|Mohini Bhawnani, 82, dances with Sangeeta Bapuli,
who has made a documentary on the Sindhis of Calcutta, at a Cheti Chand celebration on Sunday.
If you are a Sindhi living in Calcutta, you have got to know Mohini Bhawnani.
In case you don’t, trust someone to tell you at your first Cheti Chand celebration in town how a spunky 14-year-old had fled Karachi alone aboard a ship in the blood-soaked summer of August 1947 to reach this city and go on to become the first woman engineer at Calcutta Telephones.
To the close-knit community of Sindhis, 82-year-old Bhawnani epitomises the spirit of survival that had brought the first batch of post-Partition migrants here more than six decades ago, scarred but not subdued.
This spirit was on show during an advance Sindhi New Year celebration last Sunday at the Khudiram Anushilan Kendra when the elderly and young lined up to greet and shake hands with the still sprightly Bhawnani.
“You can say she is the living embodiment of the history of Sindhis in Calcutta,” said travel company owner Anil Punjabi, who was among those who sought Bhawnani’s blessings.
Cheti Chand, which falls on the second day of Chaitra, is on Tuesday but the community decided to have a get-together on a weekend so that everyone could attend the event. The turnout in excess of 10,000 included Sindhis who came from places like Raidighi and Kalyani.
The Sindhi New Year rituals invoke Ishtadev Uderolal, the presiding deity who is worshipped as Jhulelal and believed to have risen from the sea astride a giant fish. But Sunday’s was more than just a community coming together to celebrate a festival. To those who had risen from the horrors of Partition, the assembly of 10,000-odd Sindhis symbolised a triumph.
“We had lost everything. My brother and mother sent me away to Bombay on a ship because communal violence had torn Sindh and they feared I might be abducted,” recalled Bhawnani.
“I took a train from Bombay to Calcutta with an uncle and was suddenly alone in a strange land where people spoke a strange tongue.”
Like the first migrants, Bhawnani stayed in a house on Free School Street and went to Asutosh College, from where she graduated in physics. She joined Calcutta Telephones as its first woman engineer.
“My joining the organisation caused an uproar in its ranks but I didn’t care,” she quipped.
|Moments from the Sindhi New Year celebration held two days ahead of the festival
at the Khudiram Anushilan Kendra, adjacent to Netaji Indoor Stadium, on Sunday.
Pictures by Sanat Kr. Sinha
The first 10 Sindhi families to settle in Calcutta included those of jeweller Satramdas Dhalamal and B. Motiram. Most of them had arrived atop packed trains and on overloaded trucks. They had all been residents of Sindh prior to 1947 and were mostly prosperous. Suddenly, they lost everything: their homes, businesses and even their identity.
Sangeeta Bapuli, an advocate who had made a documentary on the now 25,000-strong community in Calcutta, finds it strange that the Sindhis still need to explain who they are after spending 67 years in the city.
“Who are the Sindhis exactly? Even today some people are a little confused about our identity. When we say we are originally from Sindh in Pakistan, it often conjures a puzzled expression,” said Sangeeta, whose father-in-law Satya Ranjan Bapuli had been an MLA from Raidighi in South 24-Parganas.
Community elders feel one of the reasons why the Sindhis are somewhat of an enigma is because they have embraced diverse spiritual elements.
Sindh, because of its location, had been the melting pot of several religions, including Sufi, Islam and Sikh. Sindhis derive their unique identity within the subcontinent from their exposure to all these strains of religion.
“A flustered Sindhi can be expected to exclaim, ‘Allah chha pyo karee (Oh! My God, what are you doing?)’. But that does not mean he is a Muslim. In a way, it reflects the diversity of our culture,” said Gaurav Punjabi, 27, who owns a garment company.
In the years following Independence, New Market and Free School Street were the locations of choice for the community. They did business in New Market and lived on Free School Street or its adjoining lanes. While the initial years were of struggle, their enterprise gradually brought success.
The second generation of Sindhis built on what their parents did “and it is the current third generation that is finally living a life of prosperity”, according to Sangeeta.
“As Sindhis in Calcutta, what makes us the proudest is our contribution to the economic growth of the city,” said Harish Metharamani, president of the Sindhi Panchayat, which had organised Sunday’s festivity.
Easily recognisable by the suffix “ani” in many surnames, the Sindhis are also known for their sense of humour. “Most Sindhis are ‘ani’ — Advani, Jethmalani, Hirani. Unfortunately, Ambani turned out to be Gujarati,” said Gaurav, mock expression of sadness in place.