Monday, July 31, 2017

Legacies of Partition

The herbal remedies manuscript

What do people carry with them when they are leaving beloved homes and know them may never return? Ever since I received an invitation to be part of the Remembering Partition event at Godrej Culture Labs, I've been putting stories together asking people I’ve interviewed to contribute to the museum.
A few days ago, I went to visit Madhuri Sheth whom I had interviewed for my book Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland and she gave me a hand-written Sindhi manuscript on herbal remedies which I packed and couriered to the museum. The manuscript was one of the precious belongings of her father, Udharam. Based on what she told me, here is something about it.
Udharam Holaram Gurnani came from a wealthy zamindar family of Old Sukkur, Sindh. To live an independent life, he left home and took up a job with the railways. Posted to different parts of the province, he lived with his wife and children in quarters provided by the railways. Whenever he was transferred to Sukkur, he would be given one of his father’s houses to live in. Udharam had studied only up to the fourth standard, but he had a wide range of interests – from medicine to spirituality and detective stories – and read a lot. He discussed philosophy with his friends, and his children were often included in the discussions.
Hemu Kalani
In August 1947, there were riots in Quetta and trains filled with fleeing women and children passed through Sukkur. Soon, migrants from across the new border started arriving to settle.  The town, once a prosperous place – a major centre of the fight for freedom, where 19-year-old Hemu Kalani had been hanged for his activities during the Quit India movement – changed fast with reports of looting and violence.
Udharam opted for a transfer across the new border. The family arrived in Bombay by ship from Karachi and lived on the docks for one and a half months, waiting for Udharam to be assigned a location.  Other families shared this plight. They cordoned off areas in unused parts of the dock’s warehouses, for themselves and their boxes of belongings. The government was distributing food, but there were no proper sanitary facilities.
When Udharam was issued posting orders for Achnera, a junction between Agra and Mathura, the family moved there but had to live on the platform for another few months, until quarters were allotted.  Even when baby Neelam, the youngest boy of Udharam and Parmeshwari’s nine children, died on the Achnera railway platform, the family continued to take the hardship in its stride, always conscious that there were others who had suffered more.
It was in 1987, when Udharam died, that his daughter Madhuri Sheth (born in June 1935) came across this manuscript, one of the precious belongings carried from Sindh in the boxes that had survived the months on the Bombay docks and the Achnera railway platform along with the family.  Udharam used these remedies along with healthy foods to treat illness in the family.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Born in the post office

I put this up as my profile photo yesterday because it was my brother’s birthday. It was taken in the late 1960s at High Forest Estate, where Ravi was born, in the Manager’s Bungalow.
When it was time for the baby, my dad called the estate doctor to be on standby while he drove out to fetch Dr Manchi Disawalla who was stationed at the nearby town of Mudis. Dr Disawalla was the best doctor in the district and he and his wife Gool, who was also an excellent doctor, were very good friends of my parents. As the story goes, by the time they got to the house there was no need to keep the expectant father busy arranging for big pots of hot water because the baby had already arrived.
High Forest is a rainy place – second only to Cherapunji, as my mother used to say back then. In the monsoon, clothes wouldn’t dry, biscuits got soggy in about five seconds, shoes would be lined with fungus within hours of taking them off. My dad would come back from the fields with leeches clinging to the long socks he had to wear to protect his legs from them. It had been raining non-stop but the morning the baby was born, after weeks shrouded by clouds, the sun came out personally to welcome him. Besides, it was a Sunday. So they named him Ravi.
And this is how it happened that while I grew up with an unpronounceable headache of a name – in South India the languages do not have a ‘z’ sound –  my brother had one of the most common names in the whole country. I felt awfully discriminated against. My mother once told me that, on a visit to the Mysore Zoo, we had gone to see the tiger and there was a board outside saying that its name was Ravi. Apparently I saw that and burst into tears, in the desolate knowledge that there could never, ever be a tiger anywhere in the world with the name Saaz.
In 1968, my father was transferred from High Forest to another estate, Prospect, in the Nilgiris. Ravi was just five. But High Forest would always stay with him. On his passport, ‘place of birth’ would always be ‘High Forest, Mudis Post Office’; in a country filled with so many thousands of remote places, and so many millions of letter-writers and money-order-senders, a post office was considered the only infallible indicator of location.
Years later, well into middle age, I told this story to a kind person who owns a gorgeous resort not far from Mudis Post Office and he sent someone to High Forest to take photos of the Manager’s Bungalow. The world had changed and so had Ravi’s first home: once elegant and beautifully maintained, it was now in a state of decay. In time I was able to locate two others who had lived in the same house in their time, Denis Mayne and Carolyn Hollis, now ‘back home’ (as it was called in those days) in the UK. I forwarded the photos to them  and they too felt sorry to see its reduced condition. Taking another look at those photos while I was writing this post, I realised with surprise that I had a few photos of the very same parts of the house when we lived in it.