Book Review: Sindhi Tapestry. Reflections on the Sindhi Identities: An Anthology

Saaz Aggarwal (edited and curated by), Sindhi Tapestry. Reflections on the Sindhi Identities: An Anthology, Pune, Black and White Fountain, 2020, 432 p.

Book review by Jonathan Varghese (EHESS-CEIAS)

Curated by Saaz Aggarwal, Sindhi Tapestry represents the coming together of an ambitious assortment of personal memories and historical research about the Sindhi community within and outside of India. Each contribution can be individuated by the personal imprints of the respective writer. Perhaps this is the reason behind the title, because just as in a medieval tapestry, the book is a result of individual human industry where individual strands delicately constitute the end product. Though the contributions vary from the personal to the academic, the book is in every manner an anthology of personal experiences sourced from both Sindhis and non-Sindhis spread out across the globe. The book insists that Sindh is both global and local at the same time; that at any given moment a Sindhi, no matter where he/she resides, belongs to Sindh. The Sindhi community’s curious relationship with geography is a recurrent theme in the book and as such Mathew Cook’s article attempts to bridge the vast gulf of Sindhi experience across three different geographical zones— California, Bombay and Sindh in Pakistan. By his own admission Mathew Cook encountered a Sindhi before he discovered Sindh. In California his experiences of Sindh are mediated by his interactions with a young enterprising Sindhi by the name of Sandy. In many ways this preliminary introduction occurs within a socially privileged context. In Bombay at the Churchgate flat and Willingdon Sports Club, he further expands his understanding of the community within a matrix defined by class, ethnicity, and language. It is however in the final sections of the article that he invites us to consider a crucial aspect of the Sindhi community’s heritage. During the course of his journey to Sindh, Pakistan he draws our attention to the Gobind Ram Darbar which was built to pay homage to Bhagat Kanwar Ram, a Hindu Sufi poet. This seemingly oxymoronic but nevertheless significant pre-Partition individual was murdered by communalists. As Cook reminisces about this episode, he points out that the preservation of the Gobind Ram Darbar site was part of an effort to memorialize this aspect of the multi-cultural heritage of Sindh. It is a heritage, he remarks, that was steadily undergoing deterioration. Elsewhere in the book a similar idea is invoked when Michel Boivin introduces the figure of the Hindu-Sufi as the focus of his research. Though the article does not embody the reflective aspects of Cook’s essay, Boivin draws our attention to the complexity of the Hindu Sindhi’s interactions with Sufism. This association, he informs us, was primarily mediated by the Ismaili (Shia) sect and the Sohrawardi Sufis, both of whom shared a liberal interpretation of the Islamic faith. The Lal Shahbaz Qalandar burial site at Sehwan Sharif, where Hindus participated in the pilgrimage rituals of a Sufi pilgrim site bore testimony to this. It is Boivin’s suggestion that though the Partition did not cause much to change the terms of this “Hindu-Muslim” interaction, the resurfacing of Hindutva ideology in India has done much to discourage Hindus from participating in these seemingly Islamic rituals.

The Sindhi community’s association with Hindutva ideology, through organizations such as the RSS, is a necessary means to understanding its relationship with politics. In his essay Dharmendra Tolani speaks of this association as a teenage affectation that any Sindhi would eventually learn to outgrow. Tolani does not pontificate much but the early sections of his essay touch upon his past fascination with the figure of the Swayamsevak.In its most sanitized version, the RSS’s interpretation of independence and self reliance was perceived as a necessary means to nation-building and was as such attractive to the teenage imagination of the young Tolani. However, the events of 2002, the author clarifies, rendered the idea of the Swayamsevak and the pursuit of nation-building incompatible. It is while negotiating his own identity with his family’s relation to the larger Sindhi community that the author clarifies his personal interpretation of Hindutva ideology. This ongoing effort to negotiate one’s identity with one’s community is a recurring theme in the book and at the center of this process is the notion of the family. One memorable instance is Radhika Chakraborty’s use of photographs to reconstruct her family history. The essay, which, in itself, is demonstrative of this act of reconstruction, presents the Sindhi identity’s complex relationship with memory. The photographs, handiwork of RM Mathrani (the grandfather) and MP Mathrani (his father), though seemingly dispensable to their creators, represent to the author, the visual imprints of a past that she can no longer access. In many ways the essay is evocative of an ode; an ode to the construction of the Sukkur Barrage and to the building of her house in Delhi, two episodes that testify to the Sindhi community,s spirit of enterprise and fortitude. Premised on these photographs, Chakraborty’s considered evocation conjures what can best be described as a lexicon of remembrance. The words provide a template of reference for the reader as he/she moves between the inchoate assembly of images and as the author guides us through the visual imprints of her grandfather’s enterprise.Enterprise is another recurrent aspect consistent with the history of the Sindhi community. Though as a theme this occurs on many occasions in the narrative it is perhaps most jovially demonstrated in Atul Khatri’s piece, when he relives his own transitioning from a Shikarpuri businessman to a stand-up comic. While Chakraborty’s piece is defined by nostalgic reminiscing, Khatri’s words impart the experiences of the present. They carry the lighthearted immediacy that we have come to associate with his stand-up routines. There is perhaps a reason for this. Radhika Chakraborty is temperamentally and temporally distant from the world she seeks to recreate and therefore her writing reflects a tension. Khatri’s narrative bridges two temporally different worlds—the world of Kaytek Computer Services and the world of stand-up comedy—by evoking, what he refers to as, the Sindhi entrepreneurial spirit. Time and again Khatri insists that his transition into a comic was an outcome of calculated deliberations. Being a stand-up comic and a Sindhi is serious business, he adds. The Sindhi community’s relationship with enterprise was nurtured by the many transactions over the Arabian sea which for the Sindhis of post Partitioned India were a necessary means of survival. Enterprise, Uttara Shahani informs us, is one of the primary means towards homogenization within the community. Perhaps it was also the most practical means of countering cultural and political unpredictability. The goal, she insists, was to establish a focal point for a community that is otherwise scattered. A Sindhi yearns to imagine a Sindh because the “tangible-geographical” Sindh lies outside of the confines of the India nation-state. We must bear in mind that such an imagining emerges fromthe peculiar conditioning of the discourses around Sindhi identity. She remarks that in post Partitioned India a Sindhi as Sindhi is characterized by negation—he/she is a Sindhi because he/she is not someone or something else. This aspiration for homogeneity in the wake of Partition is a continuous trope throughout the book.

Such a project of homogeneity is however not without its inconsistencies. As Trisha Lalchandani informs us, to legitimize one’s identity by means of an “origin” story is a taxing process, especially if its temporality precedes print culture and modernity. By drawing our attention to the role of folklore Lalchandani points out the inadequacies of the institution of the archive as a site of production or preservation of history. Perplexed by the impenetrability of the Perso-Arabic script of early sources and the platitudes of the contemporary Devanagari (Sindhi) literature, the author’s own struggle with historical sources is an insightful commentary on the nature of Sindhi literary archives. We are informed that it is within the world of folklore that Lalchandani finds a possible reservoir of Sindhi history.Alongside written institutional archives, the emergence of folklore as intimate reservoirs of memory informs the Sapna Bhavnani piece too. Throughout the narrative of the book, many contributors have addressed the intimate quality of their own relationship with historical memory but in the making of the critically acclaimed documentarySindhustan,Bhavnani’s relates that her relationship with her identity assumes a rather visceral quality—the skin becomes the template for memory to imprint itself. While Trisha Lalchandani refers to Sindhi identity as something that does not “fit,” Uttara Shahani speaks of it as something that is worn “lightly.” The Sindhi folklore imprinted on Sapna Bhavnani’s limbs signify the culminating apotheosis of the book’s narrative logic. Her tattooed skin becomes an archive of both trauma and liberation. The body becomes the text and signifier of one’s identity.It is often difficult to surmise the quality of a book. What a review can hope to achieve is to guide a reader through the reading process. It is possible to read this as an anthology of Sindhi voices reaching out to a contemporaneity that is continuously evasive. It is equally possible to read it as a critique of history and historiography. It can be read as a testament to nostalgia and its power to forma network of human experiences across geographically and culturally distanced zones. It is also possible to read this as an ode to human migration. No matter how you read this book, what is undeniable is what the book achieves—an indication of the Sindhi community’s imagining of human relationships across and despite borders.


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