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1947 saw the mass migration of Hindus and Sikhs to India and of Muslims to Pakistan. The ensuing communal violence mutilated large swathes of the subcontinental landscape, but amidst it all, the port city of Karachi, in the western province of Sindh, remained untouched. “At independence, Karachi was relatively safe," says the woman sitting before me. “And we were Sindhi before anything else. Indian or Pakistani didn’t matter to us much, and if Sindh was in Pakistan, well, that is where we would remain."

Between August and October 1947, the Hindu Sindhis were still tending to businesses, homes or lands with no intention of migrating. With the sudden influx of about two million Muslim refugees from India, leading to terrible riots and violence, the Hindu Sindhis had no choice but to flee. The woman’s husband, in the Sindh police cadre, was forbidden to resign from his post. But when their neighbourhood too was engulfed by the riots, she, along with her two young children, was forced to leave her home, and her land, for a new citizenship that lay across a sea.

Since she had no time to plan, she told the maid to pack only the children’s clothes, leaving everything else to her husband’s care. Boarding the ship that would sail for three days across the Arabian waters, to the Indian port of Bombay, she, along with all those who were making the journey across, had their belongings searched. The guards were only allowing essentials on board. Objects that had to be discarded lay all around.

On the ship, she was escorted into the first-class cabin that—she was told—had been used by Fatima Jinnah, to make the journey from Bombay to Karachi. Holding on to her suitcase and children, she waited for three days and two nights to see what the future would bring. Among hordes of passengers, she looked out on to the Indian landscape, familiar yet foreign; the same salty air, yet a completely different sense of identity. When she disembarked, the docks were flooded with people and luggage. Small refugee camps had been set up across the city and she, dazed, confused, alone, made her way to her sister’s house in the Fort area.

Handcrafted gold ‘jhumkas’.
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Handcrafted gold ‘jhumkas’.

“What a chaotic house it had become. Overnight, it had transformed from a home into a refugee camp. Many people known to them had migrated to Bombay and were living with her family. It was a small flat, one bathroom, one latrine and 20 people!" she recalls.

A ‘hamam dasta’.
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A ‘hamam dasta’.

Upon asking what remained from their life in Karachi, what belongings she had managed to carry across the sea, she shows me treasures from a time gone by—a hamam dasta, mortar & pestle, wrapped among the folds of her children’s clothes that had been packed tightly in a single suitcase. Amazed at the serendipitous survival of a mundane kitchen item, I ask how it had come to make the journey. She tells me the household help had put it in without her knowledge. The woman of the house was going to a new land, she would have to feed her children, her husband, herself. She would make sabzi and dal and for that, she would naturally need basic spices and seasoning. “Fresh, we’d always use freshly ground spices in our food," the woman says, grazing the metallic bronze surface.

A Banarasi silk sari
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A Banarasi silk sari

Along with the hamam dasta lay a beautiful purple Banarasi silk sari, worn by her at her wedding, and three pairs of gold earrings, all brought by her husband when he finally joined her six months later. As she put on the earrings with pride, I thought about her husband crossing the border by sea. I imagined him shuffling through the house before he left, looking only for those things that were precious to his wife—her sari, her jewellery, things that would remind her of their Karachi. These belongings he carried, perhaps concealed within his own luggage, so that the authorities would not take them away as well. The last remnants of a time unmarked by borders.

Aanchal Malhotra is an artist, writer and oral historian living in Delhi.

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