Footprints in Time:
Reminiscences of a Sindhi matriarch
by Ghulam Fatima Shaikh translated by Rasheeda Husain Oxford University Press (Pakistan), 2011
‘His eyes burned with a smouldering, rich fire under the penthouse of his brows, and they made him beautiful.’ Thus wrote Mark Twain of the sickly poet Robert Louis Stevenson, though he might well have been describing the robust Ghulam Fatima Shaikh – the ‘Sindhi matriarch’ of the sub-title, born into a wealthy Hindu family in the late 19th century. Not that she was beautiful exactly, but looking at her in the frontispiece of this biography, one can see – behind the fire in her eyes, and indeed in her whole face – a strength of will, conviction and determination. In fact, reading her reminiscences, as told to Rasheeda Husain, one would rush to add to this list resourcefulness, resilience, wifely devotion, courage, fortitude and the wisdom born of simplicity.
But human nature combines many facets. Thus, along with her strength came a ‘she who must be obeyed’ attitude, as well as a certain lack of sensitivity. At one point, for instance, this led her to humiliate her daughter when she had her hair cut in honour of Kemal Ataturk’s visit to her school during the family’s sojourn in Turkey. She also forced her granddaughter to go through a ‘medieval farce’ of a marriage ceremony with her cousin – a marriage which the girl had steadfastly refused – waking the unwilling bride and the tousled, hapless bridegroom ‘in the middle of the night’ to do so. Presumably, the marriage was annulled.
One reads Footprints in Time with the fascination engendered by recent history, especially that of the Subcontinent. Husain describes Ghulam Fatima as ‘the repository of much knowledge and experience of the historic times in which she lived,’ and truly she was witness to some epoch-making events, including Partition. Her granddaughter, who also appears in the book, says that she cannot recall Ghulam Fatima’s thoughts on the actual idea or fact of Partition. However, she recalls vividly how ‘In l947 [Grandmother] galvanized many purdah observing families [to provide] succour to the refugees [who] poured in at the time of Partition. It was edifying to watch her lead them at railway stations carrying stretchers of the sick and ailing. She took charge of an abandoned building in Hyderabad and set up a maternity home where she tended to the wounded and helped her daughter deliver babies.’ Clearly, the immediate humanitarian crisis overrode all other considerations in her mind.
Conversion and Khilafat
Early on, Ghulam Fatima recalls the problems encountered when the families of both she and her husband converted to Islam. In this, we are also introduced to the author’s father, a true character, and how he, still in his teens though a married man with children, attended a lecture by an Islamic scholar from Delhi, and was so deeply moved by this that he pronounced his faith in Islam. At this, ‘A great fear permeated the Hindu community, and they treated him like a pariah.’ His wife and daughters had to remain in the custody of their Hindu family, but seeing in a dream the late spiritual scholar Abdur Rahman Sirhindi, who assured him that his wife and family would fairly soon convert, ‘my father was greatly relieved.’ However, the intended conversion of his wife ‘created a massive uproar in the household’, with the mother-in-law vowing to drown herself. By the time Ghulam Fatima’s father succeeded in spiriting his wife and some of the children away, both religious communities were in ‘a very advanced state of confrontation.’ Furthermore, having been forced to leave his youngest daughter behind, the father became engaged in ‘an acrimonious battle … for the child’s custody,’ which he finally won in court.
Ghulam Fatima recalls also how in the late l9th and early 20th centuries, ‘a wave of conversions of young Sindhi Hindus shook the very fabric of a well ordered society, separating sons from their parents and fathers from their families. Heartbreaking scenes were witnessed among the Hindu Amil families of Hyderabad, creating much distress and generating fierce passions.’ As Independence approached, there was fear and uncertainty among the Hindus of Sindh concerning their future, and thus many packed up and left.
Ghulam Fatima’s father participated in the Silk Kerchief Movement, whose members disguised themselves as itinerant fakirs, delivering letters hidden in their walking sticks to leaders of the ‘Knowing’ that proposed agitation against British rule. Due to these actions, the British authorities eventually issued a warrant for his arrest; anxious to solemnise his daughter’s marriage, ‘he urged the prospective bridegroom to come to come quickly to [be] married. The marriage was performed in great haste.’
Then, by the simple expedient of boarding a train on one side and slipping out of it on the other, this remarkable man shook off the police who were shadowing him. After a few more near misses, Ghulam Fatima’s father found work as a common labourer among the followers of the pir of Sirhind; but there and elsewhere his language and demeanour eventually gave him away, forcing him to hit the road again.
One of the central motivating forces for Ghulam Fatima’s family in later years was the Khilafat movement of the 1920s, a symbol of Muslim unity and opposition to British rule, which eventually changed her life and that of her family members. The zeal of new converts in this cause was an important factor. First, her doctor husband began champing at the bit, like many others, to go and lend a professional hand in Turkey. ‘When he eventually left,’ she says, ‘I decided to follow him and started to make preparations. It seemed as if, like Sassui, Shah Latif’s heroine, “I loved Bambhore, a heaven with Punhoon, but now no longer worth living in without him.”’ So, against the advice of her father, she took her two young children to join him in Bombay, on his way to Turkey.
But why Turkey? At the time that the British conquered India, the global Muslim population looked toward Turkey as its spiritual and temporal guide. When Britain and France set about carving up the Ottoman Empire, Indian Muslims felt that only two options were open to them – jihad or emigration, and the former course failed. Therefore, many Muslims, especially from Sindh, opted for the latter; like the Shaikhs, many either sold or left their homes to be rented out by neighbours, the proceeds of which were sent to them wherever they were. Of course, brotherhood notwithstanding, many were cheated, though the Shaikhs were apparently fortunate in this respect.
However, the Khilafat movement ended with the rise of Kemal Ataturk around 1923. Thus Dr Shaikh announced that the family would go from Bombay to Medina, and settle there permanently. But even ecstatic pilgrims need food for the body, so after a stint as factotum to a merchant, with Ghulam Fatima tailoring clothes at home to help make ends meet, her husband eventually built up a private medical practice. Even so, with post-World War I inflation and the issuance of ration cards, it was necessary to live most frugally.
Ghulam Fatima speaks at length, and with feeling and insight, about the Turkish empire, the Arab revolt, the power games of that era, and in particular about Britain’s role in the destruction of Arab unity. The resulting narrow concept of nationalism among Arabs, she declared, was against the tenets of Islam. With the intensification of the war, Medina came under attack, and food supplies from Syria became erratic. ‘On one occasion Shaikh Sahib bought 10 kilos of grain for one guinea,’ she recalls, ‘and brought it home stealthily in the dark of the night’ for fear of being robbed and murdered. Then came an outbreak of plague, with many of its victims forcibly sent out of the country. The Shaikhs tried valiantly to stay on but finally left, journeying slowly via Syria in constant fear of Bedouin attacks on their train. Eventually, they disembarked at Adana in Turkey.
The author’s vignettes of life in the former Ottoman empire are most informative, and not least among them is her impression of Adana and its governor who dispensed justice in person – a 20th-century version of adalat-e-Jahangiri. ‘Any petitioner could go to the governor’s office … Tea would be served and offered to the petitioner as well. Then the governor himself would offer a cigarette.’ Poor women entering the office were heard politely and offered instant redress. On one occasion he ‘stopped his car, got out, and called to the police to take the victim of a hit and run accident to hospital … He would often walk through the streets unescorted.’
Long way home
Despite Dr Shaikh’s dedication to his profession, the call of home was always present. Eventually, on receiving news from Pakistan of the death of three family members, and of her father’s escape to Sirhind, Ghulam Fatima was reduced to tears. ‘Women are known to be the weaker sex’, she says, ‘and as I read this sad news of death and sickness I couldn’t stop the tears flowing [from] my eyes and I had a strong desire to fly like a bird across the ocean to my loved ones.’
So began their roundabout journey home, a trip ‘sometimes nightmarish and chaotic’. They went via Syria, where the Arabs, having at first rejoiced at Britain’s overthrow of the Turkish rule were now longing for their return; via present-day Jerusalem, where the Muslims were custodians of all monuments and holy sites; via Egypt, where they visited many historic places; via Mecca and finally Suez, from whence, in March 1920, they set sail for India. This chapter is rich in socio-political information and analysis, and in details of their trips to various holy places. Apropos of this, Ghulam Fatima observes, ‘The world acknowledges the strong while the weak are weeded out. Weakness has always invited aggression and eventual destruction.’
Finally there was the homecoming, followed by the search for schools for the children, whose education had suffered during the family’s peregrinations, and later for their marriage partners. At the departure of the three younger ones to academic institutions in Delhi, Dr Shaikh sent Ghulam Fatima off with them. There, she enrolled in a midwifery course, later to prove useful in the hospital which they set up on their farm in Hyderabad.
We are fortunate to be able to read this warm and richly human tale, the testament of one who rode upon some of the most fateful political tsunamis of our times. In the words of Ghulam Fatima’s son-in-law, ‘Even now, if each and every one … [made] a real effort to collect these vintages of our heritage we may yet find a treasure house. In every tribe and clan there may still be those who can unravel these strains of our historical heritage. If we neglect this … we will be left only with regrets.’