What the Nowrojees remember living takes them and the reader furthest back to the time of India’s Independence in August 1947 (one of the titles) as lived in Kenya, to the war which created the state of Bangladesh and to South Asians and Africans transplanted from East Africa to the UK and the USA, either as immigrants or students. The words duka and dukawalla feature repeatedly in the narratives, presumably on the assumption, there being no glossary, that every reader should know they mean ‘shop’ and ‘shopkeeper,’ respectively, in Hindi.
With the brevity associated with short story writing, Nowrojee gives episodic insights into the lives of his characters, from story to story. For example, we meet the time serving father whose labours in Nairobi ensure that one of his children ends up studying at a prestigious college in London. Then there is the couple for whom Uganda provided the opportunity to have a child. And the white coloniser who cannot abide the realisation that an Indian has become so uppity as to be an equal expert in British history. And the adult student from Uganda, now at Harvard University, who conveniently forgets his own past to denounce Idi Amin as a dictator. And the government functionary who loses his job unfairly owing to the anti-corruption zeal of the moment. And the dukawalla under surveillance by the colonial police, on suspicion of being a Mau Mau sympathiser. All these are welcome manifestations of history made flesh. What is questionable is whether the author has unerringly respected the rules of the genre.
Professionally, Pheroze Nowrojee is a well respected lawyer. In pursuit of his literary passions he has established himself as a notable poet, a children’s writer (Pio Gama Pinto: Patriot for Social Justice), a social commentator (A Vote for Kenya: The Elections and the Constitution and Conserving the Intangible) and a biographer (A Kenyan Journey.) He it was who wrote the text for an exhibition mounted by the National Museum of Kenya entitled ‘The Asian African Heritage: Identity and Belonging.’ So, only a novel and a play are yet to reach the public domain.
On the strength of DUKAWALLA and other stories, Nowrojee’s short story writing skills could be honed yet further. Ticking off the traditional boxes, the settings for some of his stories are not adequately vivid. For instance, there is mention of Government Road and Desai Road but only River Road is brought to life as a location in Kenya. Similarly, Leicester in England is evoked by name only. Next up is characterisation and in this regard, too, more information would be better: in all too many instances we are introduced to the-man-with-no-name and description often supersedes dialogue. There is no quibbling about Nowrojee’s recourse to plot and structure, throughout, nor is there about point of view, for the omniscient narrator is generally favoured, mostly with success. His style is invitingly simple. And Nowrojee is adept at providing an unexpected twist to end most of his stories.
Pointedly, it is in the area of conflict or tension that many of the stories fall short. Hence, the earlier reference to a ‘how-to bending, expository first line.’ Short stories are meant to grab the reader’s attention and take it through a beginning, middle and an end without ever letting go of it. So, at the end of one story we know why a child was given a certain name but why has how she came to be born in the first place not been made uniquely interesting? So, the apparition of a spiritual leader may have been seen at a railway town between Mombasa and Nairobi but how did that affect those who saw it? So, a former student turns up, unexpectedly, in a teacher’s life after many years and many miles but what had happened to him, in the interim? So, a thousand pangas or machetes have been ordered to be taken to Kigali but how is the reader bound to know what they will be used for? So, a lawyer is preparing for a court case and reads Nehru’s independence speech in a newspaper but how does that change his own life? So, a man goes out, jogging, and disappears without trace but who would have wanted him to be eliminated? So, you don’t have to be necessarily South Asian to experience ill-will towards your business enterprise but is that a revelation in itself?
The proverbial challenge to ‘show, not tell’ is a particular challenge to short story writers. The tales in DUKAWALLA and other stories are sufficient unto themselves and, especially for younger readers who do not have cause to remember, they are very satisfying in their evocation of days gone by. However, I look forward to reading more short stories from Pheroze Nowrojee, already master of several literary trades, but told with more gripping craft.
Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu
Word Count: 938 words