The oft-repeated references to Taban lo Liyong’s assertion that Kenya is a literary desert are best refuted by the proliferation of magazines that accommodated creative writers from Kenya and elsewhere during the very period the Sudanese poet was decrying the existence of the so-called desert.
Among the leading lights of creative writing at the time was Rajat Neogy, who founded Transition, a journal that accommodated contributions from intellectuals and creative writers of the era, from Kenya and beyond.
The legendary editor was only 22 when he founded Transition magazine in Kampala, Uganda, in 1961.
The story of his life and the experiences he went through in his career are intriguing, particularly at this time when the most lauded African writers initially made their marks courtesy of Western-based journals.
Newly-arrived from studies in England, Neogy could hardly have known just what kind of niche the magazine would cut for itself as a leading forum for African and world intellectuals. Nor could the writer, who died 15 years ago in San Francisco, USA, have imagined that he himself would become a legend in his own lifetime.
The magazine he founded would, over the years, rise to become a world-class journal of political, literary and cultural affairs.
Initially designed as the definitive organ for East African writers and intellectuals, it soon morphed into Africa’s leading intellectual magazine, with top names proud to be published in it.
These included presidents, but also African and world literary giants like Nadine Gordimer, James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, and the then budding American writer Paul Theroux, whose travel books later became classics.
Apart from the budding Chinua Achebe, the intellectual community in the then small city of Kampala included luminaries such as Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, Ali Mazrui and Ezekiel Mphahlele.
Also making frequent appearances were transcontinental creative personalities like Wole Soyinka, the poet Chris Okigbo and the German expatriate Ulli Beier, as well as Cameron Duodu from Ghana.
Also in the magic mix were established or upcoming literary figures-cum-political activists like poet Dennis Brutus and others from South Africa, the then James Ngugi (now Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o) from Kenya and David Rubadiri from Malawi.
It was actually in the latter country that Theroux himself had begun his African odyssey before finally ending up at Makerere University.
After Neogy’s death, Theroux, with awe, recalled the dizzying heights the magazine scaled, eventually becoming a must-read publication for anybody interested in Africa and its literary, cultural and political affairs.
“It is hard to imagine a little magazine that influenced writers on a whole vast continent,” he wrote in an obituary for his old friend Neogy, “but that is what happened with Transition.”
Also commenting on Rajat Neogy’s tenure at the helm, the American professor, Henry Louis Gates, was full of praises for him. “This man created an African-based journal of letters that everybody in the intellectual world, it seemed, was excited about. He fought fascism in blackface, and that was rare and courageous,” he said.
But as it turned out, Neogy’s pioneering work carried with it an element of danger at a personal level. The magazine’s daring candidness resulted in his running afoul of Obote’s government, which detained him in 1968.
Neogy was arrested and charged with sedition after articles critical of the government were published in Transition, which ceased publication for a while.
Acquitted of the charge one-and-a-half years later, the demoralised Neogy left Uganda to settle in Ghana, from where he continued to publish the magazine for two years. His detention by Obote’s government had come as a kind of baptism of fire for him, though, and had debilitating effects on his earlier drive.
That was not lost to his close friend and associate, Wole Soyinka, who took over the editor’s chair. The man, who was to eventually become a Nobel literature laureate, later wrote that after his detention “something had snapped in Rajat’s sensitive soul, like one who had looked into the heart of evil and found the harmony of existence permanently untuned.”
Not surprisingly, one of the magazine’s valued contributors was Neogy’s wife, Barbara Lapcek, who wrote about Neogy’s infamous scrap with Obote. Lapcek had been married to Neogy in 1965 as his second wife, after his divorce from first wife Charlotte Bystrom, who was from Sweden, and whom he had married in 1960.
The changes in his marital situation were for Neogy as dramatic as the changes in fortune that were soon to govern his life, and which were aptly captured by Lapcek. Her recollections were carried in Transition in 1971 in an article aptly titled ‘A Matter of Transition’.
As for the other contents of Transition, its fare was extremely varied, and not surprisingly included material from top political figures and even serving heads of state.
This was in the form of essays, articles, speeches and policy statements by the likes of Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Uganda’s Milton Obote and Kenya’s Tom Mboya.
An admirer, a Nairobi-based South African refugee named Ntongela Masilela, years later described it in glowing terms.
In an article titled ‘Nairobi, the Capital of African Political Exiles in the 1960s,’ Masilela wrote about the magazine’s influence and impact on the youth and the budding intelligentsia of the time. “…this great review shaped our generation in Kenya, (and) for that matter in the whole of Africa, by encouraging and inspiring us to develop a passion for the written word, the culture of the written word.”
It was in 1971 that Transition was revived in Ghana, but the founding editor only ran it for two years, before eventually handing over the reins to Wole Soyinka, who took over as editor in 1973.
Neogy himself made a beeline for San Francisco, California, where he was to eventually die at the age of 57, and where he at one time published a short-lived neighbourhood newspaper.
During Soyinka’s term at the helm, Transition became increasingly radical and contentious. One issue carried a satirical image of the then dreaded Ugandan dictator Idi Amin on the cover, with the legend “Karasi! (Finish him!”)
Soyinka was in his element when dealing with the likes of Amin. Having had frightful encounters with home-grown dictators, as he was to continue doing in later years in his native Nigeria, he found Amin an irresistible target for his ruthless pummelling.
Neogy had been ailing for some time before his death, suffering from an inflamed pancreas. His marriage to Lapcek was to end after a decade. On moving to the US, Neogy was married to Djamilla McNutt, a union that ended in yet another divorce.
From his different wives Neogy sired four sons and three daughters, who were scattered around the world. Apart from his daughter Renu who lived in California, his other survivors included the four sons, Gardar Larusson of Reykjavik, Iceland, Siddharta and Erisa Neogy of Pondicherry, India, and Kamal Neogy of Sonoma, California.
His two other daughters were Tayu Neogy of Manhattan and Ayisha Neogy, also of Sonoma, California; he was also survived by his Canada-based mother, Sumitra Neogy, of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and a granddaughter.