A Mohenjodaro of Memories
Writing about one’s own ethnicity and communities comes loaded with risks – the most important ones being a sense of complacency, an urge to glorify and validate community moorings and practices, sentimentality, nostalgia and – above all, stereotyping. The stories by Murli Melwani in Beyond the Rainbow – fascinating stories from the global Sindhi diaspora – are refreshing mainly because even though the stereotypes of the Sindhi community are worked skillfully into the narratives to give them firm grounding and to evoke a sense of familiarity and camaraderie, and also often to provide the touch of humor and irony, – there is never the sense of complacency. These charming and life affirming stories are the take-off points from which flows much introspection and pronounced strains of the satiric.
A fitting companion to his earlier volume, Ladders in the Sky, this volume comprises of eleven diverse stories which delve into various aspects of the lives of the protagonists who are all Hindu Sindhis; these are people who come alive as flaneurs, travelers, nomads and always on the go – in search of prosperity, wealth and a luxurious lifestyle for themselves and their families, making the leap from working as employees to establishing their own global businesses (‘the head of a chicken’), adapting themselves to the ways of living in various locations from Assam, Hongkong, Taiwan, the US, Mexico and various places with unpronounceable names. Men who seek to control over their own destinies and ensure that they are the ones always in control on the family level as well as the business levels. An almost outrageous case of this urge to exercise control is Hassaram in the story “The Mexican Girlfriend” who goes to great lengths to prevent the marriage of his son Ajay to Linette and murders her in cold blood when he realises that the couple have gone against his wishes. What makes this story even more exciting is the brilliant way in which this elderly businessman plans to trace the young couple and later on to escape from the US law machinery.
The men-protagonists are basically from the Sindhi community, and one cannot but admire the élan with which they deal with international clients and the painstakingly meticulous manner in which they inch their way to financial prosperity. All the stories are moored in the culture and ethos of the Sindhi community though. Saaz Aggarwal, in her short but comprehensive Introduction to the book, contextualizes them in the business acumen, their conservativeness, the loss of homeland and cultural roots in 1947, the travel propensity which has taken a miniscule community to almost every country in the world, and the tremendous adaptability which has ensured the survival of the community in challenging circumstances. ‘It’s not surprising that Murli’s stories can form a business manual’ while presenting ‘rich historical and anthropological insights’ also are remarkable for the ‘depth and quality of writing’ which makes them ‘not just enjoyable but notable works of fiction’, she states.
So, in almost every story we come across smart youngsters who grab a business opportunity when they see one, and go on to build fortunes in their adopted lands. Socially and professionally, they are malleable and flexible, learning the languages of the various countries they visit or in which they settle down, but they do not let go of their roots on the personal and familial levels. Which accounts for the fact that they make their annual pilgrimage to India in the quest for marriages arranged without losing sight of the financial implications and status (‘The Bhorwani Marriage’ for example), a traditional bride who cannot address her husband Metharam by his first name but has to use the formal ‘Heydaan’, and who will not be permitted to interfere with his business world and concerns. It is not surprising that the women characters are suppressed and learn the hard way to keep within the boundaries prescribed for them.
Interesting titbits about the cultural positioning of the Sindhi women give insights into the coping strategies which they use into order to survive and help their families, in their search for a fulfilling life. Like in the case of the wife Rita in ‘Hongkong, Here I Come’ –, who has stood steady by the protagonist and followed his diktat, becomes his real strength when he has to start rebuilding his life again after the financial disaster overtakes them in Hongkong. Moreover, there are times when, in the middle of a narrative about the rising prosperity graph of the protagonist, Melwani can instill poignancy by the simple, though unexpected behavior and insight of a woman. In ‘The Head of a Chicken’ when Vivek Ajwani telephones his aging mother to tell her that he is marrying a Chinese girl, her response is, “I will imagine that I have four daughters, instead of three. A daughter leaves her home; a son stays back to look after his widowed mother”. It is with such a startling turn of phrase that he brings home a whole load of emotion to the reader. A fine sense of objectivity and authorial control serves to critique the self-importance and sometimes even pomposity that some of his characters may be victim to.
There could be a strong sense of affiliation of the author with the characters but that does not prevent him from keeping then under constant scrutiny, without being judgmental, neither making excuses for them nor valorizing them, but by delving deep into their psyche and undercovering layers of emotion behind the successful, staid faces that are presented to the reader.
There is also satire which comes to the rescue, as Saaz Aggarwal shows in her Introduction, – the fine sense of humor and satire which is on full play in the choice of names in ‘The Bhorwani Marriage’ a spoof on the ostentatiousness of the community and the extravagances of the marriage market, which are accepted with a very practically outlook.
The non Sindhi women characters are stronger and more varied and the relationships with them expand the canvas of the narratives: there is the Chinese May Lin of “The Wok” chain of restaurants in Canada and her Indian antecedents; the girl Rok in ‘The Bar Girl’ who falls in love with the protagonist but marries someone else because he cannot bring himself to give up his family for her sake; and of course, Lily, the writer in ‘Writing a Fairy Tale’.
One of the most striking features of the Sindhi community which Murli Melwani highlights is the prevalence of strong family bonds and affiliations. Though the family forms the subterranean base in all the narratives there are some in which its importance is actually foregrounded. In the two stories mentioned above, the men make conscious choices, placing family and family responsibilities above all else and sacrificing personal, even human and romantic interests for the stability of the family; – is this is a marked trait of displaced communities,” I am led to wonder.
Again, there is a deep spirituality which is a vital part of the Sindhi ethos. So, it could be the Philip Roth-reading Tejwani, who takes the betrayal of his employees in his stride and moves on in life, and who is all forgiveness when he accidently meets Vivek at the airport, says to him, ‘After what you and the other boys did – after what you did – I decided to do the travelling myself. I said to myself, how much does a man need? He can eat only so much. He can wear only so much…’ Simplicity, austerity, penance and faith form the core of ‘The Turning Point’ in which the life of a child is turned around by the devotion of his parents and their attachment to the local gurdwara.
Beyond the Rainbow…, with the candid, spicy titles of its short stories, its eye for the miniscule detail, its sense of history and culture and the wonderful cover design by Veda Aggarwal which has every Sindhi icon from the ajrak to the ubiquitous diamond will be read by the Sindhis, I am sure with a chuckle and plenty of smiles. For the younger displaced Sindhis, it opens up a world which they would realize must not be allowed to disappear and links them with ‘a Mohenjodaro of memories’ and to drive home the urgency of the idea that ‘Our culture was like a puddle of water on a hotplate, effervescing and evaporating, vanishing’. For other readers Rainbow… offers a glimpse of a worldview beyond the ethnic stereotyping which often results in the tragic or farcical othering of complex, evolving cultures.
TESTIMONIAL ON THE COVER: “ An interesting collection of short stories in the global Sindhi diaspora” – Gurcharan Das
Breaking the Stereotype
Review by Saaz Aggarwal
One of the most interesting aspects of the Sindhi diaspora are its many communities scattered in ports around the world, and this collection of fine short stories is an intimate glimpse into its realities by one of its members, Murli Melwani, professor at Sankerdev College, Shillong, Meghalaya (India). In the 1980s, political events in Shillong caused Murli to leave the home in which his family had settled after Partition. In his forties, he became a businessman, lived briefly in Hong Kong, then in Taiwan for twenty-five years, and eventually in 2005 moved to the US, where he now lives. All this while, he continued to write, and his academic repertoire includes Themes in the Indian Short Story in EnglishAs a businessman, Murli was buying in one place to sell in another, as Sindhi businessmen have done for centuries. In the 1850s, they began to do so in countries around the world, and Murli is one of the many who followed this tradition, establishing the theme for his own short stories. Set in various exotic locations, each of the short stories in this collection was inspired by something Murli saw or heard, and he refers to the collection as “a gift of my travels.”
Says Murli, on the cover of the book: “We are viewed as shallow for our ability to suppress negative thoughts, devote unbounded energy to business and live a flashy lifestyle. Being individualistic and opinionated by nature, and because we have not shown a cohesive and attractive face to the world, Hindu Sindhis are seen as stereotypes. With these stories, I have endeavored to show that we have lives as individuals too.” In Water on a Hot Plate, Hari and Rajni are visiting their son in Toronto, and they meet an Indian Chinese lady who runs a restaurant there. They converse with her in Mandarin—learned during their several years spent in Taiwan; of course, they speak to her in Hindi and English too. From the “Bollywood” music playing in the background, Hari can tell that the India she belonged to was not the India he had left. Resh, their lunch guest, is visiting from Curacao. She speaks Dutch and English and even idiomatic Papiamentu—a Portuguese and Spanish-based Creole language—but not Sindhi. Writing a Fairy Tale is a gripping love story in which the reader journeys into the rainforests of eco-versatile Chile—and unexpectedly encounters the Arabic aspects of the country too. The Mexican Girlfriend is also a love story, and though set in a home by a lake on the U.S. border where migratory birds flock—a real place, as Murli told me when I asked—has more sinister than exotic twists. Followed by The Bhorwani Marriage, a high-energy satire of Sindhi weddings including an expose of the business opportunities offered by matchmaking in the diaspora, it appears that Sindhis do not really do romance. Family comes overwhelmingly first; business and profits are a priority; and comfort of living is never going to be sacrificed for a lover.It is not that everyone in the community is money minded. This book takes us beyond that stereotype, with businessmen who are polite, mature and love to read. The skilled portrayals of many different kinds of relationships reveal the author to be an exceptionally subtle and discerning person himself. Even the businessman in shiva with a garland, lonely in his marriage, “had grown sensitive and become aware of many things. He had come to understand the right and wrong of things and the meaning and worth of happiness.” These are splendid stories: good plots, lifelike characters, beautifully laid out in clean, distinctive language. However, Murli is not just an observer of humans and their situation, not just a weaver of tales—he is a skilled businessman too. His stories provide practical never-fail tips on selling, exposure to business cycles, and the understanding that large investments, even the most obvious, could turn out to be ruinous. There are young employees who clone their employers, swiftly learning the trade and soon enough snatching it out from under their employer’s feet to set up as competitors. Some families have members living in other countries: the father ships out goods from a manufacturing location while the sons sell in other parts of the world, creating hugely profitable companies which run around the clock. So, while Murli’s PhD is in English Literature, this book also tells all kinds of things he did not learn at Harvard Business School.
For more about Murli, his book and his community see this interview by Saaz Aggarwal on:
Beyond The Caricature
Review by Rajesh Pant
Many years ago, as a child in class three, I saw something amazing. A tall for his age boy, a classmate, proudly walked up to the Math teacher and presented him a cake. “It’s my birthday”. The Master who was about to read the results of a quiz, stopped him; read out his marks. He had failed the boy. Then in a rage he threw the cake on the ground, kicked it out the door and roared “don’t try and bribe me you dirty Sindhi”. (Those were the days of course, where Teachers were forgiven for being impolitic!)
After class, the boy went out, quietly picked up the cake, and took the first bite himself and shared it with us saying his mother had baked it, why waste it? The memory of the incident has not left me because it was the first time I had heard a Teacher being abusive and the first time I had heard of someone being called a Sindhi. Before that I only knew that the boy’s name was Pooran. The ‘Sindhi’ caricature of a scroogish person who accumulates cash and real estate while constantly prattling ‘vari sai’ is widespread; egged on by actors playing bit stereotypes of Sindhis in yesterday’s Hindi films. And thereby hangs a tale.
Caricatures are an unfortunate sociological phenomenon, particularly in our country; we draw upon them and use them very matter of factly mostly disrespectfully. This in turn causes diminution of our strength as a society. Constant usage somehow cements these social and untruthful caricatures till they becomes part of our believed folklore – said by elders, repeated by the young who will ape anything. And so it will go till we mature as a Society.
Murli Melwani’s collection of short stories ‘Beyond the Rainbow* goes a ways in breaking the caricature. It is a mélange of colorful people, exotic locales and some adventure. All characters and events are supposedly fictional. But I suspect, very strongly, each story is true or at least has a broad element of truth. It is said that a people whose homeland is sparse – or who have no homeland at all – causes them to move to far and foreign lands. To make their living or ply their trade. True of Marwaris, Jews and Scots and certainly Sindhis. The sweep of the locations of the people and stories is ample evidence of the truly international spread of this group of people.
Stereotypically Sindhis have settled in Haang Kaang and have shops in Chunking Arcade! Melwani’s book serves us a different and exotic cocktail – Curacao, Toronto, Taipei, Bangkok, Bombay, New York, Honduras, Darjeeling and of course HK and Ulhasnagar. He paints a picture of their fads, foibles, beliefs, customs, strengths, weaknesses. These stories illustrate the ease with which they adapt to (or do not) to stressful, and strange situations.
In one of the longer short stories – the protagonist is called to the Holiday Inn in HK for an interview. This took me years back on my own first trip overseas and to HK; I stayed at the Holiday Inn in Kowloon and was amazed to see a small statue of Lord Shiva near the entrance with a ‘fountainette’ from his locks depicting the source of the Ganges. I was told that the property was owned by the Harilela’s. “Sindhi, you know, flom your contly” – the Receptionist informed me Though I believe they are Hongkongers stretching back a century. Coming back to the tale, ‘Head of a Chicken’ is a textbook narrative of poor boy, with remarkable insights “…but, a Sindhi would not ask a question without a motive…” he is economical with ethics, makes good and then faces the same situation he had left his earlier employer. An interesting take on ethics and business, a motif which runs through a some of the other stories.
Another facet about Melwani’s writing is the simplicity and honesty. In one of his stories he writes “there’s a writer in each one of us”. He does not use artifice; the story is what the story is – and that is where the writer’s true craft comes in. It is very complex to keep a narrative simple. This is exemplified when he writes a commentary on one of the most intricate machinations of our society, almost like a Rube Goldberg contraption – the fixing of a marriage, narrated by the Marriage Broker. It is mirth and thought provoking in equal proportions. Explaining it is like instructing a Martian the process of lacing-up shoes and knotting them. ‘The Bhorwani Marriage’ is a treat. Having made a fair amount of money in the transaction, which is what arranged marriages generally are, the Broker adds his punch line “One must be grateful for the crumbs that life throws one’s way”.
Sex is is not taboo. This is refreshing because our public posturing is prudish and fairly Victorian. So when a well off and retired businessman has a romp with a Bar girl; it does not seem shocking. The twist is later in the tale like in the thought process of a man in another story, watching a call girl undress. And more – a Father who can shoot to kill – to dictate a marriage in his family. As they say – you can take a man out of the home but you can take the home out of the man.
Like all those who have spread across the globe and settled; names soon change to suit or accommodate or better still to merge with the chosen country of abode. Meaning we are here to stay and be a part of you. An endearing quality which makes Jetharam convert to Jimmy and Metharam change to a more suitable Mike. A subtle change of status too? Which brings me to another story.
Years ago in the middle eighties, my Boss called me to substitute for him and make an unscheduled presentation to two gentleman sitting in the Conference room. The object was to present India, as a country full of promise yet not hide the pitfalls. The two were obviously ‘from overseas’. Post the presentation I introduced myself and the young guy stuck out his hand saying “Tommy, Tommy Hilfiger. I’ve just started a line back home with him and this guy brought me here because he’s very hot on India though he’s never lived here.” The other gentleman’s calling card was a folded affair. The top read Gloria Vanderbilt and the card opened to reveal his name ‘Mike’ Murjani.