The following story got the first prize in the short story competition organized by Kalakahani of UK; the submitted stories had to be about the Asian diaspora based in East Africa......
Shefali wakes up in the sweltering heat and miss the refreshing chilled air that would have filled the verandah back there. Whenever she wakes up like this, she always seems to be filled with remorse, nostalgia…a kind of longing that is very discomforting. The girls, Maya and Nandita, have no interest in her previous life in the suburban hills of Kampala, the bungalow on the hill, from where you see the lake at a distance on a clear day……
‘It was cooler back there….’, she would say sometimes. Maya, the older one would scoff and retort…
‘Cooler?? Back there In Uganda?? It's Africa mom..!!!!!’
Anther sigh...these kids…why don’t ever Google Kampala and find out about it? Africa is a huge place. But they won’t…not a bit interested…
Her father was a very well known trader there, a 3rd generation at that, originally from Surat at the turn of the century. Life was so different then, wasn’t it? It was a lively, closely knit community; her mom a 3rd generation settler herself spoke fluent Gujrati and Ganda with a smattering of English. There was never any scope of getting lonely….life centered around countless teas, kachoris, cholafali, ‘englis’ sandwiches and dinners and heartfelt ‘kamche?’ throughout. The men separated themselves after a while and brought out their cheroots and whiskeys and the women would, at least some, bring out their ‘paans’, preciously preserved and sourced all the way from Mombassa where they were probably ferried in clandestinely on dhows all the way from India. Tinkling of glasses, a shimmering of saris, a cacophony of mixed Gujrati and Hindi dialects and even a few ‘local’ friends, ‘Emerald’ in particular, whose presence in the house was always discreetly frowned upon by his father.
But here….the kids….they go off to school and she starts her routine. Washing dishes, vacuuming, occasionally a quick trip to Safeway and then to the Indian grocers for the assortment of vegetables and spices, and at noon sharp, parks herself in front of the TV to watch ‘All My Children’ and end with ‘General Hospital’. These characters from the series will sometimes take over her psyche and it will bugg the hell out of her. Then she will force herself to make a few phone calls, play canasta with the neighbors once a week, and late in the afternoon the kids will descent, followed by Rahul, her husband, a few hours later, again preoccupying her with the usual domesticities.
She had been unnerved to the core last week when Maya had a few friends over. One of them, Roberta, is a feisty Tanzanian student, who is at her daughter’s school on an exchange program. Her father is English and mother is from Tanzania, so technically she isn’t a full Tanzanian per se, and even more so, she was born in Brighton. Both of her parents seem to be highly educated, and both works for the UNHCR. What got her attention was that they have recently been posted to Kampala. Roberta was gung-ho about going there in the summer for the first time. They have been allocated a bungalow on the northern suburbs that was once built and owned by ‘Indians’ on Edwards Street, renamed Onyango Boulevard, and has a huge columned verandah at the front from where one could gaze at the vast expanse of Lake Victoria at a distance. The road is still called by the same old name by some.
Some of her acquaintances had recently been ‘invited’ back to Uganda and the stories they have sent back were simply depressing. Businesses ruined and properties in such dilapidated conditions that it took days for them to recover from the shock. Since her father, the original owner of their businesses was long dead and cremated in the UK, there was no documentation whatsoever for them to go back and claim anything. Her brother, born in Liverpool, had made the trip last year and apparently the situation was bureaucratic, but ‘promising’.
‘Can you call Roberta over for dinner one day?’ she causally says to Maya.
‘Since when did you start getting interested in my friends, Mom? What’s the agenda, hmmm?’
Shefali doesn’t have an answer right away. She stares at Maya’s cherubic face, thinking of an answer, since there was an ‘agenda’.
‘Talk to me’. Maya sternly tells her, taking advantage of the few second delay before she could speak up.
‘I was just curious about their house’.
Maya’s face changed immediately from curiosity to disdain. Caught between South Asian, East African, and now the identity of the American South, her daughters obviously are most comfortable with the American upbringing. At the same time, looking at the mirror, there is no escape from their Indian identities, so they play themselves up as these exotic Indo-American chicks, deliberately dressing up in embroidered blouses and skirts and the occasional 'bindis', to school. To introduce yet another identity and an African one at that, especially when there are so many African American students, it is convenient to discard that part of the heritage. It took forever to explain that both of her parents were actually ‘African Indians’ who had never set foot on the Indian subcontinent in the past three generations and were ignonamously expelled by a despot called Idi Amin. She was born in Bristol in the UK, a year after Shafali and Rahul got married, and the family finally migrated with the help of an uncle with a number of businesses to the fertile and humid plains of central Alabama with a substantial black population, and that was that. The second generation Indian kids already taunt by calling her and her sister ‘ABCDs’, American Born Confused Desis that is…and the sad part is she does feel confused. She and Rahul, also of ‘expelled Indian stock’, consistently talks of Uganda as ‘back home’ and even a road trip to Orlando or New Orleans will naturally evoke long winded memories of trips to the resort town of Butiaba up north or to the exotic mix of Mombasa in Kenya. Their Gujrati network extended all the way to Durban and Cape Town covering the entire eastern African coast and there was no end to the choices of places they could go for trips. Even a trip to Niagara elicited an innocent remark, ‘Oh, Victoria Falls was so much bigger than this’. Maya, her elder daughter was having none of this….nostalgia, African nostalgia at that……of her parents.
As for Shefali, how could she explain to Maya that at the age of eight, Shefali’s family boarded a BOAC flight out of Entebbe one sunny day, with her mom crying her heart out, sister Padmini in tow, and twenty English pounds in the pocket and a small suitcase for all four of them? Her dad ceremoniously kneeled down right before climbing the gangway, put his right palm on the tarmac, and when prodded immediately by the tip of a gun of a security guard by raising his palm and gently caressing his head with it. Those tumultuous times, preceded by a life of luxurious bungalows and chauffer driven cars and then immediately followed by a ten by ten room for all four of them in an Asian enclave of Liverpool, how would Maya relate to them? Her father would die four years later, totally shattered, broken and apologetic for not being able to provide for them. She was hastily married off to Rahul, two years older than her, right after her ‘A’ levels, started a family, and eventually rerouted herself to the US while Padmini an their mom stayed back.
Shefali however did not deal too much in those transitive ‘in between’ years. She dwelt on being woken up by Charity, her adorable Ganda speaking Bantu Amah, centering her life around these two sisters ever since they were born, their miniature park with a slide, swing and a see-saw at the back of the house, which was the envy of the neighborhood, the huge Edwardian doll house that was in their verandah, stuffed with miniature English furniture, and moreover Laxmi, their cook, who refused to cook anything that had any vestige of African ingredients of recipes in it. The day Shefali was born, her father had planted an Alphonso mango tree next to the playground at the back, which bordered her mother’s expansive kitchen garden. Eight years later, the tree was almost two stories tall, bore fruit profusely and was the pride and joy of their household. The evening before their departure, she and her sister had dug a small hole close to the roots and deposited their most valuable worldly possessions in it. Padmini had put in a small porcelain faced doll with gold hair and she had put in a penny, yes, an English copper penny with the silhouette of King Edward the Seventh… the King Emperor, inside the hall. Apparently her grandmother had clutched it in her hands when they were shipped to the east African coast and a few years back had given it to her before passing away quietly in their back room.
Somehow her childhood memories are still centered on that penny.
She wants Roberta to ask her parents whether the house was once called ‘Surabai Villa’, named after her great-grandmother and if so, is there a huge mango tree at the back? She is not going to ask about those pink curtains in her room, nor those wooden filigreed partitions in the living room. Looted, damaged or destroyed, it will be utterly foolish to spring those questions to a teenager who had never been there. Just what are the odds of Roberta’s parents being allocated the same house? If her brother, born in the UK two years later after landing there, ever manages to get their properties back, this house should be on the top of the list.
She is very tempted to ask Roberta to dig a hole around that tree and if possible, dig up that penny…..