Madhuri Sheth told me is that when she was little, her father, Udharam Gurnani, had friends who were women from Sindhworki families. I found it interesting, and an indicator of a progressive society, that men and women could be friends in the 1940s, simply enjoying each other’s company and conversation.
Scroll.in carried something I wrote about women in pre-Partition Sindh, Freedom fighters and ticket checkers: The trail-blazing women of pre-Partition Sindh. I wrote it in response to another scroll article, about Om Mandli, a socio-religious organization which originated in Sindh in 1935.
While discussing the article with some friends, one sentence struck us particularly: What is remarkable is that, in pre-Partition Hyderabad, where patriarchal norms and misogyny was at its heights, some of its courageous women powerfully resisted the yoke of men and subjugation.
While there were certainly patriarchal norms and misogyny, and these continue to pervade the world, as far as we knew they were not at their heights in pre-Partition Hyderabad. I have interviewed quite a few elderly Sindhis and from what they told me, there were Hindu Sindhi women who owned property, made financial decisions and had certain privileges of empowerment even when they were not contributing to the family economically.
I sat down and wrote some of the stories. Eventually the piece was held back for so long that it didn’t make sense to link it to the Brahmakumaris story and though I worked on rewriting it, I did feel that the rejoinder version was much more effective. So I’m putting down the full version here, with more examples, photographs and details.
One charming snippet of memory from the 1930s has Ruki (daughter of a zamindar, Lokumal Malkani, and wife of Dr Naraindas Mirchandani) driving their children home to Old Clifton from the clinic, singing bhajans to lull them into a pleasant mood. Ruki loved to drive, as did quite a few of her generation; another was Jassie Kundanmal Ramchandani – Jessie to her friends – who drove her own car in Sindh even before she got married.
Jamna, daughter of the illustrious educationist Sahibsing C Shahani, had a license in 1928 and drove for years until – as her son Nelum Gidwani wryly observes – she ran over a chicken somewhere in France and decided she’d had enough of it. When Indroo Sitlani learnt to drive in Bombay after Partition, it was one of his sisters who taught him.
While these were clearly women from well-off families, there were working women too. During the Second World War, sea routes closed and many Sindhworkis, men with trading outposts in ports around the world, were isolated from their families in Sindh. Hassaram Ramchandani and his sons ran stores in Cairo and Basra and could not return. It was his daughters Sati and Ishwari who managed Lucky Store, a front room of their home near Tikunda Park at Gadi Khato in Karachi. Sati was a Balkanjibari (Sindhi kindergarten) teacher and took turns with Ishwari who, as her son Ashok Shahani told me, worked in the Locust Control office on Bunder Road until Partition. There were no toilets, and Ishwari wrote to Indira Gandhi, requesting support in getting toilets built. And that, says Ashok, a Supreme Court lawyer, was how the rolling plan of 1950 came to budget one toilet in each Central Government office.
Quite a few also worked for the Railways in Sindh, checking passengers’ tickets. For a woman to do this doesn’t just mean that she is outgoing and confident. It doesn’t just mean that her family supports – to an extent – her individuality and ambitions. It also means that the men of Sindh could accept authority from a woman. Sundri and her sister Popati, ticket checkers on the Hyderabad-Kotri commuter line, were beauties. There was a line of suitors. But Sundri fell in love with Gobindram Shahani and that was that. Popati married Mohan Mansukhani. After Partition they were able to continue supporting their families with jobs in the Railways. In an era of child marriage across India, both married in their late twenties. This was not at all uncommon in Sindh.
Many have told me that their parents ‘did love marriage’ in Sindh before Partition. Many have spoken of sisters who never married because they were overweight, dark-complexioned or disabled – negative attributes in the marriage market as they continue to be – because their families were unwilling to compromise them with potential grooms who were offered in marriage because they had less-than-appropriate attributes of their own.
Part of the status of Sindhi women is due to the campaign for women’s education, introduced by Navalrai Advani, son of Shoukiram Advani, Mukhi of Hyderabad, who was so deeply influenced by the Brahmo Samaj that he made the one-week train journey to faraway Calcutta to find out more. The first school for girls in the Hyderabad Municipality c1885 was personally funded by him and Sahajrai Chandomal Advani. The progressive families of Sindh took women’s education very seriously. The list of the South Asians who became barristers at three Inns of Court in London before Independence, derived from research conducted by Mitra Sharafi at University of Wisconsin Law School, carries the names of two Sindhi women: Saraswati Dayaram Mirchandani who was called to the Bar in 1937 and Shakuntala Rochiram Hingorani in 1947.
There were also a large number of ‘lady doctors’ (as they were called then) coming out of Sindh, a boon in a time when, despite high mortality in pregnancy and childbirth, families were reluctant to have their women administered by males. One of the earliest was Devi Lakhani, LMCG Edinburgh. Her father was Dr Valiram Lakhani of Hyderabad; all his daughters were well educated and he sent Devi off to study overseas in the 1920s.
Dozens of Sindhi parents sent their daughters to study medicine at Lady Hardinge College, Delhi, and live in the hostel there in the 1930s and 40s. Dr. Hari Mirchandani practiced in Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas, and after Partition started a practice in Delhi’s Karol Bagh, then rented a house and, saving every paisa she could, built a one-storey house for her clinic, eventually building quarters above with a maternity home on the ground floor.
Lila Chablani, who ran a nursing home in Sukkur, stayed on after Partition and took care of her parents as they aged.
Quite a few other women too rose to be prominent citizens and lived independent professional lives in urban and rural Sindh. Most continued to practice in towns and cities across India after Partition; a walk through Bombay streets even today reveals name boards and memories. In the 1950s and 60s, many went to live and work in the UK and US. Two of Dr. Naraindas’s daughters, Mohini (later Gidwani) and Leila (later Advani) studied at Lady Hardinge too and both did their higher medical education in the UK. Before she left for the UK, Leila worked with Partition refuges in the children’s hospital at the Kurukshetra refugee camp in Delhi.
In the early 1950s, the American Medical Association requested the Indian Medical Association to send a few young doctors as interns in their hospitals. Dr. Popati, who had graduated from Lady Hardinge College, was in the first batch interviewed. Her father, Diwan Hashmatrai Mansukhani, gave permission for his young daughter, and subsequently two more daughters, to go to Chicago. It was a time when USA was considered excessively distant and Chicago was known for its high rate of crime. Diwan Hashmatrai faced criticism but his courageous act turned out to be a pioneering one because soon, other Sindhi families who were also victims of Partition and were worried about their children’s higher education realized that in USA it was possible to support yourself by working as you studied.
Dr. Lila Pahlajsingh Advani studied at Lady Hardinge College in the 1940s and after Partition built up her practice with a clinic in Colaba. In 1964 she moved to New York and continued working there as a doctor and living on her own for forty years. Lila was a keen photographer, she had a darkroom and developed her photographs herself. In Bombay, she spent time with her nieces and nephews, helping them with their studies and taking them on drives to Juhu where they made sandcastles on the beach and collected shells to make dolls and other curios. Lila never wasted a moment. She kept her knitting in her clinic so that she would have something to do between patients and was well known for the knitted, crotchet and tatting garments and table linen she made.
Sindhi women didn’t just work, they also fought in the Indian freedom movement. The frail Devi Kripalani (Kamla Hiranand after marriage) led protests and challenged her jailers. During Jethanand Shahani’s six months in jail for his activities in the freedom movement, his wife Kala’s parents and his parents urged her to come and stay with them but she lived alone in her own home and continued to manage their secret press.
One of the most prominent Sindhi woman freedom fighters, and the best known Sindhi woman social worker of her generation, was Jethi Sipahimalani. From a prominent and well-off family of Sindh, she completed four academic years at DJ Sind College as a casual student in English, a special facility created by Principal SC Shahani (father of Jamna Gidwani mentioned above) for girls who had not passed the matriculation examination to study further. In 1929, she was principal of Daya Ashram but quit the following year to join the Indian National Congress, participating in pickets and protests. Jethibai held prominent civic posts and in 1938 served as Deputy Speaker of the Sindh Assembly. After Partition, she worked for the displaced people from Sindh and her most enduring legacy is the Navjivan Society housing colonies she built in Bombay.
When I interviewed Mohini Bhawnani in Kolkata in July 2016, she was 84. Mohini was born into an affluent family, but her father died when she was four and her brother two, a time of great struggle. After Partition, they moved to Kolkata and when their mother died, Mohini supported herself and her brother first by selling her father’s gold medal and then by working as a school teacher while she continued her studies. She gave a competitive examination to enrol as an engineer in the telephone department and was placed fourth among four hundred candidates. In 1957 Mohini married into a wealthy family but continued working and as the years passed, she was promoted to higher positions. One of Mohini’s memories was of her journey across the new border after Partition. Her mother had stayed on in Karachi to try and sell their home, and put her 15-year-old daughter on the SS Barpetta to Bombay in the care of an acquaintance, an Idnani. The first evening on the ship, he got drunk and began making advances. Mohini escaped and took protection with the ship’s captain. Mohini was keen to share this story, more than a year before #MeToo went viral.
As for the Om Mandli, I do believe that one of its aims was an early version of women’s empowerment. I have tried to uncover awful truths but only found it well-meaning (if slightly peculiar, in a cultish way). This was reinforced when I visited the Brahmakumari headquarters in Mount Abu last year. Whether ghastly relics lie around the corner remains to be seen.
Many of the followers of Dada Lekhraj were women of the Sindhworki community, and as Dr Devendra Kodwani, Dean at Open University, UK reminded me, the widespread travels of the men were likely to have impacted their outlook on life and views on the role of women. These were women certainly oppressed by dowry and family elders – Monica Bhojwani who was born in a prisoner of war camp in France in 1940, told me about a neighbour whose mother-in-law gave her no privacy even in her bedroom; no freedom to even express physical affection for her children. Still, long years of running their homes and families while their menfolk worked in other countries, certainly nurtured capability and decision-making ability.
One of the things retired academic Madhuri Sheth told me is that when she was little, her father, Udharam Gurnani, had friends who were women from Sindhworki families. I found it interesting, and an indicator of a progressive society, that men and women could be friends in the 1940s, simply enjoying each other’s company and conversation.
Saaz Aggarwal is an independent researcher, writer and artist based in Pune, India. Her body of writing includes biographies, translations, critical reviews and humor columns. Her books are in university libraries around the world, and much of her research contribution in the field of Sindh studies is easily accessible online. Her 2012 Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland is an acknowledged classic. With an MSc from Mumbai University in 1982, Saaz taught undergraduate Mathematics at Ruparel College, Mumbai, for three years. She was appointed features editor at Times of India, Mumbai, in 1989.
Courtesy: The songbird on my shoulder