Literary Review

From two homelands to twice migrants

Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora; Sana Aiyar, Harvard Historical Studies, $42.16.  

The term diaspora connotes the dispersion of a people away from their homeland. The country of origin remains the distant ‘civilizational’ homeland but within a few generations, the diaspora begins to engage with the proximate, ‘territorial’ homeland also. The framework for studying any diaspora must therefore include a second homeland to which members of the diaspora have “… made territorial and generational claims.” For Indians in this case, “This homeland was constituted in the diasporic hinterland, that is, Kenya.” (p.7) With this enlarged perspective for a start, Sana Aiyar weaves a vivid and fascinating story of the Indian diaspora in Kenya in her well-researched, exhaustively referenced, and yet eminently readable book.

Building on wide-ranging scholarship, the conceptual framework is explained in detail in the Introduction. In the next six chapters, the author diligently unfolds developments spread over eight decades starting with the setting up of the British East Africa Company in 1888 and culminating in the exodus of the Indian diaspora in 1968, after independence in 1963. All chapters come alive not merely with interesting facts but with a wealth of details about the key players, their backgrounds, achievements, trials and tribulations. The extensive archival consultations by the author in three continents and her professionalism as a historian and historiographer stand out. The copious, chapter-wise notes constitute invaluable reference material. The Epilogue uses the play, Journey to the West, brilliantly to reiterate the framework of two homelands and “…to reveal the connected history of India and Kenya” (p.300).

A number of interesting features set the India-Kenya story apart. Though Kenya had received Indian traders from at least the 16th century, the surge in the arrival of Indians in larger numbers since the last decade of the 19th century was triggered by British designs to colonise that country. In the 80 years ending 1968 that is the focus of the book, the number of Indians resident in Kenya increased over twenty-five-fold, from 6,878 to 176,613 (p.2). This was fed by multiple streams of immigrants. Long-established merchants were joined by smaller traders, skilled workers, subordinate civil servants in supervisory positions over Africans and some 40,000 indentured railway workers. They emigrated from areas as diverse as Punjab and Goa and included people of all faiths (p.5). They had different outlooks and aspirations. While the big trading firms saw in this a means of pursuing their expansionary dreams, retailers doubled up as procurement agents-cum-money-lenders and penetrated the interior. The support workers were content to be circular migrants maintaining their contacts with India to find brides and send their children there, particularly for higher education.

Sana Aiyar’s is a fair and empathetic account of the sojourn of the Indian diaspora in Kenya. It raises many interesting questions though. The ‘civilizational consciousness’ invoked by the diaspora across the Indian Ocean may imply nothing more than endogamous marriages and other social mores. In any case, the locals saw the Indians in less flattering light. The Economic Commission report of 1919 noted that their ‘incurable repugnance to sanitation and hygiene’ made them a ‘menace’ to the Africans, who were ‘more civilized than the Indian’ (p.58). This biased view may not have mattered had the dukkawallahs earned the goodwill of the Africans and not resorted to unfair trade practices or insulted them as jungli (p.117). They got it back when bania got into Swahili as a derogatory term!

Given the diverse backgrounds of the immigrants that came to constitute the Indian diaspora in Kenya, one cannot but notice the absence of political leadership among them cutting across professional groups that could have reconciled their conflicting positions. Given the continuing socio-economic backwardness of the Africans, a more perceptive diaspora leadership might have anticipated both the inevitability and intensity of the Africanisation drive post-independence. This is important because the steady emigration of 6,000 Indians annually since independence in 1963 became a panic flood of 33,000 people between October 1967 and March 1968 with the passing of the Immigration and Trade Licensing bills (p.277). Surely, the irony of persons with two homelands ending up as twice migrants must have struck the author!

Finally, the author notes in the Epilogue that over 25,000 or 35 per cent of the Indians living in Kenya in 2009 had not taken up Kenyan citizenship (p.301). This does not quite resonate with the ‘We are all Kenyans now’ sentiment of 2013 that the book starts with (p.2). Does this mean that citizenship is no longer important or relevant in the post-colonial but global world? Are immigrants today indeed wandering spirits who believe more in the serai than in the destination? With the nature of work/employment and the mobility that goes with it vastly changed, it is not easy to answer the question whether the migrant of the 21st century is a ‘non-belonger’ (p.290) or ‘roho tabu’ (p.299). Can one therefore postulate a diasporic consciousness that is premised on not just two but multiple homelands, all but one of which is ‘cross-civilizational’ rather than merely ‘civilizational’?

It is rarely that one comes across a book by a specialist in one discipline that is so accommodative of the other perspectives. The book not only blends rigorous historiographic study with deep insights into diasporic consciousness but also sets the bar very high for future scholarship and writing on such topics. Every other theatre of Indian migration that the author refers to (Fiji, Mauritius, Natal, Burma, Malaya and the Caribbean, p.4) — not to mention the Gulf and Sri Lanka — deserves such a book. It will not be easy to write one anywhere near as compelling but we must hope that this book inspires many young scholars to take that up as a challenge.

Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora; Sana Aiyar, Harvard Historical Studies, $42.16.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 11:56:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/indians-in-kenya/article7641329.ece

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