Home Between Crossings by Sultan Somjee
ISBN 10: 1508586373
CreateSpace, Charleston SC 29418 USA
(c) Sultan Somjee 2016 – 629 pp
The `Home` of the title is Kenya, a longish stop-gap in the even longer journey of the Ismaili Khoja community from its origins in India to East Africa and then from there across to Europe and America, during which it has transformed itself into a very modern social species. In this sequel to Bead Bai (https://opinionmagazine.co.uk/details/1181/–Bead-Bai–ખોટા-મોતી-ના-સાચા-વેપારી–by-Sultan-Somjee), which was about the original migration and settlement (the first crossing), the focus is on the Devji family`s locally born off-spring. Here, their story spans virtually the whole of the twentieth century, against the backdrop of the country`s immense political and other fundamental changes as they were taking shape. It is a fascinating and absorbing narrative, told most imaginatively and with great flair and fluency by an accomplished author.
The book is a work of fiction, but one that is best described as creative fiction, founded on historical fact and grounded in family and folk lore. And so we again meet Sakina, born in Nairobi`s Indian Bazaar in 1922 on the day Harry Thuku was arrested by the colonial government for leading an anti-pass protest, and are drawn into her life as it unfolds in bits and pieces, some of which would be familiar to readers of Bead Bai.
Njugu Lane, the Merali Bus Stop on River Road, the Kenya Broadcasting Station`s Hindustani Service, the overflowing flooded Nairobi River – the signposting of these long-forgotten names and places certainly resonates with this reviewer, who lived through most of the period in question as a second generation Indo-Kenyan. These early references morph into other later landmarks as Nairobi developed while at the same time Sakina`s family grew and her community`s tentacles spread further.
Woven through the book`s complex structure of her family`s trajectory is a veritable history lesson, of its Ismaili and Indian cultural heritage and of the making of Kenya as a nation out of its colonial past. The chapter headings are grouped in sixteen parts, and under each of which we get a measure of what they contain. In Part Two: The Keeper of Stories, for instance, we have `My photo album` and `What love? What India?` where, while looking at some of the pictures, Zera Bai exclaims: “I wish my Rhemu would take me to the Taj Mahal for a picture. I want to see India. Kacch and Gujarat”. On this our narrator ruminates:
What Kacch? What Gujarat? What India? … distant pictures … not even mine. Vicarious pictures that stir my heart yet I have not been there. Pictures like some witch`s crafted tales imagined from an ancient land. Nor are they tales in my father`s head. Hazy, frightful tales in Dadabapa`s malaria nightmares. Dark pictures in memory`s pulses of the orphaned child in him. They live in pain of yearning, sighs of loss, and far away words of an immigrant. Words like dhow, Bombay, Saurashtra, Haripur, raj, Kala Pani, des, avatar and Taj Mahal. They come from the motherland of Indian Khoja recalled in dying memories two generations gone by. Yet the emotions live in the mist-like nostalgia. Now the ancient is resurrected, made new and modern. Beauty portrayed in love photos before the Taj Mahal, and in the cinema, the hideout of Indians of Africa to bond with the origins in half-hearted thoughts.
This neatly encapsulates the pre-history of the first migration, but Somjee gives us much more in terms of the detail and of the emotions and practicalities involved in everyday living, such as in Part Three, under `Freda and Kamau`:
I hear Kabir`s whispered voice from the washroom teasing Freda, calling her Farida, lovingly mimicking Ma who could not remember the name of our house help even after constant right name lessons from him. During the day, I see how sixteen year old Freda, the Kamba girl from the Catholic Mission of Nairowua, plays with my children. How happy they are when she sings to them while [giving] them a bath and then Looking at Freda, passing barefoot on the powdery red earth, I would often think of Hawa, our maidservant in Nairobi when I was little. How she used to take me around Jugu Bazaar, sometimes on her back in a kanga wrap, sometimes, I walked by her side with her little finger hooked into my big finger.
So reminiscent of one`s own childhood! In Part Four (Land is a broken string of beads), there are close-ups on a fast changing Nairobi: how it `grew bigger and bigger with increasing railway and road traffic`, stone buildings replacing wooden ones, `as was the trend in the new elegantly planned capital of British East African Empire`, `Nairobi`s classic Victorian and Edwardian architecture, brought to perfection by fine Indian masonry in sand and grey granite stone`: `Law courts, railway headquarters, financial houses, the city hall, cathedrals, the European market and the post office … on garden avenues.` And then there was `the imposing Khoja Mosque, the jamat khana, the heart of Satpanth Khoja life where Government Road, Victoria Street and the India Bazaar come together … the hub of Indian commerce and fashion`.
But the tri-partite racial hierarchy was an embedded reality, with `cinemas, play houses and international hotels plainly marked EUROPEANS ONLY at the entrances [while] Oriental temples, mosques, with tall minarets [and] Churches with bell towers stand in assigned denominational spaces for Roman Catholics and Anglicans [and the] Europeans only live on high ridges, the browns in-between like at the malarious swampland of Ngara and not-to-be-seen blacks in the new stone built kiosk type housing estates on the dry barren plains at outskirts of Shauri Moyo, Kariobangi and Mbotela`.
Then in `Who are they, the Mau Mau?` and `Man called Kenyatta, Father of the Nation`:
Every day we listen to the radio and want to know more about the Mau Mau, the barbaric gang that is terrorizing the country. It is not because we just want to understand that we ask each other … but because the tone of the newsman on the radio puts so much alarm in us that we seek comfort speaking out our nervousness to each other.
While their menfolk talk of and parrot the negative things they hear the Europeans say about Kenyatta, the Khoja women react with cries of `kisirani` and `Misfortune coming`. Sakina is conflicted: `Where do I belong? Whose side am I on? A brown person, not white, not black. Not a man`, either. `Something is changing in Kenya` indeed. And `When elephants fight` (in Part Five) `Africa is Black and White Brown is invisible`!
She recalls how the partition of India caused a rift between the Hindus and Muslims of Kenya, during which her own community became the butt of mockery as `Khoja Khoja centi moja` – reduced to being only one cent`s worth! But she always remained steadfast in her reverential regard for Gandhi, even to the point of arguing with Haiderali her husband about Gandhi`s fight against British rule.
Somjee quotes the African saying `Tembo wavili wapiganapo burusha fumbi`, translated into English as `When two elephants fight they raise dust`, with its Gujarati equivalent as જયારે બે હાથી લટે તયારે કીડી કચરાય whose English translation is given as `When two elephants fight ants get trampled`. The correct Gujarati version however should surely read as જયારે બે હાથી લડે તયારે કીળી કચરાય? (Incidentally, in the Gujarati/English lullaby at page 29, the second line should really be પાટલે બેસીને નાય, the third line પાટલો ખસી જાય and the fourth be હીરો મારો પળે હસી).
But as for `On whose side shall we be? White or Black to escape the fate of ants?` the author is all seeing and objective. He is meticulous and fair in his overview and deeper analysis of the dynamics of African nationalism. He remembers the part played by such stalwarts as Ambu Bhai and Makhan Singh, Isher Dass and Jaswant Singh, and `printer scholar Vidyarthi and grunting journalist Ahmed` in the struggle for Kenya`s independence.
And yet of course there is suspicion, fear and hate all around them. These are tricky times. Independence is on the horizon. Kenyatta is all sweetness and welcoming. The chapter `Cowboys and Indians` begins with `True democracy has no colour. It does not choose between black and white …`, says he on the radio. He urges his Kikuyu menfolk not to drink if they want to increase their population and preaches `equal pay for equal work for all`!
But it is not all politics that is driving the Devji family. Sakina`s inner musings are a constant reminder of much else that was going on in their lives. The children`s education, livelihood and marriage prospects occupy the elders as much as daily business and domestic concerns. On the cultural front, Gujarati gives way to English (`Losing Gujarati`): `Look forward. Get educated`, but Sakina wonders :
… if English would be better than Gujarati for our sacred texts … what I know is that Gujarati gives Vedanta a memory … Satpanth the wisdom I need to live through these times of changes when African voices and violence put fear in the heart [and most] of all, Gujarati gives ginan the melody … (t)he language that has preserved Saheb for six hundred years in the hearts of the Satpanthis?
Gujarati is the very essence of her identity, as well as being the home language. She struggles with its changing profile. Under `Gujarati rhymes and rhythms` we read about her anguish:
As the gap between my children and me widens … I become … assertive about speaking in Gujarati with the children … [they] would listen to me speaking in Gujarati but their answers would be in English … I feel frustrated and rebuke the children … [but] what can the children do? Everyone else speak[s] to [them] in English, but to each other they speak in Gujarati with some Swahili.
And the unmentionables also get an airing: for example, Riziki, Shamshu`s `kept` Swahili woman in Mombasa with whom he has a son, Issa, and the resulting social complications are explored in `Of Cross Eyed and Sheep Headed Khojas of Mombasa`!
But change is everywhere and relentless. Part Ten is devoted to the `Era of Great Propaganda Betrayal of Hate and Humiliation`, with the `Tyranny of Nationalism` as its centrepiece. It took many shapes and turns :
In Kenya, interestingly, integration was reasoned as possible only through blood mixing. But that was one sided … marriages of Asian girls to African men … the trump card of male dominated African nationalism that primarily targeted robbing the Asians of their marriages.
`Asian two-facedness` became the mantra of political discourse, fuelling popular anger and resentment, most vocally expressed by Kenyatta himself at his public rallies, denouncing the Asians as `thieves, looters and whores` – blood sucking bedbugs! So it was hardly surprising to be called `You Indian … Paper Citizens`, with threats of Africanisation and worse. The Asians developed strategies of survival, as do all minorities everywhere. Some of them worked, while others were denounced as mere `window dressing`. There was the notorious case of the young son of a petrol station owner who after personally filling up a minister`s Mercedes Benz to the full politely asked him for payment, the reaction to which was a slap on the face and a volley of insults (“You Asian exploiter! Mhindi. Out of Kenya, you Asian whore. And leave this petrol station to me”!) as the MP drover off without paying, leaving him to nurse his cheek and feeling utterly humiliated before all his staff and others who witnessed the incident. In reality, this was something that most of Nairobi`s Asians got to hear of on the grapevine within days and caused the Khojas talk of migration to Canada :
In Canada, you can keep your culture and religion. You do not have to [intermarry] with the white people or the Aboriginals. Saheb [the Aga Khan] is a friend of the Prime Minister and visits Canada. They both like multiculuralism.
Kenyatta`s time passes, but not before the Asian emigration fever reaches `Exodus` proportions. He is succeeded by Moi. A more favourable climate in terms of business partnerships and economic expansion ensues and fosters a sense of complacency until an attempted coup brings back violent outbursts against the Asians seen by the Kikuyu elite previously powerful as his cronies and so there is renewed pressure to leave. For Sakina too, Canada beckons and, after getting immigration clearance and completing all the formalities, the book ends as she contemplates her departure from the land of her birth, on the second crossing to her new home.
These are only some of the highlights of narrative. There is a great deal more packed into it in graphic detail, weaving a complex web of relationships, interactions and historical happenings as they impacted upon the lives of the characters and their community at the centre of the tale – all of which extended to and embraced outsiders as well. The native African presence is just as strong as in Bead Bai. The legendary Ole Lekakeny crops up here and there, but then we also get a glimpse of the Kenyan TV`s top comedian Mzee Tembe`s satirical caricature of the proverbial Indian shopkeeper!
Home Between Crossings however is more than just a family saga in the classic tradition of, say, The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez) or The Immigrants (Howard Fast). It is also an epic, albeit a fictional, account of a people`s passage across the oceans through time and space – that of the Khojas. But although it presents their perspective – and Somjee writes as an Ismaili insider – it is also representative of other Asians in Kenya (and East Africa generally) during the time-scale in question. The people in the other communities could relate to everything that happened to the Devji family because they too went through parallel experiences at all levels and in more or less the same way.
Above all, Home Between Crossings is not just a work of fiction, it is a personification of Kenya`s history of the twentieth century. Somjee has undoubtedly used his first-hand lived experience to chart every significant turning point in the march of the country from colony to republic. Nothing remains untouched. Together with Bead Bai, he has created a literary masterpiece that will also serve as a historical record of our time, of particular interest to those of us in the diaspora who share his Kenyan background, and one that will benefit future generations of scholars as well. I was privileged to read the manuscript online and must say the published version is an impressive document.
RAMNIK SHAH (c) 2017