The story begins with Hardei reminiscing about Punjab as she awaits a train at Mombassa with her six-year-old son, Chunilal. The reader stumbles across Hardei's life through her recollection of the time her husband Kirparam left her for the shores of Kenya. She is reunited with her husband, of course, and what follows is the saga of the Kapur clan over generations. Kirparam and his fellow Punjabis were the first to open dukas (extracted from the Hindi word, dukan, meaning shop) and were the precursors of the prosperous Asian merchant class in Kenya.
This book had the potential to be a major work on the history of African settlers of Indian origin. However, in Kapur-Dromson's unskilled hands, it fails to lift beyond the ordinary. In fact, it's not even ordinary: it's clichéd, cloying (in parts) and devoid of feeling. Kapur-Dromson carries her tale by indulging events from history, including the two World Wars, and how they impacted the Kapur family. Yet, there is never an attempt to make the reader really connect with the characters, nor is there a tendency to seriously analyse familial ties against the background of history.
Kapur-Dromson is undecided on what to make of her material: personal memoir or historical narrative. Even though she tries to demarcate the individuality of her main characters—the sprightly Hardei, the morose Yashoda, the resolute Lajpat—she falls short, and as a means to overcome this shortcoming, delves into Kenyan history and rounds it off with the Indian independence struggle, in what must easily be a most repetitive, amateurish look at these events.
The dialogue is all supposed to be in colloquial Punjabi, which is fine to an extent, but very soon into the novel, it begins to stare the reader in its awkward assimilation with English. Nothing is more jarring than trying to marry two mutually exclusive etymologies. Kapur-Dromson has, in all likelihood, caught hold of a hoary storyteller who has plucked events out of his/her imagination and swept them with heroism, grief, solidarity, what have you, to beguile the young writer.
While she hints at the Hindu-Muslim rivalry that reached a crescendo in the aftermath of the creation of Pakistan, she makes no mention of the inherent racism in the nationalist movement for Kenya’s independence. The Mau-Mau rebellion is only touched upon briefly, and nowhere is the inherent contradiction of Asian-Africans looking down at the local black population while fighting a white enemy explored.
Even the most basic premise, of a young girl encountering racism against her father, is diluted by Kapur-Dromson's tendency towards excess:
...Lajpat blew his nose with his hand to release the mucus. And, there, as if by the turn of a sorcerer's stick, stood a white policeman. Shouting from where he was, he called out, "Hey, you! Come here. Do you understand?"
The voice sent a clichéd cold sweat down his flanks; Lajpat's knees gave away and he staggered.
"What are you gibbering away in your babu English?"...Lajpat stood rooted. Muni nearly peed in her salwar...
"Clichéd cold sweat?" Pardon my sarcasm, but it seems to me that only a passing knowledge of the English language, and perhaps the recent successes of the likes of Kiran Desai and Vikram Chandra, have given a number of inept hopefuls a contemptible stick with which to bleed the language dry.
For a truly authentic experience of what Indians suffered at the hands of Englishmen in Africa, watch the 1996 Michael Douglas-starrer The Ghost and the Darkness.
This review appeared in Business Standard.