Home Between Crossings
Create Space: Charleston. 2016
The Satpanth Khoja community in East Africa
Home between Crossings is the second novel in Sultan Somjee’s intended trilogy on the history of the Satpanth Khoja community in East Africa. Somjee published his first ethnographic–historical creative-narrative Bead Bai in 2012, wherein he recreates the community’s movement from western India to East Africa at the turn of the 19th century, and describes the early decades of their settling of roots in the African terrain. Somjee draws upon his ethnographic research on the Maasai, and reconstructs the life narratives of a fascinating group of women called ‘bead bais’ who enabled the flow of coloured beads between the ‘dukawallahs’ or Asian petty traders, and the ethnic tribes of East Africa in the early days of trade. His central protagonist Sakina Devji masters the synthesis of Asian and African art forms using embroidery under the tutelage of her stepmother Ma Gor Bai; and beadwork under the tutelage of her indigenous Maasai mentor Ole Lekakeny. Somjee draws from his expertise on Masaai aesthetics, having completed his PhD research in this area from McGill University, to create an interstitial space at an emotional, aesthetic and intellectual level hitherto unexplored in creative writing from the diaspora.
It is the mid-20th century in the opening chapter of Home Between Crossings and the 28-year-old Sakina is now known as ‘Moti Bai’ – which suggests her identification with the beads as an integral part of her life. The narrative is encyclopaedic in scope as Somjee lyrically weaves together a wealth of historical facts, oral traditions, family lore and core aspects of Ismaili cultural heritage. The novel is structured into sixteen parts that initially take us through the British colonial practices of creating a racial/class pyramid structure of Europeans on top, Asians in middle and black Africans at the bottom. This is followed by the rise of Kenyan nationalism in the 1950s and the turbulent anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion. The latter half of the book deals with growing anti-Asian hostilities in the post-independence phase. The narrative ends with Sakina’s heart-wrenching dislocation from home in Kenya, and emigration westwards to Canada.
Apart from offering an incisive political overview, Somjee’s narrative is feminist in its intent. The novel gives a detailed description of the domestic and everyday living of Khoja women while gently critiquing its inherently patriarchal structure. Moti Bai’s life revolves around the communal Jamat Khana which is the fulcrum of Satpanth Khoja life and the centre of social interaction for the women in the community. Her life’s decisions are governed by the teaching of the spiritual head ‘Sahib’ or the Aga Khan. She must learn to negotiate the teachings of the Sahib of the past, and his contemporary calling for assimilation which includes switching from Gujarati medium education to English, and for women to abandon their traditional style of dressing for the western frock. Having lived in a cloistered community with its insistence of the pachedi and bandhani, and restrictions on clothing associated with issues of family honour and shame, Moti Bai is in a dilemma about Saheb’s call for the community to modernize and to ‘unlearn language, dress, worship practices and evolve a new identity.’ Moti Bai’s ability to assert agency is limited by multiple factors. But this does not stop her from self-questioning norms of a fundamentally patriarchal social-cultural system as well as problematic issues of the community’s stance on questions of race and integration.
Somjee acknowledges the role of Indian nationalists such as Ambu Bha, Makhan Singh, and Isher Dass in the struggle for Kenya`s independence while simultaneously delving into complexities of black-brown race relationships. Moti Bai reminiscences over the tenderness shared between her children and their African caregiver Frieda, while at the same time, experiences a growing suspicion about her male black servants, created by British propaganda about the Mau Mau as ‘the barbaric gang that is terrorizing the country.’ Home Between Crossings offers an honest exploration of contentious issues of Asian racism especially in the section narrated by Swahili woman Riziki, who is her brother Shamshu`s second wife and mother to his son Issa. Despite her desire to reach out to Riziki, Moti Bai admits that Riziki’s presence at the Khoja Flats in Mombasa would be a ‘blemish’ to “my family’s honour, if not the caste name. She is black. We are not” (371). A fascinating aspect of the narrative is the manner in which Somjee draws upon the use of material cultural artifacts to explore the more positive dynamics of African-Asian relations. While Bead Bai focused on the unique relationship between Sakina and the Masai elder, the artifact that takes prominence is the kanga (‘the cloth speaks wisdom’, 335). The kanga is evocatively described as a fabric ‘whose threads knit the genealogies of women of the Indian ocean’ (342).
The last section of the book deals with the escalating anti-Asian hostility. Moti Bai and her family are torn between their economic survival, reverse racism, their physical safety and issues of nationalistic loyalty and Kenyan citizenship. Moti Bai’s husband dies a broken man after the loss of his business to the local MP. Diamond, her son, opts to emigrate to Canada and Moti Bai feels the compulsion to relocate to be with her children because that is the norm. The final few pages of the novel evocatively capture her spiritual agony at being uprooted from the songs that have anchored her to the land. The novel ends with her flight out of Nairobi, a moment of heart-wrenching pain from the motherland. The year 2017 marks fifty years of the dislocation of Africans of Asian descent from Kenya. Home Between Crossing reminds us of their largely, untold stories.