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To Kolkata, via Kenya

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T he other day, on an idle afternoon, casually intrigued by the old trading links between India and Africa, I thought I would like to go to Kenya. Ideally by sea from Gujarat. This is how it began: with a trip to the Kenyan coast.

When I get to Kenya, I asked myself, should I not spend time in the coffee territory so memorably evoked in the book Out of Africa (“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”)? Of course I should. And once inland it would be ridiculous not to visit Lake Victoria, immense as a sea in the middle of a continent. At this point I would have two choices. Make north towards Ethiopia where I might consider the obscurities of the Jamaican Rastafari religion, which regards as its God a twentieth-century Ethiopian emperor. Or more likely I would wish to trawl along the periphery of that colossal water body and enter Uganda, the site of the terrible Indian (mainly Gujarati) exodus enforced by Idi Amin, and of books as disparate as Naipaul’s A Bend in the River and Jane Bussman’s The Worst Date Ever .

My blood was up. I was pulling up maps and links. Once in Uganda, I decided, surely the lure of Rwanda would be irresistible — and beyond that lay the challenge of mighty impenetrable lored Congo in the heart of Africa. To traverse Congo. How easy to say it in a sentence!

In my mind, of course, I had done it. Indeed, I was now firmly and fondly looking forward to the Atlantic coast; I would reach it via Cameroon, a journey whose mood I anticipated by listening to the lovely original Cameroonian rendition of Shakira’s World Cup song, ‘Waka Waka’. Already I could feel the west coast, the energy, pulse and chaos of Nigeria, the highlife music and red mud of Ghana.

Around here, I considered briefly, my journey must end: on the Slave Coast. The region was of particular interest to me. My novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care , is set in the Caribbean. Many of its characters are descendants of Africans, transported from the Slave Coast to work sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. I had longed to be able to visit here and understand their history.

It occurred to me, however, that if I was standing there on that coast looking towards the Caribbean, it only made sense to press on towards there. And once in the Caribbean, it would be absurd to return in the direction I had come. Much better to voyage on Pacific-wards and into Asia. And so, winding, and eating, my way through the East, I would arrive one day in Kolkata.

I am half Bengali and half Gujarati. I have sometimes thought about making the trip across India, from the western flank to the eastern. On an idle day with the mind racing, I realized it would be optimal to make this journey another way. The world, after all, is round.

(Rahul Bhattacharya’s novel The Sly Company of People Who Care won The Hindu Literary Prize for Best Fiction 2011)

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