Asia in My Life
Ngugi wa Thiong'o
I did not grow up in a Christian home, but we celebrated Christmas, everybody did, it was a time of carnival, with children, in their very best, trooping from house to house to indulge their fancy in terms of food. We were vegetarians through out the year, though not out of choice, and to many, Christmas day was the first time they would taste meat. For me Christmas meant the occasion for eating gitoero, a curried broth of potatoes, peas, beans, and occasionally a piece of lamb or chicken, but the centerpiece of the dishes was cabaci sometimes called mborota. Even today, Christmas and feasts in Kenya mean plentiful of cabaci, thambutha and mandathi, our version of the Indian chapati, paratha, samosa. The spices, curry, hot pepper and all, so very Indian, had become so central a part of Kenyan African cuisine that I could have sworn that these dishes were truly indigenous.
It was not just Christmas: daily hospitality in every Kenyan home means being treated to a mug of tea, literally a brew of tea leaves, tangawizi, and milk and sugar, made together, really a massala tea. Not to offer a passing guest or neighbor a cup of tea is the height of stinginess or poverty; and for the guest to decline the offer, the ultimate insult. So African it all seemed to me that when I saw Indians drinking tea or making curry, I thought it the result of African influence. Where the Indian impact on African food culture was all pervasive, there was hardly any equivalence from the English presence; baked white bread is the only contribution that readily comes to mind.
This is not surprising. Imported Indian skilled labor built the railway line from the Coast to the Great Lake, opening the interior for English settlement. Every railroad station, from Mombasa to Kisumu, initially depots for the building material, mushroomed into town mainly because of the Indian traders who provided much needed services to the workers initially but in time, to the community around. If European settlers opened the land for large-scale farming for export, the Indian opened the towns and cities for retail and wholesale commerce. Limuru where I come from had a thriving Indian shopping center built on land curved from that of my maternal grandfather’s clan. The funeral pyres to burn the bodies of the Indian dead were held in a small forest that was also under my maternal grandfather’s care. Cremation is central to Hindu culture: it asks Agni, the fire god to release the spirit from the earthily body to be re-embodied in heaven into a different form of being. The departed soul traveled from pretaloka to pitraloka unless there were impurities holding it back. My mother did not practice Hinduism, but to her dying day, she believed and swore that on some nights, she would see disembodied Indian spirits, like lit candles in the dark, wandering in the forest around the cremation place. She talked about it as a matter of regular material fact and she would become visibly upset when we doubted her.
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Essays in this Forum
Rethinking the Global South
by Mukoma Wa Ngugi
From Indian Literature to World Literature: A Conversation with Satya P. Mohanty
by Rashmi Dube Bhatnagar and Rajender Kaur
Asia in My Life
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
The Global South and Cultural Struggles: On the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization
by Duncan Mceachern Yoon
The Fault Lines of Hindi and Urdu
by Sanjay Kumar
Reframing Colonialism and Modernity: An Endeavour through Sociology and Literature
by Gurminder K. Bhambra
Varieties of Cultural Chauvinism and the Relevance of Comparative Studies
by Tilottoma Misra
Literature to Combat Cultural Chauvinism: A Response
by Shivani Jha
Is There an Indian Way of Thinking about Comparative Literature?
by E. V. Ramakrishnan
Modernity and Public Sphere in Vernacular
by Purushottam Agrawal
West Indian Writers and Cultural Chauvinism
by Jerome Teelucksingh
Oral Knowledge in Berber Women’s Expressions of the Sacred
by Fatima Sadiki