This image is of my wife’s relatives in Kenya as a reference to the narrative below.
In the late 19th century, an enterprising and adventurous Parsi Indian Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee left Karachi (now Pakistan) and sailed to Australia. As a house-to-house hawker, he managed to gain some knowledge of the English language and eventually migrated to East Africa in 1890. There, he established contact with British investors who were looking for some help to manage the planned Uganda Railways. After five years, Jeevanjee was awarded the contract to recruit Indian labourers from Punjab, to build the Uganda Railways in Kenya and the IBEAC (Imperial British East Africa Company) began building the railways construction from Kilindini Harbour, Mombasa.
Beginning 1891, thousands of the Indian ‘coolies‘ (today this word is considered a racial slur in many African countries), mainly Sikhs & Punjabis, were recruited for a three-year-contract to build Kenya Uganda Railways. Almost all of them came alone, leaving their wives in India.
One of the reasons why Indian labourers, instead of locals, were recruited was that the British faced severely hostility from the citizens of that country. The Indians on the other hand were there purely for economical reasons. They were also strong, tough and reliable hard workers and had previous experience with construction of building railways, roads, bridges and canals in India. In Kenya though, they had to face several hardships. Living in huddled groups in tents, they worked tirelessly to clear thick jungles, and break routes through hills and mountain stone with steel hammers and bare hands. Under harsh weathers, mosquitoes, snakebites, wild beast attacks, injuries and fevers were fervent. Hundred were dragged from their tents and eaten by Lions.
Amongst them was my maternal grandfather Makhan Ram Vadvae, a technically savvy man who came from Lahore, (now Pakistan) leaving his wife in India. He was appointed foreman and would check the rail tracks while seated on trolley pushed by fellow workers. His name in the labor force records is signed in Urdu as “Man eater of Tsavo”.
After the completion of railways in 1905, and the end of their contract – 51% of the workforce returned back to India, most in bad health, 8% of the work force died on job, 21% did not take their entitled return tickets and chose to stay in East Africa – setting up businesses along the railway lines, towns and cities. By year 1911, 12,000 Indians mainly Punjabis, Gujaratis, and Parsees (compared to 3,000 Europeans) were living in Kenya. A good number of them married local African women, others married mixed blood women and settled in East Africa giving birth to four generations of people with Indian-Kenyan origin. My maternal grandfather Makhan Ram too married a Kenyan woman, had children with her and settled in Kenya. He never went back to India.
While things have changed for the better over time, the colour and gene based racism was rampant at the time and with the exception of Parsees, within most other Indians. The mixed blooded children of Indian men who married local African were frowned upon. Rejected and segregated by Indians themselves, they had a terrible time trying to fit into their father’s communities, schools, neighborhoods, work places, temples and Gurudwaras. Some were treated so badly by the father’s families that it forced them to convert to Islam and Christianity – communities where they were received well and given equal place in society. Ironically, visually, majority of mixed blood children were of fair colour and beautiful features – skin-deep characteristics that many Indians preferred over any other.
My father Jagan Nath Nagpal too came to Kenya from Gujranwala, Punjab (now Partly Pakistan territory) around 1912 and began a tea stall at a railway station. Eventually he established a confectionery shop in the capital city, Nairobi. He married my mother, Maya Devi, Makhan Ram’s daughter. Two years after his marriage in 1914, he invited his elder brother from Punjab to Kenya, handed over the shop to him and decided to return to India.
Around 1938, when I was around five years old and my sister Krishna was 10, my father decided to return to Kenya. I remember the four of us sailed to Kenya in an over crowded dhow (carrying 300+ people) from Porbander, Gujarat to Mombasa. It was a perilous journey of three months, during which many people died at sea, sick with typhoid, diarrhea and malnutrition. When we landed ashore in Mombasa, most people due to being crammed on the dhow and sitting in postulate positions for weeks & months had forgotten how to walk – people were falling down, whilst others were walking backwards. Almost all children and some adults had lice in their hair.
Perhaps in India my father had gained more skills and in Kenya he became a skilled Halwai (sweets & dessert maker) who could make all kinds of delicious North Indian sweets. Later my parents had seven more children -Shakuntala, Baldev, Raji, Swarni, Subhash, Sukversha and Ashok.
Years later, my father took a huge loan with a heavy interest to pay his eldest daughter’s marriage dowry, which he was unable to pay. To supplement some family income, as soon as I finished Form 2 (half way into Secondary School), in 1947, I had to start working at the age of 14 as a Crane Driver with East African Railways & Harbours, Mombasa. Four years later at the age of 18, I married a 14-year-old beautiful young mixed blood lady Rampyari Kohli. Born in Kenya, she was the daughter of an African mother and a Kashmiri father.
After my father died in of a heart attack in 1951, I became the only support for the family. My wife and I had two boys and four girls. Then we adopted two more boys from my wife’s side of the family. All were born, bred and well educated in Kenya and overseas. Today most of them are living all over the world living in Australia, England, Germany and America. Some of them hold high positions as Bankers, Chartered Accountant, General Manager, University lecturers and directors.
My daughter and I are still live in Kenya, a country I call my home.
Image and text contributed by Vaibhav Bhosle, Mumbai
At the time this photograph was taken, my mother was in her third year of her employment with the State Police of Maharashtra and was on an official trip to Agra. The purpose of this journey was to return an abducted girl, a native of Uttar Pradesh who was found and rescued by the police in Bombay (Mumbai).
After the girl was returned safely to her parents, my mother Meenakshi and a female colleague accompanied by a male senior staff had a few hours to spare before their train’s departure to Bombay. My mother wanted to visit the Agra Fort but her colleague wanted to see the Taj Mahal. Eventually she agreed to visit the Taj Mahal, where this picture was taken by a local photographer.
When my grandfather Yashwant, a farmer, suffered huge losses in his grocery business, he had no choice but to relocate to Bombay in search for a better job. My grandmother along with all the children moved to her maternal home and took up odd farm jobs to add to the sustenance. After many years of struggling, my grandfather eventually did find a job in Dalda company and could afford a princely sum of Rs 500 to buy an apartment in the suburbs of Bombay, only then he had his family to move to Bombay.
New to a big city, and with five children, my grandparents’ means were limited, so the family set up a Milk delivery service, in which all their children pitched in. My mother too enrolled herself in a Tailoring Institute in hope of finding a job ; and she also applied for Government employment. A few days later, she received a call from the employment agency informing her on an unconsidered avenue, recruitment for the Police Force.
My grandfather accompanied her to the recruitment center. But skeptical of the type of candidates he saw there, he was discouraged and asked her not to give the exam, yet my mother went ahead and also got selected for the Force. At the training camp, she was the only one with her own blanket.
An employment with the State Government was an achievement for the entire family. The nature of the job and the independence it brought with it shaped my mother’s personality. She was the first in the family to travel out of state or to even own a pair of Sunglasses.
While growing up, we would be fascinated by all the stories that she would tell us about her work. On the rare occasions that we were taken to the Police station, seated on the bench for 2 hours my sister and I would gather enough visuals and sounds to boast to our friends, including the Dal and Pao (Lentils & Bread) that was served to the inmates because it looked most delicious. For every mischief that my sister and I got into, my mother had a story equivalent to where mischief makers were eventually put in jail.
No doubt, it was a tough job for my mother. It comprised of long hours, which got longer on festivals. The night shifts sometimes begun by a knock on the door at 3 am in the morning, or the out of town trips which were conveyed hours before they begun.
This is a special photograph to me because it is the most glamorous image of my mom that I can recollect and it is as special to her as well because she thinks the same.
Image and Text contributed by Meera Janakiraman, Bangalore
This image was photographed on October 26, 1938, in Burma. The person in the center is my father’s elder brother, Nagarathnam, with his colleagues from Burma.
My father T.J Raman and Nagarathnam’s parents (my grandparents) were originally from Thiruvallikeni, (now Triplicane) State of Madras. Their family business involved exporting Burmese Teak. Teak during war was “as important an ammunition of war as steel”, especially used in the construction of Warships. The family moved to Burma (formerly Myanmar) during World War I as it made better business sense.
Nagarathnam, fondly called Nagu, got married when he was 23 years old and had two sons. Leaving his family in with good care in Madras, he returned to Burma and first worked as a representative of the Prudential Life Insurance Company before he joined the Burma Railways as a clerk.
He was on his way to Mandalay, the royal capital of Burma, on a business visit by train when this photograph was taken. It is believed that during the travel he chocked on a piece of guava. Late at night, he was rushed to the Mayyo Hospital where he was declared dead due to heart failure. He died at the age of 30, the very next day after this photograph was taken. A telegram announcing his death was sent to his family in Madras via Calcutta.