The reverberations of British colonialism and imperialism are profound enough to be lapping at our cultural ideology and intellectual identity to this very day. The horrifying accounts of Partition and slavery are indelibly etched in our collective consciousness.
However, a more obscure chapter in the gambit of post-colonial horrors is the story of a group of unsuspecting Indians, who were shipped by the British to Uganda in the late 1800s, to work as indentured laborers on the Kenyan-Ugandan Railway. A few thousand of these workers chose to stay back in Uganda and thus created a small community of South Asians, which grew to almost a hundred thousand by the mid-20th century.
Author Neema Shah’s background is similar. Her family de ella left the Subcontinent in the 1940s and settled in East Africa, from where they moved again to the United Kingdom, where Shah was born.
Shah’s well-researched debut novel Kololo Hill explores the life and times of those South Asians who called Uganda home. The four main protagonists, whose perspectives propel the story forward, are a family of Indian Gujarati origins: Jaya, her sons Vijay and Pran, and Pran’s new bride Asha.
The characters are fictional, but the incidents narrated are based on actual events. Pran runs a marginally successful business — as did many Indians at the time in Uganda’s capital city Kampala. The South Asian community, in fact, amassed large amounts of wealth and profitfully employed the locals in their homes and businesses. This caused widespread resentment amongst the indigenous population, which looked upon these foreigners with suspicion and disdain.
A novel sensitively rekindles stories of South Asian families that were driven from their homes by ethnic pogroms in Gen Idi Amin’s Uganda and found themselves uprooted for a second time
Local Ugandans felt short-changed and marginalized by this upwardly mobile minority, and what ensued as a result of this resentment is something that has occurred numerous times in the annals of history: a villainous figurehead spews poison against a targeted group, galvanises the disenfranchised majority and turns them into barbarians thirsting for blood.
In 1971, Gen Idi Amin seized control of the East African country. The following year, he ordered the complete expulsion of South Asians. In his twisted mind, he was “giving Uganda back to the ethnic Ugandans.” People of Indian origins were given 90 days to evacuate, but had to leave behind their assets and wealth, all in an attempt at “re-Africanisation.” Shah writes: “Amin Dada is after blood, he does n’t care whose it is him.”
Women such as Jaya — who came to Uganda as young brides — are horrified, but helpless. Jaya’s sons Pran and Vijay, amongst others, struggle to make sense of this altered reality as this is the only home they have known.
There are disappearances, killings and rape as Gen Amin gives a free hand to his henchmen to inflict what is essentially ethnic cleansing upon the Asian community. Curfews are set, houses are abandoned, cars are left by the curbside and bustling neighborhoods turn into ghost towns overnight.
As they start collecting the meager belongings they are allowed to take with them, realization dawns upon the small family that they do not all have the same passports, and will consequently be sent to different countries.
Sadly, this was not uncommon during that period and broken families pined for each other across decades and across oceans. Sometimes minors were not spared either. This is eerily similar to the Mexican-American border debacle of our current times, where families have been brutally ripped apart.
As we journey with this family through their adversities and tribulations, the women in the story truly shine. Jaya is not your stereotypical, conservative South Asian lady. She has staunch views and is not shy about expressing them. Shah has taken the time to etch her out of her with love, but not without flaws, and Jaya leads as the true matriarch of the family, treating her sons and daughter-in-law with kindness and humanity.
Asha’s character is also fleshed out with nuance and depth. Shah’s writing of her brought her to life in my mind as a young girl full of hope, with a staunch morality that makes her endearing. Pran is perhaps the least likeable; his secrecy and obtuse nature of him threatens to upend the wellbeing of his family as well as his marriage of him.
In the novel’s second part, we journey to England where Jaya, Asha and Vijay arrive at a refugee camp. We engulf ourselves in each character’s emotional voyage, as they process trauma and acclimatise to their new reality.
But it is not easy. From their stately mansions and the vast expanses and sunny hills of Kampala, the refugees have to adjust to the urine-soaked, graffiti-covered pigeonhole apartments of London. Despite the kindness of British volunteers who care for the refugees until they can stand on their own feet, this is indeed a difficult and traumatic transition. Some people power through, recalibrating to this altered reality. Others succumb to the tight, unyielding walls that enclose them.
We root for Jaya as she gradually starts adjusting to, and appreciating, a more Western style of living. Asha finds an independence as a working woman that she didn’t know she could possess. Vijay works a low-paying, blue collar job — as do so many immigrants who accept menial work for which they are painfully overqualified. Some manage to break free from this life and flourish; others struggle endlessly, waiting for fortune to favor them.
The stories of this community have long since been forgotten. “How can you disappear from history books you’d never been inside in the first place,” writes Shah. The horrors of murder, torture and rape are alive only in the memories of those who experienced them. No one knows the exact number of people that were killed or taken by Gen Amin, but some estimates suggest upward of 500,000 South Asians.
Shah writes the story with sensitivity and care, without being didactic and preachy. The story propels forward on the momentum of the characters, all of whom are authentic, if not always likeable.
Kololo Hill tugs at your heartstrings as the emotions of yearning for your homeland, searching for lost loved ones and dealing with the “ruined honor” of the girls that were taken and then returned, seem all too real to those people who lived through those times .
If you’re looking for a substantial read, make it this one.
The reviewer is co-founder of My Bookshelf, an online library which delivers books to you and picks them up when you’re done reading. www.mybookshelf.com.pk, @mybookshelfpk
By Neema Shah
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 13th, 2022