As soon as someone was declared dead in the family of the Talpurs of Khairpur Mirs, the Balhani women would be called. They would arrive while the body was still warm, their coming heralded by their wails and cries of mourning.
The blood relatives of the deceased, by contrast, showed no such emotion. They stood rigid, with an almost superhuman stoicism, just as they had been trained. The Talpur men never used to cry in public, while their women only wept silently. After all, it was considered to be beneath the scions of royalty to show such common emotions, least of all in public. And royalty is what the Talpurs were, having ruled Sindh from 1783 to 1843.
For the Balhani Fakeers, a relatively under-privileged clan in those days, who laughed and cried for the royals, this was their link to royalty and their claim to fame.
Today, the ‘art of mourning’ has almost died, and the Balhani women who served the Talpurs in this manner have almost faded into oblivion, as has the glory of the royals.
Ghulaman was one of the last Balhani women who rendered this service. “My mother Ghulaman served the Talpurs throughout her life, but she died four years ago in extreme poverty; nobody from the Talpurs even attended her funeral,” said Mukhtiar Balhani, a resident of Kot Diji, Khairpur. She claims that the Balhanis were close relatives of the Talpurs and always remained with them through thick and thin, only to be abandoned. “Today, we are living in poverty, the Talpurs do nothing for our welfare,” she said bitterly.
Other locals disagree, saying that their close relations with the Talpurs got many Balhani youngsters government jobs. Today, most well-settled Balhani women are not ready to talk about their past, but the poorer ones don’t feel embarrassed while narrating their family history. According to Mukhtiar, the Talpurs were brave and strong but very fragile at the same time. Recalling the Talpur’s marriage customs, Mukhtiar said, “It was the Balhani men who used to prepare pakho (a special makeshift room made of bamboos, covered with a mat and decorated with flowers) for the bride and groom. All the customs, including nikah, used to take place in that pakho and the newlywed couple also used to spend their first night in that room.” The next morning, the couple would move to their own room in the house and then the pakho was dismantled.
“My mother Titri served the Talpurs for more than 50 years. The Talpur women had royal elegance and always wore beautiful dresses,” said Zarina (name changed), a resident of Kandhra near Sukkur, as she travelled down memory lane.
“Whenever a child was born, they only congratulated each other fleetingly, as it was nothing special. But it was us, the Balhani women, who made those events colourful by singing sehras (Sindhi songs sung on happy occasions),” she said.
Zarina said that the Talpur women neither attended weddings in other families, nor went for condolences. According to her, the Talpur women used to send their maids to go and congratulate a family when there was a wedding, or to express grief on their behalf. However, the Talpur men used to attend marriage ceremonies and funerals.
Recalling his family’s glorious past while sitting at his residence in Kot Bungalow, Prince Imam Bux Talpur confirmed their accounts. “The Balhanis played a role in all events of joy and grief. We belong to a royal family and therefore its part of our upbringing to conceal our feelings while in public,” he said.
The prince added that this was done “because our women were so fragile that they were afraid of losing energy while crying. But someone had to cry. So the Balhani women did. But now all these things are just tales of the past,” he said. All, except one.
“One custom from the old days still persists in our family: our women never feed their babies,” he said, adding that women from different tribes are hired as wet nurses and very good care is taken of those women because they feed the children of royalty.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 24th, 2013.
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