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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Sweet Karachi

Raj Thackeray can erase shop signs. He can’t erase Sindhi memory

Written by Jyoti Punwani | January 31, 2009 1:32:00 am

For those who had nothing to do with Partition,Karachi is just another city. For those whose patriotism begins and ends with the geographical boundaries of the state they were born in — and they are many — Karachi is the name of an enemy city,just like Lahore. But ask a Sindhi what Karachi means to her or to him.

Sindhis have always complained that they got the rawest deal among all those affected by Partition. They had to leave their homeland where Hindu-Muslim conflict was barely known,and take refuge wherever they could in India. Here,they had no state they could call their own,unlike the Punjabis and Bengalis who came over. But they managed not just to survive and indeed prosper,but also to contribute.

In Mumbai,within seven years of Partition,at least three prominent colleges were started by Sindhis,which were open to all. But even as they became part of what was then Bombay’s bhelpuri,Sindhis never forgot their homeland. Indeed,it would have been unnatural for them to do so. In fact,many of them had left Sindh only a year after Partition,when Muslims from UP landed in Karachi,bringing tales of horror. Even then,some Sindhis thought it would be a temporary exile.

Many of them couldn’t reconcile to the bitter realisation that they’d left Sindh forever. They pined for the streets of Hyderabad and Karachi,Sukkur and Larkana. They longed to go back at least once; the temporary Pakistani visa-issuing office that used to be set up in Mumbai in the 80s,would be teeming with old Sindhi women,still wearing their distinctive long loose kurtas,looser pyjamas and white chunis,weeping in front of the impassive visa officer,begging him for their last chance to visit the families left behind. Sindhi writers grabbed every opportunity to meet their counterparts from Sindh visiting India,to listen to news about their lost homeland. What they heard only made them more protective about what they had lost.

Ulhasnagar,the British military camp on the outskirts of Mumbai that was assigned to Sindhi refugees,grew haphazardly into a township,but its early houses had a definite design — they were built to resemble the one-to-two-storeyed homes with aangans that the residents remembered so well. At least two generations of Sindhis have grown up listening to stories about the leisurely lifestyle of Sind,the tongas and the songs sung by street vendors,the streets named after families and the school holiday when it rained. Even the food eaten in Sindhi homes followed the extreme climate of Sind,rather than the moderate and wet Mumbai weather.

So it was just natural for Sindhis to name their shops ‘Karachi sweets’. Some of the ‘Karachi sweetmeat marts’ had always been named so. ‘Karachi sweets’ was a brand as much as Polson Butter,Waman Hari Pethe and Finlays; older than Chitale Bandhu or Kayani Bakery. It would have been suicidal for the proprietors to have changed the name just because they’d changed cities. Others incorporated the name ‘Karachi sweets’ in the shop’s name to remind their customers that they were the same mithaiwalas,or to send the message across that these were Sindhi sweets. Thus you could have Shree Mohan’s Karachi Sweet Marts,or Shree Karachi Mithai House.

Raj Thackeray’s latest directive to all such shop-owners to drop the name ‘Karachi’ post 26/11 (wherein he didn’t lift a finger to help),has of course been obeyed,like all the directives of this born-again Hitler (his followers now give the Nazi salute). The owners know the police won’t protect them; Mumbai’s Police Commissioner generously offered protection if the owners met him personally.

So overnight, names of famous sweet shops have been covered with white paper or changed to some characterless name that gives no clue about the shop’s history or distinctiveness. People like Thackeray may be unaware that wherever attempts have been made to erase a community’s roots,the community has become even more protective of them. Won’t powerful ex-Karachiites such as Prime Ministerial candidate and former Union Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani,or the fiery former Law Minister Ram Jethmalani,take a stand? Incidentally,Karachi was part of Bombay Presidency.

The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist

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