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The 1947 Partition Archive Survivors and their Memories

Oral history with Shafi Refai, 2016 March 13.
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Oral history with Shafi Refai, 2016 March 13.
Refai, Shafi, 1942-, Saleem, Sobia, and Qureshi, Nayeem
Author (no Collectors):
Refai, Shafi, 1942-, Saleem, Sobia, Saleem, Sobia, Saleem, Sobia, and Qureshi, Nayeem
Mr. Shafi Refai was born on May 27th, 1942 in Surat, Gujarat, India. His ancestors hail from the region of Iraq. In the 18th century, the migrated towards the South Asian Subcontinent, and since then, his family has always been in the Gujarat region—until some of them more recently migrated to the United States. Mr. Refai shares that his ancestors may have migrated to the Subcontinent because under the Mughal Empire, the region was a melting pot for different types of people. Once Mr. Refai’s family migrated to India, they established the Refai Sufi Order based on tasawwuf, or spirituality rather than mere physical rituals and practice. His family can trace 40 generations of their forefathers directly back to the Prophet Muhammad; they keep this history of the names of their links to the Prophet within their family and they carry it within their historical family name: Syed. Mr. Refai’s family received the name from their famous 11th century Sufi forefather: Ahmed Kabir Rifai. Ahmed ar-Rifai was a humble man, despite his wealth, and he was known for founding the Refai Sufi Order in present-day Iraq. Mr. Refai’s paternal grandfather’s untimely death is what made his own childhood more than of a prince than of a Sufi scholar. Mr. Refai’s grandfather, the household patriarch, was a Sufi leader and scholar. In fact, Mr. Refai’s home was a Sufi khanqa, a school of sorts for lay people; however, Mr. Refai’s grandfather passed away when his son, Mr. Refai’s father, was only five years old. After the death of his father, Mr. Refai’s father was raised by his grandmother. Mr. Refai’s great-grandmother was the daughter of the navaab, the Muslim king, of Surat, Gujarat. Because of his father’s upbringing in a navaab house, Mr. Refai’s own childhood was spent playing with Surat’s royalty—his cousins and second cousins—when the navaab at the time would visit their family. Mr. Refai’s maternal grandfather also had links to royalty: he was the secretary of the maharaja, the Hindu king, of Baroda (present-day Vadoda). His mother’s side of the family were Syeds and mirs. Mr. Refai shares that when the maharaja of Baroda wanted to marry the maharaja of Maysur’s daughter, he had Mr. Refai’s maternal grandfather send the proposal to the family. Mr. Refai grew up in a joint family with his parents and his three siblings as well as his uncles and aunties. The men generally worked outside the home while the ladies took care of the housekeeping. Mr. Refai is the oldest son in his family; he has an older sister, and two younger brothers and a younger sister. Because of their shared home, Mr. Refai grew up in a warm, close-knit family environment. He shares that even though they were from Gujarat, Mr. Refai’s family was Urdu speaking at home. The children learned several languages at school: Urdu, their native language; Gujurat, the state language; Hindi, the national language; English, the global/colonial language; and their choice of Persian or Sanskrit, traditional/historical languages. Mr. Refai shared that he and his siblings took Persian because when their family migrated from Iraq, they transitioned from Arabic to Persian before eventually speaking Urdu. He discovered this while examining the books that his family kept with them throughout the years, although he confesses that many of them are now lost, disintegrated due to bookworms, or indecipherable because no one in his family speaks that level of Arabic. As a young man, Mr. Refai especially enjoyed the Urdu poetry of Iqbal and Ghalib. As a child, Mr. Refai would enjoy many activities and holidays with his friends, family, and family friends. As a young man, for example, he particularly enjoyed played cricket outside their home. He would occasionally visit a few mosques with his family for daily prayers and weekly Friday prayers. Sometimes, his family would visit Doomas, a seaside city eight miles from their home where they would enjoy the water and play in the side. Eid was Mr. Refai’s favorite holiday. On this far, Mr. Refai’s family would make biryani, goat curry, tikka, and seekh. Family and friends would visit their home to share in the food and festivities. The children received small cash presents. Another holiday Mr. Refai enjoyed celebrating as a child in India, although he shares that he hasn’t celebrated it since arriving to the U.S. in ’71, is Diwali. On this celebrative day marking the Hindu new year, firecrackers were lit, and people enjoyed themselves. Mr. Refai would visit his grandfather’s Hindu friends with him on Diwali; they would be given firecrackers to light and sweets to consume. Surat was actually known for its sweets like ghaani and barfi. Mr. Refai also loved the kite-flying holiday of Utraaon on January 14th, when the city would be filled with young and old flying kites. Movies though, Mr. Refai explains, were the main source of entertainment for his family and young people in those days, and his family loved going to the cinema. Mr. Refai’s family home was rather large. Besides the khanqa, the lay people’s Sufi school, Mr. Refai’s family’s grounds also included a family cemetery. Near their home was the River Tapti, although the received water from a pipe based water supply system. Sometimes, they had to collect water in an underwater tank for emergency purposes, just in case the pipes were blocked or clogged. Mr. Refai’s family home itself had huge courtyards; the home really consisted of four home together, so that each of Mr. Refai’s paternal grandfather’s sons had their own home. For transportation, Mr. Refai’s family either used the French car that his father bought or the Buick that his grandfather would later purchase. Other times, they used their horse and tonga to get places. At one time, all the people who lived in the home and at the khanqa kept up the tradition of preserving the Refai Sufi Order and school in India; however, Mr. Refai explains, as time when on, people lost touch with being fulltime Sufis. More and more people left home to work and even went abroad, like him. These days, Mr. Refai cherishes the rituals of rational thought more than religious dogma. In those days, Surat was a small town of only 250,000, but these days Mr. Refai says, the city has changed and grown to a bustling city of five million. Before the Partition, Mr. Refai’s grandfather had been interested in politics, so he had gone over to a small town near by, Randair, where he served as their mayor, but these days, Randair has been incorporated into the larger Surat. Most people in Surat followed the Gregorian calendar, but at home, people might also follow their own religious or ethnic calendar, much in the way that Mr. Refai’s family followed the Hijri Islamic calendar in their homes. They used this calendar to mark and celebrate people’s birthdates. For their birthdays, Mr. Refai’s family would get people cake, flowers, money, and gifts. Surat was a modern enough town with electricity and movie houses. Seller would go through the streets and sells fruits, vegetables, chocolates, and biscuits. The majority Hindu town had good interfaith relations before and after the Partition. For example, the school that Mr. Refai attended with Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim boys began as a madrasa school in a mosque until it eventually became its own entity and transformed into a government sponsored school. In Mr. Refai’s childhood home, the food that didn’t come from the markets and mundis came from his grandfather’s farms. Mr. Refai’s grandfather owned quite a great deal of land and several properties. He would lease them out to farmers and others, but he also kept some farmland for himself. He particularly enjoyed growing mangos, although he also grew javaar, a grain. Mr. Refai’s family no longer owns these lands though because his grandfather has long since sold them and given up the farms with the grains and fruit that would be directly delivered to their home. In fact, these fresh and homemade traditional foods are what Mr. Refai revealed that he missed most when he first came to the United States; although these days, they are easily accessible. The Partition was something that Mr. Refai and his family barely noticed. As a child of five, the only strong memory or impression he has from during those years is that his grandfather and his father would sit with friends close to the radio and would listen to news about the Partition and the split that would soon take place in the South Asian Subcontinent. Mr. Refai isn’t aware of any political movements, social upheaval, or chaos in his area of the Gujarat at that time. He does remember that Ghandhi assassination came as a bit of a shock to everyone at his school. Much has changed since the Partition for Surat and for Mr. Refai as well. Surat no longer has a navaab. All of the children in his immediate and extended family went abroad to the U.K. and the U.S. to study, and so they no longer maintain the old kingdom. As he grew older, Mr. Refai knew that he wanted to go to a country that was more based in rationalism and thought than religion and tradition. After studying civil engineering in India, Mr. Refai applied for an American visa and waited. During this time, he married and moved to Dubai for work, but soon, his visa was accepted, and he left his job in Dubai for San Francisco, where his wife soon joined him as well. These days, Mr. Refai works as a civil engineer for the City of Oakland, California; when he’s not working, he enjoys reading books in history, politics, and religion—or texts that intersect these three areas. He also enjoys attending events sponsored by the Urdu Academy in the Bay Area, where they hold mushairas, or poetry events focusing on a single poet, their life, and their poetry. He still enjoys the poets from his youth: Ghalib, Iqbal, and Mir. Mr. Refai’s philosophy, in the words of one he admires, is that “no single people have a monopoly on truth—it is spread everywhere.” Although, Mr. Refai reflects, the goal of the Partition for some was to unite the Muslims into one country, they are now instead divided amongst three countries in the Subcontinent: Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Mr. Refai believes that Jinnah himself did not expect that those in power would agree to divide India into two countries; as Mr. Refai sees it, Jinnah simply approached Parliament at the time to ask for rights for Muslims in the new nation that was to be rather than to create a separate nation. Mr. Refai leaves future generations with the following: “We should try to rationalize the world and follow it—not towards our own self-interested but for the interest of all of humanity. […] Most problems in the world today are not God-made, but man-made, and them come from our own selfishness.”
Filmed interviews and History
Urdu, Hindi, and English
Physical Description:
5 video files
Publication Info:
Fremont (Calif.)
Fremont (Calif.), March 13, 2016
Filmed interviews