Authors: M Venkatachalam, R Modi, and J Salazar

Publ: African Studies Centre Leiden (ASCL)

Reviewer: Ramnik Shah

According to the publisher`s blurb, ‘Common Threads explores the ties that bind India and Africa through the material medium of cloth, from antiquity to the present’ and it goes on: ‘(c)loth made in India has been sold across African markets for millennia, by Indian, African, and European traders’, resulting in ‘rich stories of bi-directorial migrations of peoples, across the Indian Ocean, the exchange of visual aesthetics, and the co-production of cultures in the two geographies’.

Actually the book`s remit spans far beyond that, into the wider history of the trade and its ramifications right up to the second decade of this century.  It is a highly accomplished academic work by the three co-authors well versed in their respective specialisms.  What we have is a truly fascinating account of Indo-African dynamics over the manufacture and sale of fabrics over more than a thousand years. The book is beautifully produced, with a mass of colourful graphics, photos (143, with a full list), maps, illustrations and other documentation. Above all, what impresses is its clear language and narrative style, complete with extensive end notes and a lucid glossary of terms.  The bibliography of books and articles alone is spread over some 10 pages.

Part I examines the `Connected Histories of the Indian Ocean Trade` under such varied chapter headings as,  inter alia, `Indian cloth in the trading systems of antiquity`; the `allure of Indian-ness`; and `Indian cloth as gift and currency`.  Other chapters highlight the centrality of Gujarat and Kutch in the Indian Ocean system, the rise of Bombay, the place of American cloth and Japanese exports, slave women and the evolution of the kanga, and status and fashion in early modern East Africa. 

Kanga is described as a cloth with a thick border on all four sides, measuring 66 x 44 inches, worn in pairs around the waist and chest, with Swahili or English proverbs often imprinted upon the kangas, while kitenge refers to any non-kanga type of continuous fabric, 6 or 12 yards, printed in a variety of styles ranging from ‘wax prints’ to batiks with a thin border.

We are told that ‘Indian cloth enjoyed a global reputation on account of its high quality, variety and colours’ (all these are examined in depth in the book) whose popularity and usage varied in a number of ways in the different cultural zones of East and West Africa.

The two trajectories of the trade across East and West Africa evolved through different routes. Geographically East Africa is of course closer to India, and we are referred (at pp 35-36) to historical texts documenting the trade going back to Greco-Roman times in this sphere, adding a great deal of detail to the familiar story of Indian Ocean trading connections over hundreds of years.

As for the more distant West Africa, Indian cloth entered local markets there through intermediaries – Arabs, Ottomans, other Africans and Europeans – via land routes across the Middle East, Southern Europe and the Sahara. Again, there is much in-depth analysis and examination of the historical factors that contributed to the differences in the development of trade between India and the two regions. Part 2 is devoted to the Indian-West Africa sector, and also looks at how European trading companies contributed to the internationalisation of Indian cloth by producing and marketing `hybrids` incorporating Indian motifs.

Under ‘Part 3 Negotiating Currents of Globalisation’ we are given a comprehensive overview of both the state of colonial industry in East and West Africa and the process of its post-independence transformation in terms of self-reliance and reconfiguration, with a particularly detailed study of ‘The textile industry in late postcolonial Africa’.

Part 4 focuses on ‘The Mechanics of Production in Jetpur’, described in the book’s blurb as a small town in the Rajkot district of Gujarat which is the centre of production of the textiles in question.  This is also covered elsewhere in the book. At page 106, we have ‘Africa as viewed from Jetpur’ (p 106), with the epigraph ‘Gakiihotoraniko koi uriakariina’: ‘He who adorns himself knows to what sort of dance he is going’ Kikuyu proverb, Kenya, and ‘Typologies of African Cloth in Jetpur’ (p 108), while ‘The history of the textile printing industry in Jetpur’ features in p 127.

Under ‘Conclusion’, the authors retrace India’s role in producing cloth for Africa going back to 2000 years ‘embedded in the journeys of traders who traversed the oceanic dhow routes, and in the cloth carried by Arabs and Turks to faraway markets beyond the Sahara and to West Africa’ and how ‘(t)he vestiges of these age-old oceanic and African connections are found almost everywhere’.     

All through the book, the huge volume of factual data and supporting references is simply staggering. It presents a beautifully curated visual feast of brilliant images of the infinite variety of the fabrics involved in the trade. It is essentially a work of reference for students, scholars and others interested in the subject who will find it immensely valuable.  Just a quick browse through the online version, which is freely downloadable, will whet the reader`s appetite to scour and devour the whole of the text.  It will be a fulfilling experience.

Ramnik Shah



Keepers of The Faith

Volume 17, Issue 2 | Published 07/10/2020  

Author: Shaukat Ajmeri

Publ: Mawenzi House Publishers

Reviewer: Zarina Patel

This is one of those novels which you start reading and cannot put down. It has a story line and a plot, it has love and passion, it has scenic descriptions of actual geographic areas and the splendours of Mother Nature, it has suspense. It is a chronicle of our times; the characters are contemporary and global, from India to the USA. The narrative is embedded in a small Shia Islamic sect known as the Dawoodi Bohra which traces its roots to Yemen, and was established in Mumbai, India in the 16th century. Today it is spread internationally and has a sizeable presence in East Africa, the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and the Gulf states.

Akbar and Rukhsana are two childhood friends growing up in Udaipur, India; their middle class families have built successful retail businesses and live a block apart on the same street. The families interact regularly and the women of the households have a warm, sisterly relationship. They usually attend the community functions together and keep themselves socially up-to-date. As the   years go by the childhood friendship blossoms into true love and both family and friends assume that Akbar and Rukhsana will beget a family of their own. Fate, however, intervenes and changes the script, leaving the reader apprehensive yet eager to know the outcome.

But Keepers of the Faith is not just an enthralling tale – it is historic. The author, growing up in Udaipur, was ten years old when he witnessed the inhuman Galiyakot incident and its repercussions. Though ostensibly a work of fiction the book narrates an actual account of the use of religion by a patriarchal and corrupt leader (the Mowlana) and his coterie to bind and captivate  their ‘followers’ to be their cash cows. The contrast between the innocent and pure emotions of the two lovers and the ugly and corrupt tyranny of the Mowlana and his goons could not be more stark. The humiliation of Shabbir as he stoops to kiss the Mowlana’s feet tells it all.

The religious belief is that the true leader of the Bohras, the Imam – a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, has been in seclusion for the last 800 years. The Imams of the Fatimid Empire were inspirational leaders, lofty thinkers and eminent scholars. In the 12th century the Empire declined and the reigning Imam went into seclusion, having appointed a Dai to represent him; it is claimed that since then a chain of Dais has performed this duty.

The early Dais were Shia Islamic scholars in the Bohra tradition; trusted  trustees of the community’s religious education, welfare and wealth; ascetic and pious. However, as has happened in every organised religion today, greed and self-interest has infected faith and ‘money’ has become the new God. The Dais have become Imams and are worshipped as ‘Mowlanas’; the storyline of Keepers of the Faith is woven around the fatwas of the Mowlana and their impact on the everyday lives of its Bohra followers: the dress codes; the taxes levied on the living and the dead; the threat of ex-communication; circumcision of the girl child; marital, family and lovers’ relationships being torn apart; the ban on men shaving their beards ….. the rules are endless and oft times laughable! All propagated in the name of religion. The outcome is a mentally enslaved community; a minority well-educated and internationally situated, the majority increasingly impoverished and backward, trapped by communal boundaries. 

Of course with every act of oppression comes resistance and the radical (or infidel) must resolve the contradiction: Is defying the Mowlana equivalent to renouncing his/her Faith? This conundrum exists globally in many different spheres of human existence, Keepers of the Faith gives us a refreshing insight into one such scenario. Some of the Mowlana-inspired events may seem incredible – as a member of that community I can vouch that they actually happened.

For much too long these truths have been hidden from public knowledge; Shaukat Ajmeri must be commended for having lifted the veil; no doubt others will follow. The book, however, does not expose the large number of disaffected followers who, except for a few, are too afraid to speak out. Farzana Doctor is the author of Seven - a book which relates the experiences of a seven-year old girl who is forcibly circumcised without any prior knowledge. Keepers of the Faith should be the first of many more such revelations rendered in such riveting stories.

In Coming Out as Dalit

Volume 17, Issue 2 | Published 07/10/2020  

Publ: Aleph Book Co.

Book Blurb

Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s tragic suicide in January of 2016 started many charged conversations around caste-based discrimination in universities in India. For Yashica Dutt, a journalist living in New York, this was the moment to stop living a lie and admit something - that she had hidden from friends and colleagues for over a decade - that she was Dalit. In Coming Out as Dalit, Dutt recounts the exhausting burden of living with the secret, terrifi­ed of being found out, and dealing with the crushing guilt of denying her history.

In this personal memoir that is at the same time a history of the Dalit people, she writes about the journey of coming to terms with her identity and chronicles the Dalit movement. She writes about the consequences of the lack of access to education and culture; the paucity of Dalit voices in mainstream media; and attempts to answer crucial questions about caste and privilege.

Woven from personal narratives from her life as well as that of other Dalits, this book forces us to confront the injustices of caste and serves as a call to action. Yashica Dutt is a New York-based journalist who writes on gender, identity and culture. She was previously a principal correspondent with Brunch and Hindustan Times and is the founder of 


Dalit Feminist Books

Volume 17, Issue 2 | Published 07/10/2020  


The 1990s became a crucial decade for feminist politics in India. There was a radical shift in feminism when Dalit women began to vehemently question Indian feminism’s exclusive focus on the issues of upper caste/middle-class women.

Weave Of My Life (Aaidan) – A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs

Author: Urmila Pawar

Publ: Columbia University (1988)

Pawar’s title is an ode to her mother who brought up the author and her siblings on the meagre wages she earned by weaving bamboo baskets. In this memoir, Pawar compares her act of studying to her mother’s act of weaving the baskets. Pawar was born in a Hindu Mahar family in Maharashtra. Her father died in 1954, wresting a promise from his wife to educate their children. Her autobiography is an account of acute destitution, schooling through hardships, and finally achieving an M A in Marathi Literature. Aaidan has also been adapted as a play in Marathi theatre by Sushma Deshpande. Apart from Aaidan, she has published several short story collections which talk about the caste-class and gender axes in everyday life.


The Prisons We Broke (Jine Amuche)

Author: Baby Kamble 

Publ: Orient Blackswan Pvt Ltd (2008)

Babytai Kamble ran a small provisions store. The only contact she had with books were the old books and newspapers used as wrapping paper to pack groceries. She wrote her book hiding from her husband. Her book has detailed descriptions of a life lived in the poverty of Maharwada. Her descriptions of the houses ‘decorated with eternal poverty’ in the 1920s, is emblematic of the hunger, labour and caste ingrained in the lives lived at margins. Her book is also important because even a hundred years after Mukta Salve’s essay voicing the dire conditions of the reproductive health of Mang and Mahar women, Kamble talks about the skewed division of labour in her community. Babytai Kamble’s book is an extremely important read to understand the sexual division of labour that the women in the Dalit community take up, where they are expected to work at home as well as work outside to support the family, even as their reproductive and domestic labour goes unrecognized as real work.




Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But…            

Author: Gogu Shyamala

Publ:  Navayana Publishers (2012)

Gogu Shyamala was born in a family of farmers. She is now a senior research fellow at Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad. She was only one among the three siblings to get the opportunity to complete her BA at Bhimrao Ambedkar Open University. Her book Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But…  weaves together the struggle of Dalit women living in the Magida quarter in a village in Telangana. She builds a portrait of the life lived in the rural community with descriptions of its everyday events and experiences. Shyamala writes about oppression and discrimination faced by the Dalit women in clean short prose and raises questions of the dignity of individuals from communities thus far marginalized.

The Relevance and the Context today.

Academicians, intellectuals and historians will benefit immensely from this excellent book by Amrit Wilson, published by Daraja Press. This is particularly important in the context of the political and economic onslaught by US Imperialism on China and the Russia.  John Pilger’s documentary series ,‘The Coming War on China’, available for free viewing on YouTube and the Aljazeera Website is a good resource. To note is also the unstable situation the US has created in the Middle East through the wars on Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran and Palestine, hopelessly dividing the Gulf nations and ruling by proxy through Saudi Arabia and Israel.

In her introduction, Amrit Wilson describes Zanzibar in today’s context ‘as an important piece in the jigsaw of the United States foreign and military policy in Africa’. The US army in Zanzibar today, is opening schools, conferring awards and entrenching themselves on the island as secret documents revealed recently by WikiLeaks.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Volume 17, Issue 2 | Published 07/10/2020  

Author: Isabel Wilkerson

Publ: Penguin

Reviewer: Salili Khilnani

‘Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred; it is not necessarily personal,’ she writes. ‘It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.’ The caste model moves white behaviour away from subjective feelings (what motivates these people to do what they do) and into the objective realm of power dynamics (what they do, and to whom). The dynamic that concerns Wilkerson the most is how a dominant caste stops a low-ranking caste from gaining on it.

Published in the New Yorker, the full article can be read on:


How to Argue With A Racist

Volume 17, Issue 2 | Published 07/10/2020  

Author: Adam Rutherford

Publ: Orion Publishing

Reviewer: Ngozi Ugochukwu

‘Every Nazi has Jewish ancestors ... Every white supremacist has Middle Eastern ancestors. Every racist has African, Indian, East Asian ancestors, as well as everyone else ... Racial purity is pure fantasy.’ So says Adam Rutherford in this, his latest book.

Rutherford was born in Ipswich to Guyanese and Indian parents. A regular broadcaster, he has a PhD in Genetics and is an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London. Here he aims to give the reader a way of countering the myths around race and racism by breaking it down scientifically.

He considers issues such as: whether there is such a thing as ‘racial purity’; can genealogy testing really prove someone is 100 percent white; are black people better at running than white people, and can DNA tell you where you are ‘really, really’ from. As he says, these so-called racial differences are just skin-deep. Genetics do not support popular notions of race. Rutherford argues that we have a tendency to say, ‘race doesn't exist’ or ‘race is just a social construct’.

Yet, race does exist because it is a social construct, and racism is real because people fixate on it. As it has become harder to get that elusive gift for your loved one, a new pastime of tracing where you are from through DNA testing has boomed. Yes, testing can tell you biologically who your father is, or inform you of any health issues genetically, but only in that moment because science is constantly changing.

However, the notion that one can identify your country of origin from a spit sample is fanciful. If we take an African-American and try to trace their ancestry today, could we accurately pinpoint where they were born? This is especially difficult when the number of children produced through sex between slave owners and slaves has already diluted the gene pool.

Rutherford shows that it is virtually impossible to ascertain descendants of a slave's country of birth purely by looking at the maths. Consider that generations are separated by 25 years. If we go back in time, every generation doubles; two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on. If we take 1,000 years, that would generate more than a trillion ancestors.

On another level, the proportion of people from black communities who send off for DNA testing kits is much lower than from white communities, which means there is little data. Not only that. Rutherford argues that even if there were the data there is also more genetic diversity on the continent of Africa than in the rest of the world put together.

Did I enjoy the book? I'm not sure. I was blinded by the science on some of the points. And would a racist stick around long enough for me to get my arguments out? Should I even be arguing with a racist? Saying that, this is an intriguing read and, as Rutherford argues, it should be brought out whenever science is distorted and misrepresented to make a point or justify hatred.


Forward To Independence - My Memoirs

Volume 17, Issue 2 | Published 08/10/2020  

Author: Fitz de Souza

Self-published (2019)

Reviewer: Pheroze Nowrojee

The best part of Dr De Souza’s memoirs is the conveying of the spirit of freedom that his generation exemplified in the immediate post-War years in Kenya from 1945-1963. They were strongly influenced by the anti-colonial feeling throughout the world and were particularly moved by the Indian independence struggle. They were committed to Kenyan dignity and to the decolonization of the colony. The generation understood they had the power to bring about change, and the desire to act, if not always the will. The book covers this period.  

The book has some historic photographs. Searching in my family records, I too was able to retrieve two relevant historic photographs of that period. One has Dr De Souza and my parents in it and the other has Ms Kanta Kapila, Advocate, mentioned severally in the book, in it with Jomo Kenyatta. She later went to India and made nationalist broadcasts in the early 1960s in support of Kenya’s freedom on All India Radio (AIR) in Delhi.