Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Book review 2017

Home Between Crossings, however, is more than just a family saga in the classic tradition ... 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

“My story runs like the Nile. Many rivers flow into the Nile from many directions and change its waters like how my story changes when other stories merge into it, and keep moving all together” (p. 598).

Such is the continuing story of Sakina, known as Moti Bai, in Sultan Somjee’s Home Between Crossings, a sequel to his first enchanting novel, Bead Bai. The books trace the life of an Ismaili girl, then woman, living in Kenya before and during the tumultuous years of transition from British rule to independence under Kenyatta.

Somjee blends a gentle narrative with biting political and social commentary in this second novel - a style much more daring and adventurous than that in the story of Moti Bai’s upbringing in the first novel. His poetic style mesmerizes readers as we learn about the cultural and religious life of Ismaili families of Indian origin in East Africa. When we are with Moti Bai in her personal life, she tells us, in her voice, of her struggles to reconcile the many contradictions she witnesses and experiences.

© 2017 Christian Steckler
Review Vancouver


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Mala Pandurang
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Mala Pandurang: Home Between Crossings (Sultan Somjee)

Sultan Somjee
Home Between Crossings
Create Space: Charleston. 2016
ISBN-10: 1508586373
ISBN-13: 978-1508586371
Pp 644

The Satpanth Khoja community in East Africa

Home between Crossings is the second novel in Sultan Somjee’s intended trilogy on the history of the Satpanth Khoja community in East Africa. Somjee published his first ethnographic–historical creative-narrative Bead Bai in 2012, wherein he recreates the community’s movement from western India to East Africa at the turn of the 19th century, and describes the early decades of their settling of roots in the African terrain. Somjee draws upon his ethnographic research on the Maasai, and reconstructs the life narratives of a fascinating group of women called ‘bead bais’ who enabled the flow of coloured beads between the ‘dukawallahs’ or Asian petty traders, and the ethnic tribes of East Africa in the early days of trade. His central protagonist Sakina Devji masters the synthesis of Asian and African art forms using embroidery under the tutelage of her stepmother Ma Gor Bai; and beadwork under the tutelage of her indigenous Maasai mentor Ole Lekakeny. Somjee draws from his expertise on Masaai aesthetics, having completed his PhD research in this area from McGill University, to create an interstitial space at an emotional, aesthetic and intellectual level hitherto unexplored in creative writing from the diaspora.

It is the mid-20th century in the opening chapter of Home Between Crossingsand the 28-year-old Sakina is now known as ‘Moti Bai’ – which suggests her identification with the beads as an integral part of her life. The narrative is encyclopaedic in scope as Somjee lyrically weaves together a wealth of historical facts, oral traditions, family lore and core aspects of Ismaili cultural heritage. The novel is structured into sixteen parts that initially take us through the British colonial practices of creating a racial/class pyramid structure of Europeans on top, Asians in middle and black Africans at the bottom. This is followed by the rise of Kenyan nationalism in the 1950s and the turbulent anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion. The latter half of the book deals with growing anti-Asian hostilities in the post-independence phase. The narrative ends with Sakina’s heart-wrenching dislocation from home in Kenya, and emigration westwards to Canada.

Apart from offering an incisive political overview, Somjee’s narrative is feminist in its intent. The novel gives a detailed description of the domestic and everyday living of Khoja women while gently critiquing its inherently patriarchal structure. Moti Bai’s life revolves around the communal Jamat Khana which is the fulcrum of Satpanth Khoja life and the centre of social interaction for the women in the community. Her life’s decisions are governed by the teaching of the spiritual head ‘Sahib’ or the Aga Khan. She must learn to negotiate the teachings of the Sahib of the past, and his contemporary calling for assimilation which includes switching from Gujarati medium education to English, and for women to abandon their traditional style of dressing for the western frock. Having lived in a cloistered community with its insistence of the pachedi and bandhani, and restrictions on clothing associated with issues of family honour and shame, Moti Bai is in a dilemma about Saheb’s call for the community to modernize and to ‘unlearn language, dress, worship practices and evolve a new identity.’ Moti Bai’s ability to assert agency is limited by multiple factors. But this does not stop her from self-questioning norms of a fundamentally patriarchal social-cultural system as well as problematic issues of the community’s stance on questions of race and integration.

Somjee acknowledges the role of Indian nationalists such as Ambu Bha, Makhan Singh, and Isher Dass in the struggle for Kenya`s independence while simultaneously delving into complexities of black-brown race relationships. Moti Bai reminiscences over the tenderness shared between her children and their African caregiver Frieda, while at the same time, experiences a growing suspicion about her male black servants, created by British propaganda about the Mau Mau as ‘the barbaric gang that is terrorizing the country.’ Home Between Crossings offers an honest exploration of contentious issues of Asian racism especially in the section narrated by Swahili woman Riziki, who is her brother Shamshu`s second wife and mother to his son Issa. Despite her desire to reach out to Riziki, Moti Bai admits that Riziki’s presence at the Khoja Flats in Mombasa would be a ‘blemish’ to “my family’s honour, if not the caste name. She is black. We are not” (371). A fascinating aspect of the narrative is the manner in which Somjee draws upon the use of material cultural artifacts to explore the more positive dynamics of African-Asian relations. While Bead Baifocused on the unique relationship between Sakina and the Masai elder, the artifact that takes prominence is the kanga (‘the cloth speaks wisdom’, 335). The kanga is evocatively described as a fabric ‘whose threads knit the genealogies of women of the Indian ocean’ (342).

The last section of the book deals with the escalating anti-Asian hostility. Moti Bai and her family are torn between their economic survival, reverse racism, their physical safety and issues of nationalistic loyalty and Kenyan citizenship. Moti Bai’s husband dies a broken man after the loss of his business to the local MP. Diamond, her son, opts to emigrate to Canada and Moti Bai feels the compulsion to relocate to be with her children because that is the norm. The final few pages of the novel evocatively capture her spiritual agony at being uprooted from the songs that have anchored her to the land. The novel ends with her flight out of Nairobi, a moment of heart-wrenching pain from the motherland. The year 2017 marks fifty years of the dislocation of Africans of Asian descent from Kenya. Home Between Crossing reminds us of their largely, untold stories.

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'Home Between Crossings' highlights 'Kanga' magic in East Africa | Coastweek

Author Sultan Somjee [inset]. 'Kangas' drying on a washing line [center] in Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Woman in 'Kanga' [right]from Siyu township on the Pate Island in Kenya. WIKIPEDIA PHOTOS
'Home Between Crossings' highlights 'Kanga' magic in East Africa
Reading ‘Home Between Crossings’, former Kenyan journalist Cyprian Fernandes* writes that he "was simply blown away" by Sultan Somjee’s second book.It is not only a veritable treasure trove of Asian history, including the 'mass exodus' of 1968, but also a vault full of hypnotic literary gems, among them is the humble looking African cloth called the 'Kanga'.The kanga is the Swahili wrap-around that displays not only wisdom in one line sayings but also memories.
It is a feminine art form that women of the coast have carried on their bodies for generations. Sultan Somjee worked as an ethnographer in Kenya. In the process, he collected material culture, staged exhibitions and listened to stories that emerged from artefacts.
It is in Mombasa that the pioneers of exploration, slavers and the British and Omani Arab colonialists first set foot before conquering the hinterland.
It is the almost invisible 'Kanga', the cotton wrap-around worn mainly by women.

Usually spun from cotton, it keeps the wearer cool from the raw heat of Mombasa and covered from lascivious eyes.
Indian merchants brought textiles from the handlooms of Gujarat to Mombasa for clothing, and trade but it is not quite known who actually created the first kanga.

The printed patterns and words on the 'Kanga' divulge influences of dyes, art and motifs of African heritages and those from around the Ocean, India and even Europe …

Today, the repertoire of 'Kanga'  designs, and words on them called mithali or msemo(Swahili for a proverb or saying) reveal artistic and literary exchanges between oceanic and inland migratory routes and settlements.


Home Between Crossings, touches on real life stories of many Asian families during the rise of African nationalism that suddenly shifted from anti-white to anti-Asian. Heart wrenching decisions led to emigration of the ‘Paper Citizens’, and virtual expulsion from their birthland. 

More by this Author
Title:Home Between Crossings
Author: Sultan Somjee (Author of Bead Bai 2012)
Publisher: CreateSpace (December, 2016)
Reviewer: Cyprian Fernandes

Though Asians had started leaving Kenya in small numbers since 1960, the floodgates opened in 1968 to beat the immigration deadline to enter the United Kingdom.Now a new book that chronicles in the minutest of details one family’s painful journey out of its homeland, Kenya.
Although a work of fiction, Home Between Crossings, touches on real life stories of many Asian families during the rise of African nationalism that suddenly shifted from anti-white to anti-Asian. Heart wrenching decisions led to emigration of the ‘Paper Citizens’, and virtual expulsion from their birthland. The story is told as a Khoja tale but speaks for the Asian experience through Kenyan Asian eyes.
This is another classic by the Kenyan ethnographer and writer, Sultan Somjee. It is a work of dedication and attention to detail on vibrancy of the changes that occur in 1950s and 1960s. His character, Moti Bai, suffers the pains, the joys and the disappointments of cultural changes within the Ismaili Khoja community in mid 1950s while in the country another force was stirring changes in the mighty British Empire – the Mau Mau.

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