t it be the same when I go to Karachi too?
It is vested interests which have kept us apart, and it would be extremely difficult to overcome their power and wealth to become good friends.
7. Would you advise all the Sindhis living in India once visit their homeland in their life?
Sadly, most of the migrant generation is no more. Those who lived in Sindh and have memories of a lost childhood home would be over 70 years old. I doubt if ALL of them would have sufficient motivation to tolerate the rigour of the required paperwork and travel. As for younger Sindhis, they feel much more rooted in the place where they live than their lost homeland. To my mind, for them to come to terms with their identity, a visit to Sindh is only one of the things they need to do, and not one of the most essential.
Having said this, I must also say that when an Indian Sindhi meets a Pakistani Sindhi, for both of them it’s like looking into a mirror for the first time. There’s a feeling of magic and wonder in the air, like when two long-lost brothers suddenly find each other. It is a miraculous, amazing and uplifting experience which I wish every Sindhi could have.
8. How can writers play a positive role in promoting peace?
Good-quality writing is enjoyable, but it is also much more than that. Through it, readers come closer to understanding themselves. When we understand ourselves better, we realise that one of the highest human priorities is a safe and peaceful existence and a certain degree of comfort, replete with human bonds of love.
9. Anything about Karachi or Sindh you miss when you recall your visit to Pakistan?
What I miss most is easy access to Sindh. I wish I could travel there whenever I felt like to spend time with my friends there, to enjoy the shopping, and to wander down the streets thinking about my mother and my grandparents and wishing I could share these moments with them.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Accept me as I am

Ten weeks ago, on holiday in another city, my family of five was getting into two autorickshaws. As we started moving, my daughters and I realised that we were together and one of them said, “Uh oh … no boys … must always have at least one boy in the auto!”
Without a second’s pause I replied, “Hey – what’s the problem. We’re just boys without a …”
We giggled for a while, and I must admit feeling mighty impressed with myself for having so spontaneously bestowed this powerfully affirming gender-equality message on my girls.
When I think about it now, however, there’s something I appreciate even more, and that is how kindly my daughters accept such words and ideas from me without feeling embarrassed. And I feel sorry that my mother, whom I lost – suddenly and most unexpectedly – six weeks ago, was never so fortunate. She had her own uncompromising ideas about how life should be lived, but I never appreciated or accepted them, always grudging her her individuality.
One of the most prevalent relationship clich├ęs of modern times is the one that delves and moans the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. There is scope for intimacy, for mutual dependence, synergy and growth. And yet, most of us, with the best of intentions, burden our daughters with our dreams, our neuroses and our preconceptions while we betray our mothers by determinedly treading paths they begged us to avoid.
I escaped my mother’s dreams, neuroses and preconceptions by the simple device of never really giving her credit for having her own say in the universe; for grudging her any little influence over me. At fourteen, I was enraged when a friend of my parents commented, “Oh she’s just like her mother!” when he saw me knitting. Perhaps I believed I’d been born with that 100spm knitting speed.
So when my daughter fails to flinch when people look at us and remark, “Omg you are SOOO alike” I can but be grateful.
One night, fourteen years ago, I dreamt that I had gone to the airport to see my parents off. But I was too late. They had already boarded the plane and were sitting, strapped into their seats, inaccessible to me. I was washed over with waves of regret. If only I hadn’t dawdled, if only I hadn’t delayed!
It was a dream that changed my life. Latching on to its symbolism, I somehow convinced my parents to come and live with me. And I put everything else aside, demanding support from my husband and children, and rearranging my life to make them my highest priority. It was a challenging phase but executed with commitment.
Today, reconciling myself with a heavy heart to the ultimately one-way nature of that plane, I may be satisfied with a task well done but I also deeply regret how suddenly my mother disappeared from my life before I stopped trying, unsuccessfully, to bottle her into my stereotype of what a mother should be. How lucky I am that my daughter accepts me just as I am.
first appeared in Sakal Times on 7 May 2014