Ramnik Shah

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 (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

Category :- Diaspora / Reviews


Peera Dewjee of Zanzibar

Author: Judy Aldrick – © 2015 Judy Aldrick

ISBN 978-9966-7572-0-3   

Published by Old Africa Books, Naivasha, Kenya


Reviewed by Ramnik Shah


Although `Spymaster` of the title may be a bit hyperbolic, Peera Dewjee (whose name was spelt with a few variations at different times) was indeed an important aide to successive Sultans of Zanzibar during the latter half of the 19th century and a book about him was long overdue. Judy Aldrick has done an impressive job of documenting his life and achievements, despite a paucity of material about his origin and his precise role in the service of the Sultans even at the peak of his career.

She begins with this disarming disclaimer: `Very little is known for certain about the early life of Peera Dewjee, except that he was born in 1841 and came from Kera, a farming village in central Kutch` (p 21), but then builds up a plausible picture of his family and background as a member of the Ismaili Khoja community with roots in Kutch and their migration to East Africa via a spell in Bombay.  She struggles really to chart a more detailed course of Peera`a trajectory.  Even as regards the general profile of Indians in Zanzibar at that time, and how he fitted in there, she has to make do with assumptions and conjecture in the absence of concrete data, based in part on the writings of Burton, Stanley, Christie and Speke.

What we learn is that Peera had somehow (though `[t]he truth will never be known` – p 29) managed to read, write and speak English during his time as a pre-pubescent boy in Bombay before arriving in Zanzibar, aged perhaps around 12.  At any rate, he was a precocious and enterprising young lad who quickly mastered the ropes of business as he grew into adulthood and became the family`s breadwinner after his father`s early death.  Again, how this came about is left to speculation and surmise: `It is hard to imagine Peera did not start a trading business of some kind. Like most of his generation he was a businessman to his fingertips` – p 79.  From these beginnings he was to progress into bigger and varied ventures, overcoming many challenges along the way.

But the book is really about how in the process he became an invaluable functionary of Barghash and his successors.  Barghash himself had succeeded his brother Majid as Sultan in 1870.  Their father, Seyyid Said, as Sultan of Oman and Muscat, had in 1832 established Zanzibar as the capital of his East African possessions (p 35) which, on his death in October 1856 (when Barghash was about 19), were carved out to Majid, who thus became the first Sultan of Zanzibar proper, as part of his inheritance settlement.

It was under Barghash`s rule that Peera rose to prominence and importance -  from a `humble lamp cleaner` to `personal barber and valet`, to informant and messenger, to chief steward and major domo and to `close friend and confidant`!   `He could speak Swahili, various Indian languages, English and quite possibly some French as well. Peera was perfect spy material` (p 62).  These linguistic skills and a sharp native intelligence clearly were valuable assets which he was able to deploy to further both his and his employers` interests. It is little wonder then that he was variously described or regarded as a `mover and fixer behind the scenes` (p 197) and a `representative of the Sultan` (p 68/69), and even as `the Prime Minister of Zanzibar` in an 1885 article about Sir John Kirk, the distinguished British consul, as quoted in the book`s prelude and later in the text.

Peera`s story however is intimately tied up with that of Zanzibar as it got sucked into the European power game and ended up as a British protectorate in 1890. Not surprisingly therefore a great deal of the book is devoted to the dynastic Sultans themselves – including their extended family networks, palace intrigues, attempted coups, and relations with outsiders.  We are treated to a most fascinating insight into a changing Zanzibar through the reign of six Sultans: Majid (1856-1870); Barghash (1870-1888); Khalifa (1888-1890); Ali (1890-1893); Hamed (1893-1896) and Hamoud bin Mohammed (1896-1902).  The first four were brothers or half-brothers, sons of Seyyid Said, while Hamed was a descendant in direct line, and so presumably was Hamoud who followed him, though this is not spelt out in the book.

But of course no history of Zanzibar during the period in question can be complete without a mention of slavery, its geographical position as an entrepôt and starting point for exploration into the interior, and as the gateway for all mainland traffic along the East African coast, at a time of European imperial expansion and involvement in the region. All this is cleverly, if a little unevenly, woven into the whole narrative.  Aldrick has also drawn character and background sketches of the Sultans and of the various British and European officials and other parties whose interactions and activities were to play a crucial part in the governance and development of Zanzibar. Then there are also indepth accounts of the travails of Princess Salme, who eloped with and married a German merchant, and of various naval blockades, internal rebellions and the so-called `shortest war` - of a 45 minute bombardment by British warships which brought down a pretender to the Sultan`s throne in favour of the rightful claimant.

But what stands out most is undoubtedly Barghash`s incredible five week tour of England in 1875 as an honoured guest of the government during which he was fêted at the highest levels of the British establishment.  This was to reward him for the 1873 treaty for the abolition of the slave trade and closure of the slave markets in his dominions.  Peera, though a lowly personal valet at the time, accompanied him, while the legendary Tharia Topan, who had a much higher status and standing, was a key member of the Sultan`s entourage. Aldrick gives a vivid and detailed account of the whole trip, which was followed by a shorter 10-day official visit to Paris, in Chapter 9, which also gives a fascinating insight into what the visitors saw of Victorian society.

Following Barghash`s return from Europe, there was a noticeable change, as `the balance of power had shifted decisively and [he] listened to the advice of his Indian merchants and the British Consul, more than his Arab chiefs and holy men` (p 145).  For his part, Peera began to emerge as an important figure in the service of the Sultan.  From this point onwards, Aldrick`s task as a biographer is made much easier because of numerous documented references to Peera which brought him under the limelight.  For example, as she says (at p 153), one of the earliest recorded snapshots of Peera Dewjee appears from an 1878 letter written by an American merchant describing an incident in which there was a violent confrontation between Peera, who was acting for the Sultan, and a Smith Mackenzie agent Archie Smith.

There are numerous other archival citations scattered throughout the book.  In Chapter 11, `The Sultant`s Right Hand Man`, we are told that by October 1879 Peera Dewjee had replaced Nassir bin Said bin Abdullah as the Sultan`s chief minister`, proof of which `appeared in a newspaper report of the visit of the Portuguese Governor of Mozambique to Zanzibar` – p 163.  From here on, there is an overwhelming mass of material in the form correspondence, newspaper reports, official memos, files and the like with Peera`s name in context.  He is more than a general factotum: he handles the Sultan`s business dealings, runs his shipping line, acts as his representative, officiates for him and becomes the chief organiser of palace events and much more. 

Consider this: Peera was the driving force behind the Sultan`s decision to start his own shipping line.  In 1880, he sent a team of his closest advisers, among them Peera Dewjee, as negotiating expert, and Bomanjee Manockjee, as chief engineer, to England to acquire the steamship Nyanza.  They `duly arrived in London on 21 August 1880 and stayed once more at the Alexandra Hotel in Hyde Park Corner where Barghash and his entourage had stayed in 1875`  And further: `The negotiations were successful  ... and the ship was bought for the Sultan for the princely sum of 400,000 Rupees` (p 167).  And there were numerous further trips that Peera Dewjee was to make to England and Europe `bearing gifts and messages from the Sultan and purchasing items on his behalf` (p 169).  His last was in 1902, as we shall see.

By the mid-1880s, the European machinations to divest the Sultan of his mainland territories were reaching a climax and both the Brits and the Germans were to gain concessions from him which paved the way for what became the ten mile wide strip along the whole length of the East African coast that was placed under their protection – this is explained in Chapter Twelve under `The Fall of the Arab East African Empire and Death of Barghash`.  Barghash died in March 1888 and, according to Aldrick, Peera was part of a pre-arranged plan, involving the British and German Consuls, to ensure a smooth transition to the next Sultan, Khalifa.

Khalifa was aged about 36 but unlike Barghash he had `little previous exposure to Europeans nor did his Arab mentors have a thorough understanding of western politics and they quickly foundered`.  With his knowledge of the European mindset and ability to talk with European officials, Peera quickly `became the new Sultan`s chief diplomatic advisor` (p 202).  He was a strong character who brooked no nonsense and stood his ground, but his increasingly influential position did not endear him to the new British Consul, Colonel Euan-Smith.  The two fell out and Euan-Smith engineered Peera`s expulsion from Zanzibar despite Khalifa`s vigorous efforts to stave the deportation.  Peera then left for Bombay on 9 April 1889, while Euan-Smith went to England on home leave (p 216).  Peera however enlisted the help of Sir William Mackinnon to make representations on his behalf and on `29 October 1889 the Secretary of State for Foreign (A)ffairs wrote to the Government of Bombay requesting that Peera Dewjee be ... granted permission to return to Zanzibar after November 30` (p 223).  By coincidence, `December 1889 saw the return of both Peera Dewjee and the British Consul General Euan-Smith` (p 225).

Then Khalifa died unexpectedly in February 1889 and was succeeded by Ali, the last surviving son of Seyyid Said.  Peera did not have a close relationship with Ali and so Peera`s focus shifted to his family and businesses.  He sent his eldest son, Abdulhussein, `to boarding school in England, the first Zanzibari to receive an education in England {who] set a precedent for others to follow` (p 236).  From around this time, Peera`s name began to appear regularly and frequently in the Zanzibar Gazette which, as Aldrick tells us, is a `marvellous source of information about life in Zanzibar at the end of the nineteenth century`, and  `As a prominent Indian grandee and citizen of Zanzibar, Peera Dewjee is often mentioned and the newspaper provides a wealth of documentary evidence for [his] later life` (p 236).  One particular such occasion was the wedding of his third son Abdulrub in December 1900, which was celebrated with pomp and ceremony, attended by a wide cross section of Zanzibar`s high society, including `practically the entire English community` who `honoured it with their presence` (p 261).  The whole extended event was graphically described in the Zanzibar Gazette of December 19 and 25, 1890.

Sultan Ali died on 5 March 1893 at the age of 38 and was followed by Hamed, under whose brief rule Peera regained his former status and position ( p 241), which continued after his death in 1896 when he was succeeded by Hamoud bin Mohammed in 1896.  By this time, a lot had changed and the British were firmly in control of the administration.  In 1897, they organised `a series of elaborate festivities to mark the occasion of Queen Victoria`s Diamond Jubilee` (p 255), and Peera was put in charge of the Grand Arab Banquet held at the British Agency (p 258), for which he was given special thanks by the British Consul, Arthur Hardinge (p 259).

Two further events may be noted:  in 1899 the Aga Khan came on a three-month tour of Zanzibar and mainland East Africa (p 261).  As a leading member of the Ismaili community, Peera made many arrangements for this visit and was given the ultimate honour of personally pulling the Aga Khan`s rickshaw through the narrow streets of the town (p 262).   And in 1902, Peera accompanied Ali, Sultan Hamoud`s son, on an official visit to England to attend Edward VII`s coronation. As it happened, Hamoud died on 18 July 1902, just nine days before Ali returned, only to find that he had been proclaimed Sultan at the age of 18 (p 278/9).  All this is described in detail in the last chapter (Seventeen): `A Zanzibar Merchant and Grandee: Business to the Bitter End`, summing up Peera`s life and accomplishments.  He died on 28 August 1904.

There is in fact a great deal more, not just about Peera, but also about Zanzibar, that is packed into the book, even though quite a lot of it is, alas, somewhat haphazardly structured.  An Appendix with a family tree and time-line of the Sultans and a sequential overview of the major historical highlights of the period would have been useful.  The Index is also inadequate in many respects.  But there can be no doubt that this is a work of immense scholarship. This is evident from the mass of footnotes and quotations, which clearly shows the depth and extent of research that has gone into the writing.  Judy Aldrick has indeed produced a remarkable study of someone whose name had mostly featured in folk memory and indirect references in other people`s (ie. European) literature, official records or newsprint.  Something else: she has also managed to collate and reproduce a collection of contemporary illustrations and photographs which together convey the flavour and imagery of the places and people involved in this reconstruction of an extraordinary man.

In a nutshell, despite its technical flaws, this is an extremely readable and informative book which should appeal to all who have an interest in Zanzibar`s history.

© Ramnik Shah


The author has also written widely about East African coastal art and architecture and had previously collaborated with Cynthia Salvadori on her seminal works on Indian communities in the region.

Category :- Diaspora / Reviews