New faces in New Places – Mohamed M Keshavjee

The Indian Diaspora of the 20th century is a very interesting phenomenon, not only because it produced two of India’s greatest freedom fighters, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose, but it also produced characters who were shaped by the colonial empire and its multifaceted needs, and who, in turn, underwent massive transformation themselves, as the empire collapsed and ushered in a new era of nationalism in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. While information on this period is captured as part of post-colonial history and is reflected in the writings of many African authors, not much is known about Indian family life as such, and more particularly about the forces Indians had to grapple with, both in colonial times and in post-independence days in order to survive. The writings of authors such as VS Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul in the 70s, and latterly, the works of MG Vassanji and Rohinton Mistry, do cover parts of this period, but overall, sadly, the treatment of diasporic Indian life in literature appears to be still relatively sketchy till today. This subject covers a large swathe, as Indians migrated to, and settled in, places as diverse as Madagascar, Mauritius, South Africa, East Africa, Canada, Guyana, Trinidad, Malaysia, Myanmar and Fiji. It is precisely to capture this aspect of Indian life, that I ventured into writing “Diasporic Distractions -New Faces in New Places”.

The book, a collection of 16 short stories, based in various parts of the African Indian diaspora, Diasporic distractionshighlights the issues Indians had to grapple with, in the case of South Africa, during the apartheid days, and in the case of East Africa, with the advent of independence in the 1960s which was followed in the early 70s by their expulsion by Idi Amin which gave rise to yet another diaspora for them in the Western world. These forces of history created situations that people had to respond to, and Indians, like any other minority, had to find ways to survive. This gave rise to tensions, insecurities (political and social) new ways of thinking, preoccupations with emigration and a readiness to adapt to new situations that emigration often gives rise to. Being resilient, they were able to adapt, and each one of these stories reflects the creative ways in which the characters managed to think anew and out of the box. For me, as the author, while many of these situations were real, a fair amount of confabulation became necessary, as the real situation often became so unreal that one could only imagine what would happen next. And that is where these stories become more real than life, because they capture the real issues that Indians then were too preoccupied to ponder.

Each of these stories reflects some of these underlying tensions and is described with a sense of humour and irony and often has had me laughing to myself into the early hours of the morning. I ask myself “Did we really live through this?” and then realize that somehow we did, and what is more is that were able to survive!

This book of 16 short stories, written by Mohamed Keshavjee, 2016 recipient of the Gandhi King Ikeda Peace Award, captures the diasporic experiences of the overseas Indians in the 20th century. It would interest the academic, the curious historian and the lay reader. Available in ebook and hard copy at Silverfish Books in October 2017