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Memoirs of an Indian Patriarch

Maghanmal J. Pancholia

Maghanmal J. Pancholia
Memoirs of an Indian Patriarch

Memoirs of an Indian Patriarch

Maghanmal J. Pancholia

As narrated to Vasanti Sundaram

Published by Motivate Publishing

Dubai: PO Box 2331, Dubai, UAE

Tel: (+971 4) 282 4060; fax: (+971 4) 282 7898
e-mail: Dedication
Office 508, Building No 8, Dubai Media City, Dubai, UAE
Tel: (+971 4) 390 3550; fax: (+971 4) 390 4845
To Thatta, a home I can never leave behind
Abu Dhabi: PO Box 43072, Abu Dhabi, UAE To Dubai, a home I can never let go
Tel: (+971 2) 677 2005; fax: (+971 2) 677 0124 To my family and friends
To my parents
London: Acre House, 11/15 William Road, London NW1 3ER

Directors: Obaid Humaid Al Tayer and

Ian Fairservice

Editors: Moushumi Nandy

Simona Cassano
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Designer: Charlie Banalo

General Manager Books: Jonathan Griffiths

Publishing Coordinator: Zelda Pinto

© Motivate Publishing and Maghanmal J. Pancholia 2009

Jethanand Lalchand Pancholia Totabai Jethanand Pancholia

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form
(including photocopying or storing in any medium by electronic means) without the
written permission of the copyright holders. Applications for the copyright holders’ written
permission to reproduce any part of this publication should be addressed to the publishers. In
accordance with the International Copyright Act 1956 and the UAE Federal Law No. (7) of
2002, Concerning Copyrights and Neighboring Rights, any person acting in contravention of
this will be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

ISBN: 978 1 86063 265 5

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data. A catalogue record for this book is available
from the British Library.

Printed by Emirates Printing Press


Foreword viii 24 Brave New World 176

Preface xii 25 Moving On 185
26 Travel Log 192
1 People I Belong To 1 27 Notes From Nathdwara 201
2 Growing Up In Thatta 5 28 Helping Hands 209
3 Road Often Travelled 12 29 Call Of The Community 219
4 A Little More Of Thatta 21 30 Lighting Knowledge Candles 226
5 Back To School 26 31 Family Speak 235
6 College In Karachi 34 32 Having Their Say 240
7 Leaving One Home For Another 41 33 Colleagues And Countrymen 257
8 Turning Point 47 34 Fascination For The Printed World 271
9 Past Forward 53 35 Still A Student 277
10 Crossing Over 58 36 Short Fuse 281
11 Alleys Of Souk Al Banian 64 37 Stumbling Blocks 288
12 View From The Top 69 38 My Day Everyday 292
13 On Board 75 39 Generation Next 300
14 The Pearling Trade 86
15 The Creek 92 Epilogue 304
16 Setting The Stage 99 Acknowledgements 308
17 Up And Running 103
18 My Role Model 109
19 Footprints 116
20 Then There Were Those . . . 128
21 The Indian Association 143
22 The Indian Club 154
23 The Indian High School 159

One of my earliest recollections of the Indian community in

Dubai is of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the late Ruler of
Dubai, visiting the homes of Indian merchants on important festi-
val days such as Diwali. After exchanging greetings and relishing the
ladoos that would be served to him, he would take his leave. His de-
parture would signal our turn to rush in and grab our share of the
generous spread. The entire area would be decorated with lights and
reverberate with ‘live’ music. We enjoyed the celebrations as much as
our Indian friends did.
During the ’50s, our lives centred around the Jama mosque and the
souk in Bur Dubai; the Indian community and most of the Arabs lived
in the same neighbourhood within 100 feet of each other. Every day,
the locals followed the same routine – leaving their homes in the morn-
ing, they headed straight to Sheikh Rashid’s office to greet and update
him on all matters over hot cups of tea. Once this was done, they visited
Souk Al Banian to meet the Indian merchants and discuss trade.
My father followed the same routine. He would spend his mornings
with the Indian businessmen, and then conduct Arabic and English
A sketch of the neighbourhood where the author lived, by His Excellency Mirza Al Sayegh. classes in his madrassa by the Creek during the evenings. Some of the
Indian community leaders were his students then; clearly validating
a relationship that goes way back in time. It is a relationship we are
extremely proud of and sincerely seek to nurture. Together, we have
shared the same dreams for this country and for Dubai, and together
we have worked hard to realize those aspirations.
Dubai’s ties with India go back to the days when it began taking shape
as a port, and established relations with Bandar Abbas and Bushara on
one side and Mumbai on the other. Realizing the importance of building
up its trade activities and aware of the Indian merchants’ astute business
acumen, the Al Maktoum family invited the community, more specifi-
cally the Thattais (Sindhis), to come to Dubai and set up their commer-
cial activities in textiles, pearls, gold and money exchange.

viii ix
After the demise of Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher, when Sheikh I was once invited to speak at a gathering to felicitate the visit of
Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum took over as Ruler of Dubai in a high profile Indian delegation. The chief guest asked me about
1912, he introduced more policies that allowed the Iranians and Dubai’s secret for success. I told him I would share this with him in
Indians to dynamically participate in trading activities, and therefore my speech. When I took the floor, I said, “The answer lies in this
in the emirate’s development. With Sheikh Rashid assuming the title room itself; look around you, all those you see here have been key to
in 1958, this synergy was further driven forward. Dubai’s success, responsible for its unprecedented growth. Together,
Sheikh Rashid appreciated the fact that India was the first country we have laid brick by brick to erect this phenomenal business model
to pledge its support to the formation of the United Arab Emirates called Dubai.”
federation in 1971. So proud was he of the Indian community that he In the same speech, I even went on to say, “If you want me to be
would make sure they were invited to all official receptions. It was as more specific, allow me to acknowledge the pillar of this community
if he wanted to tell everyone, especially the visiting dignitaries: “Please – Mr Maghanmal Jethanand Pancholia.”
know, these are the people who have helped me build Dubai.” My mention of his name evoked a thunderous applause from the
With Sheikh Rashid setting such a precedent, it was only natu- audience. Magabha truly deserves this distinction.
ral that his sons would emulate his example. And the harmoni- He has been my neighbour, friend, and a co-member on the board
ous relationship continued when late Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid of several organizations. I have known him to be affable, modest,
Al Maktoum became the Ruler of Dubai in 1990. Since 2006, the highly informed, honest, straightforward and forever young at heart.
same spirit of cordiality and brotherhood has prevailed under the It is remarkable that despite his age, he still continues to be actively
dynamic leadership of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid involved in his community and company affairs.
Al Maktoum as Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Even today, I see him leading his fellow community members at
Ruler of Dubai. every significant gathering. He is always present with his people to re-
When His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, iterate their commitment to the rulers and to the country.
Deputy Ruler of Dubai and the UAE Minister of Finance and Indus- It does not surprise then that our leaders have always regarded the
try, held his wedding reception in 1987, he wished to express his ap- Indian community as an integral component of this nation. The sym-
preciation of the Indians’ role in nation building by inviting them to biotic association is destined to grow even further as the UAE’s poli-
the event. He asked us to draw a list of persons who we thought were cies simply cannot be de-linked from the presence, participation and
representative of the community. We presented him with 60 names. contribution of the foreign communities living in this country.
While reviewing the list, he looked surprised and asked: “Do you Footprints – Memoirs of an Indian Patriarch will not only serve as
mean there are only 60 people leading such a huge community in the Magabha’s personal memoir, it will be held as a historical reference
whole of the UAE? Please get me more names.” Eventually, we man- of this emirate by the younger generation, Arabs and Indians alike.
aged to put together a list of over 250 people including businessmen, I wish the endeavour every success and hope Magabha continues
academics, managers, philanthropists and others. All of them were to hold the inspirational torch that he has been carrying for almost
invited to the royal reception, much to the satisfaction of the HH eight decades now.
Sheikh Hamdan.
The Indians have proved their dedication and devotion not just to His Excellency Mirza Al Sayegh
their families and homeland, but to our country as well. Thanks to Office of HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum
stalwarts such as Maghanmal Jethanand Pancholia, the community
has been guided to achieve great successes for itself and for the UAE
at large.

x xi

In junior school a science teacher called Pardhasani privately

coached us after school hours. An exceptional teacher with several
books on Physics to his credit, he lived about a kilometre away from
our home. Every alternate evening, about six or seven of us would
walk to his house at around eight and return home at ten. On one
such day, we did something most unexpected – we broke almost 30
street lanterns on our way back home.
Thatta, the place where I come from, had no electricity back then.
All the roads were lit by lanterns that were provided by the municipal-
ity. It was the job of a worker to fill the lamps with kerosene and light
them around sunset. That night, we pelted these lanterns one by one
with stones and ran away before anyone could spot us.
When we reached the school the next morning, we saw Mr Mir-
chandani, the chief secretary of Thatta Municipality, venting his ire
on our headmaster. He was convinced one of the students was respon-
sible for the misdeed. Fortunately, my name did not feature on the
‘suspected’ list.
Unaware that we were damaging public property, it took me a long
time to get over that incident. A few years later, when I was in high
school, I got the chance to prove my discomfort over hiding the truth.
Out of the 40 students in my class, only two or three were girls.
And, one of the boys habitually troubled them. On a specially busy day
when most of the teachers were preoccupied, he took things a little too
far and the matter got out of hand. On hearing the girls’ complaints,
the headmaster, Devanmal Jagasia, demanded to know who the mis-
creant was. Every student was subjected to a gruelling inquisition, yet
none confessed the truth. When my turn came, I told the headmaster,
“Excuse me Sir, I can tell you what I know.”
Without any qualms of being tagged a spoilsport, I told him I had
noticed his son entering and leaving the classroom through the win-
dow. I added that I didn’t know what subsequently took place. The

whole class was askance I had spilt the beans. I was unruffled; it didn’t to lose myself in memories, you might as well know where to find me.”
matter what they thought of me as long as my conscience was clear; I Not so smart I know, but it worked.
had dared to stand up for what was right. My sons scrambled to get me one, and my grandsons took great
The headmaster understood the implication of my words, and pleasure in teaching me all about the SIM card. Excited over my
instead of getting upset that I had given his son away in front of the brush with a technology that I had until then disdained, I immedi-
entire class, he was happy I had spoken the truth. He immediately rep- ately stored my friends’ numbers to discuss the good old golden days
rimanded his son and handed out appropriate punishment. Following in Thatta. The elation, however, dimmed half way through the journey
that incident, whenever a problem surfaced in the school, the head- and the cell phone lost its glamour. I do not know where it is now.
master called me to confirm the truth, which I thought was a great The past, indeed, draws you deeper and deeper into its recesses
endorsement of his faith in my word. telling you it is alive, pulsating with the same vigour, long after you
Since then and until today, I have tried to be true to myself and to thought it was forgotten and put to rest. And so, it is with a great
all those I am connected with. In the same vein, I have done my best sense of gratitude to my family and friends, and the entire Thattai
to be true to my memory in this book while delving valiantly into community that I begin to tell the tale of my life that began in Thatta
my past. several summers ago.
I took up the exercise of writing my autobiography for just one rea- But first, I must thank four people who have greatly impacted my
son: to escape my family’s long time nagging to record my life within life: My mother Totabai, who taught me what spiritualism is; my
the pages of a book. Besides my own people, I have also been persist- father Jethanand Lalchand Pancholia, who instilled in me the im-
ently told to document a memoir by my UAE national friends, espe- portance of personal and professional honesty; my elder brother Par-
cially the younger generation. manand, who is the reason for what I am today, and the late Ruler of
Not really the one to take myself seriously, I challenged the need for Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who inspired me to
such a memoir. My sons said, “For the sake of posterity, Dada.” look beyond the immediate.
“Posterity,” I considered. “That’s too big a word for a small man More recently, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al
like me.” Maktoum, the Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and
“For your grandchildren,” they persisted, trying the emotional route. Ruler of Dubai, has been my source of inspiration. Although I am sev-
“Haven’t I tired everyone enough with my stories of water being eral years older, I have much to learn from him. He amazes me with
carried on donkeys’ backs!” his vision for Dubai and subsequently for the UAE.
I lived up to my reputation of not giving in to an argument too For someone who has been here since 1942, I have watched Du-
easily. They, however, stuck to their logic and threw the final bait bai grow, from its days of infancy. The coastal town that seemed
to hook me. “For future generations to know what it took Thattai half-asleep when I first discovered it, is now a city that never sleeps.
Bhatias to get where they are . . . [I could already feel my resolve weak- A pearl-diving village that crawled from one day to another is today
ening] . . . and, to tell them what it will take to sustain themselves to- a dynamic metropolis that ranks high in global economic perform-
morrow,” they finished smugly. ance. The credit for this transformation goes entirely to His High-
The key words – Thattai Bhatia – peeled away every layer of my re- ness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, I salute the Ruling
sistance; I was momentarily inundated by a maze of nostalgic images. I Family’s vision and confidence, and wish them continued success.
succumbed. Rising to the challenge, the first thing I did was to get myself I would also like to record my appreciation for all the young nation-
a cell phone. Puzzled, my family wondered at the connection. I got their als, most of whom I have seen grow up, and assume positions of im-
unspoken message – Why would I need the gadget when I have always mense responsibility either as heads of government-led organizations
condemned it as redundant? I gave them a look that said, “If I am going or private conglomerates. It is indeed heartening to see them return to

xiv xv
the country after equipping themselves with advanced academic learn-
ing abroad, and rising to the expectations of the UAE’s leadership with
a strong desire and dedication to take the country forward. In doing
so, they are leading by example for others to emulate, not just in this
country but across the world. In their trusted and capable hands, the
UAE will continue to make the impossible possible.
Finally, a word on this book; unlike other biographies, this book
does not pass any political judgement or espouse management phi-
losophies. I have only briefly touched upon my professional achieve-
ments. In other words, it is a modest compilation of simple thoughts,
simply said.

People I Belong To
chapter 1

There is nothing that makes me more proud than calling myself an

Indian, a Sindhi and a Thattai Bhatia. I, therefore, cannot speak about
myself without a mention of the people I belong to.
The roots of Thattai Bhatias are embedded in Jaisalmer. Known
as Bhattis, they formed part of the Rajput ruling family. When the
Mughal invasion and the subsequent decline of the Rajputs forced
nearly 2,000 families to migrate from Jaisalmer, a large corpus of the
community moved towards the north of Punjab to Bhavalpur, Multan
and Kutch. A few others found a home in Thatta (Sindh) towards the
early fourteenth century.
Depending on the province they settled in, the Bhatias assumed
clannish titles such as Kutchi Bhatias, Sindhi Bhatias and Punjabi
Bhatias. The Sindhi Bhatias were further classified after the city they
lived in, such as Thattai, Hyderabadi, Roehri and Nasarpuri Bhatias.
The Bhatias’ decision to settle down in faraway Thatta had a specific
reason to it.
By merit of their long association with the Rajputs, they had im-
bibed virtues of valour and nobility, qualities that soon became synon-
ymous with the community. Impressed with their gallantry, the King
of Thatta sought their help to quell a rebellion in his fertile province
situated in Sindh across the River Indus. Accepting his invitation, the
Bhatias fought valiantly and succeeded in reclaiming the King’s land.
In return for their timely and courageous gesture, the Ruler invited
the community to make Thatta their home, 60 miles from Karachi.
As people that were once reputed for their glory on the battlefield, the
Thattais quickly settled into a peaceful pattern of life. However, more
change was in store.

Descendants of the Yaduvansh lineage, the Bhatias were originally As more and more men left Thatta to seek new opportunities in Ka-
devi pujaks (worshippers of Goddess Shakti). A providential meeting rachi, Bahrain or the Trucial States in faraway Gulf, the town became
in the sixteenth century with the spiritual leader Jagadguru Shri Valla- home primarily to the women and children of their families.
bhacharya on the banks of River Indus was soon to impact their lives, Apart from the Arab countries, the Bhatias also established trade
transforming their core spiritual belief. Shri Vallabhacharya is regard- links with Baluchistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Some of the Bhatia sur-
ed as one of the five main acharyas (akin to Prophets) of the Hindu names like Kandhari, Rustagi, Whabi clearly validate this fact. In their
religion, alongside Shri Shankaracharya, Shri Ramanujacharya, Shri new homeland, the Bhatias made a good living as pearl financiers. Of
Madhavacharya and Shri Nimbarkacharya. These acharyas have sig- the 300 Thattai families during my father’s time, nearly 100 had offic-
nificantly contributed to the revival of the Bhakti movement and es or pedis in Mumbai, considered a mark of prosperity then. They also
upbringing of the Hindu religion. acquired a reputation of being an upright and honest people. Known
During his stay in Thatta, Shri Vallabhacharya’s spiritual dis- as banias (merchants), the businessmen were highly trusted by the Ar-
courses from Srimad Bhagwad inspired the Thattais to adopt the abs as well as the British in the region.
Pushtimarg philosophy. Shrinathji (incarnation of Lord Krishna) The good times were however, short-lived. The Great Depression of
became their principle deity, and Nathdwara, the place of pilgrim- the 1930s ravaged the pearl market and prices dipped steeply. The si-
age. So devout were the Thattais towards their newly acquired faith multaneous invention of cultured pearls in Japan, which were sold at
that they frequently invited the highly respected balaks (descendants nearly 30 per cent of the price of natural pearls, sounded the death-
of Shri Vallabhacharya) to their hometown to gain spiritual knowl- knell for the industry. In order to alleviate the effect, the Gulf coun-
edge. They even regarded Thatta as their chhoti brij bhoomi (Lord tries banned the import of cultured pearls. However, as this was not
Krishna’s birthplace). the case in Mumbai where the natural pearls were primarily marketed,
Shrinathji was evidently quite popular with other medieval devo- the ban did little to save the situation. Consequently, most of the Bha-
tees as well. Historians have referred to the Gaudiya preachers who tias suffered heavy losses.
founded Shrinathji temples in present-day Pakistan (in the city of My father had a logical explanation to this reversal of fortunes. He
Dera Ghazi Khan). Shrinathji was even worshipped as far away as believed the pearl business floundered as it flouted a core tenet of Hin-
Russia (in the lower Volga region) and other places on the Central duism in killing a living creature – the oyster.
Asian trade routes. Desperate to find alternative avenues of trade to sustain themselves,
The Pushtimargi sect of Hinduism has a realistic, more worldly and several Thattai Bhatia merchants began importing food supplies such as
practical view of life, and does not advocate renunciation for spiritu- rice, wheat and wheat flour, as well as sugar, lentils, tea and spices in-
al growth. So, while devout Hindus of the Brahmin community de- cluding cardamom and pepper. Soon, they commanded a virtual mo-
nounced travelling abroad as it involved the crossing of a water body, nopoly as food suppliers to the region. Textiles too were brought in from
the Thattai Bhatias had no such qualms and sought new horizons to India, China and Japan to cater to the retail and wholesale market.
explore fresh business opportunities. Just as these businesses were flourishing, there was once again a
Trade with Arab lands began in the early eighteenth century, when reversal in fortunes with the outbreak of the World War II in 1939.
people from the Gulf visited the small port of Thatta to barter pearls, Food trade became a risky venture with shipping lines coming un-
fish, dates and other produce for lungis, hand-woven textiles, attars, der threat from submarines and air attacks. This led to the rationing
spices and foodstuff. History says that nearly three centuries ago, the of food and textiles in the Trucial States and surrounding areas. Soon
Thattai Bhatias were invited several times by the people in the Gulf to after, the partition of India followed. In 1947, the loss of Thatta to Pa-
join them in supporting the pearl-fishing industry. kistan brought several Sindhis from Gwadar into the Gulf. The That-

2 people i belong to 3
style influenced me a great deal and dictates my conduct even today.
The rearing and service of cows was another distinct trait in That-
tai Vaishnav households that was associated with the worship of Lord
Krishna. I use the word ‘service’ in line with the Pushtimargi tenet that
gives the cow a revered status of gau matha (mother). In our home, we
had nearly 60 cows and 20 buffaloes, thanks to my father’s unflagging
spirit of gau seva (gau = cow; seva = service).
In every Thattai Bhatia family, the cows would be milked at six in
the morning by gwalas (cowherds), after which they were allowed to
graze on the outskirts of Thatta. When the cows were away, it was our
task to clean the sheds and prepare a fresh supply of fodder in time for
their return at five in the evening. Never wanting for milk or butter,
the excess dairy produce would be sent to a relative in Karachi.
During the monsoon season in the month of Shravan, the cows
were shifted to Makli Takli (Makli Hill) and placed under the watch-
My house in Thatta, some 50 years after I left for the Gulf. ful eye of the gwalas. This practice was followed to allow the cows to
feed on fresh grass that sprouted on the hills during the rainy season.
worship of ‘Thakurji’ included raag (traditional music); bhog (pure This also meant that twice a day, morning and evening, we had to
vegetarian food offerings, excluding onion, garlic, cabbage and root walk to Makli Takli to deliver wheat husks, barley and bajra (millet) as
vegetables); vastra and shringar (dressing up the deity with beautiful fodder for the cows and return with milk supplies. Sometimes, we car-
clothes, headwear and jewellery adornments). These dictums were pre- ried back over 10 litres of milk on our shoulders.
scribed some 500 years ago by Goswami Shri Vitthalnathji also called The gwalas would also take temporary care of the young calves or
Gusainji (Shri Vallabhacharya’s younger son). cows that could not lactate and nurture them until they were ready to
Twice a month, my mother observed the ekgyarah or ekadashi fast produce milk. These cowherds periodically visited us in Thatta to up-
on the eleventh day of the new moon. date us on the well being of their herds and collect a salary of Re 1 or
In general, the lunar year has 12 months and approximately 354 Rs 2 per cow each month.
days, thus making it shorter by about 11 days than the solar year. With the mention of cows an amusing incident comes to mind.
However, the lunar calendar accounts for this difference by adding an Soon after I got married, I lost my wedding ring (my father-in-law’s
extra lunar month about once every two-and-a-half years. This extra gift) and could not find it for nearly a year. Purely by chance one day,
lunar month is known as the adhikmas (adhik = extra; mas = month). I saw it lying at the bottom of a pit that contained leftover meals of
The concept of the adhikmas is similar to the Blue Moon in the West, the cows. I still wonder how it got there – one of the cows must have
which occurs almost with the same frequency. probably chewed it up along with the fodder, and not finding it palat-
Throughout this extra month, my mother would eat just once a able, spat it out! I was so relieved that day, it didn’t really matter how
day. While travelling by train, she would forgo her food as the shastras it got there.
wouldn’t allow it. I remember during one of her journeys back home Simple joys from simple things – that was our way of life then. I
after a pilgrimage to Champaran (the birthplace of Shri Vallabhach- remember when our elders took leave of us while returning to the
arya) she was so frail that her breath was hardly perceptible; she hadn’t Gulf, they would give away small amounts of money to the children
had even water throughout the two-day journey. Her disciplined life- as a blessing. I possessively safeguarded my share of half-a-rupee for

6 growing up in thatta 7
a long time. To me, it meant a lot, considering our monthly grocer- that even passers-by would stop to listen. His other pastime was to
ies amounted to Rs 12–20 per month, and my father sent Rs 100 as buy our family’s daily quota of fruits and vegetables. Often, even our
monthly expenses for a household of 12. neighbours entrusted him with similar tasks. Adha was, therefore, very
When the men returned to Thatta from the Gulf, following each popular with the hawkers because he always purchased huge consign-
pearling season, they spent about six months with their families. Dur- ments every day. Buying mangoes was the most enjoyable part of this
ing those months, they led a routine life that included morning walks shopping trip. During the season, every mango seller would call out to
and a game of cards after lunch. Others would get together for a little him and offer all types of mangoes to taste.
dash of snuff and exchange news on their business dealings. An early Back then, about 100 mangoes cost between Rs 1.25 to 2.50, and
dinner at around seven in the evening, and the men dressed in their the shopkeeper would throw in about 10 to 15 extra mangoes to earn
best clothes would walk down to the market for paan (stuffed betel my uncle’s favour. As an eight-year old, I would specially feast on the
leaf ) as an after-dinner indulgence. Often we hovered around them, lot from the Metharam Gardens on the excuse of sampling them –
keen to know what they were talking about. But the men had their enough motivation not to relinquish my position as Adha’s faithful
own way of keeping us out of their talk and converse in Arabic to con- ‘shopping companion’ for a long time.
found us. Families that had no male members would use the service of wom-
Being staunch vegetarians, our food habits were simple. During en vendors, who delivered door-to-door the daily supply of fruits
meal times, the entire family would sit on the floor cross-legged. and vegetables. When my uncle found it difficult to keep up with
Food would be served on plantain or patal (almond) leaves. These his market rounds, we hired a woman for a salary of Rs 2 a month.
were also used to make dona that served the purpose of cups. On She would turn up every single day, early in the morning, with the
special family and festive occasions, silver utensils were used. Steel required supply.
vessels, the commonly used kitchenware these days, were completely The men of Thatta were quite conscious about their physical fit-
unknown then. Dal-bhat curry (a thin soup made of lentils, rice and ness, and the akhadas fulfilled their need to keep in shape. Among my
spices) was our favourite dish that was cooked once a week or when brothers, I looked the frailest. Nurturing a secret ambition to look well
we had special guests. Eating out at restaurants was hardly common- built and manly, I would spend an hour at the Khetpalpara akhada
place then. every morning. Of course, my efforts were in vain and nothing came
Memories of the delicious rotis that my mother rolled out brings out of my body-building efforts.
to my mind another distinctive element of Thatta – the chakkis or Once a year, all the akhadas would get together at a formal cere-
machines used for grinding wheat, sesame, and mustard seeds. In mony, when kushti, uth-baet and other contests would be conducted
those days, the chakkis were huge, and camels were used to turn them and conclude with a grand prize distribution ceremony. During the
around. Sometimes on our way back from the school, we bought fresh fortnightly kushti or malakhara challenge held in an open ground on
atta (flour) directly from the chakki, and coaxed our mother to prepare the outskirts of Thatta, people gathered in huge numbers to witness
fresh and tasty bajra rotis. We could buy nearly three quarters of a kilo half a dozen fighters rough it out in the middle. Some in the crowd
of flour for less than three paisa. I have yet to taste such fresh atta rotis contributed a rupee or two, and the wrestlers earned almost Rs 30 a
since my Thatta days. day during these bouts.
The ritual of vegetable and fruit shopping was another essentially Cricket was a favourite sport too. My elder brother Parmanand, was
male responsibility. As a child, I remember visiting the market with a huge enthusiast of the game. Every Sunday he would play cricket
my uncle, Assanmal Lalchand, during weekends and vacations. with his friends in our school grounds while we cheered as the loyal
Adha, as he was known, had two pastimes when he retired from audience. If lucky, one of us would be asked to collect the ball when it
work. One, to sit by the window and read Tulsi Ramayana so loud trickled off the ground – a task we considered a huge privilege.

8 growing up in thatta 9
With the men seeking their own company, the women of Thatta wife, Jamnabai, who passed away at the age of 92. From what they
would be busy either visiting temples or meeting relatives. However, had heard of their husbands’ experiences, it was ingrained in their
a significant part of their time would be spent in the kitchen, cooking minds that Dubai was an inconvenient place to live in, hence their
elaborate meals for one occasion or the other or attending to house- reluctance to visit us here. If only they could see how the place has
hold chores. Besides, they practised such rigid codes of cleanliness that transformed today.
merely watching their habits was draining enough. For instance, when I have often been asked if I would like to go back to Thatta to see
the daughters-in-law helped in the cooking, they were not allowed to what it is like now, and I reply ‘no’. I believe it is good to allow certain
get anywhere close to their own children. And, if they happened to memories to remain as memories. Let’s also not forget the fact that a
touch them by chance, they were ordered back to the bathroom for visit to Thatta is difficult, so stringent are the visa regulations. And,
another shower before being allowed into the kitchen again. That’s those who did manage to visit have been hugely disappointed saying
how far they went to ensure hygiene in cooking. the place is in decline.
One of the few occasions that the men and women interacted with Possessive as I am of the past, I’d rather remember Thatta as it used
each other was when the married ladies in our family, such as my sis- to be when it was my home.
ters, were invited home along with their husbands and children on
purnima (full moon) and dwadesi (twelfth day after the new moon and
full moon). Likewise, my in-laws would invite the daughters and their
spouses and children on such days. These three monthly get-togethers
served as the high point of our family life.
Even after we settled in Mumbai, the practice continued when all
my four sisters would visit us with their families to spend the day.
As we did not have cooks or servants then, this meant the ladies of
the house were tied to the stove all day, while we were expected to
play host to our brothers-in-law and keep them in good spirits. I
thought the whole routine was quite a waste of time. If an entire day
was spent thus, thrice every month, your tolerance is bound to be
severely taxed. Thankfully, with time not as much a luxury any more,
the practice is far less frequent now and the invitations are limited to
festive days only.
Having spent a major part of his life away from home, my father
returned to Thatta when all his five sons were well settled in the Gulf.
With no male member in the family, his presence was required more
at home and we convinced him to retire. In Thatta, he continued to
keep himself busy through his service of the cows. This was his rou-
tine even after moving to Mumbai during the partition of India; it
would be an understatement to say he was an epitome of devotion
until he breathed his last at the age of 75 in 1958.
My mother died ten years later, without visiting Dubai even once
during her entire lifetime. Neither did my elder brother Parmanand’s

10 growing up in thatta 11
So prosperous was Nagar Thatta that it was regarded one of the big-
gest business centres of India. The ancient city took great pride in the
fact that it had as many as 5,000 spindles to manufacture lungis and
Road Often Travelled shawls, mashroo and garbindoo that were exported to distant European
countries for its rich and elite people. In 1699, there were as many as
chapter 3 400 schools in Nagar Thatta.
The decline and decay of Thatta began in 1739, when the province
was ceded to Nadir Shah of Iran by the Mughal Emperor of Delhi.
Before leaving for Persia, Nadir Shah in his turn entrusted its adminis-
tration to Mian Nur Muhammad Kalhora, who abandoned Thatta to
its fate and shifted the capital to a small township of Khudabad. When
If there is any place where Islam has completely integrated local the mighty river Indus changed its course from Khudabad around
traditions and produced a new blend of concepts, that should be in 1768, the capital of Sindh was eventually shifted to Hyderabad. It was
Thatta, according to Ahmad Hassan Dani in his book, Thatta: Islamic only in 1843 that Thatta regained some of its former glories after the
Architecture. I couldn’t agree with him more. It is generally believed British annexed Sindh, and new schools, a municipality, post office,
that Thatta was established during the Summa rule (1320–1520) dispensary and a subordinate jail were established.
when its earlier capital of Samui was abandoned. Since then, its men- Among the several historical associations linked with it, Thatta is
tion has been frequently made by historians and geographers. believed to be the place where Alexander the Great rested his legions
In his work, The Origin of Thatta, N. A. Baloch writes Thatta was after a long march, before heading back towards Persia.
given the privilege of a nagar by virtue of its stature as the capital of a Shah Jahan too shared fond memories of the place when he arrived
principality, where the Ruler resided. He says, “To this day, the more in Thatta after falling out with his father. During his stay, he frequent-
popular name for Thatta with the rural population of Sindh is Thatta ed a particular masjid to offer his prayers. Later, when he became the
Nagar or simply Nagar.” Shahenshah of Delhi, he remembered the solace that Thatta had giv-
Thatta was regarded “the fond child of the Indus”, when the river en him, and built the Shah Jahan mosque in 1647 as an appreciative
flowed to the west of the city and gifted it with water, gardens and gesture. Built by the same architect who created the Taj Mahal, it is
orchards. Perhaps that is how the town was named ‘Tatastha’ (on the an intricate mosaic of blue and white tiles, housing 93 domes and 33
banks of a river). arches of varying dimensions.
To the trader and traveller of the West, Thatta was practically syn- Interestingly, I was not aware of the Shah Jahan mosque for a long
onymous with Sindh. In 1607, the East India Company instruct- time and came upon it by chance. For a short period of time, rob-
ed its agent to sail to ‘Laurie – a good harbour within two miles of bery was rampant in Thatta and we would form groups of eight to
Nagor Tuttie – as great and as big as London’. In 1613, Capt. Paynton maintain vigil at night. When it was my turn, I stumbled upon this
described Thatta as one of the most celebrated markets of India. Alex- beautiful monument that amazed me with its grandeur and majestic
ander Hamilton in 1699 said of Thatta: brilliance. It was only when I questioned the others that I realized its
historical significance.
Thatta is the emporium of the province, a very large and rich city. It If Shah Jahan was mesmerized with Thatta, Humayun owed his
is three miles long, one-and-a-half-mile broad, and about 40 miles safety to the city. Exiled from India by the Afghan ruler Sher Shah
from Larry bunder (Lahori). It has a large citadel at its west with the Suri, Humayun sought refuge in Iran, and briefly halted at Thatta on
capacity to lodge 50,000 men and horses. his way back to India.

12 road often travelled 13

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