I was born in Karachi on 8 November 1927. My family comprised my parents Kishinchand and Gyanidevi and my younger sister, Sheela. Our house, in a locality called Jamshed Quarters, was built soon after my birth; and so was named ‘Lal Cottage’. It was a fairly spacious, beautifully designed, single-storied bungalow. We had a horse-driven Victoria at home. To outsiders, it may have seemed a status symbol; to me it was a source of curiosity during my early childhood. But curiosity, as they say, ‘kills the cat’, and one day I found myself under one wheel of the Victoria. The wound on my thigh took several days to heal.
There were many Parsi families in a part of Jamshed Quarters known as Parsi Colony and most of them lived in mansions, they being a prosperous community. The old-world charm of these mansions, which is sadly at odds with the rapidly shrinking population of the Parsis, can still be seen in Karachi—and also in Bombay, a city with which Karachi shares close historical ties and many common characteristics. The Advani family belonged to the Amil branch of Sindhi Hindus. Traditionally, the Amil was a revenue official who assisted munshis in the administrative set-up of Muslim kings. It was one of the two main divisions of the Lohano clan which was linked to the Vaishya (business) community. In time, Amils came to dominate government jobs and professions in Sindh. Generally speaking, Hindus in Sindh had a strong tradition of revering the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs, Guru Nanak and other Sikh gurus.
My paternal grandfather, Dharamdas Khubchand Advani, was a Sanskrit scholar well settled in life as the principal of a government high school. He passed away before I was born. My father, had four brothers, three elder to him and one younger. The elder three—Gobindram, Parasram and Ramchand—were in Hyderabad, while my father and his younger brother Gopaldas lived in Karachi. Gobindram, a civil servant, retired as Deputy Collector of Hyderabad. Parasram was a lawyer. Ramchand and my father were businessmen, and Gopaldas was a professor of chemistry in D.J. Sindh College, Karachi. As I have mentioned, three of my uncles have the names Gobindram, Ramchand and Gopaldas. By a curious coincidence three of my mamas (maternal uncles) also had those very names!
Karachi and Hyderabad together had a population of approximately six lakhs, mainly Hindus. But with the Amil community confined mainly to these two places, families were quite closely knit. During those days nuclear families were unheard of; large, extended families were the norm. So, when I look back and identify the numerous first cousins I grew up with, I can count as many as thirty-four!
The most vivid memory of my early childhood is the affection I received from everyone in the family, including my grandparents and my three mausis (mother’s sisters). We received a lot of intense love and care as our mother had passed away when I was just thirteen, and Sheela only seven. Indeed, Sheela, who now lives in Mumbai, was brought up almost entirely by our Jamni Mausi and Mausa Chandiram Wadhwani.
I have very fond memories of my childhood. Even the trauma of Partition, which forced our family, like lakhs of other Hindu and Sikh families in Sindh, to migrate to this part of undivided India, has not erased those memories. On the contrary, these memories have become all the more precious because of my family’s forced separation from our homeland, in which I spent the first twenty years of my life.
The one person who had the greatest influence on my personality in my childhood years was my father. He was a gentle human being who embodied simplicity, and without any overt preaching, he quietly shaped my mind with his impeccable conduct. I was extremely attached to my mother as well, but after she passed away it was from my father that I received both love and guidance.
THE ATMOSPHERE OF PAVITRATA AT HOME
As I look back, what strikes me most about the atmosphere in our household was the pervasive air of pavitrata (piousness and purity). Most Hindus in those days were Nanakpanthis—followers of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Indeed, the main ‘deity’ in our home was the Granth Sahib. We would not only pray to it, but my grandmother also used to read from it everyday, in the presence of all the family members.
Sikh ritualism was part of the family’s tradition, and the Granth Sahib was duly venerated and recited regularly not just by my grandmother, but also by my mother and elders. No wonder, even as a child, my awareness about my own birthday was not simply that I was born on 8 November 1927, but that it was just a day after Guru Nanak Jayanti, which falls on Kartik Poornima (the night of the full moon as per the Hindu calendar in the month of Kartik). I also recall that on my birthday there used to be an akhand paath (full and continuous reading from the Granth Sahib), followed by bhog (consecrated meal).
I vividly recalled the precious tradition of religious harmony in Sindh. Temples and gurdwaras were both accepted as abodes of God and all Hindus went there to offer prayers. Hindus would join the celebrations of Nanak Jayanti and Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti at gurdwaras, where Diwali and Dusshera festivities were also held. I was completely unaware that those who wore beards and those who did not, belonged to different faiths. In fact, as far as Hindus and Sikhs are concerned, it is only after migrating to this part of India after Partition that, for the first time, I began to hear and understand that the two are different communities. It was also common for Hindus to pay homage at the shrines of Sufi saints and for Muslims to celebrate Hindu festivals. These are the pluralist samskaras (traditions) which were passed on to me as a child and have shaped my personal ethics since.