20 December 2020


Many years ago, as a child in class three, I saw something amazing. A tall for his age boy, a classmate, proudly walked up to the Maths teacher and presented him a cake. “It’s my birthday”. The Master who was about to read the results of a quiz, stopped him; read out his marks. He had failed the boy. Then in a rage he threw the cake on the ground, kicked it out the door and roared “don’t try and bribe me you dirty Sindhi”. (Those were the days of course, where Teachers were forgiven for being impolitic!)
After class, the boy went out, quietly picked up the cake, and took the first bite himself and shared it with us saying his mother had baked it, why waste it? The memory of the incident has not left me because it was the first time I had heard a Teacher being abusive and the first time I had heard of someone being called a Sindhi. Before that I only knew that the boy’s name was Pooran. The ‘Sindhi’ caricature of a scroogish person who accumulates cash and real estate while constantly prattling ‘vari sai’ is widespread; egged on by actors playing bit stereotypes of Sindhis in yesterday’s Hindi films. And thereby hangs a tale.
Caricatures are an unfortunate sociological phenomenon, particularly in our country; we draw upon them and use them very matter of factly mostly disrespectfully. This in turn causes diminution of our strength as a society. Constant usage somehow cements these social and untruthful caricatures till they becomes part of our believed folklore – said by elders, repeated by the young who will ape anything. And so it will go till we mature as a Society.
Murli Melwani's collection of short stories ‘Beyond the Rainbow* goes a ways in breaking the caricature. It is a melange of colourful people, exotic locales and some adventure. All characters and events are supposedly fictional. But I suspect, very strongly, each story is true or at least has a broad element of truth. It is said that a people whose homeland is sparse – or who have no homeland at all - causes them to move to far and foreign lands. To make their living or ply their trade. True of Marwaris, Jews and Scots and certainly Sindhis. The sweep of the locations of the people and stories is ample evidence of the truly international spread of this group of people.
Stereotypically Sindhis have settled in Haang Kaang and have shops in Chunking Arcade! Melwani’s book serves us a different and exotic cocktail – Curacao, Toronto, Taipei, Bangkok, Bombay, New York, Honduras, Darjeeling and of course HK and Ulhasnagar. He paints a picture of their fads, foibles, beliefs, customs, strengths, weaknesses. These stories illustrate the ease with which they adapt to (or do not) to stressful, and strange situations.
In one of the longer short stories – the protagonist is called to the Holiday Inn in HK for an interview. This took me years back on my own first trip overseas and to HK; I stayed at the Holiday Inn in Kowloon and was amazed to see a small statue of Lord Shiva near the entrance with a ‘fountainette’ from his locks depicting the source of the Ganges. I was told that the property was owned by the Harilela’s. “Sindhi, you know, flom your contly” – the Receptionist informed me Though I believe they are Hongkongers stretching back a century. Coming back to the tale, ‘Head of a Chicken’ is a textbook narrative of poor boy, with remarkable insights “…but, a Sindhi would not ask a question without a motive…” he is economical with ethics, makes good and then faces the same situation he had left his earlier employer. An interesting take on ethics and business, a motif which runs through a some of the other stories.
Another facet about Melwani’s writing is the simplicity and honesty. In one of his stories he writes “there’s a writer in each one of us”. He does not use artifice; the story is what the story is – and that is where the writer’s true craft comes in. It is very complex to keep a narrative simple. This is exemplified when he writes a commentary on one of the most intricate machinations of our society, almost like a Rube Goldberg contraption – the fixing of a marriage, narrated by the Marriage Broker. It is mirth and thought provoking in equal proportions. Explaining it is like instructing a Martian the process of lacing-up shoes and knotting them. ‘The Bhorwani Marriage’ is a treat. Having made a fair amount of money in the transaction, which is what arranged marriages generally are, the Broker adds his punch line “One must be grateful for the crumbs that life throws one’s way”.
Sex is is not taboo. This is refreshing because our public posturing is prudish and fairly Victorian. So when a well off and retired businessman has a romp with a Bar girl; it does not seem shocking. The twist is later in the tale like in the thought process of a man in another story, watching a call girl undress. And more – a Father who can shoot to kill – to dictate a marriage in his family. As they say - you can take a man out of the home but you can take the home out of the man.
Like all those who have spread across the globe and settled; names soon change to suit or accommodate or better still to merge with the chosen country of abode. Meaning we are here to stay and be a part of you. An endearing quality which makes Jetharam convert to Jimmy and Metharam change to a more suitable Mike. A subtle change of status too? Which brings me to another story.
Years ago in the middle eighties, my Boss called me to substitute for him and make an unscheduled presentation to two gentleman sitting in the Conference room. The object was to present India, as a country full of promise yet not hide the pitfalls. The two were obviously ‘from overseas’. Post the presentation I introduced myself and the young guy stuck out his hand saying “Tommy, Tommy Hilfiger. I’ve just started a line back home with him and this guy brought me here because he’s very hot on India though he’s never lived here.” The other gentleman’s calling card was a folded affair. The top read Gloria Vanderbilt and the card opened to reveal his name ‘Mike’ Murjani.
Rajesh Pant
Pune, December 2020
*Beyond the Rainbow.
Murli Melwani.
Published by Black-and-white Fountain.

06 August 2020

Learning to read all over again

When the lockdown commenced, life turned grim overnight; stranger than fiction. I was reading the Memoirs of Seth Naomal Hotchand of Karachi (1804-1878), a well-told narrative of a wealthy merchant of Sindh. Being the elaborate personal account of someone who belonged to a community about which not much documentation exists, the book, with an interesting history of its own, is fascinating. However, my eye lazed mid-sentence while my mind wandered, and the pages stayed put.

In despair, unable to read, unable to write, I dug into my files seeking comfort, and came across Forgotten Stories from my Village, Harwai by Hari Govind Narayan Dubey. In 2015, I worked with the author to translate this charming book, based in rural India during the freedom struggle, into English. It has dramatic stories – pots of gold uncovered by a farmer ploughing his fields, a spectacular jailbreak, the impact of caste division and social boycott, and more. What makes it a classic is the ringside view of the lifestyles, thought processes, and other subtleties of an epoch of Indian history invariably dominated by political figures with vested interests. To make it easily accessible to all, I uploaded it for free download on this link .

Still unsure about being able to concentrate, I decided to attempt a slim volume with an uncomplicated cover: The Impossible Journey by James A Coghlan. This lovely story of a Scottish boy’s experience of serving in the Indian army is fiction, but, based on the diary of the author’s great uncle’s accounts of a road journey from Rawalpindi to London in 1936, is quite as alive with engaging detail as Naomul’s memoirs. Along with glimpses of world history and geography, the reader understands a little about the connection between India and Scotland, while revelling in the wry turn of phrase that permeates the book.

And then, a drowning woman who miraculously began to swim, I picked up The Strange Case of Billy Biswas by Arun Joshi. This book shows that IWE were quietly turning out classic prose decades before the term IWE was coined. Billy Biswas belongs to two peculiar and mutually exclusive communities: the privileged anglophiles who once governed India, and an ancient tribe, both groups reduced today to appendages verging on extinction. Though I found its traces of schoolboy fantasy a little annoying, the plot captivated me and I read in long happy bursts, freed at last from lockdown.

This column was written for The Hindu and appeared on Monday 3 August 2020