London based Pakistani’s first visit to India in search of people from home

In this first of a four-part series, London based Chartered Accountant Shueyb Gandapur writes of his journey in search of a community that migrated to India from his hometown

London based Pakistani’s first visit to  India in search of people from home

Shueyb Gandapur

When the internet and I got acquainted with each other, I started probing it for any resources it contained about my hometown. During one such search, many moons ago, when I lived in Islamabad, I came across a school in Delhi named D. I. Khan Senior Secondary School

For the first time, I was alerted to the possibility of a community in India that would have migrated from their hometown – my hometown – at the time of Partition and kept their identity alive by christening institutions in its name.

A few years later, a website called Orkut emerged on the scene. I used it to make friends from across the border. I sought their help to determine if the name of that school was actually after Dera Ismail Khan or it was a mere coincidence that the acronym was similar. The disadvantage of having a long name is to have it frequently subjected to acronymization. In the case of my hometown, that could reduce it to the unfortunate sounding DIK. My virtual friends did not prove to be of much help though. Perhaps for good reason, as I was meant to visit the institution and find out for myself one day.

Dera Ismail Khan, the principal city in the southernmost district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (previously called North-West Frontier Province) in Pakistan, is my hometown. It has remained the closest settled district next to the erstwhile tribal agencies of Waziristan. For centuries, it served as a key stop this side of the porous Durand Line for the Afghan powindah traders. Before Partition, a third of the city’s population were Hindus. The oldest natives of the city speak Seraiki (that used to be more commonly known as Derawali or Hindko locally) and roughly a quarter of the population have Pashto as their first language. Tehsil Kulachi (my ancestral village) within Dera Ismail Khan district has Pashto as its main language. It also used to have a sizable Hindu population before Partition.

A few years ago, I came across a documentary titled ‘Dere tun Dilli’ (Dera to Delhi). It was a moving account of the stories and memories of the generation that had to leave their homes and possessions in Dera Ismail Khan to settle in Delhi as refugees, in the aftermath of Partition. It showed how the older generation had tried their best to preserve their Derawali language (the name by which Seraiki was known in the region before the broader Seraiki appellation became commonplace), folk songs and cultural ethos and thus creating a little piece of Dera in Delhi. However, as the older generations pass on and younger ones take their place, the sense of association with the Derawal identity, traditions and customs is also being slowly lost.

I had seen Shilpi Gulati’s name in the credits of the documentary. Before arriving in Delhi, I managed to track her down and she kindly agreed to meet up. We met at a café in Khan Market. I asked her how the idea for such a documentary was conceptualised. She told me how she grew up in an atmosphere where the specific ethnic identity associated with speakers of Derawali language somehow got lost under the shadow of Punjabi. Later in life, when she became conscious of Derawali’s distinctiveness, she embarked upon this project to document snippets
of the older generation’s memories of their beloved city, its bazaars, food, language and songs.

It warms my heart, every time I watch the documentary, to see how people reminisced about life as it used to be in Dera Ismail Khan until 1947, before the exile forced upon the Hindu inhabitants by the circumstances arising out of Partition. They did not know at the time that the break with their homeland would be permanent. Derawals that settled in Delhi stuck together as a community, formed associations, organized events, established schools and temples, brought out magazines and never forgot the hometown they left behind. In the words of one gentleman, in his eighties, featured in the documentary, “You have taken away my country, my home. But you cannot take away my memories. At least those are my own.”

Shilpi recounted the sweet account of an uncle who used to go around visiting the houses of everyone hailing from Dera Ismail Khan to put their contact details in a directory he made his mission to compile. Time and enforced separations, however, eventually did their work to loosen
bonds that would have been considered permanent once. As the documentary’s narrator says:

“In the memory of my grandparents, Delhi mirrors Dera. Dera has lived on in their hearts, in their words, in their songs. They have spent their lives calling both places home. Memory is made by us as much as it makes us. So much or so little is filtered through a single story. Yet single stories add up to a collective memory. And it is unnerving to realise that within the next decade or so, these stories, the collective memory of an entire community, will be completely lost.”

Many of the elders of the community interviewed in the documentary have already passed away, including Shilpi’s grandfather, to whose memory it is dedicated. On her part, after having made this invaluable contribution to preserve the community’s heritage, Shilpi is ready to move on.

(To be continued next week)

(The author loves to hit the road and cross borders at every opportunity. He has visited 85 countries on his Pakistani passport. He is a chartered accountant by profession and a photographer, writer and painter by passion. He is currently based
in London)

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Published: 31 Jan 2021, 3:30 PM