Kala Shahani was born in 1919. Her father, Lilaram Premchand Wadhwani, had inherited agricultural land but had taken up teaching. As headmaster of Government High School, he was transferred every three years to different places in Sindh and Kala had lived in Shikarpur, Hyderabad, Larkana and Karachi. A liberal thinker, Lilaram had many friends and visitors to their home, including Christians, Parsis and Muslims.
Kala’s mother Bulibai came from a zamindar family and she was not educated in the conventional sense of the term, having grown up in a time where education for girls was not considered important. So when Lilaram engaged a tutor, a Muslim gentleman, for their daughter to nurture her skill in mathematics, she was disturbed.
Kala was ten years old when she first heard Gandhi speak. From that day onwards she never wore anything but khadi.
Though she was attracted to the activities of the freedom movement even as a school child, she could not participate directly because her father was a government servant. At fifteen, she had already met Jethanand Shahani, whom everyone called “Shanti”, a name given to him by Sadhu Vaswani because of his peace-loving nature. When she was nineteen, he asked her to marry him. He was twelve years her senior and his family was from Larkana and not Hyderabad. Kala married him despite her mother’s disapproval.
Their home was a hub of activities of the freedom movement. Kala took charkha classes and Hindi lessons – Gandhi had been stressing the importance of a rashtra bhasha. Unlike Shanti, she did not court arrest. However, she was once arrested and kept in a police lock-up for a day for publicly undertaking the independence pledge. Kala would say that, being with a group of friends, it had been rather exciting and that none of them had noticed the discomfort.
Shanti owned a press he had named Motherland Press. He tried to bring out a newspaper called Servant of Sind but when the only income was from liquor advertisements, he closed it.
He then began printing Quit India from a small makeshift press at home, inciting people to carry out satyagraha against British rule. Someone would come in the night dressed as a dhobi and carry the papers out in a cloth bundle and distribute them from door to door. When the pamphlets were traced back to the printing press in their home, Shanti was arrested and spent over six months in jail.
There was a band of about forty people who worked with them and these included Kamala Hiranand, assistant editor of Hindu. One of the colourful characters was Hargobind Ramchand, who was skilled at creating fake government letterheads which he then used to print transfer orders of British officials from one place to another, and forge authorised signatures. This created mayhem and confusion in the bureaucracy.
When he wrote to his friends he would sign off as “Bogus” and that was the nickname his friends gave him. Bogus served a three-year jail sentence and after Partition settled in Delhi, retaining a warm relationship with the friends of the days of struggle and coming to see Kala when he visited Bombay.
During the six months of Shanti’s arrest, Kala’s parents and her in-laws urged her to come and stay with them but she lived alone in her own home and continued to manage the press. Friends and colleagues supported her but she was lonely.
In jail, Shanti Shahani was confined to a three-cell barrack of the Karachi District Prison with a few other “B-class” political prisoners sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. After a morning of labour, they ate lunch and then sought amenable means to pass the rest of the day. Some of them began working together to study the verses of the Sindhi classical poet Sami, and got into the habit of doing so every night before retiring to bed. This exercise aroused in Shanti an irresistible urge to translate these verses into English “for the benefit of the outside world that was ignorant of the treasures of Sindhi literature.”
On 8 October 1943, Dussehra Day, Shanti began doing so, working every afternoon when the others were resting. On 11 November he had completed the task and handed it around to his friends for their “learned criticism” during the fortnight before he was released, on 25 November. Shanti’s preface is dated 12 March 1946 but publication was interrupted and he added more lines on 3 October 1947 in which despair mingled with hope as he spoke of Partition, the loss of peace in Sindh, and his firm conviction that India would emerge a victorious world leader.
Shanti and Kala’s son Govind was two years old at Partition. He was eleven when his father died an untimely death.
Of all the letters of condolence Kala received, the one she treasured most was written by a former student of her father’s from Larkana, a Muslim who sent his condolences and regretted that he could not pay a personal visit, being separated by, as he wrote in Sindhi, “the tyranny of the state”. Shanti had died suddenly, less than ten years after Partition.
Soon after, Kala lost her mother and then her six-year-old daughter. She felt that the faith in the Bhagwad Gita and Guru Granth Sahib saw her through this difficult phase, and that the strength she found to face life alone with a young son came from her father. Govind grew up to be a college professor and, as Dr Govind Shahani, served as Principal of Jai Hind College and later of Tolani College of Commerce. Speaking of his parents and his insights into their times he said:
“Later, when my mother was struggling to earn a livelihood for us, she never claimed any perks of being a freedom fighter. My father had been in jail and she was certainly entitled to a pension. However, she refused, maintaining that, ‘We fought for our motherland. When you work for your mother, you do not ask for anything in return.’
A friend of mine, who taught psychology at KC College, once told me that when he was young in Sindh, social opportunities were limited to groups like the Congress Seva Mandali and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which brought young people together. And it was in this process that young people got politicised and imbibed that ideology. I suppose this was true of my parents too.
For many years, as a professor of English Literature at Jai Hind College, one of the papers I taught was Applied Components in Journalism. Teaching the history of press freedom, I read about the small press not just in Sindh but all over India. It was very widespread, with newspapers and pamphlets coming out all over the country. They promoted awareness, incited satyagraha against the British and even gave information on how to make explosives like Molotov cocktails.
During the Emergency of 1975, I was a member of the Teachers’ Union. They arrested our secretary and president. I would tell my students that this was exactly what the British government had done to us. During the Emergency, as in the freedom movement, it was the small press, magazines like Himmat, Sadhana, Opinion by Gorwalla and others that were the heroes.
Another gentleman I remember spoke about something very personal: he had been so influenced by Gandhi that he remained celibate even after getting married. I heard him say how it was only years later that he realised that he had been very unfair to his wife. I did get a glimpse of the kind problems that people faced as a part of that movement, the kind of conflicts they went through, and how it affected their lives.”
Excerpted with permission from The Amils of Sindh, A Narrative History of a Remarkable Community, Saaz Aggarwal, Black-and-White Fountain.
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