Tuesday, January 31, 2017

About Home Between Crossings

It’s mid-twentieth century. Uprisings and nationalism shake Great Britain’s East African Empire. It’s also a pivotal moment for the cloistered Ismaili Khoja community of several thousand in East Africa to begin a process of disassembling from their Indian history and heritage - their native languages, dress and worship practices, and learn to live with a new identity. All this is happening at once in the name of modernization and adaptation, seemingly in response to the Wind of Change blowing over Africa and the associated violence – the riots and armed rebellions. The decade of the 1960s sees independence come to Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika followed by an escalation of African nationalism that swings from anti-European to anti-Asian. The global media begins reporting on exoduses of Asians from East Africa. This comes to a climax in the winter of 1972 when Uganda Asians begin landing as refugees in Canada, Europe, Australia and the USA.

Moti Bai, the middle-aged wife of a Khoja bead merchant on the savannah in Kenya, is confounded. She feels displaced. Like her pioneer forefathers, she hopes to live through the political turmoil with the resilience of her faith and traditions. Yet, both are shifting under her feet, uprooting her from the stories and songs that anchor her. Where do I belong? She asks. What am I without a language I can call my own? Who are my people without a history we can say is ours? Who are we? There are many questions

Home Between Crossings carries an enthralling feminine voice spoken in Frame Story. The literary genre embeds Saurashtran Oral Traditions as spoken in homilies called waez in the jamat khana of the time.

When suspicion changes to fear and fear to hate

It’s about 7 am in Nairobi 1952.  People were arrested randomly at night while they were sleeping or early in the morning as they were going to work. Notice the Indian boy passing through the lines where a path is left clear. Could be the writer walking to his primary school.

In the 1950s graphic descriptions of Kenya’s Freedom for Land Movement, also known as the Mau Mau, shocked the world. 

It was to the equatorial highland meadows and plains of Africa that disgruntled European aristocracy, displaced war veterans, economic and war migrants from Europe, and run away white plantation farmers from South Africa, came to settle and work. They built new communities but preserved the old cultures rooted in segregation of races, their diverse Christian creeds and Europe’s nationalist patriotism. They drew secure boundaries around the Indian and African inhabitants of the land. So well established did the Europeans become that Kenya claimed to be Whiteman’s Country after the declaration that the most fertile lands be reserved exclusively for European ownership.

What was narrated at dinner tables and at the Europeans only social clubs, in myths, fictions, films and tales of conquests and Tarzan’s adventures, materialized in gruesome news and equally gruesome pictures of the Mau Mau in newspapers and newsreels that astounded the colonial imagination. So intense was the anti-Mau Mau propaganda that it put terror in the hearts of Asian Africans. Some joined the Home Guard units and kept guns at home that they never had the occasion to use.


For the next few evenings, Rhemu Bhai comes home about the same time, after jamat khana prayers and dinner. He says he enjoys the after dinner chai made by me but the fact is, he is worried like we are about the rebellion and how it would shape Kenya’s future, more importantly, Asian businesses, and our lives. 

Exactly at 9 p.m., the three men gather around the radio to listen to the BBC. The massacre in Lari is mentioned again followed by a commentary on subsequent other killings of white families in their homes on the plantations. Once again, grotesque descriptions of the witchdoctor rituals deep in the dark forests of Kenya put fear in our hearts.

The next day, a few people talk about the news – truths and half-truths, and even some self-made news that come from their anxiety. How the Mau Mau drink blood. How they bury people alive. How they walk unseen through the night. How fast they run and disappear into the air like spirits. How they mutilate before killing. How they maim animals. 

Kenya Hindustani Radio appeals to Asians to join the special police force, the CID and the local home guards units. It warns housewives to be cautious, and keep alert at all times, day and night. “Indirectly,” says Kabir, “the government is calling on Asian men to join the forces to protect their womenfolk.” He does not sound like he is in favour of the government. I pray Haiderali does not heed the call.

There is emergency in the air. Emergency means trust no strangers, which means trust no Africans, even those quartered in your backhouse and those who have worked for you for many years, perhaps, even from their early youth. The governor appeals to us to be loyal to the crown and help the government defeat the terrorists. Asian families are prompted to keep guns, and quietly report any suspicious talk anywhere even at places of worship. Report even on Asians.

Suspicion grows like an infestation of some insidious worm silently burrowing inside you. There is suspicion of all Africans, even those only passing by the house as they have always done as long as I remember. You can read fear in the look of suspicion in Asian eyes. 

How instinctively we change conversations and glance over the shoulder at the African house help. Is he listening? A kind of a self-questioning glance. How we stalk passers-by with our eyes. I notice how Haiderali has developed a habit of impulsively looking at the door every few minutes while working in the duka-store. How uneasy he becomes when an African enters the shop. Ole Lekakeny must have noted Haiderali’s doubting gestures, wringing hands as if he were washing them in air, shifting eyes, so noticeable to anyone who knows him.

We speak like thieves afraid of being discovered as if by instinct responding to the atmosphere that wraps over the land like a blanket. From home to home and from mouth to mouth, facts-rumours-broadcasts trek around Nairowua like journeys of pilgrims. Chup chap talks, forewarning whispers and scanning glances, so the servants, the neighbours, the children would not hear conversations between two. 

Nowadays, it’s difficult to know what’s true and what’s made in the chambers of the mind. It’s said that fear is that sort of a catalyst that mingles truth with imagination. Emergency, the word itself is dreaded. It carries some kind of a portent, a tragedy in waiting. In the jamat khana, listening to others rubs further terror into me in a kind of collective way – mass terror, terror of Blacks.

But the blacks are everywhere. Gradually the distance between me and Freda, Kamau, Jennifer and all their friends – African workers from Asian homes and stores, in fact, anyone who is not brown or white, grows larger. From the women’s talk in the jamat khana, I feel there is an invisible wall of suspicion growing between Asians and Africans. Uneasiness pervades at home where we have no choice but be together. I cannot do without their housework – mopping the floor, scrubbing off yesterday’s curry oil in pot bottoms, washing and ironing clothes, polishing shoes. How suddenly our house helps have become suspects? Our behaviour is changing so insidiously that we do not even realize it. They would know they are watched. That our attitudes have changed.

Review by Cyprian Fernandes in the Nation Sunday January 29 th 2017

Somjee’s seminal work is a must read to understand the story of ‘the other Kenyan,’ the ‘Paper Citizen Kenyan’, the ‘Kenyan of Asian origin’, the Kenyan ‘sitting on the fence’, ‘the mhindi’, the term itself came to be derogative. The one who refused to marry his daughter to the African. The one who provoked ‘the Asian Question’. The Shylock who had similarly provoked ‘the Jewish Question’ earlier in Europe.
The author puts this in family dilemmas and conversations, confused as they were at times, secretive at times and at times simply as spaces of withdrawal and silence.


Part Seven


While the fear of the Mau Mau gripped the land, it became evident that change in governance in British East Africa was coming as it happened in India, Ghana and Nigeria. At this time there came a wave of modernization sweeping through the Satpanth Ismaili Khoja community. Through dramatic moves that included a shift of worship rituals to Arabic forms and vocabulary, the community began displaying a character identified by a lifestyle thought to be modern and adjusting to change. All this happened within a decade of the 1950s that ended with the end of Mau Mau. 

The Imam encouraged the women to adopt European dress style. He found a way around those who were reluctant at first because short dresses exposed their legs and they felt it was not just immoral but also embarrassing to walk around the town with ‘naked legs’ as they put it, and without a pachedi shawl over their chests and heads that they were used to as Gujarati and Kuchi Khojas. The Imam decided to give his signed picture mounted on a board to those women who would wear the European dress. It was a special photo in colour of the Imam and his begum not seen anywhere before. Moreover, it carried blessings written in the Imam’s own handwriting.

It was like a benediction certificate that the women craved to possess and show off on sideboards and shelves in their living rooms. Some had it even framed. It read just one line, as the Imam’s blessings usually do, and that was enough:


A large majority of women, including many in their senior years, put on what the Imam called a ‘simple colonial dress’.  There were a few, however, who were unable to abandon their traditional dressing and they continued to wear a long frock or adopted sari as their regular dress.

Conversely, the Ithna Asheri Khoja women’s ethnic Indic dress segued into full length veiling testifying sturdier adherence to the Twelver Shia faith and Middle Eastern religious identity.