15th March 1922
Nairobi, Kenya Colony, British East Africa.
I was born in Nairobi on the day when the colonial soldiers opened fire on the crowd protesting against the imprisonment of Harry Thuku. Harry Thuku, a soldier in the Kings African Rifles, the star battalion at the legendary parades of the British army in Nairobi, had just returned home to Kenya from the war in Burma. He now defied the governor’s order on the wearing of the hated kipande. The kipande itself was just a numbered metal identity pass that all native casuals in the Indian business streets and plantation labourers in the White Highlands had to wear with a chain around the neck. But it was because of the memories of chained slaves that were not so distant from the workers’ minds that they could not but see their new metal ID as a symbol of slavery. Thus it did not surprise anyone when the bazaar folk talked cagily about the growing numbers of disgruntled workers around the country who objected to the wearing of the pass. “But,” they would argue, “it’s the law of Kenya Colony that all native subjects of the king must be seen with the metal ID at work.” What they did not know was what I learnt much later in my adulthood, that if the law was not peacefully obeyed, it would be brutally enforced. The Empire needed to recover from the war by developing its colonies as quickly as possible so it would be ready for another war. And for that a disciplined African labour force like Indian commerce and skilled builders, was essential.
The street where I was born is called Jugu Bazaar. Here the merchants of the Indian Ocean spread out cloth, spices and beads in voluminous displays of variety. Here would sit Indian women in circles grinding rice, mung, millet and sorghum on stone hand mills. All through the day, they made crushing, breaking, grinding noises gr…gr…gr as they turned the circular stones. The sights, smells and sounds around the rotating stone mills filled the air – some within private households, behind the stores and some more public at the doorsteps where the housewives prattled and ranted while they watched over grain pulverized for a charge. In time, this boisterous street came to be called Jugu Bazaar. Njugu is a Swahili word for peanuts.
The street is still there in Nairobi today if you walk along the Indian Bazaar and go through the alley behind the Jamia Mosque towards Rani Bagh. It’s also called VictoriaGardens. It has a statue of Queen Victoria, stout and veiled in her golden years. Indians who come to the garden on Sunday afternoons – men play cards while women watch over children on swings, would say with no less pride that the garden honours Queen Victoria, a student of Hindustani and lover of Sufi poetry, majestic pageants and paintings of the land. The garden, they would reminisce, is a namesake of a grander one in Bombay of their grandfathers’ days. It also has the queen’s statue but it was when she was young and did not wear a veil. They would say how their grandparents mused over the queen’s raj, splendid in displays of the might of conquest and splendour of submission of ten thousand turbaned soldiers on horses, camels and elephants at parades. It was this Empire that was now cultivating Africa with seeds from the harvest in India: the railway, the military, the post office, the roads, the civil service, modern commerce and most importantly the people trained to be loyal and to serve.
It was my work to serve tea to and fetch water for men playing cards and often I got to hear what they talked about. When the Uganda railway, also called the Lunatic Express, was finally completed and Nairobi became the principal town of British East Africa, the English and Boer settlers arrived at the railway camp town in large numbers and pushed back the Kenya-Uganda border from the Great Rift Valley to Mount Elgon, fearing Uganda would become a Jewish state one day. They said for every mile of railroad laid, four coolies died. By the time the Lunatic Express was completed, hundreds more were physically incapacitated or mentally debilitated. Of the latter, many were those of weak minds who could not endure the hardships of building the Lunatic Express and ran away. They were said to suffer from the illness of the mind, a new discovery in medicine that Dr Patel in the Rani Bagh card group, explained was called drapetomania that caused the coolies to flee indentured work. Thus those stricken by the disease of the railroad makers, languished with local criminals in the dungeons of FortJesus in the simmering heat of Mombasa where Indian suicide was not uncommon.
Losing the land
Whenever Ma Gor Bai hears Dadabapa’s soft snorts and empty coughs, she would say he is thinking of his parents, small-scale peanut farmers of Haripur. Or could it be that he is thinking of his little brothers and sisters? I search the meaning behind his odd behaviour that fills me with uneasy sadness. His family was twice impoverished by Chopanyo Dukar, the great famine of Saurashtra called the Famine of Fifty Six. And repeated colonial taxes. It was not before my fourteenth birthday that I heard Dadabapa’s inside story, the secret in him that he would not have told had he not fallen ill and wandered to the Saurashtra of his childhood in the concealed part of his mind. That was during the ten days when he was down with malaria, the bad type that seizes the mind. Dr Ribeiro said Dadabapa had to stay in bed and that someone should keep a watch over him all the time. I looked after him when he was hot and when he was cold. I looked after him when he had no sleep in his head and used to laze and loll on his back talking to the ghosts at the ceiling. Often his hands would gesture stories unsaid that had stayed hidden inside him. And when he spoke, it was as if he was reading pictures in the air:
When the drought of Chapanyo prolonged, the earth turned hot everywhere, as far as you can see, so hot that it hardened into a rock and then it cracked in sharp edged pieces like a clay water pot. My father’s last two cows died of thirst. Peanut plants turned brittle, nuts shrivelled and withered before the locusts came. Pests – I see black locust clouds over my head. Ma! Ma! She does not hear me. And then more pests – white grub infestation spreading like an epidemic scarab at the roots. Working all together, my father and me, all my brothers and sisters, working hard, we try to salvage the frugal crop and put it into sacks. But the colonial agents carry away the gunny sacks of our dwindled harvest in payment of taxes my father cannot pay in rupees. We are forced to sell our wooden plough and tools to buy food, and even water.
Khojas, Jains, Patels, Bohras and Lohanas from our village and the surrounding villages are leaving for Africa. Then a second famine scourges the fields in the middle of the great emigration. Banias close the shops and move out of villages. Then peasant farmers, potters, masons, tinsmiths, goldsmiths, dhobis, cobblers, barbers and carpenters begin to leave in large numbers. Even the low caste cleaners, the churas, the untouchables of Saurashtra, who lived at the fringe of Haripur, are now leaving for Africa with their families. I see them walking away in the heat from the cloudless sky, and then I hear the frenzied Brahmin pleading, “Who will remove the dog’s carcass, four days old, rotting, stinking at the temple’s steps?” The ayurvedic doctor left yesterday with a bag full of pounded leaves and roots, and then the priests carefully wrapped their scriptures and temple deities in padded cloth packages, lifted them onto their shoulders, and went. They did not so much as glance at the three dogs, mere rib cases, eating the rotting entrails of the dog at the temple steps. The dogs took turns to turn around to show their greatly exaggerated canines and snarl at the crowd of vultures and crows daring to pick into the carcass. The midwife Ramba Bai left with her potlo bundle balanced on her head. We saw the thief Magan jump onto the priests’ cart and then we did not see him again in Haripur. The revolutionaries took their raging hearts to Africa, and fiery verses tucked in their turbans. With them left the village poet and scholar with his ink, paper, holders and nibs in three sizes. Only the weavers and dyers remained behind. Some moved towards Jamnagar, Bhuj and Surat. And the Siddis remained too. Every morning I saw Siddis passing by our village walking in groups towards Junagadh, carrying cloth bundle potlas on their heads, wares on shoulders and babies at the hips.
Dadabapa’s eyes do not move. What was it that he was saying? Was it a dream? Or was it real? Or was it a fantasy that wishes tend to create when you are weak in the head? Or was it a mirage conjured in adult mind out of suppressed childhood guilt? I get worried because I have never seen him act like this. Sometimes I can hear clearly what he says and sometimes it sounds garble to my ears. Whatever he says, when he speaks, he does not even blink to hold in the tear coming down his unshaven cheeks as he speaks in croaky whispers:
My mother and sisters went to the weavers’ colony behind the jamat khana and spun cotton, dyed and dried the yarn for export. Their wages barely provided rice enough to feed the family. Should the rains come, we would not have seed for the next season because the rats had eaten into father’s storage. Thirsty rats then died in the village wells while making desperate stabs to reach the water drops oozing out at the walls. Their cadavers polluted our little remaining drinking sources. Those young men who had left during the previous drought arrived with the desiccated Monsoons. Some came to collect their families, some to get married, and some to pay back loans that helped them to reach Africa. Now before they return they would recover their family jewellery from the village pawn broker and carry it with them. They said sweet water, milk and honey flowed in Africa like rivers from the Himalayas, and that one could eat one good meal a day. At the women’s satsang meetings, they discussed the famine and the great emigration of families out of Kutch and Gujarat. Elders sat in separate panchayat councils according to their castes. They sat around their own chosen village peepal tree the whole day long discussing what they heard and what wisdom they knew from the teachings in the scriptures and what the astrologers told them. My grandfather, once the mukhi of Haripur, reminded the Khoja panchayat council once again, how much Saheb desired for us to leave Kutch and Gujarat for Africa. No sooner had he spoken than a multitude of questions assail him like bullets from a barrel, “How can we abandon the land of our ancestors? How can we break the bond with the earth that is sacred? Here the pirs sought ginan in the song of the gurus of Hindustan under the peepal tree and hill temples. Who will tend the fields when the rains come? Who will clean the wells? How can we cross Kala Pani that protects our motherland?” Some put their fears into questions. Others show their reluctance to abandon their fields through their questions. And there were those who hoped the famine will pass. After all famines have always come and gone but their forefathers never deserted the land. “How can we leave the land where our prayers rest at the pir’s shrine? How can we desert the sacred trees where our umbilical cords are buried? Who will pay our debts? How do we abandon the jamat khana? How can we ….?” How can we this and how can we that? Their questions are endless and though there were no answers, they continue to ask why this and why that, as if their questions would delay the inevitable emigration. The elders’ shifting eyes expressed doubts such as those that come from the fright of loss of direction of one gone astray in a jungle. Then someone asked a different question that made the panchayat assembly think again, “Why is it that every caste around Haripur is going to Africa but the African Siddis are not?” More doubts were now expressed in questions about the Siddis, “Why are the Siddis staying behind? What will they eat? Where will they get the water from?” These questions silenced all for a while before they began asking again, “Do they know something we don’t? Do they eat people in Africa? Will the English enslave us to work in mines and on plantations?” The elders shook their heads from side to side dole dole in agreement, “Yes there must be a reason why they are not leaving.” Finally the panchayat council sent Mota Bhai to enquire from the Siddis why they do not leave Saurashtra for Africa yet they had no food in their granaries.
When Mota Bhai returned, his hands were trembling; his voice shook when he told the panchayat what the Siddis said to him. “Our forefathers worked this land and fought for dignity. Here they served, ruled, cleared the jungle and built forts so we may live with pride,” they said. “Our ancestors protect us now. If we leave, who will bring the unshaven coconuts and incense smoke to their altars? Who will dance the goma? Whom shall we consult when our children are born and their destinies made? Whom shall we consult at marriages? Whom shall we consult at funerals? Yes, we are hungry, yes there is no food in our granaries but our ancestors reside here. This land is ours and we are free.”
The Siddis then put questions to Mota Bhai that he said, he not only had no replies to but had never before even thought about. They asked: How could the panchayats of Saurashtra, who had never been enslaved or dispossessed of their country, know what was in the hearts of the Siddis? How could they understand the African custom that revere the land where the ancestors are buried not cremated? Did the Indians have slave memories like those of the Siddis? Did their ancestors walk in coffles under the blazing sun? Ancestors, exhausted-beaten-starved sleeping in coffles? Ancestors, in coffles made to copulate to replenish the slave stock for their masters? Then a Siddi elder who was so thin and weak that he could not stand without shaking even when holding a stick, asked: How could they? Their heads are full of what the English did to the Indians, not what the Indians did to the Africans?