Shilpi Gulati, the director of Dera tun Dilli (Dera to Delhi) documentary, had suggested that, since I had Jaipur on my itinerary, I should meet her namesake there, who had been researching the origins and customs of Hindu Pashtuns in India. Enter Shilpi Batra Adwani, director of a documentary titled Sheen Khalai (blue tattooed-dots) on the subject of Pashto speaking Hindus of Jaipur.
I waited for Shilpi Adwani at Tapri Café. Atif Aslam’s ‘Mori Araj Suno’ started playing in the background. She arrived. “Starriya ma se” (May you not be tired), I greeted her as we shook hands. “Pakhairraghle,” (Welcome) she replied with a giggle. Tea was brought in an old-style kettle, accompanied by cutting glasses.
As opposed to my Dera Ismail Khan investigation which had been on the agenda of my India trip before it started, discovering this window to a forgotten piece of history of the other part of my identity came as an unexpectedly amazing revelation.
Shilpi Adwani and her work on the preservation of the history and culture of Hindu Pashtuns opened my eyes to the mysterious ways in which languages and ethnicities get scattered around, mixed and merged, only to re-emerge one day to reveal their roots.
Shilpi is the descendent of Hindus from Loralai (in present day Balochistan, Pakistan). There was a similarity in the stories of the two Shilpis in terms of growing up with mistaken identities. Just like Shilpi Gulati accidentally discovered that her ancestral tongue Seraiki was distinct from Punjabi, so did Shilpi Adwani accidentally hit upon the revelation one day that she was not of Baloch origins, but Pashtun.
Like Hindus from other parts of Pakistan, the Pashto-speaking Hindus from Balochistan had to leave their home and hearth behind following Partition. Those Hindu Pashtuns eventually settled in Jaipur, Rajasthan. They realised that in their adopted homeland, they were a minority within a minority, standing out owing to their distinct language, their heavily adorned clothes and tribal traditions. The women of the community had blue tattooed dots on their skin (sheen khalai) due to which they were mocked and ridiculed.
As Shilpi became cognizant of her Pashtun roots through interaction with Afghan students at the university where she studied, as she could converse with them in the same language as the one she had learned as a child, she decided to dig deeper to find out more about origins. She remembered the heavily embroidered clothes of her grandmother and embarked on a project to collect and restore them.
Shilpi went around asking surviving grandmothers and great-grandmothers among the Hindu Pashtuns of Jaipur if they still had their traditional clothes. While most women had lost them, as they went out of use, Shilpi managed to secure some pieces, damaged and moth-eaten as they were. With the help of her husband who has expertise in the textile industry, she set about restoring those clothes, complete with their mirror-work, metal coins and colourful embroidery. Each dress was a rare piece of art – an art that is going out of practice.
Shilpi continued telling me her story, switching between Pashto, English and Hindi, as she showed me clips from the documentary on her smartphone. More tea was ordered to wash down the delectable anecdotes, accompanied by Parle G biscuits. One of the cups had “Chai peene se kaale hote hain” (Drinking tea darkens your complexion) written on it.
In one of the clips Shilpi showed me, an elderly man in their ancestral village in Loralai was being interviewed. The man went around the city, pointing to houses and shops that were owned by the Hindu Pashtuns of the cities. He remembered their names. When the same video was shown to the community elders living in Jaipur, they were able to recognise that elderly gentleman. They were playmates from youthful days.
The result of all of Shilpi’s research will come out in the form of her documentary Sheen Khalai, that is not yet released.
Very few among the people who witnessed the gruesome events resulting from the Partition of India are still alive. Three generations have started their lives since then. They carry the identities of their new current homeland. Their ancestral lands they left behind on the other side of the border are, for them, merely inherited memories, collection of anecdotes or relegated streams of imagination.
But some like the two Shilpis I met, still venture to awaken those memories and revive them among their communities, especially among the younger generations, a sense of pride in identifying with their roots, the places where their elders came from and the suffering they went through getting uprooted from their homes for good. Talk of Partition triggers myriad narratives. It resulted in the displacement and cross migration of 15 million people along religious lines.
Back in Delhi, at the house of a Muslim friend, his mother told me that her father’s older brother had migrated to Karachi during Partition. She recalled the time when her father visited Pakistan to see his brother after many years. The older brother could not recognise his own younger brother! He had lost his eyesight.
Her voice choked and her eyes welled up when she said, “The cursed Partition has left behind a legacy of endless pain.”