Author: Mohamed Keshavjee
: Silverfish Pro, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur 2017
Reviewer: Farouk Topan

Mohamed Keshavjee’s collection of short stories.

The stories in this collection display a thread that is familiar to persons of Indian background whose forefathers had settled in East, Central and South Africa from the 19th century onwards, if not even earlier. It weaves the good, the ugly, the best and the not so best of human thought, emotions, deeds and interactions into a mosaic of tales that entertain, inform, educate and, at times, provoke. But the quality which makes them attractive, in varying voice and pitch, is their relevance to our times. And by this, I mean the period, post-1960, when political changes and the transfer of power in East Africa, the brutal enforcement of the apartheid system in South Africa, the socio-political attitudes and differing economic status in East Africa, coupled with the new immigration restrictions in Britain, threw up challenges for people to come together “to build the nation”, as the slogan proclaimed. It was not easy, and it still isn’t. The reality of this phase has been well described by M.G Vassanji in his works, and given excellent analysis as ‘The Asian Question’ by Tirop Peter Simatei, a professor at Moi University, in his book, The Novel and the Politics of Nation Building in East Africa.

Mohamed Keshavjee beautifully captures the nuances of that reality at the ground level, so to speak, from the point of view of individuals in society who go about their daily lives, find ways of earning their living, use their talent to exploit the resources – and sometimes people -around them, and, who, in turn, get exploited and manipulated through the greed and corruption of those in power. The story, ‘The man who was very careful’ illustrates this with wit and irony: the ‘big man’ politician tricks Chunibai, the jeweller, into parting with three sets of his exquisite and very expensive sets of jewellery as a gesture of unintended “generosity”, all in return for an unspoken application for citizenship, which, as it transpires, never materializes. But the stories in this volume go beyond the trauma of insecurity of the political uncertainties of the 1960s and the 1970s and draw on the full range of the author’s experiences as a lawyer, a seasoned traveller of the world, an observer of people and their habits, and, above all, an Indian of South African origin who has lived in three continents – Africa, Europe and North America. Hence, the “diasporic” in the title, and the sprinkling of Indian sentences and phrases that enliven the dialogues.

The dimension of the diaspora is basic to the stories: movement across borders and different forms of boundaries, both physical and mental; adapting to newer environments in novel ways (even having to ‘big yourself up’ as Sam would say); trying to understand others’ views and ways of doing things; and, perhaps a process of the utmost personal significance, confronting one’s own prejudices. This last point comes through plainly in the stories located in India, a country that usually provides a rich setting for self-discovery. Keshavjee uses ordinary incidents – the excessive attention of the shoe-shine boy, the assumed ‘forgetfulness’ of the train conductor, presumed friendships – to illustrate the diasporic ambivalence towards India, a ‘home’ that isn’t a home but as it turns out to be, remains an exilic memory. To that extent, the stories have a resonance for millions of people whose ancestors originated in India and who, through political or economic circumstances, ended up in parts of the British colonial empire only to find themselves having to move once again to countries in Western Europe, North America and elsewhere. For all of them, India, at one level attracts, while at the same time, it also repels.

That brings me finally to two points in this short review which probably does not do justice to the full range of sixteen stories based in East and South Africa, Canada, India, and Tajikistan. The first is the extent of the issues conveyed in the collection. Besides the ones already mentioned, we meet with aspects of arranged marriages, biracial liaisons, racism, the fruits of cosmopolitanism, rapid urbanization, the effects of massive dislocations and indeed new creative approaches to doing things – a phenomenon we see repeated today on a colossal scale, and Asian working and networking in Western countries, and there are others. It is interesting that such themes, and their variants, are faced by all in the diaspora, not just the Asians of, and from, Africa. And the second point is that Keshavjee conveys the messages and their nuances as he sees them; as they say, he tells it as it is. Happy reading!

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