By Syed Rizwan Mehboob
If anything, the mind-boggling reference to the un-mentionable ‘other’ of the two-nation theory has freshened up hazy memories of Cheena Ram aka Cheenai of Jacombad.
Cheenai was a quintessential Sindhi Hindu, steeped in so many typicals; unassumingly down to earth, gregariously hospitable, punctilious money-lender, given to sprees of revelries on slightest pretext and faithful to Sindh and Pakistan in maniac proportions.
I first bumped into Cheenai as Administrator of Jacobabad Municipality when main sewage drain of inner city had choked for the umpteenth time, causing reverse flow in erstwhile city canal — a labour of love by Major John Jacob. As combined efforts of municipal and administration staff in removing the obstacle failed, I was referred to one, Cheenai, the most ingenuous Hindu contractor for public health department. Given Cheenai’s tongue in cheek wit and loads of professional knowledge, it did not take long for our official acquaintance to transform in a friendship that formed the most prized possession of my service in magical Sindh.
Let me frankly admit that before meeting Cheenai, I faithfully subscribed to the pen portrait of a “cunning, devious, Hindu, always to be seen with suspicion”, thanks to my readings in history primers, developed by Punjab Textbook Board. But Cheenai changed it all — good riddance.
Cheenai was a sixth generation Sindhi Hindu, settled in upper Sindh. His fair complexion and imposing gait bespoke volumes of his prestigious pedigree from high cast sons of the soil. But more than appearances, it was his character — his many noble acts of benevolence and faithful perseverance, which endeared him to my heart.
First and foremost, he was a profound Sindhi and Pakistani. Whether it was 14 August or 23 March celebrations or the many cultural or religious festivities, Cheenai was known to be the most liberal contributors. He would just as generously hand out contributions for Holi or Deewali celebrations, as he would pay from his pocket for all travel and allied expenses of convoys of Muslim devotees, going to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar or Lahoot Lamukan shrines.
As a matter of fact, I was shocked to know that my staff in SDM office used to extract ‘extra generosity’ from Cheenai amidst all such celebrations. My harsh remonstration to my staff saw Cheenai in my office next day, pleading innocence for the rascals. “Saeenmunjha, this is part of centuries’ old unwritten protocols in our culture; even President Ayub or PM Bhutto kept lower revenue functionaries in good humour — what to talk of poor Cheenai”; was how Cheenai argued with a childish glee in eyes.
But it was on occasions of Holi in Jacobabad that I used to find best of Cheenai. It was decades old custom in Jacobabad that all Hindu nobility of the city would visit offices of District Administration and Police heads where they would apply holy colours to foreheads of the officials. In return, these district heads were expected to pay liberal moneys — or else they would incur wrath of Holikaor Vishnu.Cheenai, doubtless, would be the ring leader during these Holi day visits to our offices.
On one occasion, as I had emptied all my pockets to the visiting Hindu nobility as Holi tributes, I saw Cheenai enter my office a little later and return all my money. He was just not ready to take money from a simpleton SDM who, the whole jacombad knew (in words of Cheenai), lived on Pagaar (official salary).
But life was not always alike colourful rainbows of Holi for Cheenai — alike many Hindus in Sindh, he also had to put with painful, excruciating, societal vagaries that appeared to have unfortunately become the norm rather than exceptions.
I will never forget the day when his teenage nephew was abducted and taken across provincial border. The poor boy only returned after payment of huge ransom and loss of honour (I don’t know if it is the correct construct). And there was another painful episode when daughter of one of his dearest albeit poor Hindu friends suddenly disappeared. What followed subsequently must have been most painful to the near and dear ones of the wretched, comely Hindu girl, including Cheenai himself. Despite hectic efforts of many well-wishers, the girl never returned though this much was known that she had married one of her abductor waderas after ‘willful conversion’ of her own will.
I had expected Cheenai to blast and curse after these episodes but his calm and restraint made me cry. The poor, wretched boy was sent abroad while regarding the poor girl, Cheenai had this to say. “This is not Hindu girls alone who suffer; don’t you see dozens of poor, Muslim girls, also losing lives on account of Karokari?” He put this to the overall hostile living conditions for all girls and womenfolk in our society rather than painting it as a Hindu-specific atrocity. I nearly died of shame and helplessness as Cheenai looked deep in my eyes for a long minute.
Despite these two devastating events, it was the same old cheerful Cheenai whose faith in humanity, Sindh and Pakistan was totally unshaken. His acts of benevolence; his magnanimity on days of national or religious celebrations; his cheerfulness with his friends; and his penchant for indulgence remained unaffected.
A few months back, I met Cheenai in Hyderabad after many years as he had got word of my arrival and had travelled all the way from Jacobabad with loads of colourful sweets and famous Bombay Bakery Cakes. His nephew from Tahrparkar area had been recruited in military service — first one in the family. Cheenai’s face was beaming red as much with joy and pride as much (I thought) from his latest binge of festivity on this auspicious occasion.
Here was a man, a Sindhi Hindu whose love for the motherland could not be shaken by worst possible, personal tragedies or privations. All his life, he had given generously for his motherland and its people and now displayed boundless pride on the prospects (he recited an apt couplet from great poet Bhittai) of his nephew shedding his blood for honour of his motherland — his Pakistan.
For the first time in our eighteen years old acquaintance, I kissed the hands of this untouchable ‘other’, Pakistani, not worth the ‘mention’.