It was just an old suitcase that he slid out from under the bed. He opened it and quickly took inventory of the contents, then slid it back under the bed and walked on. His movements were almost mechanical as if he had done this hundreds of times before. In truth, he had. He kept this old suitcase carefully packed and under his bed, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
In spite of how successful the families had become, how much they considered the Caribbean islands to be their new homes, that there were many older Sindhi grandfathers and grandmothers who still kept fully packed and carefully checked suitcases under their beds. Just in case, one day…..
By Robert James
In honor of my good friend, the late Gul Mahtani of Chulani Duty Free of Jamaica – In 1997 on a delayed American Airlines flight from Miami to Montego Bay I had the privilege of spending a couple of hours sitting next to Mr. Mahtani. He told me the story of the Sindhi people’s misery during the Partition of India. He told me the story of the Sindhi people’s triumphs in the Caribbean islands .It was only a couple of hours on a plane, but it had a profound impact on me, as have all of the Sindhi people.
It was just an old suitcase that he slid out from under the bed. He opened it and quickly took inventory of the contents, then slid it back under the bed and walked on. His movements were almost mechanical as if he had done this hundreds of times before. In truth, he had. He kept this old suitcase carefully packed and under his bed, ready to go at a moment’s notice. His grandson who I was visiting at their home in Ocho Rios, Jamaica told me that his Grandfather checked the suitcase at least once a day to insure that everything was ready. “Ready for what?” I asked. “In case he is told to leave again,” was the answer. “Leave for where?” I asked. “Just leave,” he responded. “He is ready to leave in case he is told he must go again.” “But you all have lived here for 50 years, you own this home and the land around it, including your stores,” I questioned, “why is he always ready to leave?” The answer: “We are Sindhi. And my grandparents lived in Sindh during the Partition.”
I did not realize it but I had just witnessed a small piece of history that few know about. It is about a Second Holocaust of World War II not caused by the Germans, but rather by the British Government in their head long flight to leave India after the war. The result was a genocide that was counted in the millions. And squarely in the middle of this epic is the story of the Sindhi and the Suitcase.
The land of Sindh is located inside what is now Pakistan. For hundreds of years it was a part of the unified India and was populated by the Sindhi people. There was a large number of business class people there who owned and operated successful businesses, including a variety of market types. These Sindhi people owned their lands, their homes and their businesses. They prospered even under British colonial rule that lasted until 14 August 1947.
After World War II the British were eager to rid themselves of the problems of India which included the infighting between the Muslim and Hindu populations. Since the British Army had employed mostly Muslim Indians during the war, the British Government considered that a debt was owed to the Muslim population. As a result, on their way out the country (which was hastened by the work of Mahatma Gandhi and others) the British Government under Lord Mountbatten allowed for the nation of India to be partitioned into what is now India and Pakistan – a move that would cost over a million lives, and leave the Sindhi people without a home.
The problem with the whole Partition situation is that the British Government had occupied India for over 100 years. When they left they did little more than tell the Indian people….” It’s OK for you blokes to split your country in two, and oh by the way…we are leaving so you are on your own.” The British actions were catastrophic.
The Muslim population in what is now Pakistan began a systematic genocide of the Hindus who were there. The Hindu population in India started the same for Muslims in their lands. Train loads of dead Hindus were sent across the border from Pakistan, so the trains would be loaded with the dead Muslims and sent back to Pakistan. It was killing for killing’s sake – a religious war that quite honestly continues until this day. And once upon a time before World War II, these folks were all neighbors living together. But this ended with the British pullout and the Partition of India.
The Sindhi population who lived west of the Partition line was given 30 days to leave, and leave everything behind that they owned – homes, furniture, cars, businesses, land ownership. Leave it all and get out. Anything the Sindhi’s owned as they headed east to get across the Partition Line, was taken from them by the population who was headed west out of what was now India. If the Sindhi’s tried to take things with them, it was taken away from them on the road.
Although the Sindhi’s had been promised that they would be given new lands in the new India, once they arrived they became a part of a mass of humanity with nothing but the shirts on their backs. The new lands did not exist, they had no place to go they had lost everything and faced a life of poverty.
Well, that is not exactly accurate regarding the Sindhi’s….their story did not end there. It seems that the Sindhi people are quite a resourceful and resilient group of folks. According to several accounts, many of the Sindhi’s in Sindh were jewellers. And nothing is more portable than jewels, particularly if you have a wife and daughters who are very good seamstresses. The resourceful Sindhi women sewed a king’s ransom of jewels into the clothes of their family members. Once they arrived in the new India, the Sindhi people were better prepared than most, they just needed a place to get started again….
The Caribbean Slave Connection
The Caribbean Islands were not always the wonderful tourist and cruise ship destinations that you see today. They were once the destination of European slave ships that brought the poor souls from Africa to work on the sugar cane farms. Sugar from sugar cane was a very hot commodity in Europe a few hundred years ago, but it could not be produced in the sweltering heat and conditions of the Caribbean islands without slave labor. You pretty well know the rest of this story. But it did not end quite like some of the history books may have told you.
The end of slavery in the Caribbean was not a Juneteenth Celebration with an Emancipation Proclamation and all that. There was no promise of 30 acres and a mule, or even a future of any kind. The emancipation of the Caribbean slaves consisted of their waking up one morning and seeing their Dutch and British plantation owners sailing over the horizon, headed back to Amsterdam and London. The slaves were simply abandoned on various islands around the Caribbean to fend for themselves.
Fast forward to 1947 – The Caribbean islands
As the Sindhi’s did in India, the Africans of the Caribbean pulled themselves together and made a go of it. Not great, but they made life work. They basically ceased being simply “descendants of slaves” and became the West Indian people. But without any real business investment revenues, no business training, and no real business development the Caribbean nations found themselves with a large work force but no real business direction to utilize it.
Let’s see…the Caribbean has a large workforce but no trained business community to utilize that work force.
The Sindhi’s have generations-long business acumen and available resources, but no place to call home and no one to help establish new businesses. Can you see how this whole thing developed?
Some of the Sindhi community in India knew some of the government people on the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Jamaica. These folks got together and floated the idea that the Sindhi’s who were left without a home in India, could come to the Caribbean and start businesses. They would train and employ the local West Indians, and make their new homes in the Caribbean islands. The Caribbean island governments would provide assistance with relocation and establishing of businesses.
It worked. In fact, it worked very well. Through the mutual hard work of the Sindhi community and the West Indian community, the Caribbean islands were turned into some of the most highly developed nations in the Western Hemisphere. St. Croix is home to the Hovensa Refinery, reported to be the largest oil refinery in the Western Hemisphere. And we won’t even go to the Cruzan Rum factory story. I had to leave my interest in that one behind a couple of years ago. But the duty free shopping centers that provide world class shopping to cruise ships and major tourist hotels, including the development of the island tourist industries, all have their roots in this symbiotic relationship that was developed by the resourceful Sindhi and West Indian peoples after the Partition of India in 1947.
This includes the huge jewelry industry that exists throughout the Caribbean islands, and why you see so many Sindhi names like Daswani, Dadlani, Alwani, Khiatani, Samtani, Melwani, Baharani, Bijlani, Mahtani, Khiani, Mirpuri, Mehwani, the list could go on and on. And I apologize for anyone and everyone I could not name here. But those hardy Sindhi souls who were forced to leave everything behind in Sindh in 1947 and ended up in the Caribbean, have endured the unendurable, survived the un-survivable, and exceeded and triumphed where so many others would have fallen.
Fast Forward to 1994
After I lived on Sint Maarten and St. Thomas for a few years, I returned to Florida and started the Caribbean Gemological Institute, which included travelling around 28 different islands each year. I spent a great deal of time in Jamaica with some of the finest and most professional jewellers I have known. They happen to be Sindhi.
One day, while visiting with a Sindhi friend of mine at his home in Ocho Rios, I spotted his grandfather checking out the contents of an old suitcase he kept under his bed……
I was later told that in spite of how successful the families had become, how much they considered the Caribbean islands to be their new homes, that there were many older Sindhi grandfathers and grandmothers who still kept fully packed and carefully checked suitcases under their beds. Just in case, one day…..
The writer was President, ISG, an American company in 2011. His write up was originally published in ISG Newsletter. The Daily Herald newspaper of Chicago reproduced it August 19, 2011. Sindh Courier is reproducing the article with The Daily Herald courtesy.