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Story of British Rule in Kenya


Kiran Doshi

FROM JHELUM TO TANA
By Neera Kapur-Dromsom
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2007, pp. 433, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 12 December 2007

In 1898, when the sun never set on the British Empire, Kirparam, young and penniless, left his village on the Jhelum to end up, almost accidentally, in Kenya. (Tana is a river in Kenya.) There were thousands of men like him in India in those days, desperate to get away from a land ravaged by British misrule, and ending up as coolies in the colonies, Trinidad, Fiji, Malaya, Mauritius, South Africa, Kenya . . ., if they did not die en route from drowning, dysentery, plague, starvation, or man’s inhumanity to man. Kirparam did not die, though he came close to being eaten alive by a lion. (The lion chose the next coolie.) Kirparam became a dukawala, petty trader, and eventually, armed with only his breath of vision and true grit—he once drove his lorry a hundred miles in reverse gear, the only gear that worked, through utterly inhospitable terrain—a rich businessman in Kenya.   The book however is not just about Kirparam; nor about his wife Hardei, armed with truer grit if anything—she travelled all the way from the Jhelum to Nairobi, uninvited and unexpected, with a six-year son in tow, and with starvation dogging their steps, to confront a husband who had deserted her; nor about the other ancestors of the author, portrayed with much tenderness; nor about the hundreds of bit players in it, described briefly, but brilliantly. It is not even about how Indians in early Kenya, men of extraordinary imagination, stamina and entrepreneurial skills, struggled for a livelihood, an identity, and a life of dignity, though many of their tales are fascinating, and some wonderfully funny. Buy the book, if for nothing else, for the fluffy pages on the great debate in Nairobi in 1928, on Lord Siva’s lingam of all things, between two guests specially invited from India, Pandit Madhavacharya of the ‘Sanatan Dharma camp’ and Pandit Buddhadev Mirpuri of Arya Samaj. To be sure, there are also pages in the book that you may wish to skip, those that are heavy with descriptions of Punjabi customs and rituals, down to wedding scenes, and bidai scenes, and karwa chawth, and happiness in the biradari when a son (but not a daughter) is born. But forgive the author this one lapse; she may not know that Bollywood has been suffocating us for decades now with doses of Punjabi culture. Moreover, unfortunately, the descriptions are integral to ...


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