Sanaipei is in America reading about insurance companies. Rabindranath enrolls for a complicated course at the London School of Economics (LSE). Every time Rabindranath flies back to Kenya, he tells his father:
“Dad. A pharmacist in London asks if I’m the son of his brother who married a Maasai in Nairobi”.
“What does Rabindranath tell him”, the father says rather than asks.
“No idea, Dad”.
“Tell him Maharaja Gupta does not like smells from London”.
Maharaja Gupta detests everything London – except what his two children like in that island. Every dweller in Nairobi’s tiny Laki Estate can tell you that.
Old Karubandika Achach was witness to how – he who swears that all the beer he has imbibed in Nairobi pooled together can make a small lake – he used to hear Maharaja Gupta curse:
“London liar, Britain bully; London liar, Britain bully…”
Back in the day.
Today Laki sprawls under the sun, a glittering estate near the international sports centre where Kenyan athletes run and mint millions across the world. Mr. Maharaja Gupta has tucked his great home on the thigh of the small hill near the super-highway which runs to the president’s place. Each morning as the sun bursts from the east and Karubandika climbs to the top of Baba Joni’s rental flat to bask, his other intention is to look from a distance at the dark-blue Mercedes Benz which sneaks out of Mr. Maharaja Gupta’s abode every day on its way to the heart of the city where the lone driver and his Maasai wife own textile shops.
Karubandika, the white-haired sixty-four-year-old perennial tenant, keeps his diary of his own life in Nairobi:
Kenya is on the verge of independence. I leave my village, Odiya, and come to the city by train.
– Very many white people
– Things very well organized
– Nairobi streets very clean
I am walking along Government Road after listening to politicians talk at the public rally about the need to kick the white man’s buttocks. I see a white paper glued to a tree-trunk along the street. Bombay Textile Shop (BTS) is employing an African sweeper. I search for the building and see it from afar. A young Asian is seated near the door. He is looking at me.
The following morning I go to the textile shop. The young Asian I saw yesterday comes out and spits red liquid onto the street. An African City Council askari guard arrests him for soiling the street. I know the askari – my uncle Osusa, the one I live with in Kibera. He leads away the young man, and I go to plead on behalf of the Asian, telling my uncle it is an opportunity for me to get the job. Nairobi is a very hostile place for white people and Asians. My uncle releases the young man. I get the sweeper’s job.
The young man, Maharaja Gupta, becomes my friend. He tells me how his father told him London cut India and Pakistan down in the middle…
Independence comes with heavy rain. I now know Maharaja Gupta and his family live in Parklands, north-west of Nairobi’s CBD. Yesterday they sent for me. I found the family looking tense like birds in a cage. Maharaja Gupta’s father asked me to guard the shop well that day. They did not open Bombay Textile Shop yesterday. They are scared. Africans threaten Asians in the streets.
“You see these yellow, abonyo Asians?” Uncle Osusa asks me when I return to the house that night.
“They are as bad as these white wakoloni”.
“But they have employed me”, I observe to my uncle.
“That is true, but if I am a murderer and I employ you it does not mean I am now a holy preacher in a church”, he says. “You know these Asians all along supported white wakoloni inside the Legislative Council”.
“But Gama Pinto –”
“Pinto is a good politician but he is not all Asians”, he cuts me short.
“All Asians are bad?”
“You were born yesterday, nyathi nyamera”, he reminds me, calling me ‘my sister’s child’. “An Asian is an Asian – I am telling you”.
I now understand why everybody is angry at the Asians.
On the footsteps of 1963:
I hear the Kenya government has given all Asians only two years to decide whether they want to stay or leave. Many flee to London. Maharaja Gupta tells me his father does not like India. They want to remain here in Kenya.
“Do you want us to return to India?” Maharaja Gupta asks me.
“I do not want you to. Your father gave me this sweeping job of mine”.
“My father was born here”, he says. “I do not know that place called Calcutta in India. My grandfather Kapila came from there”.
I look at this age-mate of mine – his large eyes, his tough hair, his neat clothe ironed and tucked in. At Diwali he smears something red on his forehead. He resembles a child bleeding…
Something happens in the shop that evening. A tall African girl has come to buy a pair of shoes. Maharaja Gupta can only reach her shoulders. She is very beautiful. When she looks at you, you think she wants to sleep.
A man storms into the shop breathing fire. He bought a pair of gumboots the other week. Now he is returning it. He says one side leaks. Maharaja Gupta inspects the gumboot and says something has cut its heel.
“Look”, Maharaja Gupta tells the man, “you cut the heel with a panga machete?”
“Muindi from India!” the man snaps at Maharaja Gupta. “To cut the heels of my own gumboot with a panga, you think I am a child like you?”
Maharaja Gupta cowers. His father looks at me pleadingly. The tall girl stands not very far from Maharaja Gupta. She samples the shoes. The intruder throws a fist at Maharaja Gupta, but the girl arrives fast and puts her hand between the two. I know she and Maharaja Gupta have not met anywhere before. She is only rushing in to help, out of her own kindness.
“Ah, behave”, she tells the gumboot owner.
“But why fight?”
I lead the angry buyer outside the shop and tell him he should have returned the shoe immediately, not after weeks. He goes, cursing about ‘these Asians still wandering here in our country’…
The year 1965:
I thought this Maharaja Gupta family is strong enough to stay, but now I hear they are leaving for London – without my friend Maharaja Gupta. His father is livid with anger. My friend’s mother does not even want to see him. Bombay Textile Shop has been sold to a different Asian, and its owners treat Maharaja Gupta like a leper. They do not want to see him anywhere near the shop. But I have not been sacked and I know why – the marauding Africans. Indeed, Gama Pinto has been shot dead in Parklands.
“Why are they leaving you?” I ask Maharaja Gupta when we go to my uncle’s house in Kibera.
His parents and siblings left for London yesterday. The mother and father cursed him, I hear, and his elder brothers Shukla and Padhal warned him not to write them letters. His younger sister called Smirti told him to his face:
“You let down father and mother. You disgraced us. Do not call me your sister, again”.
Smirti’s smooth skin ripe like my mother’s banana skin and her dark eyes with lashes that coil upwards like ten bananas on a bunch are the reason people whisper about her beauty from one end of the street to another.
I ask Maharaja Gupta, “Why did they leave you?”
“I will tell you”, he says.
The textile shop BTS has changed its name to Delhi Textile Merchants (DTM). When they pay my salary for that month, I shift to Laki, the new estate north-east of Nairobi. Uncle Osusa says his house is too small for three grown-up men. He calls Maharaja Gupta and me ‘men who have grown very dark hair somewhere’ or ‘full he-goats’ or ‘men whose manhood has filled their own palms thich – completely’.
My new landlord is called Baba Joni.
– It is a very bushy place
– A very lonely place
Our small house is the first to sprout from amongst the lantana camara bush. At daytime we see wild animals roaming in the fields.
– We will hear a lion roaring tomorrow night
– The night after that the mysterious leopard will carry away the landlord’s only goat. Baba Joni lives here with his wife, Nyokabi, and their son, Joni, a baby who coughs forever, even in the depth of the night…
“Because I am marrying Sendeyo”, Maharaja Gupta tells me the first night we sleep in my house in Laki.
“What is that?”
“Not ‘what’ but ‘who’”, he corrects me. “They left me because I will marry her”.
“Who is that?”
“The Maasai girl who saved me in the duka that day”, Maharaja Gupta tells me. “She comes from Kajiado. She is called Sendeyo”.
Maharaja Gupta tells me how he slipped out of the textile shop that fateful evening. I was inside the shop, and his father was looking at the books of accounts. They had been seeing each other since that evening the lady had saved him from the intruder’s fist. Maharaja Gupta went round the building and disappeared in the corridor. There he found her waiting for him. He thought they were all alone.
He was busy looking at Sendeyo’s mouth the way a baby looks at the mouth of its mother when, Maharaja Gupta suspects, the Asian businessman in the next shop saw them and literally run to Maharaja Gupta’s father. He has told me that the shop owner next door is called Madhar, and there is a timeless agreement between the two families that Maharaja Gupta must marry Madhar’s very ugly daughter called Priti Pratap. Maharaja Gupta tells me he would rather die than marry a girl with the cold skin of a young bird hatched from the egg yesterday. He says even Priti’s eye-lids in their dead blueness resemble those of a young bird stuck in the nest.
When the two elderly men arrived they found the young man saying to Sendeyo:
“You do not sleep enough at home. You look at people as if you are sleeping. Or I think it is your father who looks at people like that”.
“Maharaja Gupta! Maharaja Gupta!” the son tells me he heard his father crying from the left end of the corridor. Maharaja Gupta turned and saw the faces of the two elderly men white with betrayal. But they were late…
After the middle of the ‘60s:
The vice president resigns and forms his political party. The country is quiet. Sendeyo has been visiting us here in the bush. Each evening she goes back home in Kajiado. The following night Maharaja Gupta is talking to me in the house.
“Her father is chasing her away – cursing her also”.
“Why?” I ask Maharaja Gupta.
“Sendeyo rejects the Moran they want her to marry. The man has a whole dowry herd ready”.
“What will you do?”
“I do not know”.
A cabinet minister is assassinated by a gunman in the streets of Nairobi. There are riots. Angry people hurl stones. Even I, Achach Karubandika, I throw stones and smash cars. How can they murder him? Why? Why?
But the sun will set and rise again. Maharaja Gupta still lives with me, and we walk to the city every morning. He says he is getting a job soon. I still work for DTM.
“London liar, Britain bully; London liar, Britain bully”.
Maharaja Gupta says bitterly as we go on foot each morning. He blows his nose, removes the phlegm, and spits. His eyes are as red as a weaverbird’s. He tells me that his brothers are writing letters from London. They send to the Asians in town to give him. The letters all mock him. The family has set up a pharmaceutical company somewhere in London.
Why he is looking for a job this hard I still do not know. I can only guess. I am aware that a friend of his called Popat Amin has arrived from Uganda where Asians are being expelled. I see them talking passionately each evening. Maybe they want to start a business.
A month later Sendeyo comes with a few of her dresses. She does not leave that evening. She does not intend to. Baba Joni swears and threatens to increase our rent because we are now three tenants in one small room.
“That is none of your business even if they are ten”, his wife Nyokabi speaks for us. “Did you increase the size of their room as well?”
“But they use the latrine, Nyokabi!”
The landlord is building another room enjoined to the one we live in. The shop expands. These days he stocks more goods than before…
In the middle of the ‘70s:
A Member of Parliament is murdered. His body is found in the forest. Hyenas have had a small feast. People are tongue-tied. The sun will set and rise again. Nobody bothers.
Maharaja Gupta says he has found a job.
Baba Joni has finished building the new room. Maharaja Gupta is a married man, the only Asian this side of Nairobi city. He and Sendeyo leave my room and begin to occupy Baba Joni’s new house. When the landlord smiles these days we see even his molars. He has bought and is rearing many other goats. The leopard stopped coming. The surrounding bush is being cut down. Many more people are trooping into our once lonely estate…
“She does not listen to me”, Maharaja Gupta tells me one evening.
“She goes to that butchery and brings cow meat”.
A new landlord has erected a butchery not very far away.
“Maharaja Gupta. You do not want her to?”
“I do not”.
“I do not want her to eat any cow. It is bad”
Maharaja Gupta does not tell me the reason. Some night I hear him shouting deep in the night. He says Sendeyo must stop eating cow meat. But the wife does not answer back; she just keeps quiet. And I know Sendeyo will eat cow meat even if one hundred Maharaja Guptas stood in her way.
One day I overhear her telling her husband very calmly: “You put a lot of pepper in your soup”.
I will not interfere. They will solve their problems by themselves. She is already expecting their first baby. I tell Maharaja Gupta to continue talking with Sendeyo. She will one day understand.
Very late ‘70s:
The president dies. Baba Joni is fasting because the president has died.
– He is also angry
– He has closed the shop for fasting
The following morning he comes, red-eyed, to tell us he is increasing rent. We tell him we will not pay. At that moment I go to Maharaja Gupta’s door and tell my friend to sell me a loaf of bread.
“Ai! Ai! Ai!” the landlord screams, stamping his feet at Maharaja Gupta’s door. “Who told you to open a shop in my plot?”
Maharaja Gupta opened a shop on the very day Baba Joni closed his.
Sendeyo tells Baba Joni bluntly, but calmly, her belly taut in front of her. “We will not go hungry because you are fasting about your president”.
“He is the president of one tribe”, I tell the landlord. To Maharaja Gupta I say, “Ket makati e lweta, Maharaja Gupta – put bread in my hands”.
“Don’t you know he is the president of Kenya?” the landlord wipes a tear.
“Not Kenya! Not Kenya!” Maharaja Gupta screams at the landlord. “Pinto was shot dead in this country. His murderers have not been arrested to this day”.
Maharaja Gupta puts the loaf of bread in my hands, and the landlord grabs it from me. He makes a dash for his door. I straightaway grab a stone. When he looks back he sees the stone in the air:
“Mami nindiroragwo! – Oh my mother, I am being killed!” he cries.
Nyokabi comes for her husband near their door and pulls him away very roughly. She throws my bread at me.
Even after the president’s burial, when the landlord has re-opened his shop, Maharaja Gupta still sells bread in his house. Neighbours come in droves to buy. His bread sells more cheaply than Baba Joni’s.
“Ai! Ai! Maharaja Gupta, don’t you see my shop is now open again? Stop selling in my plot!” Baba Joni complains.
“I will not”, Maharaja Gupta tells him.
Sendeyo comes out with her pregnancy and looks at Baba Joni from high up. She is very tall. She can see the top of the landlord’s head.
“You are making noise”. Sendeyo says, holding her waist with the right hand.
“Ai! Ai! I will tell you to leave my plot, Maharaja Gupta!”
“I will not leave; give me notice now”, Maharaja Gupta dares Baba Joni.
The following week a big car arrives in the plot. Maharaja Gupta alights when the car stops, and he starts piling crates of bread and soda. After that he pays the driver and the car goes away.
Sendeyo delivered a baby yesterday.
“Maharaja Gupta! Maharaja Gupta! You want to open a wholesale duka here in my plot?”
“Wewe Muindi! The cursed one! No wonder you did not go to London the way the rest did. Wizard! Wizard who paints his forehead with blood! Homeless man!”
“And you”, Sendeyo says from inside the room, “you fart too much after eating the bad potato”. She means the Irish potato which Baba Joni’s wife prepares almost every day, the food mixture they call ‘githeri’…
Sendeyo delivered a baby boy. I arrive in the plot and find the couple naming the baby.
“He is called ‘Jawaharlal’”, the father says. ‘“Jawaharlal Nehru’”.
“What is that?” the wife asks. “Resembles a tractor making noise”.
“Do not say that. My father told me it is a big name in India”.
“Not my baby”.
“‘Rabindranath’, then”, the father suggests. ‘“Rabindranath Tagore’”.
Sendeyo says, “That and the first are the same. Both are ugly”.
Maharaja Gupta pleads with me to help him. I ask Sendeyo, “How do you want the baby to be called?”
‘“Ole Simpale’ my uncle”, Sendeyo says very simply.
“Now add one from your two”, I tell Maharaja Gupta.
He says, ‘“Rabindranath’”.
So the baby is called ‘Rabindranath Ole Simpale’. It has a brick-red skin and eyes as big as Maharaja Gupta’s. But the baby is very healthy. Baba Joni laughs and tells people that Sendeyo has a baby with the hair of a horse and the eyes of a grasshopper. But even he is sensible enough to accept the baby is healthier than his child, Joni, whose nostrils are mauve with eternal mucus.
The early ‘80s:
A group of Air Force soldiers has picked a blade of grass and put it on the president’s head, daring him. The president is in hiding. A rowdy gang comes running towards DTM shop where I work. I close the door before they enter. Outside, the shop owners and I see Asian shops being raided.
– The shopkeepers are roughed up
I know Maharaja Gupta and Popat sell bread. But I do not really know where their shop is in town. That evening we hurry back to the plot fearing the disturbance.
Maharaja Gupta is scared. His left eye is red. He tells me someone knocked him down and he landed on his face when their shop was raided at daytime.
“Where was that?” I ask him.
“Yes, but where exactly? Which building?”
He says, “To the left”.
I stop asking him. I know Maharaja Gupta. He conceals his secrets better than cats hide certain activities in their lives.
The following day he shows me the telegram he received from his siblings Padhal, Shukla, and Smirti:
WE TOLD YOU KENYA BAD NOW HARVEST YOUR OWN FOOLISHNESS
Just like that, without comma and full stop, so they can save on the cost.
“They think I am foolish – eh?” he asks me. He tells me that his father and mother died the previous month, and were cremated in London. The siblings did not bother to tell him.
And then he asks me genuinely:
“Karubandika. For how long will you work for other people? When will you begin working for yourself? Look you have refused to marry. You have neither wife nor child in your rented house. You will die a poor, lonely corpse.”
The very late ‘80s:
Every time the residents of Laki Estate pass near the international sports centre as they walk from the big road to the president’s place, they see a new building springing from the ground. It is very huge. Baba Joni begins the rumour that a cabinet minister has bought the land and is building a house which can only be compared to the house of an American president.
– Soon a high brick wall is erected round the space
– An electric fence
– Large, orange bulbs beam at night
Travellers who go past the building at night say it resembles a palace…
1990 in the eye:
Another cabinet minister is murdered. His stomach is cleaned, burnt with acid. The media shows his skeleton.
I, Karubandika, I throw stones again. Why do they murder him?
The country agitates for multi-party democracy…
Around that time, many Kenyan athletes win their marathon races. Abruptly, people see Maharaja Gupta running every evening after he returns from work in town. He leaves the plot, goes down the road, climbs the steep hill, and dashes towards the quarry several times. And then he comes back after three hours. Baba Joni tells us how Maharaja Gupta loves money more than all Kenyans.
“He thinks he can also win the marathon”, the landlord tells us. We gather near his shop as we look at Maharaja Gupta running. “Running is not meant for Asians. Asians eat granaries of bitter pepper. Their chests burn like posho mill. They cannot run. Maharaja Gupta cannot…”
The truth is, Maharaja Gupta and Sendeyo have agreed that the husband run around as the wife cooks her cow-meat. Maharaja Gupta told me that yesterday. He runs for three hours. When he returns, the husband finds all the meat eaten and utensils washed with bar-soap.
What amuses people is that Maharaja Gupta wears a pair of shorts as he runs these days. When he began he used to wear a pair of long, yellow trousers. But now he has changed. He says long trousers suffocate his loins when he runs. He does not want to feel like that. It reminds him of how his father and Madhar rebuked him for standing in the corridor with Sendeyo that evening many years ago.
Sendeyo has no problem with her husband wearing short trousers. Her husband’s legs are very small. Everybody sees his lower thighs, and children gather in all the corners of the estate, to laugh at him as he passes, leaning forward and breathing hard, his yellow elbows digging backwards as he runs. Sometimes the children run after him laughing all the way to the quarry.
Some tenants begin saying that Maharaja Gupta is bewitching their children.
One evening Baba Joni gathers a few women and men. I stand a short distance away, to see what it is. They join the children who stand at the corner. When Maharaja Gupta appears from the bend the children begin to laugh. They say to one another that they want to see his parched thighs from behind. Some of the children laugh till they fall on the ground.
Maharaja Gupta arrives.
“Our children! You bewitch our children!” women shout at Maharaja Gupta.
The children laugh.
“An Asian cannot run”, Baba Joni shouts.
Still running, Maharaja Gupta comes straight to Baba Joni, who tries to avoid him by ducking behind one woman, and the next thing I see is the small Asian digging his head very hard into the landlord’s stomach. Baba Joni is on the ground lying on his back, crying for help. Maharaja Gupta is sitting on the landlord’s stomach. I arrive to find women pulling the two wrestlers apart.
Maharaja Gupta continues with his race. The women and the children help Baba Joni to wipe dust off his long trousers and his shirt. The landlord is shaken as he looks at Maharaja Gupta’s small back disappearing down the quarry.
That evening, children return to their mothers’ houses. I hear them report how Maharaja Gupta beat Baba Joni’s stomach so hard that the landlord vomited milk and potatoes…
After multi-party elections of early ‘90s:
Maharaja Gupta, Sendeyo, and their child Rabindranath Ole Simpale leave Baba Joni’s plot one day after the wrestling match. A big lorry comes and picks the family – with all their belongings. We think Maharaja Gupta is returning to Parklands, where most Kenyan-Asians live. Or that his kin in London have called him there. But no, the lorry disappears in the palatial homestead near the international sports centre.
The baby girl, Sanaipei Sharma, was born after Rabindranath. Baba Joni rumours that Sendeyo’s mother and father went to the homestead near the sports centre and ‘removed’ the curse they had placed on their daughter for marrying an abandoned Asian…
IMAGE: Live4Soccer(L4S) via Flickr