Unsung diaspora
Himmat Singh Gill

From Jhelum to Tana by Neera Kapur-Dromsom. Penguin Books. Pages 433. Rs 395.

The Punjabis are known for their intrepid spirit and answering the call of the unknown by venturing across the seven seas in pursuit of making a better livelihood. Accounts of the early migration of the Sikh predominant peasantry to the Imperial Valley in California or the perilous sail across the oceans by Gurdit Singh and his fearless band of men in the Komagata Maru to Canada, where the Western Pacific Railway awaited their long hours of labour and toil, are of course well documented by now.

What is not so well chronicled is the early settlement of the Punjabi community from erstwhile undivided India in the dying years of the 19th century to Kenya in British East Africa, than a British Protectorate and later a Colony, emerging from the turbulence of the First and Second World Wars to eventual independence from the British rule and self-rule by their own people. Kapur, a fourth generation Kenyan of Indian origin goes deep into her family albums and stories left behind by word of mouth, to the days when her ancestor Kirparam boarded a dhow from Karachi in 1898 from his home town of Bhera (now in Pakistan) and landed in Mombassa where he immediately got down to work in laying the Mombassa-Nairobi rail line and eventually becoming a canteen contractor and a dukanwalla (shop owner) of some consequence. This is a story of four generations that ultimately awoke to the truth that "in future, where you live will become a matter of choice, traditions will not prevent you from integrating".

Actually, this is not only a story of Kirparam, Hiralal, Lajpat Rai, Krishanlal, Chunilal or Hardei, the wife that Kirparam had left behind in Punjab who later joined him on her own will but a saga of all Indian immigrants who ventured worldwide in the beginning of the last century and half and made these countries their new home, and yet clung on to their ancestral roots for as long as was possible. And even more this is an engrossing account of an Asian and native African divide mostly engineered by the British, where they aimed to wean away the latter from their cultural and religious moorings to a western way of life deeply grooved in Christianity. When in the middle of the last century Jomo Kenyatta took over as President, many of the Indian origin had either returned to India or taken the British citizenship. The most readable parts in this first book by one who is thoroughly conversant with Punjabi are those that describe the hardships faced by workers completing the railway line to Nairobi, where dysentery, lack of clean drinking water and being carried away by hungry lions at night formed just a few of the occupational hazards that these pioneers faced: "attracted by food, safari ants often raided the tents and food stores. Some nights, snakes slithered into the tents".

The racial apartheid where the white skinned (the British and those remnants of the Boer War) settled up in the cool highlands and the Indians in the plains or the midlands mostly in Indian bazaars without any sanitation was only too evident to the Indians who had flocked in providing a cheaper labour force and eager to make their profit in trade and dukans catering to the daily needs of the time. Yet there were many who were not that docile, like Makhan Singh, general secretary of the East African trade union movement, who spoke up for the workers and continued to bother the officialdom until he was packed off to some remote corner of the Protectorate.

In tracing her family lineage, Kapur has uncovered a large slice of the travails of the early Indian diaspora in Kenya, and perhaps underlined the irony of it all where the younger generations who are often so critical of the elders often reap a rich harvest from what others have earlier sown with so much diligence and care. Having travelled in the country and familiar with the landscape setting that Kapur has now so beautifully woven in her memoir, one can only say that her realism and down-to-earth unpretentious writing, mirrors ample promise in a budding new writer. Penguin India must, however, improve their book binding, since the pages of Kapurís book keep coming off on their own all the time.