Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Three-day laugh fest

I remember how much we wept when we left school! The thought of leaving each other forever was unbearably painful. Would it have helped if we could have looked 36 years ahead in time and seen ourselves happily posing together in front of the clock tower, striding up the slope from flag staff, inspecting the Red Fort dormitories that had been our bedrooms for so many years – and even, wonder of wonders, sitting and cheekily sipping tea in the HMs office? Perhaps not; it’s unlikely we could have identified with the glamorous aunties life’s benign transformation had wrought.
There were seven of us. It was not Founders, it was not a planned batch reunion. Some things just fall into place. We had contacted the HM a few days before – imagine, a Lawrence School HM on facebook! – and received a courteous invitation to lunch in the Senior School dining room. We were ecstatic, perhaps also a trifle giddyheaded, and it was like stepping into a wardrobe and suddenly finding yourself in a land as dear and familiar to you as it was peculiar and incomprehensible to others.
What pleased us most was the smiling welcome we got. Teachers, admin staff, students alike treated us like honoured guests. When we expressed a desire for chota buns we were indulged with a tray full, a second serving, and then a large parcel of that rare unmatched delicacy from the past. A teacher escorted us patiently around Girls’ School. Stately Nithya – we were children together, yes, 1977 was a good year – showed us around the archives.
What a surprise to find a friend and fellow OL, Rohan Sabharwal, living in school for a few months to set up a media cell! And what a delight to be mistaken for his batchmate – dear Rohan, abject apologies, but one day you will understand the CT of being thought two decades younger than you are! Yes – all the old slang came back. We were ‘dames’, we went to the ‘beach’, but sadly we never got round to ‘chroming’ on the banks. Time was short so we never ‘sent over’ or ‘chopped’ anyone but really, the tension between the strictly segregated sexes was flagrant – even to us at the far end of the hormonal spectrum.
A visit to school is not just an excursion into nostalgia, it’s also a pilgrimage, an offering of gratitude to the teachers who shaped the way we think and inculcated in us our attention to detail, and our constant striving for knowledge and concrete achievement. (Even the ones who unabashedly brandished their ugly sides at us surely gave us something good though at this moment I can’t think what exactly!) And we sang the old songs again, this time with an awareness of what they meant, and how these powerful words had implanted in us the power and the will to win! It was a 3-day Laugh Fest sincerely recommended to all.
first appeared in The Lawrencian Mar-Apr 2013

Monday, May 6, 2013

Quintessential entrepreneur

When Satpal Malhotra breathed his last on 23 July 2013, it was the end of a beautiful journey, notable in many ways. His life had spikes of drama and calamity, but it was consistent in certain features: high achievement both materially and spiritually, great love given and received, and the deepest commitment to responsibility.
SP Malhotra, as he was widely known, was born on 22 May 1927 and grew up in Rawalpindi, where his father ran a household goods store and flourishing auction business. When his father died, he was only sixteen years old, and he stepped bravely into his role as head of the family. His entrepreneurial abilities, evident even at this tender age, soon resulted in remarkable business success.
Sadly, fresh tragedy lay in store. The young Satpal lost his beloved mother when he was just nineteen. The following year, Independence and Partition put him and his family on the wrong side of the new border. Fleeing a riot-torn Rawalpindi, he arrived in Delhi, dazed and disbelieving at the turn of events, anonymous in the huge influx of refugees, penniless, and grateful to be alive.
After a few weeks of travelling to various places in India in search of a new home, he stopped looking the day he arrived in a small town which had much that reminded him of his hometown of Pindi. It was 13 November 1947.
Pune in those days was still a small, slow-paced town, well known for its excellent climate and cultured people. Satpal Malhotra, along with his little brothers Bahri and Harish, were among the early settlers who brought new dimensions to it. Most significant of these was the spirit of enterprise. Starting with nothing, SP Malhotra built up his company Weikfield in the dark era of India’s license raj. A landmark on the Nagar Road for decades, it was also a brand that carried sweet memories of family treats of custard and trifle to an entire generation.
SP Malhotra was the quintessential entrepreneur. The most inspiring phrase I heard from him, a man of wealth and position willing to face any trial of life with courage, was: “So what if I lose everything! I can always buy a cart and sell bananas.”
Above and beyond this was his love and commitment to his family. They were his world. His brother Bahri, the face of Weikfield and perhaps better known than SP himself, worked side by side with him with utmost respect and devotion. Through all the years and changes in his life, the memory of his love for his parents remained fresh in his heart. Perhaps it was this which took him back to Rawalpindi, to visit his childhood home. Perhaps it was this which made him a constant crusader for peace between India and Pakistan.
SP Malhotra is survived by his wife Rajinder, his sons Mukesh, Puneet, Ashwini, and his daughters Urvashi and Pooja. As a young bride, Rajinder reared SP’s little brothers as her own children. In his autobiography he writes, “Jinder came into my life with a quiet warmth which has continued to grow. As the years have passed, her magnificent inner beauty has also grown day by day. And she has stood by my side every step of the way, hardworking, self-denying, utterly practical, consolidating all that I have built, growing together from childhood to adulthood, and stepping gracefully and comfortably with me into old age.”
While SP Malhotra’s sons have ably multiplied his business and assets, his two daughters have honoured his legacy by achieving exceptional success in their chosen fields of education and art respectively.
first appeared in Pune Mirror on 6 May 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Survivors

What distinct mannerisms would you attach to a Sindhi person?
Hindu Sindhis settled in different parts of not just India but many countries in every continent. They have assimilated into these communities so well that few have retained the distinctive mannerisms that came out of Sindh. I doubt there are many who even remember the once-famous bhundo, a hand movement that denoted a terrible, irrevocable curse!
One generalisation I could offer is that many Sindhis are extremely emotional, quick to expressions of joy and sorrow often so overwhelming that it obscures their communication. However, despite rising easily to anger, they abhor violence.
Can you give us some insight into Sindhi literature?
For centuries, Sindh was a land of wandering mystics. Some of their poetry and music lives on, embodying the romance of human existence. One of the most famous is Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. Contemporary Sindhi writers, both in India and Sindh, continue to be dedicated to secular ideals and passion for their land. A recent book I’d recommend is a collection of short stories, Unbordered Memories, translated by Rita Kothari.
Do you think their distinct history has an impact on their community in India?
No, in fact it is almost all forgotten. It was glimpses of this fascinating past that led me to expand what I started as a family project to a mainstream book.
What can be said with respect to their business acumen (They were pretty much stable economically, even after they were displaced).
Most of them were left absolutely penniless when they migrated after Partition. It was dedication to their single-minded goal to get back on their feet that led them to explore every opportunity that came their way. This tremendous energy emerged as enterprise and creativity. Backed by unrelenting hard work, it led to success not just in business but in every area they worked – the bureaucracy, the corporate world, and the range of professional fields.
Tell us something about your culture. How do you keep in touch with your culture?
My brother and I are an ethnic minority so rare that there were just two of us! Our father was from another community, and we grew up in a tiny, isolated place in a third region. We went to boarding school and grew up to be goal oriented, achievement oriented, attentive to detail, welcoming of challenges, and to crave new exposure and learning. I keep in touch with ‘my’ culture by reading, writing, travelling, and staying in constant touch with my friends. After writing my book, I realised that many Sindhis of my generation, even those with direct exposure to Sindhi culture, feel equally alienated from the community.
Is the Sindhi culture facing a silent erosion? Are the traditions still given importance in Sindhi families?
Sindh is a geographically isolated province, and was exposed to many races of invaders which influenced the creation of a unique culture. The capricious course of the river Indus bred a people equipped to deal with swift change.
At Partition, most of the Hindus who settled outside Sindh were leaving the province for the first time. In their new homes, nobody could understand their language. They had to learn to write in the opposite direction to what they were used to! From that raw, vulnerable position, Sindhis have integrated so seamlessly into the communities in which they live that their magnificent feat lies forgotten. I would call it a deliberate dissociation, not a silent erosion. Few passed on their language and traditions. Those who have worked to revive them have often done so with primarily political agendas. Few have been successful. The only exception is that many Sindhi homes continue to cook a few traditional staples.
Tell us about Sindhis who you idolise
My first role-model was Dr Hiru Bijlani, one of my mother’s younger brothers. From a simple family background, he rose to eminence materially, intellectually and socially, with nothing but hard work and enterprise. What I admire most about him and have always tried to emulate is his commitment to the extended family – a very strong Sindhi characteristic.
Another Sindhi I admire is PP Chhabria, founder and chairman of Finolex. When I worked with him to write his memoirs, he was 78 and still thrusting ahead in business with enormous new projects. An epitome of humility and straightforward communication, he rose to his position with no money, no contacts, and no education. One of the things I remember about our association is that this extremely busy person with so many commitments and responsibilities never made me wait even five minutes for an appointment.
A younger Sindhi high on my list is Nandita Bhavnani, writer and researcher on the Sindhis – an extremely capable and helpful person without whom I would never have been able to write my book Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland.
Another Sindhi I idolise I have never met, but read about in an email written by a reader I don’t know and forwarded to me by the person who gifted her my book. She apparently grew up in Calcutta and wrote about a Sindhi sari seller, soon after Partition, from whom her mother bought beautiful saris. He was a very nice, soft-spoken person and her mother would offer him a cup of tea when he came. One day he said, to her mother’s surprise, that this would be his last visit. And then it all came out. He was a skin specialist and had left Sindh with his wife and mother with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Trading in saris and living simply, he had now saved up enough money to buy a practice with a leading Calcutta skin specialist. I believe there are hundreds of thousands like this gentleman – unseen, unheard, the gems of society.
Are there sub-sections in the community? How different are they and what are their traits?
The two main divisions are Amils and Bhaibands. In previous times, the Amils were educated and worked in the administration while Bhaibands were committed to family businesses. Although these distinctions are still drawn, after Partition, any number of Amils went into business while their Bhaiband counterparts were getting educated and taking up professions. Besides this, some Sindhis identify themselves with the towns of their ancestors and are Shikarpuri or Sahiti; from Ubauro or Larkana; some are Bhatias from Thatta, and so on. Across the board, they tend to be hard working and focused. Sindhis also tend to be highly socially competitive and each of these sub-communities invariably considers itself far superior to all the others.
Can you give us an insight about Sindhis living outside India and Pakistan?
They are integrated, essential part of their communities, and their contributions are immense. While they may have originally settled there for business, future generations are integrated into mainstream life and work in a spectrum of occupations.
Tell us about Sindhis in arts and literature.  
Sindhis are an extremely creative people, and they used this trait to build beautiful new lives for themselves after Partition. The third and now fourth generations have ventured into the arts. Many have underplayed their Sindhi-ness, perhaps because they do not feel particularly Sindhi, or perhaps to avoid the stigma that dogs the community – despite all their contributions in education, healthcare, philanthropy – of being single-mindedly shrewd and calculating. As a teeny-meeny example: Ekta Kapoor, Karan Johar, Anand Patwardhan – all have Sindhi mothers.
This interview was given to Society magazine and parts of it were used in the cover story in the May 2013 issue.

Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland reviewed in JetWings magazine

Loved, Lost, Revived: A book review in JetWings magazine on 1 May 2013