Punta Arenas, Chile, is one of the southern-most cities in the world. There was a time when every ship crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Straits of Magellan or around Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) halted there.
Navigating giant waves, deadly currents, Antarctic blizzards and icebergs, the journeys took months. Arriving at Punta Arenas, the storm-battered, scurvy-ridden sailors would stumble out of their cramped quarters in relief. The town thrived.
We flew in more than a hundred years after the Panama Canal had changed things for Punta Arenas. At the Hotel Cabo de Hornos, we bumped into someone from our plane who had stayed over to catch his (once-a-week) flight to the Falkland Islands. Paul, from the South Atlantic Research Institute, told us that there was a post office nearby where Robert Scott, the early Antarctic explorer, had posted letters and packets.
These days too, this historic town is a base for Antarctic expeditions. The less adventurous can catch the tourist boat to a nearby island thickly populated by penguins. Punta Arenas, like much of Chile, nestles between wooded slopes on one side and a lavish seafront on the other. Like other Chilean cities, it has well-maintained public spaces that sport sculptures of different types: traditional European, contemporary and aboriginal. Its cemetery is said to be exceptionally beautiful and historic. We saw none of these, however, having come with the specific purpose of meeting the Sindhi families of this town.
I first saw the name Punta Arenas on a map in a book by the French scholar Claude Markovits, The Global World of Indian Merchants – 1750-1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama.
The map marks places around the world which had branches of trading firms headquartered in Hyderabad, Sind, between 1890 and 1940. I felt surprised and impressed to see that it included about a dozen places in South America. How had Sindhis got so far away from home so long ago?
Invited to meals at the homes of the Sindhi families of Punta Arenas to be told their stories, it felt like I was eleven and invited to Harry Potter’s birthday party.
The first evening, Chile was playing arch-rival Bolivia in the Copa America, and I was learning how, one day in 1907, a Sindhi merchant, Harumal, came ashore. As the fascinating story proceeded, raucous cries rang out and vehicles revved loudly on the streets outside. Chile had won, 5-0.
The account of how Harumal opened his first store; how it got handed over to someone else; what happened during the First World War and then the Second; how Partition affected the Sindhis of Punta Arenas, will form part of Sindhi Tapestry, the ‘companion volume’ to my first book, Sind: Stories from a Vanished Homeland.
So far away from India, and with their home here for more than a hundred years, the Sindhis of Punta Arenas still speak Sindhi and eat Sindhi food. Like other diasporic Sindhis, they have an international network. Three household help I saw in the homes of these Chilean Sindhis were from, respectively, Nigeria, Indonesia and Burma.
Sindhis cook at the Saturday soup kitchen in the Hindu temple in Iquique, Chile. (Photos: Saaz Aggarwal)
The homes were lavish and decorated like those of fabled Oriental potentates, thick with curios and mirrors and objets d’art.
On Sunday morning, we attended satsang in the Hindu temple of Punta Arenas, which occupies prime real estate on the seafront. It was a moving service, conducted in both Sindhi and Spanish.
One of the many public art installations in Punta Arenas, one of the southernmost cities in the world. (Photos: Saaz Aggarwal)
Like in other Sindhi mandars around the world, many world religions are represented here. It was once an essential characteristic of Sind that spirituality and the inner life were revered beyond human classification. And then, it became an irony of history that the Hindus of Sind turned out to set such store by their own religion that they were forced into exile from a beloved homeland on account of it.
In 1947, these doughty people lost more than their homeland and their possessions. In their determination to move on and make the best of what they were left with, they lost their past too. In an extreme endorsement of this easily verified fact, someone in Punta Arenas told me, “I really learnt a lot today. I never even knew that Mohenjo Daro was
Yet another thing that suffered a blow was the Sindhi brand identity. In new lands, and with the urgency of feeding their families, trading was a way to make a respectable living. Competing as they were with cartels entrenched for decades, and obliged to trade on lower margins to get a foot in the door, they were branded early on as ‘cheats’.
The early resentment in Bombay produced Bollywood caricatures of wealthy and villainous businessmen speaking in thick Sindhi accents, and widespread aphorisms of the “If you meet a Sindhi and a snake, whom should you kill first?”
In 1947, when the Hindus of Sind dispersed and sought new homes, many settled in Bombay. However, an early foundation had been established for the diaspora by the pioneering Sindhi entrepreneurial community, the Bhaibands, who had their kothis in the Shahibazar locality of Hyderabad, Sind. As mapped by Markovits, they had branches all over the world, particularly dense in South East Asia and Africa, and even South America. This gave a base to the displaced ones. Families sent their young sons out to these outposts. They worked hard, deprived themselves, sent money home, and (some sooner than others) started their own businesses which, over the years, grew and grew. Often enough, they were displaced yet again by global politics and economics. In the 1950s, events in Vietnam sent them out to Thailand and Laos. In the 1960s, their stronghold in Indonesia loosened and Hong Kong opened up. In the early 1970s, Africa became hostile. The story went on.
Celebrating International Yoga Day at a temple in Punta Arenas. (Photos: Saaz Aggarwal)
It was something that happened in Chile in the mid-1970s that took today’s Sindhi population there. A government leaning to Communism was violently overthrown by the military dictator Augusto Pinochet. The new government began to nurture the Chilean economy with policies formulated by a group of young US-educated economists wryly referred to as the Chicago Boys. One of the initiatives was the Iquique free trade zone. In came the Sindhis.
In Iquique, I stayed with Renu Melwani, in what was once Pinochet’s home in the town he is said to have loved dearly. Bordered on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by a range of low hills extending from the Atacama Desert and running parallel to the Andes, Iquique’s natural advantages include an exceptionally beautiful landscape; a countryside so rich in copper that Chile is the largest exporter in the world; bountiful coastal waters that export seafood delicacies all over the world; a harbour so filled with containers that the free zone is like a mini-China.
If the Sindhis I met in Iquique could be used as a base to create a stereotype, then Sindhis are kind and welcoming; cosmopolitan, fun-loving and extremely close-knit. At the Hindu temple in Iquique, the Saturday soup kitchen has volunteers from across the town to cook and take the food out to underprivileged areas. One evening, at a potluck dinner in Renu’s home, I helped myself to an unfamiliar dish and learnt that it was gado-gado, an Indonesian delicacy. Where else but in Chile?
Chile is a beautiful country. I returned home with the unforgettable scenery of the places and of its all-pervasive public art installations implanted in my mind.
I suppose I will have to admit that I also loved Chile because, for a writer, there is absolutely nothing which compares to travelling halfway across the world and finding people there waiting for you with your book in their hand.