From Shikarpur to Caribbean Islands, the story of Sindhi businessmen


Oh Sindhi! May your sprit be ever young. May God be with you.
May you spread happiness.

Wherever you find your people, call it your home.
Wherever you find Sindhis, call it your Sindh. 
Extract from English translation of Sindhi Poem Shadow Play by Prabhu Chhugani ‘Wafa’ [1915-2012]

If there is one thing common between Shikarpur and Hyderabad in Pakistan and Sint Maarten in the Caribbean islands, or Canary Islands in the Spanish archipelago and Kobe in Japan, it is the most ubiquitous presence of Sindhi businesspeople and merchants. For example, today in Canary Islands, there are hundreds of Sindhi-owned shops selling souvenirs and Chinese electronic goods. In Kobe, by the 1870s, Sindhi merchants had set up a thriving export business of Japanese silk goods. A bit later, by the 1930s, Sindhis had set up tailoring shops in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district and had stitched suits for everyone from Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and Angela Merkel to David Bowie.
We are informed by published research that the formation of this transnational network of Sindhi merchants was partly fueled by the British annexation of Sindh province in 1843, amplified by traditional mobile banking practices of merchants between the two Sindh cities of Shikarpur and Hyderabad in Pakistan. And later the great socio-political upheaval of Partition led to further global migration of Sindhi-speaking people which resulted in these transnational business networks.

A Sindhi jeweller

In fact, such was the enterprising nature of Sindhi businesspeople, that by the 1850s, some Hyderabadi merchants had started bringing local craft goods from Sindh to Bombay. The kind of goods the Hyderabadi merchants brought and sold in Bombay became known as ‘Sindwork’ and the merchants who sold them as ‘Sindworkwallas’ or ‘Sindworkies’. The goods brought from Sindh included lacquer work on wooden objects from Hala (now in Matiari, Pakistan) and the village of Luqman, Kashi work (a hand painting) done by Kashigars from Hala on flower vases, jugs and jars, Lungis from Thatta (Sindh), Ajrak, a kind of block printed shawl from Dadu, embroidery work from Nawabshah, brass and bronze works from Larkana.
After the partition of British India in 1947, many Sindhi families migrated from Pakistan to Bombay province in India. According to the 1951 census of India around 0.8 million Sindhi-speaking people were settled in India at that time, and about 36 percent of them, had settled in western India. Post-1947, several thousand Sindhis had made the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) and its several suburban towns their home. One such suburban town, Ulhasnagar located at around 55 kilometers from Mumbai, deserves special mention. Ulhasnagar was formerly a refugee camp which later became synonymous with Sindhis and their business in India.
We learn about the extraordinary zeal of Sindhi businesspeople from an interesting practice from Ulhasnagar. In his book Cosmopolitan Connections: The Sindhi Diaspora, 1860-2000, Mark-Anthony Falzon mentions how in the pre-1990s era when the Indian market had severe import restrictions, enterprising Sindhi businesspeople made use of the Indian appetite for foreign goods by selling shirts, pants, pens, bags, shoes etc. cleverly labelled ‘Made in USA’—the acronym USA stood for Ulhasnagar Sindhi Association.

A Sindhi merchant

Similarly in his 2000 Big Fat Joke Book Khushwant Singh recounts a story told to him by a Sindhi businessman who went to Hong Kong on a visit. He wanted to have a silk suit made and went to a Sindhi tailor’s shop at the airport which advertised suits made to measure in a couple of hours. The visiting businessman selected the material and asked how much it cost. The tailor replied: “Sir, seeing you are a fellow Sindhi, I will offer you a special price. A suit of this material costs 200 Hong Kong dollars—as you can see clearly marked on the label. I charge everyone else two hundred dollars but not a fellow Sindhi. I will not ask for 190 dollars, not even 180 dollars. For you it will be 170 dollars, not a cent more.”
To this, the Sindhi businessman asked, “Why should you lose money on me just because I happen to be a fellow Sindhi?”
“So what should I offer for this suit? Seventy dollars? That I would to a non-Sindhi tailor. Eighty dollars? That would be insulting a Sindhi brother. I offer you ninety dollars and not a cent less.”

Another illustrative example of Sindhi mercantile innovation is their rapid acquisition of linguistic skills depending on their area of operation. In The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750–1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama, Claude Markovits cites a good example of Hyderabadi Sindhi merchants, who were originally a monolingual Sindhi-speaking community, but when embarking on international trade, transferred themselves into a polyglot community, by not only acquiring English, but many other local languages, such as, in Eretria (Africa), they became proficient in Arabic, Amharic and Italian. In Guangzhou and Guangdong (China), Sindhi merchants fluently speak Mandarin Chinese, in Singapore they learned to speak in Malay and Chinese, while those in Manila (Philippines) spoke in Tagalog and those of Canary Islands became fluent in Spanish. In India, similarly, in Maharashtra (erstwhile Bombay province), a large Sindhi population acquired Marathi and Hindi. And on top of that they have solidly continued speaking in Sindhi among themselves.
Sindhi is an Indo-Aryan language with roots in the lower Indus River valley. It is named after the Indus River which flows in India and Pakistan, and which was known in earlier times as the Sindhu. According to Ethnologue, there are around 33 million speakers of Sindhi in the world. Lachman M. Khubchandani has written that modern Sindhi is a descendent of a language named Vrācaḍa Apabhramśa or an earlier pre-Vedic Prakrit language. The earliest historical reference to Sindhi is found in the Nātyaśāstra, a dramaturgical Sanskrit text that was written between 200BC and 200AD. Evidence of Sindhi as a written language dates to a translation of the Quran Sharif in 883AD, followed a century later by a Persian translation of the Old Sindhi version of the ancient Indian religious epic Mahābhārata.


A Sindhi jeweler

During the course of its history, Sindhi has used several scripts. Today, it is mainly written in Perso-Arabic script in Pakistan and in Devanagari in India.
Among the Sindhi language speaking merchants of colonial India a secret script named Hat vāṇikī was also used to keep accounts and hold business correspondence. The word “Hat vāṇikī” translates as “language of market traders”. This Brahmi-based script was related to Khudawadī (another script used by Sindhi merchants) and Gurmukhi, the main difference being, the absence of vowels markings in Hat vāṇikī (like an Abjad script like Arabic).
British ethnographer Herbert Hope Risley (1851-1911) talks about this script in his book The people of India (1908). While describing a Sindhi businessman he mentions this strange script in following words: “He uses light weights and swears the scales tip themselves; he keeps his accounts in a character that no one but God can read.”
Hat vāṇikī was also used by the global diaspora of Sindhi merchants like a shorthand in their account books. Apparently, it is still surviving in Ulhasnagar and among Sindhi traders living in India and overseas. According to one humorous anecdote related to Hat vāṇikī went like this: A young girl got married and went to live with her in-laws in another city. Some weeks later her in-laws sent a little note in Hat vāṇikī to her family saying that ‘Hiri miri veiahe’ (She has adjusted well). Unfortunately, her parents chose to read it as ‘Hari mari veiahe’ (She’s dead) and started mourning her death. Such was the secrecy of this script!
Interestingly, especially in pre-partition days there were slight variations in the script according to Sindhi castes: thus the script of the Bhaiband community was slightly different from the Chhapru’s script. These differences were, however, minor and involved only a few consonants.
What is remarkable is how this resilient community of Sindhi merchants has maintained its vast business legacy and networks despite having truly little control over political borders and multiple fronts of their operation.

Abhishek Avtans teaches Indic languages & linguistics at Leiden University (the Netherlands). He tweets at @avtansa



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