From Across the Thar: The Princess Padmini Amarkot Story

It took almost two months to convince her to speak to me.

When we finally decide to FaceTime, I am a little surprised to see Kuvrani Padmini Amarkot, the Hindu princess of Umerkot (erstwhile Amarkot), a district in the Sindh province of Pakistan. She is wearing an oversized T-shirt, and sports a pair of black rimmed glasses, green earphones and a pink iWatch. She is comfortably perched on a pink couch that rests against a glass partition with palms swaying in the background.

I had expected a more conservative setting.

As the daughter of the royal family of Kanota from Rajasthan, Amarkot is used to being the subject of conversation and gossip. A Google search throws up news of her cross-border wedding in 2015 to Kunwar Karni Singh, the son of the Rana Saheb of Umerkot. These reports range from mawkish sentimentality to outright lies. But some things ring true – it is a common practice for Sodhas (a Rajput community that Amarkot belongs to) to marry Rajputs across the border based on horoscopes and family antecedents.

Amarkot met her husband for five minutes before the wedding was fixed.

“I really didn’t know what to ask him then,” she recalls.

Thereafter, the couple met just once more during their nine-month courtship.

“We didn’t really talk about cultural differences then. I remember hearing about how his family would settle village disputes and found that alien. He would just say that I should come and experience this life for myself,” she says.

Amarkot says that the idea of moving to Pakistan is not uncommon in her community. Her husband’s mother is from Ajmer and grandmother from Bikaner. All three of her sisters-in-law are married in India – two in Uttar Pradesh and one in Bangalore.

But what about her friends? What did they say?

“They thought I had gone mad,” she laughs.

Life after marriage

When I first contacted Amarkot, she seemed tired of talking about her wedding. “It’s done now,” she said. I promised that we would focus on her life after the marriage. Thus cropped up the obvious question about the transition from then to now.

Padmini with her husband, Kunwar Karni Singh, outside their Karachi residence. Photo: Special arrangement

Amarkot was in Umerkot  for the first six years and recently moved to Karachi (a five-hour drive from Umerkot) because her four-year-old son Vishwaraj attends school here.

“Initially, I was sensitive. Now I’ve learnt the subtle art of not caring too much,” she says. She might be leaning towards Mark Manson’s philosophy prescribed in his bestseller The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, but is too proper to quote it verbatim.

Wasn’t it lonely settling into a foreign land, one with such a sensitive relationship with India?

“Of course it was and it still is. Now, I have made a few friends in  Karachi. Back in Umerkot, there is really no one of my age or intellect I can speak to. Unlike in India, wives don’t accompany their husbands on political tours here,” she says.

Amarkot is married into a political family. Her father-in-law, Rana Hamir Singh is a sitting Member of the Provincial Assembly (MPA) from Umerkot. He previously served as a minister of Science and Technology and Agriculture in Benazir Bhutto’s cabinet. Her husband recently completed his tenure as the district vice chairman of Umerkot, an elected position in the local government – equivalent to a deputy mayor – and continues to engage in grassroots politics.

Located in the south-east corner of Sindh, Umerkot lies to the left of the Thar desert that separates it from India. It’s approximately 200 kilometres from Barmer, a popular tourist destination in Rajasthan. Home to around 50% of the Hindu population in Pakistan, Umerkot ranks 97th out of 114 Pakistani districts in terms of UN’s Human Development Index.

Till date, families in Umerkot – or rather the men – come to Amarkot’s father-in-law for a faisala (decision) to resolve family disputes instead of going to the local administration. The strict divide between men and women in Umerkot reflects in the purdah within the haveli (Rana’s residence). The zenana quarters (an exclusive space for women) lie away from the kothri, the place where the family disputes are resolved.

Strict purdah, no social life and a foreign language. It must have been overwhelming, I say.

“When I was in college, I resented discipline. It was a convent and the nuns were strict about using mobile phones post 9 pm. We made our own beds, waited in line to use washrooms and filled our own buckets,” says Amarkot. She is talking about her time at St. Bede’s – an all-girls college in Shimla from where she studied psychology and geography. “Now when I look back, I appreciate college much more and cherish all those memories.”

The loneliness she felt was exacerbated by the language that was new to her. Dhakti, a Sindhi dialect, is spoken extensively in the Thar, including Umerkot. “During our courtship, I told my husband to speak to me in Dhakti even if I replied in Hindi,” says Amarkot. He did so and after getting married, he instructed the staff at the haveli to speak to her in Dhakti too. “They would speak to me in Dhakti in front of him but once he left, they would pretend to not understand what I was saying,” she recalls. She alludes this impolite behaviour as their  reaction to an outsider.

An idea struck Amarkot. She gathered a few children to come to the zenana quarters to play cricket. “These 10-year olds were my teachers. I learnt Dhakti in four months and am probably the only girl in our family of this generation who knows the language. It is a mix of Gujarati, Sindhi and Rajasthani. I was familiar with a few words then, but now I am fluent,” she says.

Padmini with her husband and son outside their house (Rana Jagir) in Umerkot. Photo: Special arrangement

An avid sportsperson herself, Amarkot represented Rajasthan in cricket at the national level as part of the Under-19 team. She enjoys shooting and as a keen equestrienne, she is a regular at the riding school in Malir in Karachi. According to  Amarkot, though she has had to adjust a lot more than her husband, he too has adapted to an outdoorsy wife who is very different to the women in his household. The good part – according to her – is that they both have company for horse-riding and pellet shooting now.

Karachi is definitely a breath of fresh air compared to Umerkot, but she admits that the city of lights has its own challenges. “You have a small, close-knit community of the so-called liberals, which is difficult to break into. And for the rest, I generally find them very fashion conscious. How you look, what brands you wear matter so much. And honestly, all this makeup and fashion is lost on me,” she says. She quickly adds that she has made friends in the city that are her “life-support”.

Coming back to her sporting pursuits, I ask what the typical scene is during an India-Pakistan cricket match.

“I am very happy when India wins, but sensitive to my husband – who is equally enthusiastic about cricket. So I don’t display my emotions too much,” says Amarkot.

But what happens when Pakistan wins?

“My husband won’t stop talking about it. He says Viratji doesn’t give very many opportunities to celebrate,” she chuckles. He is referring to the Indian team captain, Virat Kohli.

Does she fear that her son might be torn between his parents? “Well, he is a Pakistani and his loyalties must lie with his country. I don’t want him to be confused because of me. Yes, I will definitely ensure that he assimilates the best of both worlds, is respectful towards the two cultures and is open minded,” she says. She hopes he can imbibe more cultural values from India. “I would like him to know the significance of festivals and Hindu traditions,” she says.

And what would she like him to take from Pakistan? Pat comes the reply: “Their hospitality.”

A sense of identity

Amarkot is in the process of forfeiting her Indian nationality and is waiting for Pakistani citizenship. “As an Indian national, I need a visa for each city I visit in Pakistan. And then there is the police reporting. This will just be more practical,” she says. Indian passport holders must adhere to strict regulations during their stay, only in special situations are tourists “exempted from police reporting”.

But how does she identify herself, I ask?

“Look, I have spent 26 years of my life in India. In my lifetime, I will spend more time in Pakistan…” she trails off.

That doesn’t really answer my question.

“In Asian cultures, girls are taught from childhood that they belong to their husband’s family once they get married,” she adds.

I am still waiting for an answer.

“I am still not accepted in Pakistan and feel rebuffed by India. I am in no-man’s land,” she finally says, light-heartedly. I detect a note of sadness.

Why rebuffed?

“Have you seen the comments on some of my pictures on Instagram?” she asks.

Amarkot in Karachi. Photo: Special arrangement

I immediately recall two, both of her son celebrating Pakistan’s independence day. The trolling ranged from threats to unfollow to shaming. Amarkot says that she has trained herself to remain unaffected, but she does feel hurt.

Comments from such netizens are probably not the best indicator of the public attitude. I ask if she has witnessed any change in recently, considering how polarised things seem in Indian and the world in general.

She takes some time to think. “Polarisation is an unfortunate legacy that the Britishers have bequeathed to both the countries. There are groups with vested interests that worsen this polarisation,” she says.

Amarkot talks about the time when she just got married and had to ferry a lot of luggage across the border. She found the Indian customs officials very helpful and polite.

Six years later, in December 2020, she had to visit her grandmother in Jaipur as she was on ventilator due to Covid-related complications. Amarkot, along with her son, flew down to Jaipur via Sharjah as direct flights between India and Pakistan remain suspended.

“Imagine travelling with a toddler for almost 24 hours, ensuring his mask is on, showing Covid test results at multiple places and waiting again. It was exhausting! It was 3 am and I was so relieved to reach the Indian immigration counter in Delhi where women with infants are given preference. But the officials saw that my child is a Pakistani national and asked us to stand right at the back of the queue and wait for the entire airplane to finish with the formalities. Is my three-year-old boy a terrorist with a bomb?” she says.

She is visibly upset. “Then one immigration officer asked me why I had to marry in Pakistan. Why could I not find a husband in India. And he asked if I had converted to Islam.”

Pakistan is not new to bad press for forced conversions of minorities to Islam. In fact, the 2021 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) states that forced conversion of minorities, particularly Hindu and Christians, “remained an imminent threat”. Media reports suggest that annually, 1,000 women from religious minority communities (Christians and Hindus) are forced to convert.  As far as Hindu conversions are concerned, Umerkot, along with Mirpur Khas and Tharparkar, top the list.

Affluent Hindus like Amarkot might remain unaffected, but what about the lower castes Bheels, Kolhis, and Meghwars – who constitute a majority of the Hindu population there?  Most of them stayed back when upper-caste Hindus from Umerkot, fearing persecution, migrated to India after the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.

“I am divided on this issue as there are always two sides to a story. I am not saying that forced conversions do not happen but of what I have seen in the last six years, a lot of these are cases of love marriages or the family’s own decision based on a more financially secure future for their daughter,” she adds.

Amarkot attributes these cases to a lack of awareness on account of the conservative environments women are confined to. The average years of schooling in Umerkot is 2.3 years compared to the national average of 4.5 and the literacy rate among women is 11.94 %, less than one third of their male counterparts (36.32 %).

Mainstream media has previously made hasty generalisations about forced conversions and the diminishing Hindu population in Pakistan; these hard hitting numbers state the reduction in Hindu population from around 15% in 1947 to around one percent now. Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Anand Ranganathan clarifies this in a 2015 article. “From a healthy 14% in 1941 – a figure some analysts say had reached 16% by 1947 – the Hindu population came down to just 1.3% in 1951. The decimation took five years not 50. After 1951, the Hindu population has hovered around the same 1.5-2% mark. It is this tiny population that has been subjected to hardships, conversions, and denial of human rights,” he says.

As of 2017, Hindus make up 1.73% of the Pakistani population, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.

While still on this topic, I ask Amarkot about her relationship with religion. “I am religious, but not like I visit a temple daily…Let’s just say that my orientation is more cultural than religious. I celebrate all festivals like Navratri, Gangaur etc,” she says.

According to Amarkot, her husband is far more religious.

“He told me what Natraj’s (Shiva) hands symbolise. He is very curious about things and so when he recently visited the Jain temples in Nagarparkar, he started investigating why the shrines faced a certain direction,” says  Amarkot. According to her, her husband’s love for reading, collecting books and watching documentaries have contributed to his knowledge on the subject.

Celebrating festivals is one thing, but adorning the bindi, mangalsutra (auspicious thread) and sindoor (vermillion) – all symbols of a married Hindu woman – is different, isn’t it?

At a friend’s wedding in Karachi. Padmini is on the extreme left. Photo: Special arrangement

“I wore a bindi for up to two months after my marriage. People would stop and ask me where I was from. It was drawing unnecessary attention,” says Amarkot. As for clothing, she dons a poshak (traditional Rajasthani skirt and blouse with a drape) in Umerkot. For social gatherings, it is generally a sari and there are very few places where she can wear pants.

“Here, in Karachi, I can wear anything. In fact, I have more freedom here than I would probably have had if I was in a small Indian town,” she says.

I ask where she intends on going from here. Does she plan on doing something? She recites Mirza Ghalib’s ghazal that euphemistically sum up her “fizzled out” plans:

hazāroñ ḳhvāhisheñ aisī ki har ḳhvāhish pe dam nikle
bahut nikle mire armān lekin phir bhī kam nikle.

Thousands of desires, each worth dying for…
Many of them I have realised… yet I yearn for more…

Amarkot says that she keeps facing one obstacle after another whenever she thinks of starting a business. “I wanted to start a resort at the Keenjhar lake, but didn’t find suitable land,” she says. The lake is a two-hour drive from Karachi. Her decision wasn’t made out of the blue; before getting married, Amarkot helped her father with his business. Her father, Mr. Rathore, owns and manages the Kanota Hotels and Palaces in and around Jaipur where famous Bollywood movies like Zubeidaa and more recent Badrinath Ki Dulhania have been shot. So in that sense, she is familiar with the hospitality industry.

Amarkot confesses she is an epicure. “My father has taught me how to cook and I love to experiment. We have inherited 140 recipe books from my great grandfather, Gen. Amar Singh Kanota, and my father and I exchange notes on them,” she says. She laughs about a picture on Instagram where she keeps clarifying “beer ka maas” (meat cooked with beer) for the puzzled followers who think she has misspelt “deer ka maas” (deer meat).

We are nearing the end of our conversation. Though we have spoken mostly on her journey, Amarkot asks if I can write a piece that sends a message to women. Lack of awareness and education among women and their insufficient representation in the workforce are the key issues she speaks about, with reference to Pakistan.

Just then, Maharani Gayatri Devi’s name comes up. An equestrienne herself, the erstwhile Maharani of Jaipur did away with purdah, founded the girls’ school, Maharani Gayatri Devi (MGD), among many other initiatives, using her privilege for betterment of society. She is Amarkot’s role model.

“You know, I met Rajmata when I was young. When I told her my name, she asked me what kind of Padmini will I be. I think she was referring to the different princesses in Rajasthan’s history,” she recollects.

“I told her then that I would be my own Padmini,” says the MGD alumnus.

Ambica Naithani teaches International Baccalaureate (IB)  Economics at the Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai. She has a keen interest in socio cultural issues from around the world and loves to narrate stories of human interest. Her twitter handle is @ambicanaithani.

Featured image: photos provided by the author; collage: Pariplab Chakraborty