The conspiracy of free men

‘…It is not always the same events but the emotional impact of events that accounts for literary authenticity. But for the creative felicity available to a writer, his writing will, despite possessing absolutely correct factual details, fail to be creatively substantial.’

– “On Writing Sleepwalkers: Some Remarks by Joginder Paul” (Sleepwalkers, Joginder Paul. Trans. By Sunil Trivedi and Sukrita Paul Kumar.)

Joginder Paul’s Land Lust (Niyogi Books, 2019), edited by poet and critic Sukrita Paul Kumar and author and translator Vandana R. Singh, is a collection of 11 stories translated from the Urdu (Dharti ka Kaal, 1961) by Keerti Ramachandra, Chandana Dutta, Vandana R. Singh, Usha Nagpal and Meenakshi Bharat. Set in British controlled, multi-racial Kenya of the 1950s, the stories explore facets of the implicit exploitativeness of colonial rule, the attitude of Indians towards the Kenyans in whose country they reside, and the complex immigrant identity that underlies this attitude. 

Born in Sialkot, now in Pakistan, Joginder Paul (1925-2016) migrated to India in 1947. Shortly afterwards, he left India to settle down in Kenya. A refugee between two parts of a sundered subcontinent, fresh from the experience of being a colonial subject, he migrated to a country still under the colonial thumb. The experience was similar, as were its obvious socio-economic and emotional ramifications. The writer was in a unique position – to draw upon cultural and personal memory of colonial rule and to observe its continuing reverberations in a new country, a position that lends to the complexity of the narrative voice in these stories.

Exploiters everywhere are the same; the exploited react variously. In Land Lust, the narrative voice is complex, layered in its responses to the manifestations of this exploiter-exploited equation. It is also empathetic, introspective, and thus, while those who live off the land and its people seem to merge into one another, the natives stand out in their responses to these people. This is ironical, because the privileged would desire the very opposite for those they try to demean, abuse, dehumanise and thus negate at every turn. 

The issue of land – by extension landscape, belonging and ownership – and of identity underlines much migrant experience. Remembered landscapes form a viscerally visual element of the memory of one’s land, the longing for it. Stories and myths arise from this visual memory that often compares the land of belonging to the land of migration. In Land Lust, this works in two ways: for the Indian who has migrated from India to a land that neither holds them nor ceases to amaze them; for the native Kenyan for whom the landscape metamorphoses from the familiar countryside into glittering cities whose mechanics they barely understand. The longing for remembered landscapes and the need to accept the new reality creates a kind of tug and pull that affects one’s attitude to the other. In these stories, this effect materialises as disdain for the people of the adopted country seen in the Indians as well as the colonial rulers. 

In ‘Jambo Rafiqui’, a new train line is being laid between Mombasa and Nairobi, the tracks cut through the heart of virgin forests, labour is provided by Indian coolies, and later by the ‘Africans’, whose lives and emotions are inconsequential. ‘How servile these Indian coolies are! Loyal and servile,’ says an Englishman. ‘Yes, just like my pet dog,’ responds his colleague. ‘But, in fact, their loyalty is a validation of the efficacy of our system. When one is dependent on a competent system, initially he may grumble and make angry noises, but eventually loyalty becomes a habit with him.’ 

‘You are right there. I am certain that once our system starts to operate successfully here, our African friends will also give up their animal-like ways and become loyal on their own eventually’

– (“Jambo Rafiqui”, translated by Usha Nagpal).

The stories of colonial India could as well be transposed to the palette of this country. Yet, those who were colonised till recent years seem to have forgotten the experience, the humiliation, or perhaps have brought their own experience to bear on another country. “The Slump” (Manda, translated by Chandana Dutta) is set in the United Club of Nairobi. The setting and the characters are equally relevant to colonial era clubs anywhere in India.

The patrons of the United Club of Nairobi took great pleasure in being known as affluent intellectuals…

According to the rules of the club, people of all races and communities could become its members. But, in truth, the blacks were represented only by the club’s African waiters. At the last General Body Meeting, an Asian member had raised the issue and asked an European Committee member about why African people did not like to become members at the club. After pondering on the gravity of this query, the High Council had finally reached the conclusion that Africans had not yet become civilized enough. Therefore, they were still bereft of the niceties required to lead a socially fit life.

Joginder Paul doesn’t draw upon esoteric truths or conscious craft in writing these stories. Instead, he connects with a common experience, the awareness of this experience and the empathy that arises from the lived reality. The narrators in these stories are aware of their position as individuals seeking livelihood in a country not their own, of having the dominant hand to play, but with an acute if latent sense of the unfairness of not just their presence but also of their general attitude and behaviour.

This layered narrative voice lends poignancy and continuing relevance to the stories. In “Miracle” (Mojaza, translated by Keerti Ramachandra) and “Rascal” (Kameena, translated by Meenakshi Bharat) this sensitivity and latent guilt is deep and in a complex relationship with the business of life and livelihood. In “Miracle”, an Indian family goes for a picnic at Lake Kikuyu. The lake is miraculous: ‘On the surface you can only see land but just below it, the water is several miles deep’ (p. 21).  The narrator’s position in this setting is complex and the only way it can be negotiated is through fiction. 

On reaching the shore of the lake, all of us stood on one side in a group. Nearby, a middle-aged African man was sitting under a tree, engrossed in reading a newspaper. I walked up to him. He gave me a bitter, questioning look. 

In a very friendly voice, I said to him, ‘Below our feet, the earth above the lake trembles and shakes. What a miracle this is.’

Very dryly the African responded, ‘But what I consider a miracle is the fact that only the earth above the lake shakes under your feet, and not the whole of Africa.’

The African is perhaps the narrator’s alter ego and Lake Kikuyu a metaphor for the heart of Africa as well as for the immigrant’s sense of uncertainty in an alien land. To not sink into the lake is miracle enough, as much as is staying afloat in Kenya for most of them. The narrator’s obvious joy at finding such a miraculous place is shot through with his even more obvious guilt.

‘This lake too is a mojaza – a great miracle of Nature, see.’ Drawing my wife’s attention to myself, I jumped up even higher. Beneath my steps, the earth trembled, just like the heart of a poor African, on which innumerable sorrows leap and burst out into guffaws. 

Land Lust not only brings the coloniser’s/ exploiter’s attitude to the pages but also explores the sense of insecurity, of uncertainty and of half-baked or often absent knowledge of the ‘other’ that drives actions and reactions. This uncertainty, not racial or financial superiority alone, makes human beings behave with insensitivity, a poor apology for fear of being the outsider.

‘It’s very strange, Sheikh saheb, we think of “kala pani” as a noose and yet, we willingly embrace exile for the sake of livelihood.’

‘I lived a whole thirty years in Africa, but never once, on any day, did I feel it was my land.’

‘How can one ever feel at home in a place where one is constantly afraid of being robbed or attacked? How can one ever feel happy?’

‘Many of our Indian and Pakistani brothers are poorer than the Africans. Yet, how honourable they remain.’

‘Honour is something that one inherits from one’s ancestors. What honour can you expect from animals who do not even know what family they belong to?’

– “Everywhere” (Sab Jagah) translated by Meenakshi Bharat 

In “Jambo Rafiqui”, as the railway progresses and connects Nairobi with Mombasa, as Indian coolies turn into successful businessmen, Africans fill up the vacant places. Jungles give way to glittering cities, Kenya the colony turns into a magnet for growth. This is also the story in parallel of dispossessed Africans, their land now a stranger to them; this is the story of the land’s gradual disconnect with itself, with its people.

In tracing interactions among the colonisers, Indians in Kenya and the native Kenyans, Joginder Paul’s stories succeed in drawing out narratives of the human potential to demean and to dehumanise others. There is irony in the telling of these stories but there is, also, a degree of self-consciousness in the writing that does not detract from the truth of the telling or its impact. The writing is almost gentle, tender; the intent, though, cracks the complacence and the translators have ably retained and conveyed the tone. “Rascal” and “Everywhere” (translated by Meenakshi Bharat), for instance, explore the arrogance and superciliousness of the Indian expatriates with self-deprecating humour and turn the mirror towards the reader.

At a time when ethnic and national boundaries are squeezing out plurality, it is important that we read more such stories, for what is literature’s greatest gift to society but empathy that comes from the ability to stand in another’s shoes, skin, mind. 

In his foreword to the book, Krishan Chander writes: 

‘His stories present several layers of meaning which he slowly unfolds and seems to find joy in doing so again and again. What peeps from his stories is the heart of an empathetic writer, someone who is pro-humanity. He is not merely like the plate in a camera on which the surface surroundings are imprinted, he possesses an empathetic perspective too. He has the space in his heart for the other’s pain and anguish. Inside many other writers is placed merely a camera and in place of a heart, there is a typewriter.’

(L) : Joginder Paul, (R) : Land Lust, ed. By Sukrita Paul Kumar and Vandana R. Singh; Niyogi Books (2019)

Sucharita Dutta-Asane is a writer and editor based in Pune. Her debut collection Cast Out and Other Stories was published in 2018 by Dhauli Books and has been widely reviewed to critical acclaim. Her short stories and book reviews have appeared in various print and e-journals and have won several awards. In her professional capacity, Sucharita edits books, and until March 2019, she edited the literary e-zine Kitaab.


Read more on Bengaluru Review :

Perceiving the world like a child

A cautionary tale of choice and will

Six poets who fought against oppression


 

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