Indians of South Africa
Into That Heaven of Freedom, Mohamed Keshavjee, Mawenzi House/ TSAR Publishers, 2015, 312pp, £35 (hardback)
Indians were in Africa long before the Europeans turned up. From the midnineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, they were also an intricate part of the history of European expansion into and takeover of the continent. Some were imported as indentured labourers to build essential infrastructures, others left their homeland voluntarily to escape extreme poverty and a good number crossed the seas in search of economic prosperity or to become efficient administrators. Churchill was a racial supremacist who despised these ‘coolies’ yet even he acknowledged that without them, Africa would have been inaccessible. (Indian migrants, workers and entrepreneurs also settled in the Caribbean, east Asia and Fiji.) When the colonial age ended, these diasporic Indians had to define themselves, find new roles, sometimes new lands. Theirs is an untold story. That past and individual memories are fading away. Historians, academics and the pioneering Indians themselves have let the records lie, unexcavated and unseen.
A few writers have broken the seal; M.G Vassanji, the Canadian Tanzanian author explored his Indian origins in a travel memoir titled A Place Within and has written evocative novels with East African Asian characters. The books of B. Tejani, Yash and Dhram Ghai also focus on these early Indian wayfarers as do a small number of other writers. They would not fill a single IKEA shelf. For that reason, this is a necessary and vital account.
Keshavjee’s family settled in South Africa, where he was born. Some, in time, moved to East Africa, partly to escape institutionalised bigotry. Kenya had its own racist policies but these were not as brutally enforced as they were in South Africa. I was born and raised in Uganda. In 2008, I wrote a memoir, The Settler’s Cookbook, partly to pay homage to my
mother and her generation. The book does not dwell on my forebears who left the Gujarat in the late eighteenth century, mainly because I know little about them. Keshavjee, however, did go to his ancestral village, Chotila in Rajkot, where his clan lived for centuries. As he landed there for the first time, he was excited, and had:
a vague but pervasive feeling of returning to something important, but nameless... I could hear people around me speaking Gujarati, which for me meant history, my own history, now grounded in a place rather than only in an exilic memory. I felt a sense of homecoming. Less than forty kilometres away, in an unmarked grave lay the remains of a man whose name I shared with almost a thousand extended family members who now lived across the face of the earth on six continents.
I was envious and teary when I read this. Other rootless, nomadic readers will understand those feelings. By the end, however, Keshavjee had filled in some gaps about those old migrants, strengthened the Indian part of my shifting, multiple identity, brought about psychological repair and reintegration of parts.
The first few chapters are replete with wonderful details and invaluable historical insights, many bold and indignant. The imperialists wrecked the Indian economy, exploited the land and people, created conditions which made it impossible for the subjugated to survive natural disasters. Millions migrated because they had no other choice. Those who got on ships to escape famines and destitution, were then further victimised by agents and bandits. Through his own family saga, Keshavjee makes this past come alive. He writes beautifully and from the heart.
My main criticism of this memoir is that over large sections it is filled with the minutiae of the Keshavjee family tree which can become tedious and seem self-indulgent. This is a pity because in the best parts of the book, the
author puts his relatives into the bigger picture and considers implications that go beyond domestic failures or successes.
The chapters on South Africa are pacy, packed with events, full of political passion. His family made good there and many also became activists fighting against unjust laws directed at Asians. Gandhi, of course, became an agitator and legal strategist for this cause and formed his liberation philosophy and methods during his tumultuous time in South Africa. All very good and admirable. But here’s my second criticism; there is too much spin and not enough acknowledgement of how many Asians looked down on Africans and were focused solely on Indian rights and fortunes. Memoirs should never be hagiographic.
In the final chapters, however, Keshavjee is more forthright and candid about his people and their failures. Indians are, he fears, vulnerable in today’s South Africa. They could be expelled as Ugandan Asians were in 1972 by Idi Amin: ‘[They] should work to develop a strong and more broad-based African middle class by helping the indigenous population to prosper in the distributive trade.’ The voice here has moved from pride, affection and subjectivity to objectivity and concern. None of my criticisms can take away the power, significance and ambition of this meticulously researched, wise and eloquent book. It will hopefully educate and enlighten those who still think of Africa as a dark, unknowable and incomprehensible continent.