Life was a struggle for the men who went on Sindhwork, but they invariably came home with money. This enabled them to oversee the building of new houses in their hometown or get old ones refurbished, install flooring of the beautiful Hala tiles in the courtyards and flush tanks in the toilets. Well-off men had otaaks attached to their homes, sitting rooms in which they conducted business or entertained their friends. It was a small community and everyone knew everyone, but the social distinctions, marked by wealth, dominated interactions.
At the same time, the community ethic, built up of extended families and tight-knit neighbourhoods, was very strong. In a small locality of five or six homes, each kitchen might cook one dish, but when the families sat down to eat they would have a spread of five or six items because the women would send portions around to their neighbours.
The money that poured into Hyderabad had the predictable result of creating a new aspirational class with materialist values. Besides furniture, crockery and expensive toys for their children, this was the time when more women of Sindh began to get access to luxuries like silks, perfumes and diamonds which in the past had been restricted to royalty. Social competitiveness in these matters became entrenched and continue to manifest in lavish parties, posh addresses and jewellery collections from Hong Kong to Panama. The tradition of capable decision-making women, too, continues. With their husbands and then sons away on Sindhwork, long years of running their homes and families with neither support (nor interference) invariably gave these Bhaiband women the strength to face the world and cope with life’s vicissitudes, as Monica Bhojwani describes in her article ‘Seclusion in Glamorous Locales, the Life of a Sindhworki Wife’.
The Sindhworki men were the providers, the heads of their families. However, they only came home for a few months at a time every few years and while they were indeed the masters, throughout their working lives they would also be visitors on a limited lease.
In a patriarchal society, the man’s absence and consequent inability to fulfil needs did not lessen his position. Among the Sindhworkis, the tradition was for the mother to assume proxy for her son, and the young daughter-in-law had to accept her tyranny while being denied the reciprocal gratification.
The non-individuated spaces of a joint family do provide support to many. But a woman on her own path of individuation is likely to suffer oppression. She might feel the need to rebel or express some deviance. Monica writes of her neighbor whose mother-in-law gave her no privacy even in her bedroom; no freedom to even express physical affection for her children. Another respondent, an elderly Bhaiband woman, remembers her mother-in-law being the one to receive letters when the postman came. Even if it was a registered letter she would coolly tell him, ‘It’s fine, you can give it to me, I am her mother-in-law.’ She would put the letter in a sieve kept on top of a pot of hot water. Within a few minutes, the gum would melt and she would open the letter and take it out. Since she could not read, she would ask one of the other daughter-in-laws to read it to her. If there was anything in the letter to upset her, the intended recipient of the letter was in for a hard time.
It was an era when death in childbirth was common. Men remarried. Girls married at puberty and this meant that a woman would quite often be expecting a baby at the same time as her daughter-in-law or her married daughter. The babies could then be conveniently breastfed by both mother and sister, or mother and sister-in-law, or mother and grandmother. Young children were family property and the elder women were entitled to more ownership rights than younger ones. This meant that if an elder daughter-in-law did not have children of her own, she could be handed a newborn of the younger one to adopt or to bring up as her very own, with no concern for the wishes of the birth mother.
A young bride would be called bhabhi by her husband’s brothers. Often this made her bhabhi to other family members too, and when her children were born, they too would call her bhabhi though the word means ‘brother’s wife’. It was quite common for Sindhi girls and boys to call their mother bhabhi as long as they lived. Grandmothers were often called ammi, which translates as mother. The women who lived on through their childbearing years very often outlived their husbands.
These simple realities doubtless held true across India in that time. But the Sindhworki family structure was different. The adult males lived elsewhere and visited for short periods after long absences. With an overlap between generations, and a power equation which held little nurturance, the sexual dynamics within families would have been complex. Those dark areas may have been recorded in secret diaries or may be lost forever; they were unlikely to have ever been talked about.
There was a consciousness of the need to keep the women, most of whom were well off and employed household help for domestic tasks, occupied. One way to do this was with periodical religious rituals and gatherings. Saints and cults abounded.
Jhulelal and Others
Most of the well-off Hindu families of Hyderabad were Nanakpanthis. They revered Guru Nanak, read and recited verses of the Guru Granth and visited the local tikano (a place to sit for worship) regularly (many looking back to their childhood speak of these visits as a treat they looked forward to because there was always a tasty offering of dhodho-chutey or kanha-prasad at the end).
After Partition, the water god Jhulelal was constructed as an icon of Sindhi Hinduism. Though some families did follow the cult of the water god, a number of elderly respondents say that while in Sindh there was no particular emphasis on Jhulelal. However, there are many who are familiar with the phrase 'Jhulelal Bera Paar' (may Jhulelal help you across). While the crossing referred to may be a spiritual metaphor, there’s no doubt that traditional Sindhi traders retained the water cult because the river and the sea occupied a significant place in their lives. The history of this water cult is documented in 'Khwaja Khizr' by M.L. Bhatia.
On Tharun (Friday) they would eat fish and distribute tahiri (sweet rice). Wrote Popati Hiranandani:
The richer the merchant, the bigger was the utensil of sweet rice. They offered gifts to the water god on the day of the new moon. Wives of the Sindhworkis worshipped water, praying for the safe return of their beloved husbands from their long voyages, in the same way as the wives of the Rajput warriors used to worship the horse, entreating it to bring their husbands alive and safe from the battlefield…Women lit lamps on the banks of the river, and prayed and distributed gifts to the poor in the name of the water god. Sindhi folk poetry is replete with allusions and oblations to the river. Sindhi language is full of idioms and proverbs which signify the background of the trade and commerce of Sindhis. Bero budeii or shala bero gharku thiyeee (May your boat sink!) is a common curse that readily comes to the lips of a Sindhi woman and bera bana laeen (let my boat reach the shores) is her daily prayer. (Hiranandani 1980)
At the same time, the people who had the Indus flowing past their doorstep still made the arduous journey to Haridwar to perform important ceremonies at the Ganges, even at a time before the railways came to Sindh, as the records preserved by priests there show. Among Sindhis there is also a strong allegiance to the Vedic religion, harking back to rituals such as leaving food out for the crows which any number of Sindhi matriarchs still perform. Many of the older Sindhis claimed to worship Shiva. They had Shiva images and lingam in their homes and the women, and sometimes men too, kept a fast on Mondays. However, they also often followed the rituals of Vishnu worship: a monthly Satyanarayan pooja, hymns to Thakur (Krishna) and Janmashtami celebrations. Continues Popati Hiranandani:
The evening prayer of a rustic Sindhi would invariably be 'God's blessings on Hindus, on Muslims and on the rest.' A Sindhi is a practising Hindu, a staunch believer in the vast Hindu pantheon worshipping Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Kali, Buddha, Guru Nanik, Varuna and all gods and saints and he won't forget his Muslim Pir and will bow down in front of a holy Dargah (monastery) without any hesitation. Unlike the Muslim rulers of India who built mosques, the Muslim rulers of Sindh built only beautiful tombs. Sindhi Muslims celebrated Hindu festivals and called God Varuna 'Zindai Peer' ('the living saint'). A Sindhi never speaks about wars and conquests, aggressive adventures or religious crusades. He sings devotional songs to his water god, dances to the rhythmic tunes of wedding songs and composes poems which express the fidelity of love and attachment to his soil. (Hiranandani 1980)
This multiplicity flourished in the diaspora, a useful medium for a landless community seeking solid grounding. Satsangs, or religious gatherings, continue to be an important reality of every pocket of Sindhi families in countries around the world. Wherever they are, families retain strong links with a variety of religious traditions as well as newly-emerged cults from ‘home’. Radha Soami, Shirdi Sai Baba, Satya Sai Baba, Sadhu Vaswani, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and many other gurus have large followings. New gurus are continuing to become popular and people have been known to accept their initiations without much thought or preparation.
The groups that gather to commune and listen to the discourses of a range of gurus, visiting as well as remote, form an anchor which parents rely on as a source of a moral grounding to their children and link to their native culture. When the expat Sindhis visit India they invariably include a traditional pilgrimage site in their itinerary.
These connections are seen to have spawned efficient social, trade and marriage networks. Today’s global Sindhi diaspora has maintained the tradition of flexibility in worship, revering all that holds itself up to be revered. While they continue to uphold Hindu rituals and many of the diasporic communities retain Brahmin priests to perform weddings and other poojas, they are distinguished by the easy adaptation and integration of local religious traditions into their routines.
Hindu temple at Malaga, Spain, with deities of different faiths
Photograped by Saaz Aggarwal, October 2013
The tomb of ruler Raja Vikramajeet, Tando Ahmed Khan in Sindh. In the form of a dargah, it displays symbols of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.
Photograped by Saaz Aggarwal, February 2013
The wooden statue of Cristo Negro, the Black Christ, in Iglesia de San Felipe, Portobelo, Panama. Portobelo, once the largest and most important port in Central America, is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruined fort of the ancient city still stands by the river. The historic church of Iglesia San Felipe houses a statue of the Black Christ and on October 21 each year pilgrims throng to the church. Many of these pilgrims are the Sindhis of Panama. The gentleman whose back can be seen is Laxman Kripalani. He took off his footwear, something no local is likely to do, before climbing up barefoot to pay his obeisance.
Photographed by Saaz Aggarwal, June 2015
The Sindhis who left their homeland and settled in Bombay and Pune were soon worshipping Ganesha, installing statues of Ganpati Bappa in their homes, singing aarti and taking processions down to the river. After settling in Las Palmas and Tenerife, these Spanish Sindhis now participate in annual processions that carry a Ganesh idol. Singing and chanting as they walk, they immerse it in the sea. And then, during the feast of the local Catholic saint La Candelaria, they walk 18 miles in procession to the shrine. Their faith in her protection is such that before any important undertaking, or on their way to the airport for a journey, they will first stop and pay obeisance to La Candelaria.
It became an irony of history that the fate of these highly syncretic Hindus of Sindh turned out to hold so much store by their own religion that they were forced into exile from a beloved homeland on account of it.
Trading as a Lifeline
Through their history in Sindh, Bhaibands lived with the philosophy that a job was lowly, agriculture was noble and trade alone was profitable. After Partition, it was the inherent trading skills of the community that helped them to sustain themselves and their families, and in many cases to restore and grow their family fortunes. Stories like this one which occurred in the months following Partition are common:
One day when I was visiting Agra during my holidays, my father came home with a Sindhi family. They were a middle-aged gentleman with his mother, wife and younger sister, and a little boy, his son. They ate and rested, and told us their story. The next morning, they washed their clothes and put them on again, having nothing else to wear. The gentleman went to the wholesale market, bought a large sack of sugar and sat down with it on the pavement in a crowded bazar area, selling it slightly cheaper than the other retailers.
When the sack was empty, he sold the sack too. They ate our food for just two days. By the third day, they had become self-sufficient. Later, the elder son joined them. I don’t remember their name, but we used to call the gentleman ‘saeen’, a Sindhi form of address. They had come to Agra with nothing. Within a few years they were running their own factory. (Dubey 2015)
Another respondent, Reyhan Datta, who grew up in Kolkata wrote:
I recall a very fine person whose name I cannot recall. He was a tall, well-spoken man who used to carry a bundle of saris, selling them from door to door. Mother would offer him tea and mithai whenever he came. He spoke very little about himself other than once suggesting a medicine for a rash Mother had on her elbow. One day he came round with his usual bundle announcing that this would be the last time! He then told Mother that he had managed to ‘buy’ a practice. And then it came out. He was a doctor, a skin specialist, who had left Sindh with literally nothing other than the clothes on his back with his wife and mother. By peddling saris (and they were some of the choicest saris Mother bought) and very strict budgeting, he had managed to buy a practice going into partnership with a well-known skin specialist in Calcutta. (Datta, personal communication)
Partition also brought women into the workforce, something very rare in Sindh:
Many enterprising women of families who had suddenly lost everything and had no means of income started making papad and pickle at home and walked from door to door, selling their produce to the better-off Sindhis in the towns and cities where they—equally displaced and confused—had settled, but not settled sufficiently to be making their own papad yet. Papad-making is a tedious and time-consuming process, and very soon more and more families were outsourcing from the displaced women who made it their profession. (Aggarwal 2016)
By Sindhi tradition, Amils got educated while Bhaibands went into business. However, a great many Bhaibands, like Tulsi Mohinani, express a wistful longing for education which they were unable to fulfil. In the present day, the education-business divide no longer exists. The Bhaibands with their traditional access to capital have in fact more access to education because they can afford the more expensive options. Every diaspora city has Bhaiband professionals too. At the same time, the Amils have taken to business and many run businesses in India and other countries.
Sindhwork in the 21st Century
After Partition, many men brought their families to join them. Some remained together in the foreign lands and communities developed. Others built new homes in other parts of India, a base to which they could come and go and for their families to live, and the age-old lifestyle continued.
In the last 30 years, a new generation of Sindhworkis has grown to adulthood. They have never seen Sindh and most of them never will. They have strong links to India but even stronger links to their own extended family and community in countries all around the world. They have grown up in a local milieu, speaking the local language with their local friends and have strong patriotic feelings towards the countries of their birth. However, most of them are able to traverse the two cultures seamlessly. While some of them speak Sindhi and some follow their parents’ religious traditions, others do not. Most have grown up eating Sindhi food along with the food of the region. Some have learnt Hindi and Bollywood dance by watching Hindi movies. They do feel strongly connected to India, and most have at least some family members in India who would welcome them.
Pratap Kriplaney Dialdas grew up in Las Palmas and lived for a few years in India. He says, ‘My mother would sometimes feel that we were forgetting our origins and tell us that we must always remember or we would end up like dhobi jo kutho, na ghara jo na ghaata jo which means that, like the dhobi’s dog, we would end up not belonging anywhere, neither here nor there. My brothers and I were influenced by our mother’s bravery in facing life’s challenges and her personal value system, which nurtured in us respect for cultural and religious diversity. I was born here, I went to school here and I have a lot of local friends. It’s impossible not to be influenced by everything around you. But it’s also impossible not to be influenced by the values your family has given you. I feel I belong everywhere. Nowadays you can say you’re a citizen of the world and everyone understands that. For me, I think my heart is in both places; in India and here in Spain.’
In a traditionally male-dominated society, young girls of today face another dimension of complexity. Growing up in a western country within a traditional Sindhworki family sometimes created painful social barriers. Says another correspondent, ‘We were constantly restricted in what we were allowed and not allowed to do. We were sent to satsang with strange old aunties, instead of being allowed to go to the beach. Certain items of clothing were considered appropriate; we were not allowed to talk to boys and spending too much time with the white kids was frowned upon. We were expected to join in singing bhajans, spend time in the mandir and be home in time to help mama make dinner. Sports and activities, music and other cultural activities was never given any importance. Neither was, dare I say, schooling. We went to school, of course, but it was never considered to be important.’
On the positive side is the emotional anchor of a large and supportive family. Leaving its confines while at university, or sometimes in a period of rebellion, has given many a young Sindhworki an added consciousness of its value and motivated them to return to the family fold.
Bhaibands tend to be highly patriotic people. However, their notion of nationality is a complex one. First, they are Sindhi, and devoted to their landless community, its language and traditions. Second, they are Indian, with an abiding love and respect for their country of origin despite having no connection with the province of their origin. They also develop a deep-rooted patriotism to the country in which they live. For the men, these are the countries that their businesses take them to. For the women, they are the countries into which they marry. A Bhaiband girl may have grown up in Macassar or Santiago or Bahrain. After marriage, she is perfectly comfortable settling down in Manila or Singapore or Barcelona—or anywhere her bridegroom’s family happens to be living.
Beyond the family is a large set of families which are located in countries all around the world. Despite their unusual and rather glamorous milieu, they have always maintained a low profile. Steeped in different local cultures, they continue to maintain tightly-knit communities which preserve their own unique culture and lifestyle as the community continues to evolve. Observing this striking phenomenon, it is tempting to conclude that the strong roots the Sindhis had to their homeland have transformed into an equally strong network that encircles the globe.
Aggarwal, Saaz. 2016. ‘Sindhi Papad’. Online at http://thesongbirdonmyshoulder.blogspot.in/2016/05/papad.html (viewed on December 3, 2016)
Dubey, Hari G.N. 2015. Forgotten Stories from my Village, Harwai. Pune: black-and-white fountain
Hiranandani, Popati. 1980. Sindhis, the Scattered Treasure. New Delhi: Malaah Publications.