So near yet so far: Of our common history with Indian subcontinent and my regrets

Saturday July 28 2018

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is received by President Museveni at State House Entebbe on July 24, 2018. PHOTO | COURTESY | PRESIDENTIAL PRESS

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is received by President Museveni at State House Entebbe on July 24, 2018. PHOTO | COURTESY | PRESIDENTIAL PRESS 

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Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, has recently been on the African continent, almost literally on the heels of the President of Africa’s newest and most enthusiastic friend. But I will not go there, because of my well-known fear of political tangles. But I could not help wondering about that giant of a subcontinent whose destiny is intriguingly intertwined with that of Africa, including East Africa.

I realised recently, and with considerable surprise, that I have never been to India. I was surprised because this fascinating land is such an obvious destination for a wandering minstrel like me that I could not find any reason why I have never been to it.

At a personal level, I remembered that the first comprehensive review of my early fiction came from India. I even noticed on the internet recently that someone has translated my play, 'The Bride,” into Hindustani. Even shortly after I returned to Makerere in the late 1990s, an Asian gentleman with industrial connections mentioned to me that he was aware of my writings and asked if I might be interested in a plan to promote them in India. But I was too deliriously preoccupied with the thrills of “homecoming” to follow up on the matter. Thus goes the story of my missed Indian opportunity.

But here now is the whole of the vast subcontinent returning to my mind. It comprises not only India but also such countries as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), and even Myanmar (Burma) that is frequently in the news these days for all the wrong reasons. This expansive region was, for centuries, the heart (the “Jewel in the Crown”) of the British colonial empire.

Indeed, it is “India” (as the Brits called that whole area of their influence) that earned the British monarch the title of Emperor or Empress. Thus, on her accession to the throne in 1837, Queen Victoria was officially designated, among other titles, as “Victoria, Empress of India …, Defender of the Faith”.

But there, I have already hinted at one of the main reasons why I should have hiked off to India a long time ago. We in East Africa share a very strong, close and significant relationship with the Indian subcontinent, resulting most strikingly from our shared history of being colonised by the British. This has given us not only a common language, English, but also such a close interaction among our people, at every level of society, that it is impossible to imagine East Africa today without an Indian or, more accurately, South Asian presence.


The economic aspect, ranging from the pioneers that dared horrors and terrors like the carnivores of the Tsavo to build the “Lunatic Express” (also called the Uganda Railway) through the “dukawallah” grassroots economy to today’s multi-billion-shilling industrial and real estate enterprises, is all well-known and well-documented.

But a lot more needs to be learnt and said about the fascinating and largely successful experiment of mutual human accommodation and absorption resulting from our ties with the subcontinent. We fitfully talked about this, in the light of Kenya’s epoch-making recognition of its Asian population as one of its ethnic entities. Some commentators wondered whether we should not be moving determinedly towards one “Kenyan” ethnicity instead of naming new ones, especially in view of the latent spectre of tribalism.

To this objection the tentative answer was that tribalism or ethnicism, which is the evil of discriminating against people on the basis of their origins, is distinct from ethnicity, which is an objective recognition of origins and cultural identity. As to whether the Asian “ethnic” community was sufficiently integrated into the national fabric to be regarded as genuinely “local”, the obvious answer is that integration is not a happening but a process, in which even the other ethnic groups are still involved, and no ad hoc criteria should be applied to any one community.

But I am digressing. I was talking about my own need to experience India and understand it better in terms of its relevance to me. But even here, the ground remains slippery. Indeed, the root of my curiosity is the realisation that I know very little about this community of my neighbours. Even the little I think I know may not stand up to really searching scrutiny.

My claim above, for example, that East Africa’s relationship with the subcontinent dates from British colonialism is far from accurate. India and its environs form a geo-cultural sphere with the East African coast that, I believe, is sometimes referred to as the “dhow” area, connected obviously by the Indian Ocean, crisscrossed since time immemorial by the sophisticated crafts generically known as dhows.

There were thus communities from the subcontinent settled on the Eastern African coast and its adjacent islands, like Mauritius, long before the trans-Tsavo, trans-Rift Valley railway. Now that I am on the inquisitive trail, I will certainly look at the communities in South Africa, where Mahatma Gandhi, India’s independence hero, lived and worked for many years.

Briefly, the more I think about India and Africa, the more I realise how much we have in common. I also note with embarrassment how little I know about that great land that has given us not only economic opportunities but also a significant community of relatives. The embarrassment is borne of the conviction (in the sense of feeling both convinced and convicted) that my ignorance is the result of my indifference. India and its many treasures should not be taken for granted.

So, do not be surprised to hear I am off to the subcontinent one of these days. I will certainly not wait till I am unwell and then go for specialised treatment as a health “tourist”, as our beloved Surgeon put it recently. I may even consider a sally into Pakistan, now that Imran Khan, the celebrated cricketer, is likely to assume state power there.

I believe in the ability of sportsmen to play fair and square, even in politics.