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.