Keshavjee paints historical portrait

Friday July 15 2016

The book cover of Into that Heaven of Freedom,

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

By Sekou Owino

African history can be limited because it is often based on oral transfer of narratives. It is for this reason that one rarely finds an African autobiography that goes beyond a generation. Rarely does one cover pre-colonial life experiences.

Mohamed Keshavjee, in his book Into That Heaven of Freedom, appears to have defied this quite a bit.

The author has written a book that bestrides generations as if he had lived immortally and crosses continents as if he were omniscient.

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.

On the whole, the book is not only autobiographical in that sense, but it is also a chronicler of history in a manner that permits and challenges the claim to ancestry by the author. Is he Indian? Yes, he is.

While he visits India in his adulthood in 1978 carrying the then dreaded and maligned South African passport, he is surprised by the welcome of an immigration official with the words “You are welcome in our country sir, you can stay in India for as long as you wish…” These are words he had never heard in any other country despite being a citizen of sorts in South Africa.

This is despite the fact that his search for a homeland had led him to practice law in Kenya, South Africa and finally in Canada.

The author’s experience is not one his great grand-uncle Jivan Keshavjee, who first moved to South Africa from India, would have found unfamiliar.

For the constant refrain in the book is one of the quest for belonging, which the persons who first migrated into Africa from India experienced and continue to experience in some measure even a century later.

When Jivan Keshavjee and a friend called Cassam decided to emigrate to South Africa in 1894, it was an act of valour in the long and the immediate term.

The voyages in which such trips were made were described by Lord Brougham as having been more perilous than the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade.

The second dimension of the bravery was that persons of Indian heritage were largely unwelcome in South Africa and even then only permitted to enter under service indenture agreements akin to slavery.

In this quest, Jivanbapoo (as he was later called) and his companion decided to enter South Africa through Port Elizabeth, which was believed to have officials who were the most tolerant of non-white immigrants.

This tenacity is tempered and supported by the social cohesion evident not only among the Indians generally but also among the tightly knit Ismailia Muslim community within that country. The thread of mutual support and selfless concern for their neighbours and comrades in the faith runs throughout this book.

Consider the fact that Jivanbapoo and Cassam and other new immigrants into the colony are welcomed and given free board for a period of three months and thereafter helped to start their own business as vendors of fruits and vegetables — all in pursuit of an unwritten but inflexible code.

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.