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 Zinnia Naqvi, Canada
This is an image of my paternal grandparents. My grandfather, or Dada as we called him, Syed Ali Naqvi was born in Khujwa, a village located in the Siwan District, Province of Bihar, India, on May 13, 1916. He was the sixth child of his parents. His father passed away when he was about eight years old and his upbringing and education became the responsibility of his mother and his eldest brother.
Dada was educated at the well known TK Ghose School, in Patna. The school has since seen alumni like the first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, and the first chief minister of Bengal, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy. Later, Dada attended at the Patna College.
In 1942 he married Shehr Bano Naqvi, my grandmother. She was born in Khujwa too, on January 25, 1925. She was the last of seven children of her parents. Her father was a prominent police officer of the Siwan District. Dadi never attended school but was educated by private tutors at home.
After their marriage, Dada started working for the Government of Bihar. At the time of partition in 1947, he was working in the town of Midnapur, West Bengal. On August 14, 1947, when Pakistan was born, he and his family had to migrate to Dhaka (now Bangladesh) which was declared East Pakistan at the time.
In Dhaka, Dada started his own transportation business. They lived in the Lakhi Bazar neighbourhood of Dhaka and bought a big house abandoned by a Hindu family who had left for India. On May 9, 1949, my father, Afsar Naqvi was born. He was the third child of what would be eight children.
This image of my grandparents was photographed in 1947, after they were newly married. Dada is dressed in a modern suit and bow-tie, along with a Jinnah Cap, named after the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Dadi is wearing a traditional chiffon sari and the symbol of elegance, a pearl necklace.
The generation of my grandparents were forced to travel to all parts of the Indian subcontinent due to war, economic instability, religious conflict, insecurities, fear of life, and other obstacles preventing them from providing the best and safe living conditions for their many children. Similarly, my own parents migrated from London, to Karachi, to Toronto in order to provide the best possible safest opportunities for my sisters and I to be strong, educated, and successful. In the process, both were forced to leave behind many loved ones and memories of the places they once called home.
Today, this photograph hangs in the living room of our family home in Toronto. Inspired by the similarities between my parents and grandparents life, I have been working on a series called Past & Present. This photographic series contains images that are an example of how generations of family history can often repeat themselves. You can view the images here.
Image and Text contributed by Tillotama Shome, Actress, Bombay
I was four years old and on my way to school with my father Anupam Kumar Shome. He was an Airforce officer. En route to school we got stuck in traffic. Apparently, there was a ‘shoot out’ up ahead. As the police cleared the traffic and guided us, I saw through the arches of crowded human legs, a body of a dead man, drenched in blood. The contrast of the red blood against white of snow was inexplicable and I was witnessing the lifelessness of death for the first time.
My father shepherded me back home. His face was gaunt and I kept crying all the way back home. The same day he took me out for a ride in a boat and suddenly said, “You saw what happened today? It is all because of religion.”
I had no idea who religion was, the names of religion’s parents, where he or she lived, what he or she did for a living, why he or she killed that man or did not save him. I was only four. I just cried.
Because of what he may have seen and experienced, I think my father had come to a conclusion and a decision that religion brings grief, so Hindu spiritual ceremonies or references like Pujas, pundits, shradhs, kundli (astrology), and havans were never a welcome guest in our household. My religion or requirement of some faith, became the need to be aware of the consequences of my actions, my thoughts and even my memories. I think which is why, many decades later, before I became an actress, I decided to go and work at a girls orphanage in Kupwara, Kashmir despite the extremely tense situations at the border, and against the advise of many others, including my father.
My memory of that dead man, my love for Kashmir, the beautiful memories held in photographs of our time in Srinagar became the mental armor that helped me. And that armor remained intact when we were questioned by militants at gunpoint. Fear of death at that moment was fogged out, as all I felt at that moment, was that the Militant holding a gun was just a few years older than I was when I saw a man die for the first time.
I felt sad for him and lucky that I had a privileged childhood. Our memories hold a key to our future in ways that can surprise us. Luckily, it sure did surprise me.