Yas­min Al­ib­hai-Brown

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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.

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