Review of Dancing With Destiny by Urmila Jhaveri

Ramnik Shah

`Dancing With Destiny : Memoir` by Urmila Jhaveri

ISBN 978-1-4828-1042-4 (Softcover); 978-1-4828-1043-1 (Ebook)

295pp  © 2014 Urmila Jhaveri


This is more than just a `memoir`; it is an autobiographical account of an eventful journey through the author`s long life (she`s nearly 83) that dwells on the history of her country and people and draws the reader in with an endearing mix of candour and warmth, wit and wisdom, and much more.

Urmila Jhaveri is a second generation East African Asian, born in 1931 in Pemba, the twin island of Zanzibar where her Indian parents had migrated ten years previously when her father was recruited to the colonial customs service.  Some four years later, her father left his employment and the family moved to the mainland where he joined the business of a drug store that had been started a few years earlier by his older brother in Dar-es-Salaam.  This then was to be and remain her home for the next 75 years. It was here that she grew up, went to school, got married, raised two children and, while living a busy domestic and social life of a successful lawyer`s loving wife, developed her own independent persona of a veteran activist in the Tanzania national women`s movement Umoja Wa Wanawake Wa Tanzania (UWT).    

The narrative is not chronological in a linear sense; rather it meanders through a series of circuitously constructed themes (such as Migrations, World War II, Our Dhow Safari, A Brief Glance over Uganda in Part I alone).  She sets out her early trajectory in the first three chapters, aptly entitled Family Diary, Home and Happy Days.  In later chapters, we are given insights into the broader history of the region, the slave trade, the arrival of European explorers and the onset of colonial rule, interspersed with mature reflections on the lives of people around her.  What emerges is an unpretentious self-portrait of a modest woman with many hidden qualities and abilities.

We learn about her idyllic childhood, schooling and upbringing in a South Asian middle-class home, though as she says at the time she `never realised that it was an environment in which we were living in small racially bound compartments`, referring to the triple layered structure of colonial society where the Europeans occupied the top position, the native Africans were at the bottom and the Indians in between, and `(a)s if this was not enough, many other extra boundaries were self imposed and jealously guarded` (p 105), pointing to the complex class, caste and religion based community groupings among the Asians and other divisions in the rest of the population, though relations across these lines nevertheless remained cordial even if at times tensions did boil over.

Beginning with an outline of her antecedents, parents` marriage and the birth of her siblings, she remembers her own first memory of `actual` India, as distinct from the vicarious India of imagination and folklore. This was in 1943, at the peak of World War II, when her family, like many others, had temporarily shifted there to elude a feared German invasion of East Africa.  As she puts it, until then “it never occurred to me that my roots were in India or [anywhere] else.  For us ... Dar-es-Salaam was our home .... for those of us who made our home in Africa, this sense of belonging was our bedrock on which we built our lives”.  As she adds, “for some reason I could not understand, I did not feel at home in Jamnagar” (p 78)!

Her description of the hazardous voyage across the Indian Ocean by dhow during the monsoon season, in wartime blackout conditions, reads like a hair-raising tale of adventure and survival.  It also gives an inkling of what the earlier, pioneering generation of migrants from India had had to endure, in their case for a better future but without any idea of what awaited them.

The Indian sojourn did not last long.  The family returned to Dar-es-Salaam when the war ended but during her time in India she had become betrothed to a  budding young lawyer, K L Jhaveri (whom she refers to as Jhaveriji and whose own memoirs were published in 1999 under the equally catchy title of `Marching with Nyerere`).  Although she had resumed her schooling in Jamnagar, she did not complete it to the Cambridge School Certificate standard after coming back to  Dar-es-Salaam. That however was not to be a handicap.  Her fate was to `dance with destiny` as it unfolded, through an amazing series of chance and opportunity, grounded in her cultural roots and on a solid marital foundation with a liberal ethos that enabled her to flower into a self-educated woman of great intellect and moral integrity.

Her husband`s high-profile legal and political activities gave her a unique opportunity to mingle with top national leaders and to learn about past and current affairs and what was shaping the country`s path towards independence. Part II of the book is devoted to these matters: `Pre-Independence`, `Travails and Triumph`, `Uhuru-Independence`, `Zanzibar Revolution`, `The Tanganyika Rifles Mutiny`, `The Birth pangs of a New Nation` and `Nationalization`.   But it is in Chapter 17, “Where are the Women?”, and a later chapter with an intriguingly long title “Camaraderie ... Djini Witches, Village Ancestors ...And mad men”, that we get a full measure of her involvement with the UWT.  She describes its origins and progress under the charismatic leadership of Bibi Titi Mohamed and how after an initial apprenticeship at district and regional levels, she was elevated to the Central Committee and became a valuable contributing member of that organisation.  Her account of the activities of the UWT - their meetings and travels across the length and breadth of the vast country, their encounters with varied people and situations and above all their endeavours to raise the lot of the downtrodden and marginalised women – is heart rending. She was the only Asian, the only non-African, among her colleagues, who all formed a close-knit bond of friendship and sisterhood.

They campaigned and worked for an improvement in the status and education of rural women, dealing with sensitive cultural issues such as wife-beating and other forms of domestic violence, confinement to the home, polygamous households and child-rearing and lack of financial independence despite being “a labour force to work in the fields”.  Above all, it was the social oppression of the women, who were liable to be unilaterally divorced through the `talaq` process if they complained, that the UWT sought to address by “educating both men and women, and creating awareness about women`s rights”.  Their goal was “to push for women`s emancipation by initiating small-scale projects to enable women to earn, open kindergartens and nursery schools”.  

“Attending the meetings away from home meant for us late nights talking, joking, singing, sharing experiences and drinking beer and Fanta.  Many of our older members were Muslims who had formerly belonged to ngoma groups that were open to all, regardless of religious and tribal affiliation.  Occasionally there was mock posturing of visible tribal accents amongst the members like Wachaga and Wasukuma resulting in merriment all round.  Swahili was the common language that bound our understanding.  I had grown up speaking Swahili, and became fluent through using it continuously at UWT meetings and on long journeys to remote regions.  It helped me reach out, make friends, and find my own tiny little place in the lives of the village folks” (p 173).   In fact her command of Swahili was such that she regularly translated press reports and formal party documents into English for her husband!

In Part III, we learn about a couple of serious incidents of threat and assault in their later years, but on the positive side a great deal about her travels also.  In 1970 she was one of three UWT leaders chosen to represent Tanzania at the World Women`s Conferences in Moscow and Budapest.  It was a fabulous trip, which also included Leningrad and Moldavia, with a full programme of cultural and social functions and meetings with important people, among them the first woman cosmonaut Valentina Tereskova.  Elsewhere, she recalls her trips to Mauritius and Varanasi in India and “Tryst with a Tantric and visiting Kumbh Mela”.

In the closing chapters, she reflects on her spiritual journey through to the `evening of my life`, on her children and large extended family and basically everything that has happened to her, putting it all in a wider philosophical context.  There is a Waltonian (The Waltons – the 1970s American tv saga) quality about her homilies and other observations throughout the text.  So much is packed into the book – in terms of the countless number of people whom she remembers by name and of every significant turning point in her life – that for a reviewer it is an invidious task to highlight everything or to miss anything.  But what is clear is that hers is a life that has been lived to the fullest in every possible way.  Some of this can be gauged from the collection of old black and white photographs, among them of her with Julius Nyerere, his wife Maria Nyerere, Mrs Indira Gandhi and Dr Radhakrishna, in all of which she struck a charmingly beautiful figure who has aged well since.

What else?  Among her many vivid WWII recollections are seeing convoys of European PoWs and shabbily dressed, hungry and traumatised refugees (women, children and old men) being transported across to the station in Dar-es-Salaam, and how her father`s German friends came “stealthily to our house at night with their valuable books, artwork, paintings, delicate porcelain tea-sets and coffee-sets, for safekeeping or just to give away before they fled the country” (p 62).

And she remembers friends and neighbours and wider community contacts and acquaintances of all races and religions by name, often with details of what happened to them or where they ended up.

There is more to the book than this selective and partial review can convey adequately. It leaves the reader with respect and goodwill for the author, for all her accomplishments certainly but above all for her strength of character, her humanity and her modesty and selfless service to the cause of women`s betterment in her native Tanzania.  Her husband, to whom the book is fondly dedicated, died just a few weeks before its publication. Of him, she writes in Acknowledgements, “without [his] silent support and encouragement I would not have written this book. Jhaveriji is always there for me; but he never tried to proffer advice or even commented on what I was writing .... letting me write our story in my own way”.   And with typical shyness, she adds:

“My book is based on facts drawn from history and my personal experiences, limited understanding and some impediments.  I am afraid there may be some unintended discrepancies, unseen gaps and even language shortfall and hope that, these may please be ignored (sic)”.  Undoubtedly these are present - and the book would certainly have benefited from some professional input and editing - but not so as to mar one`s enjoyment of what she has to offer.  For the academically inclined, it is also worth noting that as well as an appreciative Foreword by G Madaraka Nyerere, a distinguished Tanzanian journalist and commentator, the text is supported by a useful end section containing References and Notes.

Having explained the genesis of her story in a moving Preface (how, having “arrived from familiar Dar-es-Salaam to Delhi”, she was feeling “like a bewildered, disconcerted, disoriented foreigner in India”), she concludes the book with a Postscript in a similar vein thus:

No doubt, all my experiences, relationships, actions and reactions have mo[u]lded my being.   And today, I am what I am, yet for me the enigma `Who am I?` remains ...

To complete the poetic summation that follows, that indeed encapsulates her, you must read the book.  It is an uplifting experience, not to be missed.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Surrey, England

Category :- Diaspora / Reviews