In 1936, a stranger rode into town, said he was from Karachi but had lived for years in London and had arrived in Kampala a
topiwallah – a gent in a hat. He impressed the small-town people, some of whom had never even been on the steamers coming and going on Lake Victoria. This was my father, Kassim Damji, briefly in Mwanza for a business deal. Jena was only sixteen. She caught his eye as she swept the yard, contentedly singing songs of praise. He stopped, took off his trilby, stared and fidgeted until she noticed and ran in, leaving her flip-flops in the sun.
Compulsively impulsive, he proposed marriage. Popat accepted on Jena’s behalf – one less mouth to feed, and the stranger was impressively decisive. There were no in-laws or dowries to worry about.
Kassim was sixteen years older than Jena, an urbane international traveller, manager of an English car firm. What he thought he would do with this girl with a broom I don’t know. By the time of Popat’s death at forty-five, both men felt regret and guilt about the hasty nuptials.
Despite the Depression, Popat had sent Jena to school until she was fifteen. (In time her literacy would keep us from destitution.)
Kassim, a tireless advocate of female education, was proud that his young wife loved books. When age wore out her eyes, she said she missed reading more than anything else. Extraordinarily, our Imam, Aga Khan III, grandfather of the present Aga Khan, had called for female emancipation and education as early as 1910, long before the sluggish, powerful men in the West, for whom the status quo seemed good enough to last forever. The Imam wrote, ‘No progressive thinker today will challenge the claim that the social advancement and general well-being of communities are greater where women are least debarred, by artificial barriers and narrow prejudices, from taking their full part as citizens.’ Throughout his imamate, Ismaili mosques were instructed to protect and educate girls and women. 2
In his erudite book on the Ismailis, Farhad Daftary detailed other achievements of this Aga Khan, known in the West only for his love of girls and horses and the aristocratic lifestyle: ‘He created a variety of institutions with their benefits accruing not only to his own followers but to non-Ismailis as well. He founded and maintained a large network of schools, vocational institutions, libraries, sports and recreational clubs, dispensaries and hospitals in East Africa and the Indo-Pakistan continent and elsewhere.’
I look back in awe at the audacity of this leader, his use of personal power to drive through progressive ideas, to free my people from superstition and oppressive values. Misogynists and misanthropist Muslim leaders of the twenty-first century want to use theirs to push Muslims into a new dark age. To them we Ismailis are wretched infidels. The present Aga Khan carries on the delicate task of balancing cultural evolution and inviolable tenets of faith. I am wary of the adulation given to a living being by our masses and the principle of inherited privilege – both inherent in our imamate – but in the emerging global clash between viciously Talibanized Muslims and reformists like the Ismailis, I know where I must stand. 3
My father had first migrated to England from undivided India in his youth for reasons he kept secret. There was a family row; he was angry about something and fled his family home in Karachi. He never saw his parents again. He had also been excommunicated for rages against religion, too much of a rebel even for our soft and usually relaxed congregations. Papa expressed no regrets, told us no stories of his childhood and family, and so my paternal grandparents disappeared into the ether, nameless, formless, unforgiven and denied a place in our lives. My mother made one visit to Karachi with my brother, only a baby. Her in-laws apparently adored her and couldn’t understand why she had wasted herself on the bad boy of the family. She wrote to my father’s brother, sisters and their children, sent gifts when she could afford it, as did my brother. Papa never gave a damn. During some of their most wounding rows, my mother would scream in Gujarati, the language they spoke to each other, ‘I lost my parents and I still miss them and you killed yours while they lived. You are monstrously unfeeling, care about your shoe polish more than your own mother.’
In the years before he made his dramatic appearance in Africa, Papa had lived as a brown sahib in Britain at a time when the country was almost wholly white, class-ridden and puffed up with imperial pride. As a child enchanted by the two blondes Goldilocks and Cinderella, I pestered him to tell me more about that magical place – England. He dismissed my entreaties – glass slippers and fairy rubbish made him contemptuous – reminiscing instead about the bracing beaches at Poole in Dorset, London’s cold and copious libraries, and the palaces of Westminster. In 1932, he had witnessed the crowds cheering Mahatma Gandhi in London and couldn’t understand why such a clever lawyer was dressed like ‘an ignorant peasant’. Around this time he also had seen Paul Robeson as Othello at the Savoy Theatre and followed the furore caused by a black actor touching and kissing Peggy Ashcroft on stage. A
Times reader (of course), Papa was unprepared for the exposure of middle-class racism in the Letters pages as provoked theatre patrons slammed the audacious production, Robeson and Ashcroft, and it shook him up. (In 1966, another such furore on another stage would blow back that memory and blast our lives.) These few fragments of information were all he shared. Yet England made him the man he was.
Kassim was the perfect Edwardian gent: disapproved of sentimentality, held in his emotions, wore good English tailored suit and hats, had a fine appreciation of wines and whiskies, was fond of books and classic English cars, liked to order delicate beef consommés, melba toast and perfectly coddled eggs. But he also had the restless, impatient soul of a free-wheeling bohemian and could never be placated or tamed or bent to follow rules. (I have his restive spirit, my son his fierce independence.) His new wife must have found him alarmingly inconsistent.
In 1937, fortunes were picking up again, and
Kassim took his young bride to Kampala (such tears were shed as she left her brother’s family). And so it began, this long marriage of misfits. Mum confronted tribulations, then immortalized them as achingly funny yarns. He carried on with his wayward ways. The world, he felt, never understood his brand of genius. There were grim times, some catastrophes, but like most other wedded couples of that era, habits, mores, familiarity and invisible ties kept them from separating. Our languages didn’t have words for divorce until the 1950s. They used the English word, only mispronounced as ‘die-worse’ – perhaps subliminally describing what they thought of the act of marital severance. Jena said she sort of grew to understand her husband; certainly there was time enough to do so: ‘He was not a bad man, just too careless. Poor Kassim, not able to be a good husband. But he never stopped me working, going out, having friends. I did what I wanted.’ My mother had feminism thrust upon her.
In the very first month of their marriage,
Kassim took Jena to the cinema, stepped out to buy cigarettes, forgot he had a bewildered girl-wife, wandered off home distractedly and went to bed. It was an omen of things to come. From that day on, she always went on her own to picture houses full of united clans and protective husbands. She took time to dress up and splashed on so much perfume, she smelled like a boudoir camellia. It helped to keep pity at bay. Incredibly hard-working, at one time she was doing three jobs – cooking, teaching and sewing – to keep the family from penury. After her second child, a daughter, was born in 1939, Jena banished Kassim from the marital bed, for both their sakes, she said.
I only have three photographs of them in the early years, each looking lonely as they jointly stare at the camera. She was beautiful, with intense dark eyes and a full, kissable, soft mouth. He was tall and lanky then, with an impatient, slightly arrogant demeanour and big ears which look like they could fan down his feverish brain.
The capital was growing fast, filling up with rural people who had had enough of the isolated
dukan life. The most resilient refused to move. There was just too much money to be made in places where one shop had the monopoly, was the only supplier of goods and services. Some told me they believed a day would come when there would be no need to toil, but many rarely reached that point. Small shopkeepers rarely do. Baden-Powell told a good story about tiny dukans ready to supply anything and everything to white customers:
Our village shop belongs to an Indian and it would be hard to find anything he doesn’t sell there. I tried to get a Wilkinson’s razor blade, a rather rare article, but he had them all right. A lady came in for groceries and clothes she wanted. He had them all. This encouraged her to ask; ‘Have you got such a thing as a parrot?’ ‘Certainly, madam. Grey or green?’ And she took a green one home with her.
They knew how to please customers and were even more skilful at entrapping their desires. Africans were commercial innocents, and the
dukanwallahs were smooth operators who could lure the most resistant tribes. One witness described a memorable interaction:
During heavy rains the Masai were moving thousands of sheep from one pasture to another and were met on the banks of a drift by this enterprising pioneer with a wagon-load of umbrellas. He induced one or two of the leaders to use his umbrellas and soon sold the whole lot for a sheep – if not two – apiece. After this the incongruous sight could often be seen of a perfectly naked Masai herdsman holding up an umbrella in one hand and a spear in the other.
Prejudices against this small commercial race and class, ever present, were stoked up by white colonialists in the inter-war years, which had the effect of making the shopkeepers even more determined to increase their numbers – ten, twelve children per family were common – and profits, which in turn made whites and blacks turn more hostile. Official publications and books by white settlers described Indians as ‘unsanitary’, a curse, economic parasites:
The Indian is prepared to live on next to nothing and make a small profit on small wares. Profits are sent straight back to Bombay. The Englishman endeavours to make money by developing the resources of the country but the Indian’s wish is to drain it of whatever wealth exists… They are drawn from the most undesirable class in India. Their style of life is very low scale, which makes them unfair competition. In squalid conditions, ignoring sanitary precautions, they are often a danger to the community. Typhoid, smallpox, and the plague were unknown in East Africa before the Indian came.
On the other hand, there were always some whites who chose not to join the clubs of racist imperialism.
World War II put both Asians and Africans in an unenviable position. The Germans were in Tanganyika, while Britons were never sure if their black and brown East African subjects were loyal to the Allies (most were). There were false accusations, punitive summary punishments and an atmosphere of fear, especially in the lakeside ports like Mwanza and in rural posts along the railway line. The Germans were even worse. Jena said they would hear such stories of frightened
dukanwallahs who were beaten up and tortured because they were suspected of collaboration. Some were killed: ‘They were small people, always afraid, trying to hide so everybody stamped on them as if they were ants.’
Back in Mother India, rumours had grown that her plucky children across the waters were losing touch. Without godly rules and the incomparable power of social disapproval, the fear was they would become ‘
junglees’ and spend all their money on worldly pleasures instead of on temples and mosques. So we got an influx of the bearded ones – pundits, gurus, mullahs. A handful had the sacred glint in their sympathetic eyes, but the rest were bogus. Anyone who claimed to know the right way ‘thoroughly, through and through’ was given free passage – super second class – on the SS Karanja or Bombay and invited to lodge in homes where there were no unmarried daughters. God’s emissaries were necessary for a comfortable afterlife but not good enough for the children of steadily prospering merchants.
Society started to become mindful of the afterlife, careful and conformist in matters of religious practice. The voyager-moralists made up new rules to exert petty power; they had to show some returns on investments. ‘Kalyug’ arrived, a warning of another age of darkness and shamelessness that would presage the end of the cosmos. Some of the creeps got fattened and spoiled by families anxious for blessings to cover the many years they had lived without due respect for stricture or scripture. This was their last-chance saloon, really, the final phase of proxy attachment before they became hybrid creatures of no fixed address.
By the time I was a child in the early 1950s, the religious brigade was well settled in. I remember the
bhajans sounding forth from temples, the early call of the muezzins before you could easily open sticky eyes, church bells all day on Sundays, radio stations badgering you about this and that religious duty. Dee Auntie, a Parsee family friend, had a holy hanger-on living in the house. She was a widow, and although she suspected he was ripping her off, she didn’t dare eject him in case he wasn’t. His fingernails were filthy, his teeth a greeny yellow. After initiation into the faith as children, all Parsees have to wear the kushti (sacred thread) and sudra (a muslin vest). This priest believed that to clean the vest was sacrilege; it was one of many bans he issued, written in red ink on half-pages torn from Dee Auntie’s housekeeping-accounts book. He slurped hot, sweet masala chai with his meals and always lunged first at the food as it arrived. This lady was famous for her dhansak, a sweet, spicy mix of meat, vegetables and dhals. She always made it for us as this was one of the few dishes my mum couldn’t ever make better than the original.