I am one of those Indians who are the subject of Sana Aiyar’s book. My association with Kenya coincides roughly with the period she covers, my grandfather arriving in the 1890s, while I left Kenya for all intents and purposes when I went to study in the United Kingdom in 1966. Reading Aiyar’s book, its scholarly tone notwithstanding, was for me an emotional journey.

Before I came to my senses, I felt a surge of incredulous anger at Shiva Naipaul’s comment, quoted in the first paragraph of the introduction, that Indians were a “shadowy” presence …“just there”. Naipaul’s comment, as I soon realised, was made in 1976, over a decade after Uhuru, when Indians had left Kenya in large numbers – 28% of the entire Indian population between 1962 and 1968, according to Aiyar’s figures, forming what she calls a “voluntary” exodus.

A Kenyan Asian (a term Aiyar eschews for reasons she explains) might well take issue with both the “voluntary” and the grouping of the years (Asians did not leave Kenya in numbers, as did Europeans, with the declaration of Uhuru in 1963). These are minor issues, however, although they bear on the nature of the commitment of Indians to Kenya.

The Kenya of my youth was overwhelmingly Indian. We were the people who poured out of offices and places of business at closing time. Our names were on all the big shops on Government Road in Nairobi and all down the length of the Indian Bazaar and into the main municipal market. River Road was infested with us. We were the shopkeepers, the artisans, the clerks, the contractors, the mechanics, the bankers, businessmen, accountants, lawyers, doctors, teachers and civil servants.

Identity and homeland

I went to an almost exclusively Indian (Goan) school in Eastleigh, where many poor Indians lived. The teachers were almost all Goan but the school was run by two Irish nuns, who retired daily to the more salubrious surrounds of their convent, where their order of nuns ran another school which, until self-government broke down the barriers of segregation, was closed to non-Europeans.

Before I too went to this school, Europeans were a marginal presence in my life. Africans were a vast subterranean sea, there to serve and not be seen, and to be feared for their numbers and latent might.

Quoting Marjorie Ruth Dilley, my father comments in his political biography Brown Man, Black Country – a book of which Aiyar makes extensive and intelligent use – that the Kenya into which he was born (in 1908) “had already been infected by the virus of racial prejudice and had already become the scene of racial conflict”.

The Kenya in which I was born, four decades later, was deeply divided along racial lines. The Indian political discourse of this time, in which my father was much involved and where Africans and Indians found a common enemy if not always common issues, was that of equal representation, civil liberties and non-racism.

Steeped in these doctrines as well as what Aiyar describes as the “civilisational discourse” in which Indians retained their attachment to India and perceived themselves as bearers of great benefits in the development of Kenya, my father dedicated his book (written in the 1970s) “to the Indians of Kenya – owed so much, repaid so ill”.

I approached Aiyar’s book with a great deal of prejudice, thinking there was not much more to be said on the tired subject of Indians or Asians in Kenya and that she was simply making academic capital by forcing an old horse into new shoes, namely diaspora and diasporic consciousness.

I was wrong.

Aiyar gave me a new language and a more secure understanding in which long-standing emotional and intellectual issues could be resolved. She quotes (among many beautifully selected quotes in her imaginatively and well–researched material) the poem with which my father prefaces his book.

It is entitled To the African: No Guest am I. It is easy to see that this fits well into Aiyar’s analysis of identity and homeland. With this analysis in mind, I could understand for the first time that my father had two homelands – India and Kenya – whereas I had only one, if any.

Aiyar’s avowed purpose in her book is to bring Indians in Kenya out of the shadows and to correct the imbalance in “studies of colonial and postcolonial Kenya that are concerned primarily with black and white politics”. She claims that “[w]orks that do consider the history of Indians in Kenya have focused almost exclusively on Indian business”, substantiating this with a note that lists 12 books and studies published between 1983 and 2005.

Further, she describes “scholarship” that renders “diasporic politics as belonging to a single homeland, India, with little attention to their engagement within the Indian Ocean littoral”. She continues:

“Building on this scholarship, this book [Indians in Kenya] moves our narrative focus beyond Indians’ extraterritorial connections that looked east to India to include a second homeland [Kenya] to which Indians made territorial and generational claims.”

Myth of solidarity

My endogamous and separate life in Kenya was the thin surface that overlay the entanglements of Indian and African political and economic engagement in Kenya that Sana Aiyar traces with consummate skill, building up and exploding the “myth” of Indo-African solidarity with repeated reminders of the material inequality that separated Indians and Africans and of conflicting interests that undermined cooperation in the political sphere.

In his review of my father’s book, the well-known Indian journalist MV Kamath drew attention to the abortive coup in Nairobi in 1982, when “the first target of the people was the Kenyan of Indian origin”.

Kamath asks the question we might all ask: why was this so in a country like Kenya, in view of the struggle for racial equality articulated by the East African Indian Congress over the years, the notable instances of Indian assistance for and advocacy of African causes, the multi-racialism of the trade union movement led by Makhan Singh and, not least, the “debt” owed to Indians for the political activism of the 1920s that led to the articulation of the doctrine of native paramountcy, saving Kenya from official acceptance of white supremacy as enacted further south.

File photo of the Kenya Legislative Council | Image provided by author.

One response to the question is that of Pierre van den Berghe (in the second edition of A Portrait of a Minority, edited by Dharam Ghai and Yash Ghai and published in 1970): “To be Asian in Africa is to be always wrong. Hopes that this state of affairs might change after independence in East Africa have not materialised. In politics, when Asians collaborated with the Europeans they were blocking African aspirations; when they sided with Africans, as they frequently did, they were being opportunists in anticipation of independence …”

Van den Berge further comments on “the powerless Asians whose worst crimes were a bit of cultural snobbery and some sharp business practices such as are inherent in any system of private enterprise”.

In her more complex analysis of the “powerless Asian”, specifically in her second chapter, “‘Civilization’ in Kenya”, Aiyar describes the attempt by the Colonial Office in 1930 to break the trading monopoly of the ubiquitous dukkawallah in order to advance the interests of African petty traders.

The attempt in this context to limit Indian immigration failed (because of the intervention of the imperial government of India) as did efforts to break up the relationship between Indian retailers and Indian wholesalers / exporters. This tight Indian trading network included a system of credit to which aspirant African traders did not have equal access.

Dukkawallahs in Kenya served not only as suppliers of goods to African consumers in small and affordable amounts but as purchasers of African produce such as maize and beans. In both respects, they were the most visible target of the discontent of African consumers and suppliers if also their immediate benefactors. (Aiyar quotes more than once the Swahili proverb to the effect that “the Indian trader is evil but his shoes are medicine”.)

The removal of the dukakawalla, as Aiyar demonstrates, was not the solution to securing African advancement in 1930, which lay, rather, in increasing African agricultural productivity by alleviating land scarcity and improving methods of production and by a more just system of taxation which would not impose such heavy constraints on the purchasing power of the ordinary African.

The duality ever-present in Aiyar’s narrative emerges again in this context:

“In emphasising the extent to which Indian traders stimulated rather than stunted African economic development, Indians within the Congress and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry made developmental claims on the colony in demanding political and economic rights. They pointed to the aspirational status of Indians, arguing that their material wealth was within the reach of Africans. In so doing they marked Indians as civilizationally different and superior, even as they sought racial solidarity with their fellow non-Europeans.”

Political divisions

In “Negotiating Nationhood”, the penultimate chapter of the book, Aiyar describes the River Road “race riot” of 1959, on the eve of the Lancaster House Conference, which escalated from an incident on December 20, 1959 “when an Indian motorist knocked down an allegedly intoxicated African man on the busy intersection of Duke Street and River Road”.

Various strands in Aiyar’s narrative come together in this incident, including accumulated African resentment of Indians, the legacy of violence and savagery associated with Africans after Mau Mau, and the political divisions arising between Indians and Africans on the verge of nationhood. What I found striking, meanwhile, was her description of the Indian sense of victimhood.

She wrote: “Outside the Legislative Council, in letters to the editor, Indian residents of Nairobi made it clear that they considered the River Road skirmishes a race riot in which Indians were the only victims. They too politicised the incident, using it to criticise the KFP’s [the non-racial Kenya Freedom Party, which merged with the Kenya African National Union when the latter finally opened its doors to non-Africans] political stand of ‘undiluted democracy’.”

My father, as Aiyar points out, was among those who opposed “undiluted democracy”. Here I must object to Aiyar’s simplistic rendering of my father’s position as a reversal of his earlier stand and an embrace of a communal, as opposed to common, voters’ roll.

My father’s professed intention was to delay not to dilute democracy, to allow for the growth of multi-racial political parties that would fairly represent the interests of all “Kenyans”. That nationhood would not develop in tandem with freedom in an independent Kenya was a reality that was becoming apparent not only to Indians.

Indians in Kenya is a book that everyone who was and is an “Asian” in Kenya should read. All the more so if the “Kenyan Asian” is now becoming, at last, a “Kenyan”, as the introductory chapter to Indians in Kenya posits in the wake of the 2013 Westgate Mall incident, when Indian and African men and women “embracing in empathy” formed ‘a moving picture of the triumph of humanity over inhumane acts’ and “Kenyans came together, irrespective of their colour or citizenship”. The 2009 census recorded no fewer than 71,891 Indians resident in Kenya. Of these, half were citizens.

Climate of mistrust

The issue of citizenship (and the consequent issuance of work permits) became one of critical importance after Uhuru, with the government creating a climate of mistrust and fear by repeatedly delaying the processing of thousands of applications for citizenship by Asians (something that Aiyar neglects to mention).

As it transpired, citizenship, or the denial of it, was less a statement of identification with the country than a clever ploy by the Kenyatta government to create immediate employment and trading opportunities for Africans and to distract attention from a commitment to a capitalist agenda that failed to address the real issues of poverty and inequality and was being increasingly opposed by socialist elements. There are echoes here of the 1930 attempts to oust the Indians as a quick-fire solution without engaging with the real issues.

In this fairly brief review, I feel have not done justice to what Ayesha Jamal (quoted on the back cover of Indians in Kenya) describes as Aiyar’s “intrepid research in multiple archives”. Isabel Hofmeyer describes the book as “elegantly written […] in a stylish narrative with a compelling cast of characters” – a comment that is amply substantiated by the book and is not something one normally expects of a scholarly text. In Aiyar’s own words, the book “emerged from over a decade of learning and unlearning, curiosity and intransigence, verbosity and reticence”.

It is not surprising to discover that Aiyar, who hails from Delhi, has herself joined the great Indian diaspora. She now lives and learns in the United States of America and, presumably, is finding a “home” there. Her book is an important addition to scholarship and is a compelling narrative for the many Indians who have found and failed to find a home in Kenya and for other diasporans entangled in global crossings.

This article first appeared on AwaaZ.

Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora

Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora, Sana Aiyar, Harvard University Press.