Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Goans in Vassanji;s world ... bit of read, but worth it
Goans in Vassanji’s In-Between World.
Reading M.G. Vassanji’s 2003 novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall was no easy feat, the book required some focus and perseverance, the fact that I was so dedicated to the task of reading completing the book, is perhaps due as much to my interest in the familiar narrative of East African Asian family histories as it is to the skill of Vassanji in weaving the story of an entire group of peoples into the twentieth century history of Kenya.
As an East African Asian and a Kenyan one too, I found all of the references very well researched and the detail to colonial place names and language measured up to my own scrutiny formed of decades of historical research, field trips and a decade of childhood memories. But as a person of Goan origin, I had to question some of the references made to Goans in this book and in East African literature in general. Goans initially appear to have a fleeting mention in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. Almost half of the book consists of Vikram Lall reminiscing of his days in 1950’s colonial Nakuru in heart of the Rift Valley. There are “flash-backs” to the founding of towns along the railway line by indentured Punjabi workers at the turn of the century. But Vassanji was either unaware or choose to exclude the presence of Goans in the Rift Valley dating back to 1899.
Goans are particularly scarce in East African fiction from the colonial era. However there were many academic works in journals, all sorts of government publications (from Kenya, Uganda and Britain), newspapers and of course memoirs. In fact Goans make their non- fiction debut as “Goanese” in Richard Burtons’ The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860), followed by Harry Johnstons’ The Uganda Protectorate (1902). The famous Out of Africa (1937) memoir by Danish Baroness Karen Blixen Finecke mentions South Asians, and devotes a chapter to the Sikh blacksmith Pooran Singh1, but fails to make any mention of
the Goan waiters she would have encountered at the Norfolk Hotel, at the railway station, at shops or perhaps as her doctor in pre-First World War Nairobi. Yet their presence is firmly confirmed by Errol Trzebinski in The Kenya Pioneers (1988). Trzebinski devotes a whole chapter to the Zebra-riding Dr. Ribeiro.2 Apart for these memoirs Vassanji did have at his disposal many other non-fiction publications by Europeans in independent Kenya that
mention Kenya’s Goans such as To My Wife – Fifty Camels (1966) by Alyce Reece, Cynthia Salvadori’s fantastic study Through Open Doors (1983). Not to mention those publications authored by East African Goans such as Ladis Da Silva’s The Americanization of Goans (1976) or Mervyn Macial’s wonderful book Bwana Karani (1985) and of course Teresa
Albuquerque’s Goans of Kenya (1999).
The background of the growth and subsequent crushing of the Land and Freedom Fighters, called “Mau Mau” by the British, is placed against everyday multi-racial contacts and constructs as seen by a child in 1950’s small town Nakuru, which at the time had a Goan
population of around 200, but the character Vikram Lall encounters Goans firstly at the railway station (the EAR&H) in the form of a man called Tembo, which is Kiswahili for Elephant. Vassanji describes him;
“He Was a Goan, brown as cinnamon, and was called Tembo to mock his extreme thinness.”3
This “Tembo the Fireman, teeth gleaming like pearls” was working under a Sikh Engineer.4 This encounter is somewhat surprising as even in pre-independence Kenya records suggest that the fireman was rarely an Asian and commonly an African. Similarly records suggest that Goans working in the railways at that time were mostly attached to the buffet cars, waiters, pursers and administrative clerks. So this brown “Tembo” comes as something of a shock and perhaps suggestive more of Vassanji’s own colour consciousness, based within the Indian sub-continent’s attitudes to colour and caste then it to artistic licence.
For much of the book Goans disappear from the colourful and dramatic world of Vikram Lall, as if they were never there. Factually of course South Asians in East and Central Africa comprised less than 5% of the total population of the region in the period 1955-1960 and within that minority Goans only comprised 4%. Numerically East African Goans were a minority within a minority. But on the political stage Goan representation in the movements for independence in Eastern Africa was active and visible well above the numbers. I was therefore curious that Vassanji choose to place The In-Between World of Vikram Lall in the Hindu-Punjabi community.
How about some lateral thinking? Perhaps the connections are not based on the actual community representation but on particular characters. After all, most good historical novelists of a realist tradition base their storyline and characters on well researched people that actually exist or existed, and whom they may have encountered, or for whom they have strong archival material. I base this on two novels; The Redundancy of Courage published by Timothy Mo in 1991 which was set in the fictional country called Danu in Southeast Asia, instantly recognisable as the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. The life story of Adolph Ng is so clear, as to be based on Mo himself or at the least a close friend. The other book is a translation by Karin Speedy from French of Georges Baudoux’s Jean M ‘baraï - The Trepang Fisherman which was first published in the late nineteenth century, and set in the Southwest Pacific. Baudoux’s characters are based on his own experiences with the people he encountered in New Caledonia.
What has this to do with The In-Between World of Vikram Lall? It appears that Vassanji captured something else in his book. Nakuru had a very well organised Surati Gujarati community in the 1950’s, and there was a connection between this Hindu community and the Goans, in the form of Eddie Sadashiva Pereira, a Mombasa-born Goan who was
educated in British India and returned to Africa in the 1930’s as an Indian nationalist. Pereira became Secretary General of the Indian Association in Nakuru and as he stated “I had written over 100 articles in the press against British and colonial rule in Kenya”. Pereira was imprisoned by the colonial authorities and despised by the settlers in the Rift Valley.5 In Vassanji’s novel there are echoes of Eddie Sadashiva Pereira in the guise of Mahesh Uncle, the quarrelsome Indian-educated uncle who wore homespun “khadi” cotton pyjama.6 The similarities are unbelievable. Pereira and the fictional Mahesh Uncle had sympathies for the Land and Freedom Movement, both characters were detested by the settlers. On one occasion Mahesh Uncle is called a “Bengallee bastard”7 perhaps a reference to Bengali nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose. Most importantly these two people – one a Goan who was an Indian and Kenyan nationalist, and the other a fictional character, lived in the same space of 1950’s Nakuru and are ridiculed, and ostracised by their own communities for their views. Vassanji sets Mahesh Uncle in the Hindu Punjabi community, one that like the Goans is a minority within a minority and also connected to the railways. But Vasssanji brings out the same community fears experienced by the Goans in Kenya. Fears enforced by a well organised imperial propaganda campaign backed by the settlers and the British Army.
Vassanji describes the community and family rifts that this exposes. The major division between those for whom Kenya has become their only home even though they are assimilated into a hierarchical structure which is apartheid in every aspect but name, and those who have the privilege, luck or determination to be educated across the ocean in an India that has freed itself from imperialism and similar structures based on race. Thinking of Eddie Sadashiva Pereira, Pio Gama Pinto, Joseph Murumbi and Makhan Singh. This was a community divided between those who knew only of what they had as bad as it was and who made the best of it, against those who knew the possibilities of what it could be and aspired for those ideals.
Vassanji also explored the post-colonial challenges for the South Asian community as their hopes evaporated under Africanisation, corruption and violence. This is, as many authors of diverse hues will tell you not fiction. In The In-Between World of Vikram Lall Goans reappear in post-colonial Kenya in the form a “Goan band playing Jazz” at a beach hotel at Mombasa.8 For Vikram Lall’s next encounter with the Goan community, Vassanji choose Nairobi railway station where a Mr. Eddie Carvalho receives “a couple of slaps” from an African politician for asking his African assistant to wipe the engine in what Vassanji calls “a rather rude and
foolish mannerism, reminiscent of arrogant colonial attitudes”.9 Is there any significance in the choice of ethnicity for this character? One who mimics the mannerisms of the colonial masters, even after they have been kicked-out! I choose to think that Vassanji may have considered the English-speaking East African Goan as a post colonial Asian enigma – the
6 Pg. 21. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. By M.G. Vassanji. Anchor. Toronto. Canada 2003.
7 Pg.23. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. By M.G. Vassanji. Anchor. Toronto. Canada 2003.
South Asian who forgot who he was after four hundred and fifty years of colonial rule. Vassanji was writing this at a time when Konkani was barely spoken in East Africa and where Goans spoke English at home and at work, and to most East Africans all Goans were Catholics. Goan social structures of Hindu origin based on caste and origin remained within the community, perhaps adding to Vassanji’s perspective.
Later on in the book Vikram Lall raises the issue of Kenya’s list of assassinations during the life-long term of Jomo Kenyatta and reinforces a popular perception that the Kenyatta Government and its clan-focussed Kikuyu faction was behind “the assassination of Pio Gama Pinto, a Marxist activist”.10 Later Vassanji tones down this description when he mentions “the Socialist, Gama Pinto”.11 It is almost as if Vassanji, himself an East African Asian, wants to steer away from the politics of the region, perhaps a wise move.
The Goan socio-political role as Portuguese subjects in British or German East Africa, poised between the European coloniser and the colonised African, and between the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities of East African Asians. In many ways Kenyan Goans or all East African Goans would make for an interesting Vassanji book, perhaps entitled “The In-Between
world of East African Goans”.
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