Happy Birthday Uncle Amin!
Note: This post to Uncle Amin will remain only until August 15, 2014 and then be removed from this site.
My dearest Uncle Amin,
I find it so interesting that your birthday on August 15th, falls on Indian Independence Day.
India may have become ‘independent’ from the British in 1947, but have we, as an Indian diaspora, ever really become ‘independent’ from our ‘Britishness’?
It used to be said that the British Empire was won on the playing fields of English public schools such as Eton. Consider that decades after Indian Independence in 1947, your son Feisal attended Cranleigh School, and Uncle Nurdin’s daughter Farah attended Roedean School.
The Indian Subcontinent may have become ‘independent’ of British rule in 1947, but our very own Indian souls still yearned for this connection to Britain.
Those who are conquered,’ wrote the philosopher Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century, ‘always want to imitate the conquerer in his main characteristics – his clothing, his crafts, and all his distinct traits and customs’.
I have thought about these things for almost half a century now, and I trace this back directly to when I was about eight years old in Apajibapa and Mummiji’s home in Parklands.
Before I was seven years old, Apajibapa shared wonderful stories with me and we spoke in Khachi, which I spoke fluently and flawlessly until the age of seven. Until the age of seven I was mainly taught by Mummiji when she worked at the Aga Khan Nursery School in Nairobi.
Then, I went to London for the first time and stayed with my parents in Chiswick and attended Chiswick and Bedford Park Preparatory School, which was feeder school for schools like Cranleigh and Roedean.
I also recall that you, Uncle Amin, were renting a room in the same house of Mr. and Mrs. Rickard in Chiswick, while you were working for Taylor Woodrow. I recall how I loved your showing me the telescope you had in your room in Chiswick.
I clearly remember that when I returned to Nairobi on a summer vacation at age eight, just a year later, my Khachi accent and my ‘pidgin’ English had been obliterated and replaced by a posh English accent.
I was visiting Apajibapa and Mummiji’s home in Parklands.
Mummiji was preparing kookoo-pakha, and Apaji was plying me with delicious orange Zanzibar halva, wrapped in woven reeds, and bright yellow ‘mehsoob’ and pale yellow ‘ghathia’! I was happily feasting upon all these goodies and talking incessantly and dear Apajibapa was listening to me quietly and waiting patiently until I stopped talking and then he paused and looked at me and he said quietly:
“Pileh, what have they done to your tongue?”
It was not just the words, it was the desperate and concerned expression on his kind face.
His expression communicated volumes.
I shall never forget it.
For almost half century, I have been haunted by those words by Apajibapa and by the profound expression on his face. Gradually over the years, I think I have come to understand more clearly what Apajibapa may have been thinking. I was so close to him and I think my childlike intuition sensed a deep loss, almost a mourning of a childhood wonderment and joy that had been erased permanently.
Before I had gone to school in England, Apajibapa would tell me wonderful stories about Gwader and Zanzibar, about Pathan soldiers, about British officers he observed as a young man. There were so many stories that seemed to involve the same three brothers and their names always seemed to be Badrudin, Sadrudin and Kamrudin. It was this connection I had with my wonderful grandfather, Apajibapa, that was filled with wonder and joy. It was truly magical and awe-inspiring.
It was also very warm and soulful.
The language we spoke in, Khachi, was also so much more melodic and free, rather than the cold articulation of the posh English accent I inherited a year after I went attended Chiswick and Bedford Park Preparatory School. The year I spent in England not only changed my ‘tongue’ it imported a slightly chillier breeze of coldness and cynicism into my soul. I had metamorphosed from a free-spirited Indian child to a more reserved, more restrained, more measured, more articulated English schoolboy.
A subtle cold draft of Englishness had breezed in as soon as the door had been left even slightly ajar.
I could plainly see in Apajibapa’s expression that he was looking at his grandchild with a touch of bewilderment. Apajibapa must have thought: How had this happened in just one year? How was it that his grandchild had gone from a Khachi-speaking Indian boy to sounding like a pukkha sahib?
When we consider what men of Apajibapa’s generation had lived through and witnessed under the British Raj, we can appreciate the depths of what may have been going through his mind when he said:
“Pileh, what have they done to your tongue?”
I imagine that Apajibapa must have realized that ultimately, there was no such things as ‘Indian Independence Day’. Yes, India become independent in 1947, yes, Kenya became independent in 1963, but had our tongues and our souls ever really become independent of the legacy of the British Raj?
I imagine that these were the thoughts running through Apajibapa’s mind when he said to me:
“Pileh, what have they done to your tongue?”.
It was those words from Apajibapa which have stayed with me to this very day, that have also made me appreciate the rich legacy that both my grandfathers, Apajibapa and Bapa, left me in the stories they shared with me as a child. I have felt compelled to share and pass on the spirit of these stories from my grandfathers, with the recognition that certain cultural stories, just like certain species on our planet, are at risk of endangerment and need to be nurtured, preserved and cherished for future generations.
Most of all, I have come to realize that there is no greater wealth or inheritance than such a rich and abundant treasure trove of stories which I was privileged to have been gifted from both my grandfathers.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Elliot