In her book Mythologies of Migration, Miriam Pirbhai details the two kinds of migration that the Indian diaspora in Africa experienced. The journey to Africa, and then the second migration of the many who left in exile or were forced out.  Stories of these migrations, the building of a new life in a different land and – as may have happened – its subsequent loss is what makes up the fiction narrated by the diaspora, in Mauritius and east Africa.

Long time Indian settlers in east Africa – the countries largely making up Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda – shared the idealism of their fellow Africans when independence came in the 1960s. A decade later, following political instability, this community saw some displacement and several writers, inevitably among the first to be stifled in times of political control, chose a life in exile.

Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, is part of Africa and yet separate in several ways, not merely geographically.

In the 1760s, the traveller Mirza Sheikh I’tesamuddin, sailing from Calcutta to London, stopped in Mauritius, where he noticed the presence of people who spoke languages he was familiar with: Bengali and some Persian too.  The Indian presence in Mauritius, largely in the form of indentured labour in its sugar plantations, grew after slavery was officially abolished in Britain’s colonies in 1835. But even earlier, as I’tesamuddin’s travel account mentions, there were the lascars (seamen) who had settled here, as well as slaves, now free, who had been brought from Bengal as well as Madras by the Dutch and even the French.

Mauritius moved from Dutch hands to the French before it became a British colony in 1810, the understanding being that French would be retained as the official language. Today, Mauritius is largely French speaking, and Mauritian Creole (kreol) is now spoken by 90 per cent of the populace, which makes Deepchand Beeharry’s story all the more intriguing.

Writing Solo

A descendant of one of the many indentured labourers who travelled on “girmit” to Mauritius in the early 19th century, Deepchand Beeharry, who died in  2010, chose to write in English, despite being conversant in many languages, to highlight the experience of people like him and their history. Writers in English in Mauritius occupy a difficult space.  They are few in number, primarily because of limited opportunities of being published in English. In the vibrant space that language occupies in Mauritius, English battles for constant space with the more widely spoken French, Chinese, Bhojpuri, and even Mauritian Creole.

Beeharry wrote his seminal work That Others Might Live in 1976. It was published in Delhi, for he hoped this story would find wider resonance in India. It is a novel that looks at the lives of three Indians from different regions, who came to Mauritius in entirely different circumstances, two of them as indentured labourers and the third, Thomas, who goes to work for a missionary.

In many ways, Beeharry’s book is a precursor to Amitav Ghosh’s The Sea of Poppies.  It is a story that begins on a ship – detailing the journey across the “kala pani”, a journey that gives rise to a lexicon entirely its own – and also ends in one.  The three, Thomas, Dinesh and Manish, arrive in Mauritius, after which their lives take on entirely different trajectories.

Thomas goes to work for a vicar, Manish is on a secret search for his father, who escaped at the height of the repression that followed the British victory in 1857, and Dhiren is seeking a way out of poverty in his new life in the sugar plantations. He soon joins an agitation led by an eccentric planter Antoine de Plevitz (apparently a real-life historical figure) and is implicated on false charges.  And following the tragedy of his death, the woman he is engaged to be married to throws herself into the sea from a ship returning home.

Educated in Benaras and also at the Vishwa Bharati University, and possessing an equal felicity in Hindi and English, Beeharry was also a long-time contributor to the Mauritius Times. A younger generation of writers of Indian origin, such as Ananda Devi, Natacha Appanah and Barleen Pyamootoo, as Pirbhai writes, have  recreated in their writings these lost stories of the indentured labourers, although in French.

Abhimanyu Unnuth, a contemporary of Beeharry’s, is a poet, novelist, and playwright who also took the conscious choice, like Beeharry, to write in a language he preferred – Hindi.  His work has received new prominence following the work on him by scholar Rashi Rohatgi.  His Kaiktus ke Daant (The Teeth of the Cactus), is a work of poetry set in the sugar plantations and draws on several stories from Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas – a book that settlers from eastern UP and Bihar were familiar with.  His book too was published in Delhi, for he sought to reach out to the home country, but with varying success.

Writers in exile

The Indian presence in East Africa predates the arrival of colonial settlers by decades and centuries.  Mainly a trading presence at first, Indians soon made up large numbers among the workers (in the railways), petty merchants and shopkeepers, and increasingly, lower and middle level bureaucrats.  From their ranks came writers like Peter Nazareth, a novelist and a much-feted professor at the Iowa Writing Program, who worked first in the Ugandan bureaucracy till he became one of the many Asians ordered to leave by Idi Amin’s infamous order of 1972, and Abraham Verghese, who lived in Ethiopia as a teenager. Verghese’s parents were teachers there but the family left following the instability that followed the collapse of Haile Selassie’s monarchy in the early 1970s.

While their fiction has also been about the marginalised, as Indians felt their “outsider” status keenly despite years of belonging, it is also one that has seen, in ironical ways, the overarching influence of the master Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Bahadur Tejani, who is considered to have written the first Indian novel in English from east Africa, acknowledges his debt to Ngugi. It was in a conference of East African literatures in 1971 where Ngugi made the impassioned appeal for a cohesive African literature. In many ways, then, Indian writing in English became subsumed by this literature, which was also a conscious political act of charting a new identity for Africans, with writers playing a leading role. But the political events of the 1970s affected both Indian writers and the literature of this region, in ways still being understood now.

Tejani’s Day After Tomorrow (1971) is somewhat polemical, but passionate in its commitment to seeking unity among different communities in Africa. It begins by telling us how the “brown men” carry with them the burden of the past and their yearnings for a different world.  This is embodied in Shamsher’s story and follows him from childhood to youth.

His father is one of the “weparis” or settler-traders, keen to teach his children his own trade. But the children only long to be “free” of this tyranny.   Shamsher notes the differences, the distance that must be maintained from the people who come to his father’s shop, such as the peasants who come to sell their produce, i.e. the Masais, the Waturus and other ethnic African groups.

He also notes the ill-treatment accorded to them: the Africans are considered third-class passengers on board a steamer, and he promises himself never to exploit another but to stand up for them instead. Interracial love appears in some of the stories he wrote later from his years in the US, Obamawala: Tales of Hope and Harmony.

Verghese, who now teaches medicine at Stanford University, set his Cutting for Stone  in Ethiopia. It appeared in 2009, almost three decades after he chose to leave the country to study medicine in Madras.  Moving from Ethiopia to New York, it is a remarkable story of lives divided by politics and reunited in strange circumstances, detailing, in the process, the need for compassion and empathy that is a must in the medical profession.

Twins Shiva and Marion are orphaned when young – their mother dies on giving birth and their father, an Englishman, abandons them soon after.  As they grow up, brought up by an Indian couple, both Marion and Shiva are drawn to Genet, the daughter of their domestic help. When politics intervenes, Marion is forced to flee to the US, while Genet joins militants working to rid Ethiopia of authoritarian rule.

Two of Nazareth’s novels are set in Uganda. But while The General Is Up was written in 1992, when Nazareth was already in the US, his first, In a Brown Mantle, written in 1971, mirrors in prescient ways the rise of a dictator and the expulsion that follows.

But even before this denouement,  Joseph D’Souza, the protagonist who is originally from Goa and a civil servant like Nazareth was himself, finds himself observing the compromises people in his situation invariably make as Damibia (like Uganda) is headed for independence.  D’Souza finds himself somehow falling in with the manipulative politician Robert Kyeyune and the former’s compromises with the system are in contrast to his more idealistic friend Pius who lives in neighbouring Azingwe. Pius had dreamt of a united East Africa that would see a brotherhood of different communities but he is assassinated for holding such beliefs.

Among MG Vassanji’s several novels, The In Between World of Vikram Lall stands out as a detailed fictionalisation of relations between Indians and Africans.  In Nakuru, a town in  Kenya, it begins with the childhood friendship between Vikram and his sister Deepa, the boy Njoroge and the British children, Bill and Annie. When the Mau Mau rebels strike, and Vikram sees a terrible tragedy as the whites are attacked, the Indian family moves to Nairobi.

A decade later, when Kenyan nationalists led by Jomo Kenyatta come to power, Njoroge seeks out Deepa but their affair is frowned on not merely by her parents but by the wider community.  For his own survival, Vikram comes to work for the new government, turning a blind eye, and giving in, to corruption.  The end couldn’t be more tragic, as Njo’s enemies plot his downfall, and the Indian family’s innate conservatism plays a role.

The women writers

These concerns about the divides in East African society appear also in the works of two women writers who, like the others, left their home countries for the West.  One of Yasmin Ladha’s stories in Lion’s Granddaughter and Other Stories is told from the point of a view of a child narrator and is about her father bullying their African houseboy because he hates the Tanzanian President Nyerere’s policies, and how this abuse exists along with his fantasies of making out with an African woman.  Ladha was born in Tanzania, and left for Canada in the late 1970s, and her stories feature strong minded women drawn from her own Gujarati ancestry.

Such stories of hostilities within one’s community, of yearnings and contradictions imposed by multiple identities within a single self, also appear in Jameela Siddiqi’s novel The Feast of the Nine Virgins.  One of the sections here is told from the point of view of Brat, an eight-year-old who notes her Indian mother’s snobbishness towards the Mohanjis, a shopkeeping family. The only thing the mother does appear to like about them is their cuisine. The other characters who populate this novel tell of the many different Indian lives that once thrived in East Africa and the different turns their lives took.