Tag Archives: #Sindhi

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’.


 

Breaking Free From Hinglish

Recently I had to call India and talk to an elder in my family expressing my sadness and condolence over the loss of a family member. It was a conversation full of tears and love. With this sense of loss of family, I felt another strange sense of loss, and that was the loss of language.This conversation required me to talk in unadulterated Hindi and that would usually not pose  a big problem, but to express levels of deep emotion in an articulate fashion was really hard for me to do.

Growing up in Bombay I always communicated in Hinglish. HIndi and English words wove in and out of sentences to express meaning. Anyone who thinks Hinglish is just a trendy word, does not know that it’s a “real thing:” True Hinglish speakers cannot complete a sentence without using both languages. And that is really how I talk. And I’m sad about it.

When I lived in India, my usage of Hindi was always limited to watching Hindi movies, reading street signs, talking to household help and using colloquial Hindi within the family. I absolutely adored HIndi music and that helped me expand my vocabulary. Growing up, I loved reading Hindi poetry and always secured top grades in Hindi which was my second language at school. Since I attended a  privately run English medium school, we were reprimanded if we talked to each other in Hindi or any other Indian language unless it was during our regular instruction time in that language. All of these formative influences surely helped sharpen my knowledge of English, but not without leaving Hindi to be the second cousin that lagged behind. This sense of what it meant to have one language lag behind the other never impinged on my consciousness, until I moved abroad. As my external Hindi stimuli were taken away, I was forced to look within, into what my inner relationship with the language was.

We Indians are a community of immigrants who live across the world; we are not only hardworking and committed, but a big feather in our caps is that we excel at speaking and writing in English. One of the many reasons we can live, work and create communities in many parts in the world is because of our English language proficiency. It was as early as 1835, under the Governor Generalship of Lord William Bentick that English was first introduced in schools. It is interesting to note that English replaced Persian as the medium of instruction. The introduction of English was intended not just to teach a new language but to  inculcate a familiarity with Western culture and create and mold the intellect for taste, opinion and sensibilities of mind toward Western thought. Social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy encouraged the learning of English to help procure lucrative jobs with the government during British rule. This is not the place to go into the political and colonial aspects of this subject, but to focus on the fact that the love for English and accepting it as our own has certainly trickled down through the generations. In my immigrant experience, it has only helped me to be an English language lover. I am a language purist when it comes to English, but am not equipped to be that with Hindi.

When one looks at other immigrant communities, whenever they bump into each other whether it is at airports, restaurants or workplaces, they always greet each other in their native tongue. As for us Indians we talk to each other in English wherever we go. Are we letting Hindi and other languages fade?

My family came to Bombay from Sindh during the partition. Sindhis were really immigrants within their own country that was now India. A big ripple effect of this migration was the loss of language. Growing up, I was never exposed to the language except when I overheard my grandparents speak to each other. In fact my grandmother being the product of English education spoke only English and Sindhi. She explained to me that she was never taught to read Hindi in school! Because I was never taught a native language, I can see it’s alienating repercussions . Many Sindhis in India and all over the world are waking up to not just the death of their culture but of their language.

This juxtaposition of migration and forming of new identities makes me question my love for my culture being inter-tied with my connection with Hindi. Are language and culture not mutually inclusive? Can England ever be devoid of Shakespearean English or Kabir’s dohas ever exclude the history of Indian language and culture? But just as culture grows and progresses, so does language. Is this a sense of loss then, that I should accept as a natural progression of language in my age or can I do something about it?

Preeti Hay is freelance writer. She grew up in Mumbai, India and has a Masters degree in Post Colonial Literature and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism. She has written for major publications in India including The Times of India, Hindustan Times and DNA India. She is passionate about creative writing and is currently working on her first novel.