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Keshavjee paints historical portrait

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The book cover of Into that Heaven of Freedom, by Mohamed M Keshavjee. PHOTO | COURTESY 

By Sekou Owino

Posted  Friday, July 15   2016 at  14:19

In Summary

  • Starting with the life of his great grandfathers in the village of Chotila in Gujarat within colonial India, the book migrates with these forebears to a distant and hostile South Africa in 1894, through some relations to Kenya and thereafter to Canada.

There is a constant refrain of this community looking out for each other that gives their faith incredible relevance within its members and elicits admiration from those without the faith.

This communal ethos goes beyond business and into personal life where integrity and honour means everything. This obligation of honour is ingrained in the community from a tender age, as reflected by a most moving undertaking by a six-year old Habib Keshavjee promising his younger sisters moments after witnessing his mother’s (the author’s maternal grandmother) demise with words too stressful to have come from a child: “Don’t worry, I will take care of you. I will be your ba.”

I don’t know what was more painful about that statement: The fact that it was said by a child barely able to comprehend death or that, as the author records, the child kept that promise all his life.

Then there is the history of South Africa, which is woven throughout the book. That Jivan and Cassam arrived in South Africa at about the same time as Mohandas Gandhi and also pushed for the rights of Indian immigrants in South Africa is in itself a justification of the book as a historical account.

The quest for liberty unleashed by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa is woven impeccably with the life of young Nelson Mandela.

This is even more vividly evoked by the fact that Mandela’s co-accused in the treason trials of 1956 Ahmed Kathrada wrote the book’s foreword.

In this way, the author becomes a historian through the eyes of his ancestors and the actions and deeds of Gandhi, Mandela, and General Smuts as experienced and told to people within his family over time.

The book has an encyclopaedic dimension in the facts that come out of its pages — some amazing and others simply heart wrenching — such as the compounded increase in the number of people who died from famine in India, from 1.5 million people in the first half of the 19th century to 28.5 million people in the last quarter of that century.

No less interesting is the everyday cruelty of life in South Africa in which Jivan and his brothers would risk white South Africans setting their dogs on them while vending their wares in the privileged neighbourhoods of Pretoria.

This is a book about South Africa but also about Africa itself. It paints a historical portrait worthy of careful inspection.

I recommend the book to anyone keen on understanding the sometimes tension-fraught issue of Indian immigration in East Africa and on the rarely mentioned but no less important impact of apartheid through the eyes and lives of Indian immigrants.

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