As his forefathers came out of the conditions of the 19th century Indian subcontinent, he has become a witness to a constant journey over a hundred-year period of four countries. When Mohamed Keshavjee tells people from South Africa his story, they say, ‘This is my story. This happened to me.’ In today's world, he feels saddened by that picture of little Alan Kurdi. The writer's mind of Mohamed Keshavjee asks: Are we global, or are we not even local? Is there going to be a new form of ‘otherisation’? Still he talks of the journey of the search, the journey of the soul. And he sees "spark of hope" in a child.
Born in South Africa and of Indian descent, Mohamed Keshavjee is an expert in 'Alternative Dispute Resolution' (ADR), a member of the EU team of International Family Mediators and also a member of the Steering Committee of the Charter for the International Institute for the Study of Compassion. He has worked with the Aga Khan Development Network for 30 years. He presently resides in the UK and lectures at various universities.
During his recent visit to Dhaka to launch his book, Into that Heaven of Freedom, Keshavjee spoke to Prothom Alo’s Ayesha Kabir, of the present day diasporic dilemma, his own personal journey, his book, and more. Here is the text:
Prothom Alo: Tell us something about yourself.
Mohamed Keshavjee: I was born in South Africa. My grandparents came from India in 1901, my great uncle came in 1894. Throughout the 20th century our families got into business there.
I come from the Ismaili community. We set up schools, businesses, institutions and were integrated in the community. Conditions became politically and economically difficult for us because they would take our properties away and wouldn’t allow us to trade. Our parents brought us to Kenya in 1962. Subsequently I went to study in England. When the Asians were thrown out of Uganda, we decided to move to Canada. So it was a constant journey over a hundred-year period of four countries.
PA: Now something about your book?
MK: In 1972, Idi Amin had given Asians a 90-day deadline to leave Uganda. People living there for five generations suddenly had to pack up and leave. I was in Kenya. I saw a photo in the newspaper of an Asian woman with a baby in a train talking to an Indian high commission official on the platform, and three men in the next compartment looking out of the window. The caption said that they were being transported on the trains that their ancestors built. They don’t know where they were going. Suddenly that picture became a mirror for me. I looked at it and said, “Oh my God! Tomorrow it’s going to be me.” I had a South African passport. I was a trained lawyer and a qualified barrister, but I couldn’t go back to South Africa. I couldn’t get Kenyan citizenship. That’s when the story emerged. My past kicked in. I was an Indian in Africa. I asked, what am I doing here? How did I arrive here? The whole journey of movements joggled my mind.
The story of my book basically is how a people came out of the conditions of the 19th century Indian subcontinent. The Asian Diaspora today is about 20 million strong. What was it that propelled people to go out to different parts of the world? I realised it was the economic situation, the political situation in the last quarter of the 19th century.
PA: What was life like for the Asians in Africa?
MK: The largest segment of Asian settlement in Africa was in South Africa. It has over a million Indian people now, the highest Diaspora in Africa. Then there were Asians in Kenya, in Tanganyika, in Uganda. Indians were basically a commercial community. They were the middlemen that would take the subsistence products that the Africans produced and put it into the market. They had little shops that they’d keep open till late at night, selling soap, candles, baked beans, flour, bread and all sorts of things to the local population.
They were a piece of the economic landscape, but were not of the higher echelons. The political and legal system didn’t allow the Indians to go beyond a certain point. The white men were the political rulers. They didn’t want to go into these businesses. The black men didn’t have the capacity then to do that. So the Indians were a very critical mid-level link.
There were two major forces at display, the Boers who held the political levers of government and the British who kept the economic levers. But whether they were Boers or British, they said the ‘coloureds’ must be kept out, South Africa is a white man’s country. If you were white, you were right. If you were brown, stick around. If you were black, get back. That was the mantra. That was the colonial experience.
PA: Are there personal reflections in your book?
MK: Very much so. It was my very own struggle too. I was called to the Bar in England, but when I came back to Kenya, I couldn’t practice law because I had a South African passport. I was lucky that someone in the government was helpful because I did a murder case free of charge and it was through this case they said I could get into practicing. But then with the expulsions in Uganda I went onto Canada. I couldn’t practice without a degree from there, so I had to go all the way back to law school again. I started in Canada from scratch. So it was a struggle all the way for a birthright. So my own story is in there.
The book is my journey, but basically whenever I meet people from South Africa, they say, ‘This is my story. This happened to me.’ For instance, my story talks about a Tamil photographer in Johannesburg. He ended up as a messenger in the Indian mission in New York. Then by a twist of fate, he became Nehru’s photographer. So you see the ebb and flow of human fortunes.
The book represents that diasporic journey where if you are thrown out of a country for ideology or prejudice, you go to other countries and you face other difficulties. It’s a constant journey.
PA: Do you think things are changing for the better or for the worse, globally?
MK: Sadly, I think it’s going for the worse. I feel saddened by that picture of little Alan Kurdi. Imagine the people coming in boats today, kids dying in the Mediterranean, hordes of people all being shunted in little camps, bad sanitary conditions. Does the story sound like the 21st century or does it sound like the 19th century? It’s the same story of my granduncle coming on the boat. It’s the same story of people going to Trinidad in the 19th century. We are seeing it now, in France, in all parts of the world. They are saying, ‘Don’t come here. Go somewhere else. This is not your home, we don’t want you.’ What does it tell us?
There are unresolved conflicts in the world, genocides, ethnic wars. People for economic reasons are going to other parts of the world. Borders are being closed. Are we global, or are we not even local? We are going back to tribalism. Given the present global economic situation, I can understand these are genuine worries. Can a country absorb so many people? We see the limitations on the absorptive capacities of countries to take in large numbers of people. And so demagoguery appeals to the fears of the people. They are told, you’ll lose your jobs if these people come here. They’ll do wrong things. But can you see what this does to a human being?
In Britain, Brexit has created a feeling among many people that this is going to lead to a new xenophobia, a new form of racism. Racist attacks are taking place. Is there going to be a new form of ‘otherisation’, prejudice based on profiling, on discrimination? We don’t know what’s going to happen.
PA: The title of your book Into that Heaven of Freedom is from a Tagore poem?
MK: Yes, I decided that title many years ago. When I read the poem again, I say, my God, I could write another book on the global situation just using his poem and saying, is there anything in there that can speak to us?
One day when I was in university in Canada, I saw Tagore’s poem in an Indian embassy leaflet. I read, “Where the mind is without fear…” I read every line and I said, this is actually what I am aspiring to say about my life!
In today’s conflicted world, Tagore is talking about a deeper understanding of the human condition at various levels. In the poem which forms the title of my book, he is talking basically of nationalism, of narrow domestic walls. Basically he is very much saying what Pelikan had said, ‘tradition is the living faith of the dead.’ Tagore talks to us at various levels of the human condition today – poverty alleviation, the question of cultural integrity, identity, the idea of migration, the idea of racism. He is very mystical, talking about the inner search. There is a strong devotional literature in the Ismali community. It talks of the journey of the search, the journey of the soul.
PA: There is a lot of darkness around us. Do you see any a light of hope?
MK: Yes, I see tremendous hope. When a child is born, regardless of the station if life in which he or she is born, it’s a spark that is shot out in the universe. That child will one day be something. It is our duty to make sure that there are enabling circumstances.
Let me give you an instance of why I see hope. After the Ugandan crisis, there was a relative of mine who ended up penniless in Montreal, Canada. His wife was very ill and needed an operation. She went to the doctor and said, don’t worry, one day I will pay you. Today she and her husband have given the whole ambulatory service to the Sunnybrook Hospital in Ontario. They are the largest benefactors to eastern Canada’s hospitals.
Immigrants came penniless, but with a spark of hope. Einstein was the son of immigrants. Suzuki, the great geneticist, was the son of immigrants. Shafiq, the world famous heart-transplant surgeon, is the son of an immigrant. There are so many great persons who are all immigrants. There will be tragedy and pain. But out of suffering comes hope. As long as you are alive, there is hope.