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Jhulelal in Jhulelal Mandir situated in Nadiad (Image from Wikimedia Commons and Under Creative Commons License)

Pallo: Sindhi Poetry to Discover Oral History

Poetry As Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

For five years now, I have hosted monthly poetry readings in my living room, which, starting in March 2020, with the onset of the pandemic, transitioned to weekly online meetings by popular request. It has proven to be a sanctuary for us regulars. We read poems in different languages, with impromptu translations, to find shelter in poems. We have read poems to process the major public tragedies in these unusual times, be it the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and protests in its aftermath, California’s largest wildfires with darkness at noon over San Francisco and ash raining down from the skies, India’s major floods and the largest migration of daily workers who walked from all major Indian cities to their villages, the very divisive presidential election with the prolonged wait for the results, to the history-making Biden-Harris team winning the White House from Trump, and beyond. Thanks to the patient listening and open minds, we have grown closer and our personal experiences are also shared through the poems we read.

In July 2020, I suffered a personal tragedy, as my mother passed away in India. As an only child, it was especially hard to not be near her as she bid farewell to this life. The strong independent woman she was, she had made plans for her mortal remains to be donated to the local hospital for the cause of science. Due to COVID restrictions, the hospitals were no longer accepting cadavers. My maasi’s daughter and her son, and their spouses, took care of the last rites. My grief was expressed in the poetry circle as I sang an old Sindhi prayer that I first heard as a child from my grandmother. It is an aarti, sung at the end of most prayer rituals in Sindhi households. We call it pallo as we sing it while holding open a scarf or end of a saree or hands open in front of the body, in supplication. The ‘pallo starts with…

Pallo payan ti maan Zinda-Pir te

Muhenji bedi athayee vich seer te  

Pallo payan ti maan Zinda-Pir te

Baasiyu baasan ti maan Zinda-Pir te

 

Jyotin-wara Lal-Odera

Kayee kan ta, to dar phera

Tuhenje meher ameer fakir te

 

I am seeking at Zinda-Pir

My boat is mid-stream

I am seeking at Zinda-Pir

Wishing for my wishes at Zinda-Pir

 

O enlighted Lal-Odera

Many come seeking at your door

For your blessings, the rich and the poor

Sindhi is spoken mostly by Sindhis living in Sindh, Pakistan. The majority of them are Muslims as the Hindu Sindhis, like all four of my grandparents, migrated to India in 1947, due to the partition of the country. My parents were about ten years old as they became child refugees in India. Their generation assimilated by adopting the local languages and customs, and by inter-marrying people of different faiths and languages. The partition destroyed the rich cultural and literary heritage of Sindhis as we became displaced people. My mother was the only person I could speak in Sindhi with. With her passing the reality of Sindhi as a dying language hits home personally. Most of my cousins can’t even speak it, and I never learned to read or write it. It is written in the Arabic script and growing up in Delhi, there was no access to learning it in school or elsewhere. 

As I sang the pallo, one of the poets in our circle, who reads extensively in Urdu, another language written in Arabic script, told me about Shah Latif, the best-known poet of Sindh. A classic book of his poems, Latif-jo-Rassolo, was published in 1866, almost 100 years after he passed away. With curiosity aroused and information a few clicks away, I discovered so much about the land of my ancestors and Sindhi culture that I might never have otherwise.

For example, I always knew that we Sindhis worship Jhulelal, the river god, who is depicted sitting on a fish. That seemed fitting for a people named after the river Sindhu, called Indus in English, that flows through Sindh. Sindhis have been global traders from the times when rivers were the highways and boats were planes. The typical Sindhi greeting ‘bedo paar’ literally means ‘may your boat land safely’. 

What I never knew was that Jhulelal is a poet who lived in the mid-tenth century. He is called by many other names, such as Lal Sai (because he wore red robes), Odero Lal (Flying one, as he traveled a lot), Zinda-Pir (Living Saint), Sheikh Tahir, Shahbaz Kalandar, amongst them. He is part of the rich Sufi tradition, that originated in Sindh. The richness of the culture is hinted at in the fact that India is named after a bastardization of Indus, the land of the ancient Indus Valley civilization.

One of the major archeological sites of that ancient civilization, called Mohan-jo-Daro, is simply Sindhi for Mound-of-the-Dead. The locals knew of it always, way before the British engineers trying to lay the railroad through the soft sand of Sindh were led to it, to steal and reuse the 5000+ year old bricks from the Great Wall of Sindh, to stabilize the sand for 90 miles of railroad tracks to be laid on it. To this day, the shrine of Odero Lal in Sindh is one of the few places where Hindus and Muslims continue to pray together under the same roof.

I have sung the pallo many times in my life, but only now deciphered the coded message in it. Today Zinda-Pir would be considered a Muslim name and Odero-Lal a Hindu name, but in the song, we seek blessings from the same poet, best known as Jhulelal, the Sindhi God. The most popular song that every qwaali concert ends with, when everyone dances, is an ode to Jhulelal, Dum-a-dum Mast Qalandar, made popular in the 70s by Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila, but also sung by Abida Parveen, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Fareed Ayaz, and many others that continues to build bridges of love as iconic singers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India continue to sing it to appreciative audiences. Breathing life into poetry by reading it out loud to patient listeners revives this almost-extinct message of love, much needed in these troubled times. 


Dr. Jyoti Bachani is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is a former Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, with degrees from London Business School, UK, Stanford, USA, and St. Stephen’s College, India. She translates Hindi poems and edited a poetry anthology called ‘The Memory Book of the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley’.


 

Who Am I?

Who Am I?

I am brown; 

I am different 

from the white and the black.  

I am Dravidian, a word as 

mysterious as the origin  

of the universe. 

Now I am a hyphenated American;  

I speak English 

with a discernible accent, but my  

students loved it. 

It’s not Southern Utah accent; 

It’s not South Indian Brahmin accent, either. Oh!  South Indian accent 

is perhaps rooted in Telugu, Tamil,  

Kannada, or Malayalam. Or, is it a  

composite one; 

The composite one that is further  

nurtured by your school, teachers,  

and peers? 

While I was growing up in South India, I was  still a minority: 

Because I was a Brahmin; 

because I was not rich like Reddys or Kammas.  While I was in New Delhi, 

I was still a minority. 

I sharply felt it so then. 

 

First, my name gave out; 

second, my Hindi was tinged 

with a distinct South Indian accent; 

third, I was a shade darker than the fair Punjabi;

fourth, I was brighter than the others in  my mixed Indian circle;

fifth, I was able to speak their tongue, while  they couldn’t my language; 

it was exotic and foreign to them; 

 

sixth, for that matter, 

they couldn’t even pronounce my  

mouthful Godly name; seventh, I was  

cultured and knew Gita and  

Shakespeare; watched popular  

Bollywood movies and attended  

Krishnamurti’s 

discourses on metaphysics and theology; 

missed no major classical concerts 

or dance performances–eastern or western.  Yet, I was different for being poor. 

 

I am what I am. 

Why should I be like someone else?  

Even my brothers are different. 

We share the same parents. 

 

I am brown 

I am different 

from the white and the black.  

The Upanishads say 

“Tat Tvum asi.” 

“That thou art. 

I am an immigrant 

And I am conspicuous 

by being brown and  

different from occidental  

and oriental 

 

And I am now scared of being in a bar 

though I am an American

******

Notes 

Dravidian: of South India different from North India; considered the original natives of India. 

Brahmin: The highest caste in the hierarchy of the traditional Hindu caste system.    

South India: Essentially of Dravidian culture with four major languages- Telugu, Tamil,  Kannada, and Malayalam, each with its own script and linguistic origins. 

Hindi: The national language of independent India; also, one of the major languages of North India. 

Punjabi: of North India in the state of Punjab. 

Gita: Short form for Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Blessed Lord), the great devotional classic of Hinduism; renowned as the jewel of India’s spiritual wisdom; represents the essence of Hinduism, much as the Sermon on the  Mount presents the essence of Christianity.

Krishnamurti: considered one of the greatest thinkers of our age who influenced millions throughout the twentieth century.

Upanishads: a series of mystical and philosophic prose works in a dialogue form constituting the chief theological documents of ancient Hinduism – a total of 108 discourses that can be dated to about 600 BC. 

Tat Tvum Asi: translated from the Sanskrit language, the ancient classical  language of India, similar to Latin, means “that thou art.” Taken from  Chandogya Upanishad, this famous expression identifies the relationship between the individual and the Absolute.


Satyam Sikha Moorty is a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and taught for 31 years at Southern Utah University. He has two chapbooks ready: “Who Am I? and other poems”  and “Poems of Fear and Songs of Hope.”  His book “Passage from India: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays” has recently been published.

An Accomplished Poetic Life

A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.

– W. H. Auden

In reading 16-year-old Uma Menon’s debut collection of poetry, it is obvious that W. H. Auden was speaking about her. For that matter, the fact that the author is a teen should not make the reader shy away from her work and chalk up the 96-page volume of poetry to rhymey-rhymes or hip-hop repetition.

On the contrary, Menon’s poems are as well crafted as those written by one twice her age with an equally-impressive and diverse backlog of publication. An exploration of what it means to be a young woman of color in America, Hands for Language is a deep dive into the joys, sorrows, and challenges met by straddling the white world and the land of her birth.

Comprised of 55 tightly-crafted free verse poems, Hands for Language is presented in four parts. Finding, losing, and keeping one’s language is the common thread of the collection.

Part One: Birth primarily moves from her childhood living in India through just after immigrating to the United States. She reflects on her early life in 11 poems, including “citizenship,” “birthdays,” “origin story,” and “at the intersection of the land & sea.”

Part Two: Discovery embraces language and the search for meaning, understanding, and communication while discussing the need to juggle her native Malayalam and the English of her new land. The 14 titles that make up this section include “spoken language,” “i forget,” “the world lies between her two eyes,” and “dictionary: tanpura.”

Part Three: Becoming examines “how to become a beautiful second-language poet,” “portrait of my tongue as a battleground,” “Ode to Debate / Sometimes, After Junior Year,” and “Orphan Tongues.” 

Part Four: Rebellion includes 16 poems, including titles such as “revolution in my mind,” “border violence,” “Hand in Mouth,” and “independence.”

Language is the foundation of the collection, but Menon also centers on family: her mother, grandmother, uncle, and traditions they have taught her. As an activist, Menon expresses pointed concerns about hot-button topics such as immigration, current events, gender, nature, and climate change. She is as punctilious in her language as to make the reader forget her age but not her love of language a weapon against injustice.

An accomplished young woman, her writing has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. This debut collection was shortlisted for the 2019 International Erbacce Prize. Alongside her many literary achievements, Menon is a social justice advocate, a nationally ranked debater, and the first Youth Fellow for the International Human Rights Art Festival. As a member of the high school Class of 2020, Menon graduated as valedictorian from Winter Park High School’s (Florida) International Baccalaureate Program, and she plans to continue her education this fall at Princeton University.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects. 

Sanskrit: Dead, Dying, or Dormant?

Hindus everywhere recite their prayers in Sanskrit, conduct all their ceremonial rituals in Sanskrit, and give Sanskritized names to their children. But what effort do we make to learn that language and keep it alive? In a wedding ceremony brochure, when I saw the name Vishnu distorted into Vish (meaning “poison” in Sanskrit!) and the turmeric-paste ceremony known as pithi spelt as “pity,” the outrageous neglect of our ancient, sacred language stood startlingly before me.

Language of the Gods

The significance of Sanskrit in Indian mythology, its religious and spiritual heritage, and its history cannot be overstated. It is the language of some of the most profound scriptures of the land. The spiritual knowledge it has espoused is timeless without ever being pulseless. Sanskrit (Sanskruta) is about 3,500 years old.

One reason it survived this long is its sacred status and its multifaceted enfoldments. Over centuries it has embraced many diverse components of human endeavor like religion, art, philosophy, spirituality, poetry and literature, history, complex and computable grammar, and multiple sciences. It was therefore aptly known as girvana or the language of the elite (devas). 

Sanskrit has flexibility of function and openness of space to accommodate new ideas, concepts, and vocabulary. This is because it does not erect a rigid building but provides building blocks, thus rendering it always contemporary and ready for remodeling. Besides being a complex and rich language, it is also a vehicle that is capable of conveying sophisticated thoughts.

Which other language contains about 60 figures of speech (alankar) and about 600 meters (chhanda)? 

Heritage 

Dara Shikoh

Ancient India was greatly influenced by the influx of many diverse languages and cultures. In retrospect, this was not entirely detrimental to our development. Among the Mughals, Dara Shikoh, son of Shah Jahan and brother of Aurangzeb, was a great Sanskrit scholar and an avid follower of the Upanishads, which he translated into Arabic. 

Voltaire, the French philosopher, having been profoundly impressed by the Upanishads, translated these scriptures further into German, whereupon Germany became the nidus of Sanskrit language! The British also established Sanskrit schools in England, Wales, and Scotland. In fact, there are colorful stories of the penchant some of these Europeans had to learn Sanskrit. 

Sir William Jones was a great English philologist who mastered 28 languages mostly on his own. He failed to find a guru who would teach him Sanskrit, because of a religio-cultural barrier. Finally, a 90 year-old shastri (“scholar” in Sanskrit) agreed to tutor him, provided Sir Jones did not enter his house but kept perched on his porch (Social Distancing of those times). He was humiliated for every mistake he made while learning the language, sometimes by the guru throwing his shoes at him. But he learned the language nevertheless and produced some innovative research by drawing parallels between Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit and connecting their roots to Gothic, Celtic, and Persian languages.

In Need of CPR 

In the land of its origin, however, Sanskrit has lost steam.

During the colonial era, Lord Macaulay set in motion the introduction of English as the medium of administration, education, and a means for livelihood. Britain’s domination brought with it advances in technology and trade. India’s doors opened to the world at large, English being the global lingua franca.

And what about Sanskrit? Today, only 24,821 Indians and 1,669 Nepalese people consider Sanskrit as their mother tongue! 

Historically, too, its elitism has cost some setbacks. Because of its complexity and precision that left no room for ambiguity, the language subsequently became exclusive to kings and the Brahmins. As an example, in the classics of Sanskrit literature, such as Shakuntalam, you see that King Dushyant speaks in Sanskrit, while his beloved Shakuntala, a forest raised maiden, speaks in Prakrit. 

As the use of Sanskrit passed into the hands of Brahmins and concentrated there, they exploited this advantage to gain power and money. Knowledge became a privileged commodity.

Characters like Shambuk in the Ramayana and Ekalavya in Mahabharata illustrate this discrimination. Brahmins, for their own benefit, imparted a religious hue to the language. This worked successfully in their favor in the effort to dominate the poorly educated masses of India. Subsequently, even Brahmins could not long retain the power and sophistication of this sacred language, which now was bereft of all its multiple facets. 

The tragic outcome of this degradation is evident in the prevalent belief of even educated Indians that only Brahmins can perform religious rituals and the medium of their expression should be restricted to Sanskrit—even if they do not understand it and have no way to know if the performing priest is sufficiently equipped with the required knowledge! 

Sanskrit grammar is extremely sophisticated, necessitating years of dedicated study. Lay people do not have that sort of time available nowadays. Does that mean we throw away the baby with the bathwater? 

Sushma Swaraj

Sushma Swaraj, the late Minister of External Affairs of India, delivered a stunningly erudite and penetratingly convincing lecture on the need to preserve Sanskrit as part of our valued heritage. Her lecture on the importance of Sanskrit language is a gold standard on the subject. 

While I do not see a possibility of Sanskrit reviving as a common colloquial language in the foreseeable future for reasons of its own, I do believe its other salient aspects should be preserved and revitalized. The language connects us not only to our own cultural heritage but also to the Mid-Eastern and far-Western components of human civilizations. The resuscitation team for this noble but gigantic enterprise should, therefore, be composed not only of grammarians but also historians, anthropologists, humanists, artists, linguists, philanthropists, and many others both from India and other countries, working as a team. It is an idea whose time has come. 

It is said of the Yiddish language that there will be an extended period between its dying and death. Of Sanskrit, I would say that it will never die because it is deeply seeded in almost all 16-plus regional languages of India. A plant that has sprouted conceals its seeds, rendering them apparently invisible, but the seeds themselves will reappear in its fruits.

Sanskrit needs to be rejuvenated by a process of CPR—Consistent Persistent Revival. 

My hope is that the Sanskrit word ajaramar—never aging and never dying—perhaps best describes its timeless quality. 

Revitalizing Sanskrit 

For Indian/non-Indian children:

Simplified translations of stories curated from Panchatantram and Hitopadesham, enlivened with attractive illustrations, along with interactive discussions that link these animal tales with contemporary situations may be helpful. These ancient stories can also be choreographed as Indian dance items for performing and viewing by children. Learning Sanskrit can also be a good lingual exercise for children. Many European children have been known to master the difficult phonetics of Sanskrit with great accuracy. 

For adults:

Adult education in Sanskrit through evening/ weekend classes should be made available. Many Indians could be persuaded to learn the language so as to understand the meaning of the daily prayers they recite unmindfully. Sanskrit also contains a vast store of timeless truths—Subhashitani—or practical aphorisms to inform our daily lives. In an interactive setting, such nuggets of wisdom can generate lively and profitable discussions. Temples and religious institutions can open their doors to initiate and stimulate this vital core of our culture. 

For scholars:

Sanskrit offers a gold mine to a variety of subjects in science and liberal arts. We should invite, encourage, and fund scholars from various disciplines to dig our ancient well and excavate the rich treasure hidden underneath.

Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at [email protected] 


This was first published in Khabar Magazine, Atlanta, Georgia.

My First Hindi Book: Bringing A Language To The World

Chandni Bhatia’s debut, My First Hindi Book, teaches the basics of India’s beloved national language in a fun, approachable way. The book covers concepts ranging from colors, animals, and numbers in Hindi and English — a perfect way to introduce our ‘maatrabhasha’ to young people all over the world. Chandni’s own experiences of living between two cultures influenced her approach to this book. Though she was born and raised in Delhi, she emigrated to the United States in 2013. Chandni wanted her daughter to appreciate the same language and culture that she had grown up with — but where to start? 

“As a fairly recent immigrant to USA, and the only Hindi speaker in my family, I wanted to teach my daughter Hindi. I started working on this book after giving birth, and realizing that there weren’t many books on the market to help provide young children an early introduction to Hindi.”

The desi diaspora that has characterized generations of immigration is less about leaving India behind; rather, it’s much more about carrying pieces of India with us, no matter where we go. And Chandni Bhatia’s book is a fond reminder of this idea. Her bilingual work offers a simple introduction to a wonderful language, bringing hope to every multicultural household. To find out more about My First Hindi Book, this book is  now available on Amazon.com, Amazon worldwide, and Barnesandnoble.com.