Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

A Summer Sojourn in Upper Sindh

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Friend Raheal Siddiqui is an Assistant Commissioner of the old school. He is a lover of books who laments there is too little time to read. And he likes to know about the land and the people he has been put to administer. And so when he called from Larkana to talk about this ‘little village on the Indus with some lovely havelis,’ I couldn’t resist a visit. I did not realise though that it was a bad time of year for Upper Sindh – until it was too late.

The ride from Sukker to Larkana in the forty-eight degree heat and stifling humidity very nearly gave me a heat stroke. And if I had thought the thick walls and high roofs of the official residence of the AC would bring any relief, I was wrong. Nothing could stop the heat and humidity from getting to you. The one redeeming factor was that this turn of the century bungalow was steeped in recent history for it had been home to, among others, H. T. Lambrick. For some this administrator and writer of Sindhi histories is a hero; for others a villain, for he was responsible for the hanging of Pir Pagara in the final years of the Raj.

Only some months earlier Raheal had played host to a bunch of Lambricks – the children of H. T, who were visiting to recall the spirit of their departed father. One of them had pointed out to Raheal that he remembered a canal flowing past the east side of the bungalow. Now there is a road bordered by a row of shoddy houses and shops fitted tightly together. Going through the old records Raheal learnt that the inundation channel Ghar did indeed flow where Lambrick had pointed out. About thirty years ago it was filled up and the real estate that became available was soon gobbled up by the rapidly increasing population.

But the object of my journey was Wehar (the r is palatal), the village of the havelis smack on the bank of the Indus, a few kilometres south of Moen jo Daro. Though we left at six the heat was then just bearable with every promise of making it another hellish day.

Wehar, reached in two hours, did indeed show decaying signs of past grandeur. The two red brick havelis rose above the cluster of the more humble dwellings and even the police station was housed in a largish building with a spacious courtyard and an unlikely chaubara on the roof. This was only half the chaubara, it turned out. The remainder had collapsed some years earlier. Around the courtyard rooms were arranged in the same fashion as seen in the old warehouses and caravansaries of Lahore, Peshawar and Shikarpur. Clearly this was not purely a residence, but a place where the owner did business as well. In that courtyard camels would have been couched to load or unload, merchandise and many of the rooms would have been occupied by the clerks and agents of the man who owned this once opulent house. I knew then that Raheal had been right about Wehar being an old commercial centre on the Indus.

We walked into town and a couple of elders were summoned to show us the havelis. ‘T & Sons, Vihar,’ went the legend on the parapet of one. Tehl Ram and his brother Veedomal, said the elders, were the richest merchants in town. Their establishment employed dozens of workers, they possessed large properties and had business interests in distant lands. I wondered if in pre-partition days slips of paper signed by the brothers were honoured for vast sums of money even in distant St Petersburg and Rangoon, as indeed were those of their colleagues from Shikarpur. But the elders did not know that, for they arrived in Wehar after the brothers had left in 1947. The house of Tehl Ram became the property of another immigrant and though it was still occupied, it yet looked uncared for and abandoned.

If Mewati was heard being spoken in the streets of Wehar, it was because of the occupants of Sangat Rai Mehal (1934, said the plate above the entrance). Headed by a grizzled, white-haired man whose sons were showing us around, this family had migrated from somewhere not far from Rohtak after 1947. The choice of Wehar had been easy for this family that traditionally followed agriculture: a thriving entrepot, situated in the agricultural heartland, afforded one the opportunities for advancement not only as a farmer, but as a petty trader as well, if one cared to work for it.

By and large they have kept the house as they found it half a century ago. On the rooftop terrace the original owner’s declaration of piety can still be seen. Unfettered by punctuation marks it reads (in English!) ‘O Krishna, Krishna! Come, come and make my heart a temple of Thy love.’ On either side of this panel is a rendition of the god, flute in hand, striking an elegant pose. Sindhis, even if they happen to be immigrant Mewatis, live in easy tolerance of Hinduism. It does not bother them, nor does it hurt their own religiosity in any way. The same unfortunately cannot be said for the Punjabis and Pathans who are, by and large, militantly paranoid about anything Vedic. Perhaps this is an illness that aggravates the further north one gets from the Tropic of Cancer.

So opulent was the bazaar of Wehar that folks from Badrah (the nearest large town) visited to shop, said the elders. And there used to be great bustle in the bazaar and the port whenever a cargo ship arrived. This of course was hearsay, for long before these Meos arrived in Wehar the Sukker Barrage had put paid to long distance river traffic on the Indus. The story perhaps came from some older sons of Wehar who would have reminisced about the good old days.

A village that boasted such commercial importance should naturally have been ancient, for only with age comes such glory. But strangely the havelis all seemed turn of the century. Even the town layout was in a grid along four streets emanating from a central hub. This aspect of town planning was something the people of the Indus valley had forgotten after Moen jo Daro. The Greeks re-introduced the art of the grid layout, but it was lost again soon after their departure. This, I believe, had everything to do with the nomadic influx that swamped the Indus valley over time. Accustomed to living in tents, the grid did not appeal to the nomads and when they took to town dwelling, their habitation naturally grew hap-hazardly guided only by growth and necessity.

Meanwhile, just over a hundred years ago old Wehar was lost to the Indus and the population moved to this site, said our guide. The British had already laid out the grids of the new quarters of Shikarpur and Jacobabad. The merchants of Wehar followed suit. This, they said, was the third re-establishment of Wehar – in both previous incarnations it had been consumed by the Indus.

The village today stands some two kilometres from the Indus, so where was the port, I asked. The former commercial importance of Wehar, they said, can only be judged from the fact that it was served by two ports: Sui Channa and Khehro Pattan. Sui Channa did nothing for me; but Khehro Pattan! Ford of the Khehras, a tribe that lives on the Chenab in the districts of Jhang and Muzaffargarh in Punjab sounded exciting. Whether or not the Khehras played any great part in moulding the history of Jhang is questionable, but they did win recognition in the famous romance of Jhang. Almost six centuries ago when Heer of the Sial tribe, was torn away from her beloved Ranjha, she was forcibly wedded into the Khehras and Ranjha left home to become a wandering jogi. But what became of the lovers in the end is another story.

At Khehro Pattan we headed straight for the home of two brothers who Raheal knew to be an interesting pair from previous meetings. Roshan Ali and Subhan Buksh (both in their early forties) belonged to the Bhagat sub-clan of the Sials who still have relatives in Jhang. Like them, their father, too, was born here for their grandfather had migrated to this country when he was allotted agricultural land some eighty years ago. There were a number of Khehra families too who received these allotments, said Roshan. Evidently, then, they must have come in greater numbers to have given their name to the ford and the settlement.

Both the Sial brothers spoke perfect Sindhi and even retained their mother tongue, Seraiki. And within the walls of their home, smack in the heart of the Sindhi outback, could also be heard what I call ‘Break Dance Punjabi’ – the dialect of Gujranwala district with its unique intonations.

Many years ago the Sials supplied food grains in the wholesale mart of Hyderabad. One of their best customers for rice with business interests all over the country was a Butt from Wazirabad living in Hyderabad. The association blossomed into a friendship and though Subhan Buksh did not say so, there can be no doubt that the senior Sial would have one day caught an eyeful of the young hazel eyed ‘Buttni’ (a Buttni cannot be anything but hazel eyed). In her he would have seen a fit match for his Subhan Buksh. And so a Sial whose ancestors had come to the Indus in Larkana from the Chenab in Jhang was joined in holy matrimony to a Buttni who hailed from Wazirabad but lived in the erstwhile capital of Sindh because of her father’s occupation. And together they have raised a goodly brood so that Sindhi, Seraiki and Break Dance Punjabi may be heard in this uncertain land.

Uncertain, for not only are they faced with periodic bandit raids, but are well acquainted with the all destroying summer floods of the Indus. To guard against the raiders, they were given weapons by the government. An aging bolt action German rifle was proudly flaunted, but because the Sials of Khehro Pattan seemed to have held their own against the outlaws we did not discuss the superior firepower of the latter. The floods, however, were an annual bane they were struggling to live with. The inundations of ‘76 and ‘73 were fresh in their memory, and of that of ‘54 they had heard so much, it was almost as if they had actually lived through it. The floods of the 70s were bad, Roshan Ali said, when they were all living on the roofs and boats plied in the streets of Khehro Pattan as far as Wehar.

When we drove out of Khehro Pattan and onto the flood protection embankment, the sun was almost vertical. The sky was cooked to a colour that was neither blue nor white and the landscape was burnt to half-tones. Only the foliage of the tamarisk and acacia trees seemed to have taken on a blue cast. We paused at the rest house of Seri about which Raheal’s driver had his own story to tell. In the elections of 1977 when Z. A. Bhutto was doing everything wrong, this was where he confined Jan Mohammed Abbassi of the Jamat e Islami so as to pre-empt his electioneering.

Interestingly, the much maligned Khalid Kharral, then Deputy Commissioner Larkana, advised Bhutto against this foolish action. Putting away Abbassi, a non-entity who stood no chance of winning, would make him a star overnight, Kharral is reported to have argued. But blinded by his lust for power, the senior Bhutto had lost sight of reality. At hand was a Superintendent of Police called Junejo, his majesty’s most obedient servant, who requested for magisterial powers to act where Kharral refused. Abbassi was bundled off to Seri and the next BBC Urdu bulletin promptly placed the man on the political map of the country. Heaven knows what prompted Kharral, evidently a man of sense and perspicacity, to still go on to resign from the service and join someone as benighted as the Bhuttos!

We descended from the embankment and drove across what is the kacha – the riverine tract, now infamous as the hiding place of the dacoits. ‘Why, just the other day....’ Raheal began his story of a not so recent kidnapping from this area. I tried to place my thoughts elsewhere, but it was difficult especially when only two days earlier one of Raheal’s colleagues, another Assistant Commissioner, had been manhandled and robbed not far from Larkana. Without mishap, however, we passed the village of Bedi Lashari where the two-storeyed school house rises above the other buildings and serves the triple purposes of school, flood shelter and anti-dacoit bunker.

Next stop: the shrine of Syed Massani. And I had agreed to come this far only because Paroo Chandio, the real life Robin Hood of Sindh who is legend within ten years of his murder most foul and treacherous, used to hang out here. By then the heat had completely burnt me out. But Raheal seemed impervious to it and I listlessly, disinterestedly followed him about. When he pointed out that devotees at the shrine were nearly all women for whom this was the only break from the drudgery of a humdrum life, I could not care less. We stopped to talk to a man who knew Paroo, but I wanted only to return to the relative comfort of Raheal’s thick-walled bungalow in Larkana.

Paroo is anyway another story; another journey. And if Raheal stays in Larkana, the Cult of Paroo Chandio will be discovered.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 17 February 2016 at 11:24, Blogger Ashfaque Dasti said...

And you never did a Paroo Chandio Story. MY uncle has his Rifle as a gift from Paroo Chandio as he used to hide or must say take rest in lavish Bungalows of Dadu Sugar Mill my uncle and father were two of his hosts.

At 17 February 2016 at 11:46, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Sadly, I never went back to follow the trail of Paroo Chandio. Now, I think, all his associates are dead and gone. And Paroo forgotten. What a man he was!

At 18 February 2016 at 09:25, Blogger Ashfaque Dasti said...

Bilkul.Nazroo Narejo, last of three Big Guns after Parro Chandio and Muhab Sheedi, was killed last year by Sindh Police ofcourse by deceit.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

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Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

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