MIGRATIONS: OUT OF INDIA AND AFRICA
By M. H. Velshi
1. Mumbai, 1934.
They took a long walk during the last afternoon of his stay in Mumbai.
The hot day suddenly felt cooler when they reached Marine Drive and they paused to inhale the salty evening breeze that rushed in from the blue Arabian Sea to cleanse and refresh the city.
Anil glanced sideways at Bai, his eldest sister, who was more of a mother to him than a sibling. She had raised him from birth until she was married off to Hussein and left their tiny Gujarati village for Mumbai. Seven years old, he had cried for weeks and Ma spent what time she could spare to console him.
Thankfully, this arranged marriage had turned into a loving relationship. Over the seven years since her wedding, Bai had changed from a lanky, serious girl who had taught him his numbers and alphabet to a fashionably dressed woman with a fulsome figure, the mother of two boys and a girl. Anil was used to seeing the women in the village wear plain cotton saris but Bai wore silk, often blue, and large gold bangles, especially when they went to the mosque. She looked magnificent, he thought.
“I can’t go back,” Anil said. His voice cracked, as it often did when he became emotional.
“I know the worries on your mind. Let’s get some food from the chaiwallahs on the beach. We can sit by the sea, . . . eat and chat”.
They waited for a lull in the traffic before crossing Marine Drive and headed towards Chowpatty Beach, joining the crowd on the long path hugging the sea.
The English, sitting back in chauffer-driven cars, took in the evening air and the sunset through the rolled-down windows of their cars.
The public path provided enough anonymity and privacy for Indians to meet with friends, discuss business deals, arrange marriages, and, of course, talk of politics – conversations that the British would consider seditious. Ghandiji was in town, and there was much speculation about what he would do next. Another march, hunger strike, or hudtal to bring the British administration to a standstill? And when would the damn Firangis leave?
“Do you think Ghandiji will win?” Anil asked his sister. “I don’t understand this satygrahi business . . . How can one win without fighting?”
She rolled her eyes. “All I know is that every time the Mahatma does something, business goes down. Besides, you and I have our own problems, don’t we? Let’s see what the chaiwallahs have to offer.”
Bai set a large shawl down on the beach and laid down the plates of kebabs, samosas, pani puri and some tamarind juice. Then they both, with unspoken agreement, poked little holes in the puris and carefully filled them with the juice before eating them, relishing the tangy burst of tamarind. They munched the snacks in silence and watched the sun setting in the middle of the crescent-shaped bay.
“Anil, I’m going to miss you,” she started.
“I don’t want to go back to the farm.”
“I know that, beta, but Bapa will kill us both if you stay here.”
“What is there for me to go back to? Zul will inherit the farm. It’s too small to divide.”
“I know. You have the brains, but he had the naseeb to be the first-born son. That’s how it’s always been. Bapa has always expected you’d stay with the family on the farm. Besides what would you do here?”
“Can Hussein get me work?”
“Business is bad. These days no one’s spending money, especially not on jewellery. Marriage ceremonies are increasingly simple. People even weave their own clothes as Gandhiji asks them to do. Hussein and I survive. But if we squeeze you in, all those sagawallahs from his family looking for work will make my life a misery. At least you will have food and shelter on the farm.”
“Yes, Zul will feed, house and even clothe me. He’s kind, but I’ll just end up a mazdoor, tilling the land, carrying the harvest to market. He’ll give me hath kharchi to buy chai and nandi in the mosque. I’ll be one of those helpless men who is treated like boys, told to keep his mouth shut and to say “Bahut achaa” to everything.
“But you’ll become a mazdoor here as well. And where will you live? What are your chances of moving ahead? “
“I’d rather take my chances here. At least I’ll be independent, even if it means sleeping on the streets. I would love to sleep on this beach every night. There’s more excitement in one day in Mumbai than in a whole year in our village.”
Bai looked out at the bay and sat in silence for a few long minutes. Then she turned to Anil and said, “Well, if you’re really determined to leave the farm, I may have a better way out.”
She pointed to where the sun was setting over the glistening blue Arabian Sea and said, “That’s where you should go.”
Anil looked at her quizzically.
“To Africa,” she said.
She looked at his startled face and continued, “That’s your future. So many of my friends have gone and bought shops or farms, or found work on the railways or as clerks for the British. You know for many years our Imam, Mowlana Sultan Mohammed Shah, has been issuing firmans to us Ismailis to migrate to Africa. Now the Ismailis have built large jamatkhannas in Africa where people can pray and meet freely every day. You won’t be alone. When I heard one of his firmans a few days ago, still advising us to emigrate, I knew it was a message meant for you. It’s your way out.”
Anil looked at her dubiously, but she continued.
“Think about it. Here you’ll die an old man picking up boxes, trying to save money to go to the cinema, and you’ll never read a book. Besides, who will give you a wife? In Africa, you’ll have a chance to be somebody. At least you can learn English, perhaps go back to school, and I hear there are lots of good families looking for husbands for their daughters.”
Anil tried to imagine what lay on the other side of the ocean. He’d heard talk of the easygoing, tropical city of Mombasa situated on an island near the coast of Kenya.
“I have no money to get there,” he said.
“Don’t worry about that,” said Bai, putting her hand on his shoulder.
They walked back towards Zaveri Bazaar in the cool, moonlit night. By the time they reached home Anil was inclined to agree with her; Africa appeared a far better prospect than farm life as a younger brother in Gujarat.
The next day, after Hussein had gone to work, Bai secretly gave him a package. She told him that it contained her life-savings. She blessed Anil, and gave him a taweez, a talisman from a holy man to protect him from evil and disaster.
“But stay at the farm for a few months before you leave,” she said.
Back home, he told no one but his mother. When he opened the package he found a simple blue sari and a wad of cash. From then on, a woman in a blue sari would always remind him of his generous sister.
One evening after work, weeks later, he slipped away and boarded an Arab dhow at Porbunder bound for Mombasa. It was 1934. He was fourteen and carried few rupees in his pockets, an address in Old Town, and a small, battered bag. He never went back.
It was a cool, drizzly July night in Nairobi, thirty years later, when my father first talked about his visit to Mumbai. I had told him the previous night that I’d be going to Kampala to study Math at Makerere College, University of East Africa.
He spoke slowly, with unforgettable sadness, his voice thick, his speech slightly slurred. He had changed from the slim handsome father of my childhood to an enormous, prematurely aged figure. His hair had become silver and his face had turned fleshy, somewhat like his favourite actor Orson Wells.
He worked as a clerk/bookkeeper for a coffee exporting firm, a job whose only redeeming feature was that it paid better than most other clerical work. I always had the sense that he toiled away to provide for his family but he longed to be a free spirit, to lead the life of a wanderer.
When he was in a playful mood, he liked to tell jokes and often at the moment of delivering the punch line, his uncontrollable laughter would sweep you along into happiness. When he simmered with frustration, it would inevitably lead to a shocking outburst of rage.
I wished he had talked about his past earlier. It would have perhaps helped understand his enigmatic and mercurial nature.
That evening he was in an expansive frame of mind. We were sitting in the large main room of our one bedroom flat. It was split into a dining area and a living room with a bed in the corner that he slept on.
“Do you ever feel like going back?” I asked him.
He thought for a bit, looking out at the rain sputtering on the windows and then smiled his crooked smile.
“Not at all. If I’d stayed, I would probably have died by now. I would have worked for my brother or other farmers like a buffalo pushed to do his master’s bidding. I would never have travelled and learned English. Never gone elephant hunting, never watched James Mason or Orson Wells, never learned to play bridge. And never tasted good whiskey.”
“I’ve never wanted to go back, never had any regrets,” he added, “except one . . . perhaps two.”
He showed me the taweez his sister had given him. It was a silver pendant strung on a thick black thread.
“I would like to have seen my sister again, just once . . . . but I do have this around my neck. And I often wonder how Mumbai has changed.”
Much to my regret, I didn’t probe him further; particularly ask him the question “Which village did you come from?”
The past and reconnecting with his family did not seem to matter to him. I admired his courage and ability to live in the present, extracting pleasure daily from a hard life
His last words to me that evening were, “My father snatched away my chance to make something of myself . . .. I know you feel I have not been a good father and you are right in some ways, but remember I have been a much better father than your grandfather was to me. You have the chance of going to college. A degree in Mathematics will help you become a teacher. I hope your children will be doctors, lawyers, or engineers. I don’t have much money, but I’ll do the best I can to put you through university.”
I sensed he had passed on to me the endeavour of fulfilling his dreams.
Date posted: Thursday, January 23, 2014.
Copyright: M. H. Velshi. 2014.
To acquire Kindle version ($9.11) or a paperback copy ($11.66) at Amazon please click on Conversations on Three Continents.
About the author: Born in 1944 in Nairobi, Kenya, a British colony at the time, Mehboob Velshi witnessed the Mau Mau war as a young boy and became deeply interested in the tensions the tribal cultures of Africa, the caste system of the Indians and the colonial system of the British at a very young age. Just as the Mau Mau uprising ended and Kenya became an independent nation, Mehboob went to Uganda to study mathematics and later moved to England to study computer science at the University of London. He migrated to Canada in 1974.
Like all immigrants, he faced the “no Canadian experience” rite of passage but quickly secured a job for which he was considerably overqualified: that of a junior analyst at a small trust company. The company was eventually taken over by another financial company so Mehboob moved to Royal Trust, at the time Canada’s leading trust company. When it was acquired by the Royal Bank, the largest bank in Canada, he rose quickly up the corporate ladder and was promoted to Chief Technical Officer. Eventually achieving success as Senior Vice President, he finally left the corporate world in 1998.
Mehboob currently resides in Toronto, Canada, with his talented artist wife, Najma, with whom he has two grown children. Mehboob and Najma have traveled frequently across Asia as well as throughout Europe, Africa and South America. After spending considerable time touring in India, where both his and Najma’s grandparents were born, Mehboob published his memoir “Conversations on Three Continents”. He continues to consult with tech start-ups, travel and is currently working on a new novel.
To purchase the novel please click on Conversations on Three Continents.
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This is a really well written book. It reflects the stories of many of our community who connect their lives to the three continents – the Indian sub-continent, East and Southern Africa and now Europe and North America where we have resided. I am really enjoying it and can relate to many of the descriptions of life in Nairobi pre and post independence especially life on Grogan Road.
“To Canada…” from Africa, boarding a KLM flight one-way to Our Lady of Snow, that was so long ago, only this beautiful, poignant recollection of conversations has awakened the sights and sounds and fragrances which had remained behind, in the timeless tapestry of Africa.
Back then, it was the better way out, perhaps the best way, to build an education, a career, and a place to call a permanent home. Had I stayed, or even returned after I came to Canada, who would I have become? Maybe a mazdoor! Similarly, I never wanted to go back, never had regrets, except perhaps to pay my profoundly felt respect to those special, wonderful individuals who inspired in my soul love and affection for the incomparable gift. From Africa.