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Interview with Sharvari Desai

Desai, Sharvari
Wilson, Dan
Date of Interview: 
Overcoming obstacles; Relationships with people and places; Cultural identification; Storytellers and stories; Tolerance and respect
Sharvari Desai tells a history of the partitioning of India, as it was told to her by her father, and how it effected society as a whole and her family in particular.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Dan Wilson interviewed a variety of people currently residing in North Carolina for a class project at UNCC.
Interview Audio: 
DW (Dan Wilson): Hi! What is your name?
SD (Sharvari Desai): My name is Sharvari N. Desai.
DW: And could you share with me your age?
SD: I am 52 years old.
DW: Um, what is your country of origin?
SD: I'm from India.
DW: What, um, part of India, if I could ask?
SD: I'm from west coast, near Bombay, 200 miles from Bombay.
DW: Good. And what's the native language there?
SD: I speak Gujarati.
DW: Do you speak other languages as well?
SD: I speak Hindi, and I speak English, and I know a little bit of Sanskrit.
DW: Um, when and where did you learn English?
SD: I learned English when my father was in Kenya. At that time Kenya was a British Protectorate, so when I was five years old, I left India and went to Kenya, east Africa. At that time we learned English.
DW: Um, do you have a favorite story?
SD: Yes, I do.
DW: Um, is it a traditional story that a lot of people know, or is it more a family story that gets re-told?
SD: Traditional story, which related to the family. So it is a combination.
DW: A combination. So it would have been an oral story rather than a written story.
SD: It's woven into historical events.
DW: Oh, OK. Who taught you the story, or from whom did you hear it first?
SD: From my dad.
DW: Um, how old were you when you first heard it?
SD: I was like six, seven years old.
DW: Um, could you tell me the story, please?
SD: Yes, I could. This story is, was told to me by my dad, and it is about the, uh, 1947, when India became, um, partitioned. Uh, the India, India became India and Pakistan. At that time this story was told by my uncle, and my dad told me the story. At that time my uncle was settled in Karachi, which is the capitol of Pakistan. Here in this land his children's children and all his family were in Karachi for a long time. But when the war broke out between India and Pakistan the India became, uh, secular state which Gandhi said all religions are going to be respected, so the Moslems from India stayed in India, but the Pakistani people said Pakistan is only for Moslems, and all the people who were Hindus, no matter how long you have been there, you have to leave. So, there were big atrocities. The women, the Indian women were raped. They were killed while crossing the border, so one of the uncles, a great-uncle was there, and he had a land, he had a factory, he had a big house, he was settled, and he sons were born there. They had a passport, but how they fled the border and how they starved along the way, and, uh, while crossing the border his wife was raped by the, um, Moslem, um, men, and because she couldn't face such a shame she later on committed suicide, because she couldn't, she couldn't bear the shame of this event. An how he dressed as a Moslem, and how his children dressed, they had a scarf around their head, and had grew the beard, but later on they found out that he was Hindu because he, uh, in Moslem the men are circumcised, and, uh, this guys were not, so how they were, how they fled. So this is the story. It's a very sad story.
DW: Um, what is the message in this story for you, as you see it?
SD: The message is, uh, that we should learn to respect diversity, we should learn to respect other people's religion, which I think India did, and Pakistan didn't. And this strong hatred between the two countries still continues, and both of the countries are very fearful of each other, although you know, in the Kashmir is a problem, which we are facing right now. Just Clinton went to India and he saw the same animosity continue over and over again. So that's the message, we really need to communicate and be more peaceful with each other.
DW: Do you think it's, uh, or how do you think the, the two sides, uh, would have handled the situation if they had had the atomic bomb in '47?
SD: I think they would have destroyed each other, with great passion and you know, they would have been glad to. So in a way it was glad that they didn't have the weapon.
DW: Oh.
SD: But somehow I do feel the Britishers were the root cause for this problems, because they only gave independence if India and Pakistan were willing to have a partition. They couldn't keep India as a whole. And I think that's the reason Gandhi was shot in 1947, because he preached, uh, tolerance. So that's the whole story, of how the family suffered while crossing the India-Pakistan border.
DW: Um, one of my questions was going to be, as a child what did you like most about the story? But it seems there is not a whole lot to like about that story.
SD: But at the time I couldn't see the relevance. You know, I had no impact on the brain. It was just a sad story for me, but, I didn't connect, so actually I just heard this uncle died in 1970, but I had no, had no-- [pause]
DW: No frame of reference?
SD: No frame of reference.
DW: [Pause] For that. Yes.
SD: Because I had a happy childhood. I didn't experience it myself, so, you know, I had no frame of reference.
DW: Have you, have you, retold this story to your children, yourself?
SD: Yes, they know.
DW: As part of their history--
SD: Part of their history. How the whole sub-continent, because they see Clinton going and they see this Kashmir problem, and they say, "Mom, why are they fighting?" So it just comes back as a news item or something like that, they read about, they read about this problem, still recurring, recurring problem.
DW: Right. It's an on-going situation.
SD: It's an on-going conflict. That's why I don't want to tell them everyday, but it comes up in discussions.
DW: Was your immediate family, like your father and mother, in Pakistan? Did they also escape to India?
SD: They were, well, not them, but their older brother, my uncle, my father's elder brother, and my mom's elder sister, those families were in Pakistan were impacted. But personally, my parents, no.
DW: They were always in India.
SD: They were in India.
DW: So your uncle gave up everything, he lost his land and factory and everything--
SD: Material things can be gained, but he lost his wife.
DW: Right.
SD: He never, he needed a lot of help too, coping with the stress.
DW: He never recovered from all that--
SD: No, he never recovered. His life was never the same.
DW: How long did he live after?
SD: He lived for a long time in India. He was a farmer, so he had some lands. He rebuilt himself, but mentally he needed some help. He had a great scar, mental scar.
DW: Well, it's very, it's a very sad story, a lot of emotional impact to it. I appreciate your sharing it with me.
SD: I wish I could tell you a happy one, but this sticks out in my mind.
DW: Well, I think these, happy or sad, these are the stories which make up our, our personal history.
SD: Right, it's very political, because the United States is lucky. We don't have such kind of extreme emotion, where people just, you know, we have our problems, but not to that extent.
DW: Right, not that passionate dislike--
SD: Political passion is not the trademark of the United States! [Laughter]
DW: No, no. It's hard to get us excited about many things. [Pause] Anyway, thank you very much. I appreciate it. And if you like I can give you a transcript. OK. Thanks so much!
SD: All right.