Memoirs

When the Indus strayed from its course

Childhood memories of Gomathy Venkateswar who spent some time in Mirpurkhas and Karachi in 1944; Hailing from Bihar, her uncle Dr. R Sankaran used to work on a Sindh government project to grow vegetables in the desert.

“The soil of Sindh is the richest soil in India. It carries centuries of rich silt brought by Mother Sindhu, which has been lost to us for so long! Now we are pulling the water back here and this land is going to flourish and prosper” – Botanist Dr. R Sankaran

By Gomathy Venkateswar

Precious childhood memories of Sindh

I was a quiet child. My mother believed that though I did not speak much, I was listening and absorbing all that I saw and heard, quietly registering it in my brain. And she must have been right, because today I find that I can quite uncannily remember exact conversations I heard unobtrusively as a child even sixty and seventy years ago.

It was the summer of 1944, and Delhi was like a furnace. The Second World War was still on, and Connaught Place in the evenings was crowded with the English Tommies standing in the archways of the big shopping arcades with their caps at rakish angles. Our ayah took me and my two-year-old sister to the park inside Connaught Circle at 4pm every day, where we sat and played on the lush green grass with its border of well-maintained flower beds. On Tuesday and Saturday evenings, the army band would come in full regalia and play march tunes with bagpipes and kettle drums, led by a gigantic man, bare-chested with a tiger skin displayed across his shoulders and chest. When he threw his silver-topped stick high into the air, we children would hold our breaths and watch with open mouths, wondering whether, this time, he would somehow miss catching it!

My school was closed for summer and the intolerable heat kept us indoors for most of the day. I was five years old, restless and turning to rebellion at being cooped up. Then my aunt Lakshmi, who lived in Karachi, came to visit. She stayed with us for a week and as she was leaving, asked if she could take me home with her. There was still a month left for school to reopen. Karachi would be cooler than Delhi, with the sea breeze making the evenings very pleasant.

I felt excited at the thought of going somewhere so far away from my parents! My aunt explained to me, talking to me as if I was a grownup that she was taking me to a place called Mirpurkhas. My uncle Dr. R Sankaran, a botanist of repute, was working on an experiment for the Sindh government. It was a desert area but they had dug irrigation canals which brought water from the Indus River which was quite far away, and had now planted vegetables. It all sounded so mystical to me!

We travelled by train to Bombay and I remember my first sight of the sea, and its salty taste! From there, the long train journey to Hyderabad, Sindh, via Jodhpur, followed by a one-hour journey on a smaller train, took us to Mirpurkhas. My cousins Lochani, six, and Ramji, ten, were waiting for their mother and me to arrive. Their school in Karachi was also closed for the summer and we were all going to spend the holidays in their father’s home.

gomathy-venkateswar-29-july-2019-in-geneva-attending-the-centenary-conference-of-the-international-federation-of-university-women
Gomathy Venkateswar in Geneva in June 2019, attending the Centenary Conference of the International Federation of University Women

The first thing I noticed about Mirpurkhas was that it was a still, silent place and when a horse carriage passed or a motor car rode slowly by, golden dust rose up in the air. That dust would settle on you, from head to foot. Unless you were carrying a handkerchief or a towel to cover your face, you would start coughing and choking. When you tried to pick it up, it was soft and smooth, with no grit or stones, and slid through the fingers like silk.

My aunt’s home was a flat-roofed red-brick building with a large veranda that ran all around it. At the back was a courtyard that opened up to the sky. It contained a large kitchen and a place to wash clothes. There was a large tub with a wooden lid, in which water was stored. Just behind this courtyard was the cowshed in which two large cows and a little calf were tied. I was eager to pet the calf but my aunt warned me not to go too near as its mother was possessive and might try to butt me. So I watched in fascination from a distance as my aunt entered twice a day to milk the cows. She worked briskly, and the milk swished frothily into a shiny bucket which filled to the brim in minutes. She then boiled the milk and poured it into tall steaming metal containers, stirring in a little sugar, and handing us one each she said to me, “Drink three glasses of this rich milk every day, and at the end of the month I will send you back to your mother nicely fattened!”

It was only the day following our arrival that I saw the man with the black eyepatch in the courtyard behind the house.

Hasan the Hur

My cousins and I were sitting in the kitchen as my aunt prepared our breakfast on the mud-plastered choolha. A shadow appeared in the doorway and I turned to see who it was and instinctively cowered in fear, clinging to my aunt. He was a big man with a loose flowing shirt and salwar. His face was pockmarked, and he had a scar across his cheek. And there was a black cloth patch over one eye. He was waiting to speak to my aunt and when she turned towards him, he immediately bent low and salaamed to her with a guttural grunt. I clung to my aunt even tighter as she gave him instructions in fluent Sindhi.

Ramji teased, “Oh look, she is scared of Hasan the Hur!” Before I could burst into tears, my aunt hugged and reassured me, saying:

“He is very gentle, and he loves children.” She explained that the Hurs were brave warriors who had tried to fight the British, for which most of them had been rounded up and put in prison, where they were tortured to reveal the names and whereabouts of their leaders. Hasan was still serving his sentence but he was one of those released on parole for a few hours each day to work in the homes of government officials. He was a good person who had led a sad life and my aunt always spoke to him kindly. One of his main tasks was to draw water from the well which was quite a distance away, and bring it to the house in goatskin bags. Once he had filled all our water containers, he had to return to the prison.

My cousins told me that they often saw groups of Hurs silently riding their horses, like phantoms in the night, moving from place to place in the desert. I was terrified at the thought. Years later in college, reading An English History of India by Vincent Smith, my heart skipped a beat while reading the chapter on British encounters in Sindh because it had a small note on the Hurs and their savage suppression by the British, with imprisonment ranging from ten years to life. Those who escaped fled to neighboring regions of Baluchistan and Kabul.

After all those years, the face of Hasan the Hur rose in my mind, and I felt a pang of pity for the man who had worked so very hard and humbly in my aunt’s home.

Holiday routine

Our routine began early morning, well before 6. We took our baths from a big brass urn which was filled to the brim. After a tasty breakfast of fruit and milk, we sat to do our lessons. Lochani and I did simple arithmetic, spellings and reading, while Ramji worked on Maths problems that his father gave him to solve. By 10 am, we had lunch together and my uncle left for his office which was not far away, saying he would be back by 4 pm. He wore a khaki shirt and khaki half-pants, a sola topee with a white cloth tucked into it to cover the back of his head and neck, and a big flask of water slung over his shoulder. My aunt cautioned him repeatedly, “Don’t stay out in the sun!” to which he replied with a laugh, “But that’s my work!”

When he left, my aunt pulled down the fragrant khus-khus covered chicks all around the veranda. Hasan the Hur sprinkled water on them at intervals, and this brought a cool fragrance into the darkened rooms. My cousins and I played snakes and ladders, carrom and card games, and Ramji entertained us with card tricks which he was very good at. Around noon we all dozed off on the bare floors and when we got up at 2 or 3 pm, my aunt would bring a jug full of a purplish juice. It came from a long-stemmed green glass bottle with a paper label which said “OT” in bold print. She poured it into tall containers and we drank with relish and asked for second helpings. There was a glare outside that made the eyes ache and made us want to remain indoors. Hasan the Hur now silently went about his task of filling the tubs and urns with water. Ramji told me that his tongue had been cut off because he did not comply with the British jailers’ demands that he disclose the whereabouts of his compatriots. We did not discuss what lay behind the eye patch as what had been one to him was too horrible for our childish minds to conceive.

As the sun started going down the horizon, my aunt would ask us to walk down to the club house, which was a beautiful place surrounded by a cool green lawn and tennis courts. It had a large hall with polished wooden floors that shone, and a large chandelier hanging from the center of the ceiling. Lochani, though a year older than me, hardly spoke and let her brother do the talking. She said hesitantly that her mother and father came here for big functions and that she had seen them dance with the sahibs and memsahibs of Mirpurkhas. I giggled, as I had seen pictures in magazines of people dancing, holding each other close, and could not imagine my aunt and uncle doing that! I said I would ask my aunt to teach me to dance so that I could go home and show my mother, but Ramji scoffed, saying I was too short and when I was tall enough to place my hands on his shoulder, he might consider teaching me.

The room that fascinated me most was the one which had a large table covered with a soft green cloth. It had lovely colorful balls on it. I remember Ramji peering around the door to make sure no one was coming, picking up a long stick called a cue, bending his face close to the table, closing one eye and aiming at a ball. He pushed the stick slightly forward, sending the ball skimming across the table, hitting more balls on the way – and a red ball neatly fell into a net pocked on the side of the table. Awestruck, I clapped my hands and asked how he had learnt to do that. “By watching the Englishmen play!” he replied, and proceeded to strike again, and again, until all the balls had fallen into the pockets.

Lochani and I ran around the clubhouse, playing and shouting happily. We were the only ones there, except for two old waiters who told us softly, “Now Babas, you must go home, it is getting dark!” And one day, as we walked home, tired and hungry, we heard the gentle thud of horse hooves approaching. Ramji grabbed our hands and pulled us to the side of the narrow road and there we waited our eyes wide, shaking a little with fear, as the troop of about twenty horsemen rode past, their faces covered and guns held in their hands. “The Hurs” – Ramji whispered as they passed. But the sound was muted and there was not even that cloud of dust I had grown to expect, and it felt like a dream. “They ride like ghosts,” said my cousin, “no one knows when they come and when they go!”

ramji-lakshmi-sankaran-lochani-and-dr.-r-sankaran
Ramji, Lakshmi Sankaran, Lochani and Dr. R Sankaran

His experiment was a great success

My uncle had been busy all this while with official visitors. He was an important person who had been handpicked by the British agriculturists, for an important task. With his doctoral degree in Botany from the Imperial College of London, he was considered to be the best qualified to challenge the desert soil.

On the morning after the visitors left, he took us for a walk to show us something special. My aunt gave us our morning meal early, and we set off by about 9 am. The sun was shining brightly, but it was still quite cool. We all wore sola topees on our heads and each had a water flask slung across our shoulders. We walked through soft mud, jumping every few yards across ditches which had water running through them. When we came to a ditch too large for me and Lochani to jump across, my uncle would help us across, one at a time. What an adventure it was! We finally arrived at a high ground covered with greenery. We walked through the plants and at every few steps my uncle bent down and gently held up a lovely large red tomato to show us! There was row upon row of tomato shrubs, with ripe fruit hanging from them in large numbers, so large and juicy that Lochani could not stop herself from picking one and biting into it! I still remember the way the juice sprayed out into her eyes! “You eat one too,” she urged and I did so – but mine turned out to be unripe and the acrid taste made me spit it out, and fling my tomato down, wrinkling my face and saying, “It’s horrible!”

My uncle had walked ahead and we ran to catch up with him. Now we saw rows of cauliflowers and cabbages, large and ready to pluck. “My experiment has been successful!” my uncle announced with pride. “The soil of Sindh is the richest soil in India. It carries centuries of rich silt brought by Mother Sindhu, which has been lost to us for so long! Now we are pulling the water back here and this land is going to flourish and prosper.”

He took out a pocket knife and plucked four large cauliflowers and a handful of tomatoes and we carried them home. My aunt was simply thrilled to see the giant-sized vegetables and that evening, as per her husband’s instructions, she steamed them and served them to us sprinkled with salt and pepper and topped with dabs of fresh home-made butter from the cows in her cowshed. It was the most delicious dinner and to this day I remember the flavor of those cauliflowers which I have never tasted again.

Nehru visits Mirpur Khas

The days flew by and one week before I was to return, news came that Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the senior leaders of the Indian National Congress which was fighting for freedom from the British, was touring Sindh and would be passing through Mirpurkhas by train. My aunt was thrilled to hear this and decided that we would all go to the Mirpurkhas station next morning and wait for the train carrying Nehru to pass by. Who knew, perhaps the train would stop and we would get a chance to see the great man! My aunt picked red roses from her garden and made them into a bouquet and she held the sweet-smelling bunch close to her chest as we set out for the station.

In the month I had spent with my aunt we had hardly seen anyone in Mirpurkhas, not even on our visits to the clubhouse. We had a few houses around ours but they only had elderly people in them, and they were always indoors. But somehow that morning there was an enormous crowd of people standing on the narrow platform of the little station. And everyone seemed to be carrying a garland. There was a festive feeling in the air and people were talking loudly and happily, even though there were many police and British officers in their white uniforms, sola topees and boots. After an hour milling around, we heard the hoot of a train and saw smoke curling away in the wind. As the train slowly steamed into the station, the crowd converged onto it and it seemed like a stampede! My uncle picked up Lochani and my aunt picked me up, but put me down again saying I was too heavy. She told Ramji to hold onto me tightly and keep close to her. The train came to a halt and a slight man with a smiling face emerged from the compartment in front of us to thunderous applause and loud shouts of welcome as people rushed forward to garland him. He stepped onto the platform and spoke in Hindi, praising Sindh and his pride in being Indian. As he came to the end of his speech, my aunt rushed forward and, since she was a woman, the crowd made way for her and she was able to give him the bouquet. He held it to his nose, breathed in its fragrance, and smiled at her. Plucking one red rose from it, he pinned it to his coat and threw the rest into the air, people surging forward to catch what they could. My aunt had tears in her eyes and she hugged me, as the crowd waved at their beloved leader, who stood on the step of his compartment waving back, until the train became a mere speck in the distance. In another few short years, this charming man would be independent India’s first Prime Minister.

Goodbye to Mirpurkhas

My visit ended abruptly when a telegram arrived. Our house in Delhi had been burgled and my parents, perhaps unsettled and disoriented by the incident, wanted me back with them and I was sent home at once.

It was a big disappointment, but compensated when my mother decided that she wanted to visit her sister too and brought me back to Sindh with her in December 1944. It was bitterly cold and things were quite different! But I was an old Mirpurkhas hand, and could proudly introduce my mother to the cows and the tomatoes, and explain to her the sad fate of the Hurs, pointing out Hasan the Hur.

My cousins were students at St Joseph’s School in Karachi, which had separate sections for girls and boys within a big compound. On the last day of the Christmas holidays, my uncle’s office car drew up to the front of the house. Our luggage was piled in, the house locked up, and as we drove off, I had a last glimpse of Hasan the Hur toiling away with his large pails of water. Karachi was a large and noisy city, in those days the most cosmopolitan city of India, the only one to have its own airport. There were wide roads, lit up by bright lights at night, and none of the desert dust of Mirpurkhas. We spent a week in the big city, in a small house quite close to the sea. We went there every evening to see the tall ships, and could smell the fish that came in small boats laden with them, to be put into baskets and carried by men and women into the city markets. I did not like Karachi much, and longed to go back to Mirpurkhas, but never did.

Today I sit back and think of how strange it is that only I remain the keeper of this memory in my family! All of those who were there with me that summer of 1944 in Mirpurkhas, who saw the miracles my uncle wrought making the silky desert soil bloom through his networks of small ditches and canals, transforming plain barren land to produce the most delicious and giant-sized tomatoes, cauliflowers and cabbages, are gone. Ramji passed away in 1989, when he was only 55. The last to go was Lochani, just two weeks ago.

Memory is the most precious thing one can have in life. That is what really keeps you alive.

___________________

The author of this post, Gomathy Venkateswar, was born in Bihar and grew up in Bombay. She moved to Kolkata, where she still lives, when she got married in 1958 – and her career began in 1980, after she topped Calcutta University in the Masters’ in Ancient Indian History and Culture examination. In 1987, she received a Fullbright Fellowship for international teachers at the University of Minnesota, USA, and in 1997 a Schumacher fellowship in Devonshire, UK, for training in New Age Science teaching in schools. Gomathy Venkateswar has been principal of the highly reputed Calcutta International School, Bombay International School, and Malpi International School (in Panauti, Nepal).

Published by Saaz Aggarwal

Saaz AggarwalSaaz Aggarwal is an independent researcher, writer and artist based in Pune, India. Her body of writing includes biographies, translations, critical reviews and humour 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. After a career break when she had a baby, during which time she established a by-line as a humour writer, she was appointed features editor at Times of India, Mumbai, in 1989, where she launched Ascent, the highly successful HR pullout of the Times of India Group. From 1998 to 2006, she was HR and Quality Head of Seacom, an Information Technology company based in Pune. As an artist, she is recognized for her Bombay Clichés, quirky depictions of urban India in a traditional Indian folk style, as well as a unique range of offerings at the annual Art Mandai event in Pune. Her art incorporates a range of media and, like her columns, showcases the incongruities of daily life in India.

{Courtesy: Saaz Aggarwal who shared the link of Sindh Stories for reproducing this article in Sindh Courier}

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