Sindhi Language and Literature at JLF
An invitation that exposed the fake Sindhi
I was expected to speak of my Sindhi literary roots. What a shock! I certainly have no literary roots of any kind, especially not in Sindhi. When I replied trying to explain, the organizers’ disbelief turned to scorn that I was some kind of impostor whose work in the Sindhi space is all fake.
In October 2022, I received an email inviting me to be a speaker at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and it was like a dream come true.
When JLF was new, I had a book review column for Sunday Mid-day and my job was to select a new book to read and write about every week. And the highlight of my year was JLF where the journalists who covered books for the national media got a front-row view of the events and could meet and interview authors of their choice. You could be sitting next to Pico Iyer at an event, standing behind Alexander McCall Smith in the lunch queue, share transport to the venue with Hanif Kureishi, and step aside as fans rushed towards Wole Soyinka. It was a like a joyous planet of booklovers! In 2010, Vimmi Sadarangani was on a panel to speak about Sindhi language and literature. I did not attend as it was only a few years later that I took to the study of the Sindhi diaspora, it was not part of my world back then – and I would have never imagined that Vimmi would one day be a valued and respected friend!
A few weeks after the invitation came an email describing the session, in which I was expected to speak of my Sindhi literary roots. What a shock! I certainly have no literary roots of any kind, especially not in Sindhi. When I replied trying to explain, the organizers’ disbelief turned to scorn that I was some kind of impostor whose work in the Sindhi space is all fake.
At first I found this very upsetting, but it gradually dawned on me that this misunderstanding brings our situation into focus much more clearly. Even the custodians of literature in India, who are so committed and sincere about showcasing the literature of regional languages, have absolutely no idea of the condition of the Sindhi language and literature in India.
Partition scattered Sindhis around the world. Some individuals and families are entirely isolated from the community. There are also quite a few pockets or nodes of varying density, usually separate from each other and surprisingly often not even conscious of the others’ existence.
My research covers a large number of oral history interviews with over 200 Partition survivors and about 50 to 100 of their family members. While I’ve tried my best to cover a wide ground and the interviews are across socio-economic as well as geographic divides, I’m aware of the possibility – because of the dispersal described above that we’re all familiar with – that I’ve worked in a silo and what I’m saying may not be truly representative of the entire community. Be that as it may, and I would request readers to correct me if I’m mistaken – my understanding of work being done for Sindhi identity and Sindhi language and literature are, broadly in the following groups:
- Teachers and writers of Sindhi language and literature, who have a strong command of the language and have read the prescribed literary texts. This group is unfortunately divided in two because, depending on which script they know, some can explore the treasures of Sindhi literature to their heart’s content – while some cannot.
- Social media “I’m proud to be Sindhi” type handles. They have some command over the Sindhi language and Sindhi customs, Sindhi culture and Sindhi ways of behaving and relating. They have little or no connection with the wealth of literature and philosophy in the Sindhi language. But they do have enormous fan followings – and those numbers and the responses you see tell a poignant but also heartening story.
- Researchers on the Sindhi diaspora. For the last ten years, I’ve been privileged to be part of the last group. There were just a handful of us back then but the numbers have grown and continue to grow, with contributions emerging spontaneously in every type of media. We speak, read, write and think in English. Most of us can understand only a little Sindhi. A large majority of us cannot read or write.
For me, talking about mother tongue has always been a very long conversation! I think this is true for most of us of mixed-marriage parentage: we can understand Sindhi somewhat but are hard pressed to speak and cannot read or write. Most of us, having only heard the language spoken in homes, feel comfortable when we hear it spoken even if we can’t understand much. Some of us have translated books from Sindhi to English though we can’t write or even read Sindhi – Anju Makhija, Menka Shivdasani, me – by working with Sindhi writers. There’s been HUGE support from the community of elders who studied in Sindhi medium (now almost all gone) for our work.
There are other languages in India which have very few speakers, marked as ‘dying’ languages, stoutly propped up by the efforts of a few with some support from the government. What makes Sindhi markedly different is the absence of connection to the mother lode, not just geography but also the squabble of the script.
When I tried to get past the scorn and explain this, the JLF organizers were kind enough to modify the panel, with mother tongue as the theme. They gave it a really lovely name, The Call of the Mother Tongue: Loquations and Dislocations, and the panelists were Archana Mirajkar and me, in conversation with Rita Kothari.
Unfortunately, Rita was unwell and did not come to Jaipur. It was left to Archana and me to discuss mother tongue. She did a great job talking about the work she has done to promote Marathi Literature. However, all I could do was talk about the glories of the past, the huge wreckage of language and literature created by Partition – and the huge hope we all have for the future as young people have started taking more and more interest in their heritage.
I wanted to reach out to non-Sindhi readers around the world with this message!
So I wrote about my experience of the panel along with my thoughts and feelings and insights, in an essay which was published on 28 January 2023, covering what we spoke of, and adding one important aspect of the story.
You can read it on here and I hope that you will enjoy it!
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.
First published by Sindhi Samachar (February 2023 issue) – Reproduced with permission of author Saaz Aggarwal and the publisher