Shooting an Elephant

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My paternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Gulamhussein Ajania

The Oral Storytelling Tradition

I grew up in the oral storytelling tradition and my paternal Indian grandfather, Gulamhussein Gulamali Ajania (pictured above with my grandmother), told me many stories about village India when I was growing up in Kenya. He also told me stories of his travels as a young man to Rangoon, Burma.

My maternal grandmother was also a great storyteller.

My maternal grandfather also emigrated to British East Africa.

However, my maternal grandfather emigrated not from India but from the port of Gwader, on the Arabian Sea, bordering Oman, Persia, Afghanistan and India. He was ‘a person of Gwader’, a ‘Gwaderi’. His name was Hassanali Gwaderi. I have written about him in a section of this website, The Khyber.

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George Orwell (circled) in the Burmese Imperial Police, 1923

Everything has to start somewhere

 
Everything has to start somewhere.

An idea for a first novel. An idea to emigrate to another country and to begin a new life.

I was born in East Africa because my grandfather emigrated from village India to East Africa. However, Africa was not his first choice. It was his ‘Plan B’. My grandfather first choice was Burma.

My paternal grandfather was born at the turn of the last century and when he was 17, circa 1920, he decided to seek his fortune in the lumber business in Rangoon, Burma and spent several years there, some prosperous, some not. In the end, he decided that the alternative to escaping from the poverty of the Indian village of Nawanagar where he grew up, was to seek his fortune in East Africa.

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The reigning Maharaja of Nawanagar in my grandfather’s time

His hopes of making his fortune in Rangoon were dashed and so he decided to opt for going to East Africa since Burma and East Africa were all part of the British Empire. There was only an Empire passport so he could travel and settle in any region within vast reaches of Empire.

Rangoon brought him no fortune but Rangoon brought me a treasure trove of stories when I was a boy.

He told me stories about his years in Burma in the 1920′s and so I have always been fascinated by Burma during this time period. There were Burmese Indians from Gujarat and Punjab, Gurkhas from Nepal, Pashtuns from Afghanistan, Pathans from Pakistan… all descending upon Burma at that time.

Everything has to start somewhere. An idea for a first novel. An idea to emigrate to another country.

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George Orwell and my grandfather were a few years apart in age.

And when George Orwell graduated from Eton in 1922, he accepted a five year commission in the Indian Imperial Police in Rangoon, Burma. He did this because he could not afford to go to university. And this experience formed the core of his first novel, Burmese Days, which elucidates the rigid racism and rigorous regimented rule of the Raj in 1920′s Rangoon. For me, it is a fascinating book. Here is why:

I have two separate accounts of that time period: my grandfather’s version from the Indian oral story-telling tradition, and Orwell’s Western tradition in the form of a novel.

I have two separate viewpoints of that time period: my grandfather’s version from the Indian oral story-telling tradition, and Orwell’s, from a Western (British) literary tradition in the form of a novel.

Kathiawar village in Gujarat, India, where my grandfather grew up before going to Burma

Kathiawar village, Nawanagar, India, where my paternal grandfather grew up

Shooting an Elephant

The fact that my grandfather and Orwell were in the same place at the same time is a fascinating concept to contemplate. And there is one fact that corroborates from both their accounts – there was a lot of reverse racism against young white policeman in Rangoon.

In his essay “Shooting an Elephant” Orwell describes racial tension in Burma in the 1920′s:
“As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were thousands of them in town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.”
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