As a summer volunteer at the archive here at the Forward, I have been surrounded by many conversations about Yiddish, though few actually spoken in the language. In the stories of Yiddish, and the ways in which young Jewish-Americans are finding ways to reconnect to it, I saw my own family’s linguistic story reflected.
When imagining ancestors being forced to flee their homes, the mind often conjures pictures of small suitcases stuffed with family photos, trains packed with anxious crowds, parents clutching children tightly as they carry them away from certain danger towards an uncertain future. Stories are recalled of the houses they left behind, the shops and businesses abandoned and friends lost amid the chaos of escape.
Less thought of is the present, the ancestors’ children’s children who now call the places of refuge where their grandparents landed home. They were not on the trains and cars that brought their ancestors to safety, they did not lose their homes and livelihoods, but they often have lost something else entirely; their language.
When India and Pakistan were divided into two separate countries, the period of transition that followed was filled with violence and turbulence that still haunts both countries today. Millions of people fled their homes in fear of religious persecution, among them my grandparents.
Just children then, my grandparents were among the almost one million people who fled from Pakistan’s Sindh region, joining the ten million total refugees who came to India post-partition. They, along with their fellow Hindu and Sikh Sindhis, were scattered across India, left to resettle and assimilate in places where their Sindhi food, culture and language were now considered foreign. In addition to the lives they and their parents left behind in the Sindh, they had also lost the ability to live in a place where their native tongue was spoken.
Today, more than fifty years after partition, the Sindhi language in India is contained within the small, scattered Indian Sindhi community itself, which has about 2.7 million speakers spread throughout the country, making up only 0.2% of Indians. Though it is a nationally recognized language, no Indian state counts Sindhi as an official language, turning Sindhi into a language spoken in the living rooms and kitchens of refugee Sindhis like my family, if it is spoken at all.
As a first-generation Sindhi-American with only one Sindhi parent, I never had the opportunity to learn Sindhi at home as a child. Now, as a young adult, my Sindhi speaking grandparents urge me to learn Hindi rather than their native tongue, stating that learning Sindhi is impractical compared to the widely spoken Hindi.
Even my cousins in India, whose grandparents settled in the hills of Shillong, do not speak any Sindhi, instead opting to speak the Hindi or English that they use on the streets at home as well. With the non-Pakistani Sindhis of the world scattered across India and the globe, the passing of the Sindhi language down to future generations is jeopardized by the pressures of assimilation. Now, as I am faced with the decision between learning Hindi and Sindhi, I am faced with a choice between a language connected to my family or a language connected to the rest of the world.
Both Yiddish and Sindhi’s loss of new generations of speakers showcase that when people are forced out of their homes, they lose so much more than property. The losses of homeland and its lasting effects can be seen in both the Sindhi speaking and Yiddish speaking communities today, with both seeing their young people struggle between the language of their ancestors and the languages of their adopted homes.
As we grow farther away from the homelands our grandparents knew, language is becoming both an example of the casualties of forced resettlement as well as a potential connection back to our histories. In a world where the history of my people often loses space in my mind to the pressing issues of daily life, I am increasingly inclined to sit a little longer in my grandmother’s kitchen, soaking in the familiar yet foreign words she calls out to my grandfather in the living room.
Hopefully, in time, I can carry those words out of the kitchen and to the next generation, along with the stories of how those words came to India, and America, in the first place.
Maya Sadhwani Nee is an undergraduate student at McGill University studying International Development and Religion and Globalization. She is currently a summer volunteer for The Forward’s archive.