My Camera, My Life – Parts 1, 2 & 3

Volume 13, Issue 3  | 
Published 04/04/2017
John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


Author: Sir Mohinder Dhillon
Publ: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers Ltd. 672pp
ISBN: 978-9987-753-60-4
ReviewerJohn Sibi-Okumu

To write an autobiography is either to convince oneself or to have been convinced by others that one has led an extraordinary life and, in all likelihood, the general public will be entertained, educated and enriched by reading it. Autobiographies, therefore, have something of the subjective in them, in that their authors choose what they want to reveal and something of the objective, in that what they reveal must be deemed to be factual.

Mohinder Dhillon’s My Camera, My Life scores so highly on all these  fronts that a Hollywood-Bollywood-Nollywood and, closer to home, Riverwood film version in years to come could be a distinct possibility. Should that happen, so vast is the span of a long life that the scriptwriter would have to decide whether to choose a slice of life, Selma-style treatment or a more comprehensive Mandela-style one. If the option turns out to be the latter, the casting agent would first have to search for an actor or actors to play the young Mohinder. In adolescence, the chosen one would have to be dashingly handsome but also unusually tall and gangly at first, filling out as the story progresses and thus leading him to be portrayed, as an adult, by an undoubted superstar like, say, Amitabh Bachchan.

The opening scenes would be set in 1931 in a remote Punjabi village.

There could be a magnificent kite running sequence because young Mohinder was a champion in that exercise. At the age of seventeen, he would leave with his mother, brothers and sisters on a dhow trip to join his father who had left years earlier to seek his fortune as a railway worker in Kenya. A beloved uncle would bid them a tearful farewell. Then, cut to stunning vistas of the new, found land, thereafter, a constant visual feature, in the style of Out of Africa. Young Mohinder would not do that well in an important, early examination and, consequently, he would not be allowed to pursue a higher, formal education. This, together with a stutter, would be the source of abiding hang-ups. A kindly lady would offer him a job in a picture-processing studio. His father would offer him his first camera. And then, we would be off! The foundation for the main story having been well laid……

When Mohinder eventually branches out on his own as a photojournalist and becomes an employer in his turn, he deserves to be described as the epitome of a self-made man. His work exposes him to all manner of challenges and perils which, to Shakespeare buffs, could call to mind the words of Othello, also an outsider, as he explains how he wooed his wife, Desdemona. “Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances/ Of moving accidents by flood and field/Of hair-breadth scapes i’th’imminent deadly breach.” And Mohinder does indeed have his own Desdemona, or ‘love interest’ in filmspeak, who would also have to be played by an extremely beautiful actress. But if you know your Shakespeare well, don’t think for a moment that Mohinder kills her, in the end, unlike Desdemona. Her name is Ambi and theirs is a union, initially through an arranged marriage, as solid and compatible as any can be.

With Ambi as a refuge and a strength for him, Mohinder the cameraman becomes witness to key historical events throughout the world but, most significantly, to the birth pangs of several, nascent nations on the African continent.  So, here we find him, like a real life Forrest Gump, at independence celebrations in East Africa; that’s be him being told off by Jomo Kenyatta about his shoddy equipment; him being stood up by Milton Obote; him warming to a charm offensive by Idi Amin; him travelling with Haile Selassie on a succession of state visits, him charting civil strife in the Congo, Aden and Afghanistan and him drawing world attention to what has come to be known as the Ethiopian famine.

In the process, Mohinder dodges bullets in frightening circumstances, comes close to being executed by firing squad and succumbs to debilitating depression. When he finally decides to pack it all in, he receives a string of well-deserved accolades, amongst them a knighthood. It is not, as we have always been conditioned to expect, from the King or Queen of England, but from the Imperial Ethiopian Order of Saint Mary of Zion.

This is not bad at all for a man who had once thought of himself as a social reject. And it would be the stuff of good cinema.

In the absence of a film, however, the three parts of My Camera, My Life in book form, are very satisfying in themselves. The story, as narrated to and edited by David Kaiza and Gordon Boy, is told simply, leaving the reader to supply the emotion, especially in moments of great trial and great triumph, through personal extrapolation. Part 1, to this reviewer the most enjoyable for being the most novel, deals with the formative years, up to Mohinder’s arrival in Mombasa. Part 2 is dedicated largely to Mohinder’s grand adventures and Part 3 to him as an individual and family man. The narrative sleight of hand is that Mohinder Dhillon is speaking to the reader directly, in the manner of a very lengthy, bed time story, often peppered with suspense-inducing phrases which alert the reader to further revelation and clarification in the pages to follow. Perhaps, a criticism, is that this approach sometimes leads to unnecessary repetition. All told, albeit by himself, Mohinder Dhillon comes across as a gentle, compassionate, humble and unassuming man who, despite admitting to a quick temper, is happy to let bygones be bygones.

My Camera, My Life is entertaining because an action-packed life such as Mohinder Dhillon’s is not given to us all. It is educational because it could as well double up as an anecdotal history book for those of us who did not live through the events described. And it is enriching because it helps to impart the wisdom that we should never allow ourselves to be limited by outwardly limiting circumstances. To put it in words that we must have all heard or read before: ‘the world is your oyster’ and ‘the sky is the limit.’ Indeed, indeed.

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu

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