Sindhis of Singapore, Part I: - Siraj Syed

Sindhis of Singapore, Part I: - Siraj Syed

It’s just past 4 pm at Sindhu House, on 795 Mountbatten Road, in the eastern part of Singapore. I sneak into the ground floor hall and am given a chair by Vashi Khialani. A meeting is in progress, and a speaker is addressing the 20-member audience. She is delivering a speech, but not in the literal sense. I read her name on the programme... Vinita Bharvani.

This short speech is a project that will be evaluated, by a pre-appointed Evaluator, and she will then proceed to deliver another ‘speech’, on a future date, her next project, which will be evaluated too. The process will go on, winning her higher levels in speaking and communication skills. That is how the US-headquartered Toastmasters (Club) International functions. I know the ropes, because I have been an active Toastmaster. But this particular club is special for me. Almost all members here are of Indian/sub-continent origin. Almost all are Sindhis. And Sindhu House is the base of the Singapore Sindhi Association (SSA), of which Vashdev ‘Vashi’ Khialani is the President. And he is my host.

SSA Club, District 80, Division E, Area 4, is only two years old, and yet boasts of some competent speakers. Parent body, the SSA, on the other hand, is 95 years, existing in some form or the other, since 1921. Most Sindhis arrived in Singapore after Partition, many of them proceeding farther eastwards, after landing in Bombay (Mumbai) State, of which Sind (or Sindh) was a part, till 1937. A large number of them, indeed, did settle in Bombay itself. 

Here is what was reported in a local Singapore (then part of an undivided Malaya) newspaper about their large scale arrival, in 1948, by ship, “Hundreds of Sindhis have arrived in the last few months. Singapore Sindhi merchants, who are concentrated in High Street (the first street to be built in Singapore, in 1821, by convicts, manually; a lot of ethnic Indians still have offices there), set-up an organisation early this year, to receive and disperse the new arrivals. New Sindhi textile shops have sprung-up in Changi (location of the present airport), Nee Soon (now known as Yishun), Seletar Air Base of the Royal (British) Air Force, Middle Road, Arab Street (all locations still bear the same names).”

Organisations named Sindhi Merchants Association and Sindhi Club gave way to what is now known as SSA, the current incarnation having its genesis in 2003. Their first property was in 30 Enggor Street (Enggor Street is a one-way road, within the Central Business District in the Tanjong Pagar area. The street was named after a town in Perak, which is now Malaysia). Not far from here is Vashi’s office, on Maxwell Road, Vashi is not a trader, and, at least professionally, a rare breed among Sindhis, and perhaps even rarer in the island nation.

SSA had moved to Neil Road, from Enggor Street, which property was sold in 1951, for SGD 55,000. This place served more as a stop-over, a transit house, for those Sindhis who were heading for, what they then perceived as, greener pastures (USA, Canada). By and by, the Mountbatten premises were taken on rent, and subsequently bought, by Jawaharmal Idanmal, who was compensated by the association, from its reserve funds, and thus it became Sindhu House. 

Early records show that Wassiamul Assomul was perhaps the first Sindhi to set foot on and set-up trade in Singapore. The year? 1864! A year later, he was to start Wassiamal Assomul Co., the first Sindhi-owned company in Java, Surabaya, Indonesia. A co-incidence links me to Wassiamul Assomul. In 1967, having secured above average marks in my matriculation (XIth standard in the good old days), I ended up joining what was called National College, located in the relatively distant area of Bandra West. Before entering the environs of the academic edifice, where I was to take-up the Science course, I read its full name: Rishi Dayaram (Gidumal; this moniker was not included) and Seth Hassaram National College and Seth Wassiamul Assomul Science College, often abbreviated to R.D. National, or just National, doing little justice to the names of the founding trio. 

The college, which became a group of colleges, was started in 1922, in Sind, and was sort of transplanted in Bombay. That story might never be told in its entirety (or will it?). Wassiamul Assomul was a really smart man, setting up companies across Asia, and supporting education at the same time.

In National College, my seniors included Mohan Deep Chandiramani, a Sindhi budding playwright, who went on to become a reputed journalist, a feng shui consultant and biographer-novelist; BrijNarayan, a sarod maestro with a lineage, Javed and Naved Jaffery, were my juniors; Majeed Memon, the well-known criminal advocate, who is also a Member of Parliament; Mahesh Bhatt, who evolved from a film-maker’s son to a maker himself and a maverick thinker; and, of course, Amjad Khan, very senior, who went on to enslave and haunt all cine-lovers as Gabbar Singh, from 1975, till date.

The college is still there, with several annexes added, and open spaces subtracted. I taught there for two years, at the behest of its Principal, Subhadra ‘Shibu” Anand, but the National College of 2005-06 had nothing in common with the institution I had first set eyes on, in 1967. And I am not talking about the syllabus and teaching aids at all. Back to Singapore.

One estimate put the count of the Sindhi population in Singapore, in 2013, at 29,000. A source on the Internet insists it is about 9,000, a more credible figure. Those who are in transit, or those who are not part of the association, are not listed. 

Meeting over, snacks are served, just after 6.10 pm. Both items on the menu are local, but vegetarian. I choose the one that looks more familiar, and it is a good choice. Lukewarm (they call it just warm) tea, a Singapore standard, is served. Post meeting, I meet some of the other members.

Back at my hotel, I leaf through the bulging SSA directory that Vashdev has given me. It contains many a nugget about Sind and Sindhis, language and culture, names and rituals. We’ll share excerpts with you, soon, on this portal. But before that, in this Presidential election year, (yes, for the SSA too), I must profile Vashdev, and narrate his story, mainly in his own words. 

Coming–up soon: Part II
Meet Vashdev Khialani, the incumbent Singapore Sindhi Association President, who is .... an engineer!

Siraj Syed Siraj is the Consulting Editor of see profile
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