A Partition Diary: Goodbye, Sindh; Hello, World

Published: Wed, 11/19/2014 - 10:17 Updated: Mon, 08/14/2017 - 11:32

Jyoti Gulab Delhi 

Sindh, July 1947: My sisters and I were highly excited at the thought of leaving Hyderabad, Sindh, to join our aunties and uncles (some of whom were a few years younger or just a few years older than us) in Karachi.

We loved Karachi, our Nana’s home. We always enjoyed our school holidays there and the sea air was very bracing. But this time we were leaving our home for good — never to return, as India had been divided into Hindustan and Pakistan. Our two brothers were in boarding school in India already, now it was our turn to leave Sindh.

Mummy was thrilled about staying with her parents for the two weeks till the chartered plane arrived to take a whole planeload of wives and children to West Africa, where their menfolk worked. But somehow the wait became longer and longer and Mummy almost lost hope of leaving Karachi for a home of her own. The flight that was scheduled to arrive from Holland was delayed indefinitely, but Daddy and all the menfolk who were dying to have their families safely with them did their best to hasten matters, and all the blame was rudely given to poor Mr Sippy, who had taken the responsibility for the chartered KLM plane.

Eventually, though, the plane arrived and all the formalities were over. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 6 the next morning. It was a two-hour coach drive to Karachi airport.

The day before leaving, everyone was chattering nineteen to the dozen. The Karachiwallahs helped pack our luggage and other necessities through the night. No one slept a wink, so most of us had splitting headaches when we were leaving. As for Mummy, she always suffered from migraines so she was the worst-off. She had to carry Polly (my two-year-old sister), while I looked after Bhaga (my five-year-old sister), who kept dashing hither and thither. Mohini, my older 13-year-old sister, was helping us all to board the coach. We were all anxious about missing
the flight.

The drive was pleasant enough, but at the airport we worried about our belongings as lots of young hopefuls had arrived in Pakistan from India to start their new lives. Most of the customs crew were untrained and unethical. Officials who inspected the luggage pinched whatever suited them. One newly recruited customs officer (a teenage boy) who checked our luggage, picked up a silk hanky from the suitcase he was inspecting. He then mopped his sweaty brow and newly cultivated moustache with it and announced he was taking all the six new hankies in the suitcase to mop his face.

Mummy was so worried about being delayed that she generously kept offering him whatever he touched, much to our annoyance. She was also dying for a cup of tea, hoping it would clear her head.

After the customs check was over, we made for the lounge and occupied one of the tables. Mohini asked the bearer for a pot of tea and proceeded to prepare it for Mummy. The tea was served English-style, unlike the way we usually had it: pre-mixed and served in a pot. Mohini was given a tea pot, milk jug and sugar cubes and as she wasn’t used to this array, she was confused. Mummy, with little Polly on her lap, told her to just mix it all in a cup and hand it to her. Mohini had never seen sugar cubes in her life and wondered what they were! She spied a cut-glass salt shaker on the table and assumed it was powdered sugar. Mummy took a sip and spat out the contents. Fortunately, a cute British air hostess with a smattering of Sindhi saw what happened and made Mummy a decent cuppa. We thanked her profusely for her help, glad that Mummy was feeling better. I grinned cheerfully at Mohini — she was the celebrated Miss Know-It-All in our family, but this time she’d got it wrong. Mummy managed to gulp down a few sips before we were rushed off to board the flight.

Once we were seated, all the children fell asleep, but the aunties complained of the dreadful drone of the plane despite the cotton wool in their ears. At about noon we landed at Basra (Iraq), a very hot and dusty place. We had a problem explaining our refugee status and why we were carrying our valuables with us. Eventually, after much miming, the ladies managed to convince the customs officials of our innocence, and with many sighs of relief, we were allowed to proceed with everything intact.

As per Indian custom, all the ladies wore lots of gold jewellery (I must add the Middle Easterners wore no less). My cousin, Kamla, fainted soon after landing, and her mother started moaning and crying loudly over her only teenage daughter. We were served lunch at the airport, but didn’t want to eat it because we were very air sick and pukey. We re-boarded the plane after it was serviced, reached Cairo in the evening and settled into the second best hotel—I’ve forgotten the name. The best hotel was overflowing with refugees from Gaza, Israel and other places.

We ourselves were a whole plane load, mainly women with children, as well as a lot of hopeful teenage boys who meant to make a fortune in Africa. We occupied most of the three floors of the hotel, but there were quite a few refugees from the Middle East as well. We were refugees from Pakistan.

Cairo was a truly delightful place, but that night we were too out of sorts and exhausted to notice much. Our appetites were poor and our bodies stiff; the little children were cranky. All the mothers were concerned about their children’s health. But the teenagers were curious and agog. The boys who had bagged prime jobs with Indian firms in Africa were very excited and ate everything with enormous appetites, including the milk and rice pudding that was served daily, much to our disgust (we were spoilt brats).

The next morning everyone complained about the toilets: they had no water, just toilet paper. The sinks for washing hands, as per western customs, were outside the toilets. Everyone moaned that they felt unclean using toilet paper until an Isma (Swahili for bearer) realised what the adults were unhappy about. He took some of our group to the staff bathroom which, like Indian toilets, had taps for washing. He also showed them the showers that they used, instead of the bath tubs that were provided for hotel guests. The Isma said we were welcome to use their toilets if we preferred.

Language was a problem for us in Cairo. While the locals could speak Arabic, French and their own languages, they couldn’t understand a word of English. Meanwhile, Indians could understand and speak a smattering of English — it was the second language, naturally, as the English had been our rulers once. But with gesticulation we could manage to make them understand our wishes. A group of five or six boys (aged about nine and above) were so fascinated by the lift in the hotel that they used it almost non-stop, going up and down for entertainment. Eventually the lift was chain closed with an out-of-order sign until the mothers promised the hotel management that they would teach their boys not to overuse it.

We spent 21 glorious days in Cairo, though our mothers were restless, dying to continue with the journey. The hotel staff was really wonderful even though the children behaved badly. They were extremely courteous to the ladies and did their best to make them comfortable and feel at home. Even so, all of us were dying to be reunited with our fathers and husbands in Africa soon!

This story is from print issue of HardNews