November Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

Diasporic stories are almost always heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. It’s about history that is complex and so intertwined with memory that it is often difficult to discern what actually happened. Identities are forgotten, sometimes in an attempt to adapt and sometimes, just because it so happens. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s story is no different. Yasmin is a well-known journalist published in Time, The Guardian and The New York Times, who voices opinions on race, public perceptions and human rights.

Her book The Settler’s Cookbook is a memoir of love, migration and food. A memoir that traces her life in Uganda that revolved around family, friends, her boyfriend TL and then, ultimately, her move to the UK, her divorce and remarriage to her English boyfriend, Colin.

In the recent past, quite a few novels and short stories have dealt with Indian or Pakistani communities living abroad, but those are usually about migration by free will. Few deal with the migration of Indians to Africa, and then onwards. As is the case of stories related to the subcontinent, the mention of the aromatic spices and the flavours of the cuisine is present in this memoir as well. But it is so much more than the romanticised version oft read everywhere else; it includes over a hundred recipes from akni (or what is known as yakhni pillau in Pakistan), Zanzibari prawns, coconut dhal and fried cassava to urad dhal, dhansak and green chicken pillau. Some of the recipes in the book have been handed down through generations to Yasmin from her mother Jena, some of them are traditional African dishes like posho with rice and fried cassava while others are a fusion, like beef and coconut macaroni. Her story includes recipes because although identity lines have been blurred through the years, it is the connection with food from India, Uganda and England that she feels defines her.

In order for the readers to understand the full implications of the migration that took place centuries ago, Yasmin presents a thoroughly researched account of why and how Indians and Arabs migrated to East Africa. Like all good storytellers, she starts from the beginning and explains everything. She goes all the way back to AD 68. She writes about the Indian and Arab sailors and merchants who discovered new routes and arrived at the shores of East Africa in small, flimsy boats. The story of the Indians living in East Africa is integral to its history: traders and merchants came later, first came the Indians who were brought to the continent as indentured labourers to lay down the railway tracks. Thousands of them were taken from the subcontinent while others were lured by better job prospects.

The same Indians made East Africa their home and became part of the middle class, offering services and setting up shops, little dukaans on every corner that sold matchsticks, cigarettes, ghee, sugar and eventually books. But under British rule, the colour division remained. The city was divided into whites, blacks and browns — and this division was unyielding. Yasmin was born and raised in Kampala when racism was at its peak. While the British differentiated between the whites and the blacks, the Asians were not even considered Ugandans. Even the Indians, who weren’t really accepted in the country, couldn’t think of socialising or marrying a non-Indian. Yasmin relates an incident where she plays Juliet in a school play and her Romeo is an African. She is chastised and beaten for interacting with a black African.

Yasmin grew up during the Apolo Obote Milton and Idi Amin regimes. Obote led Uganda to independence, but he was also the one who began ethnic persecution that led many Asian Ugandans to flee to the UK and Canada. It was during Obote’s regime that Ugandan soldiers broke into Yasmin’s house and took her brother. Idi Amin staged a coup in 1971, siezing power from Obote. But he was no different: he introduced policies that led to a horrific, tragic expulsion of Indians from Uganda.

Yasmin’s memoir is candid, sometimes, brutally so. She doesn’t sugarcoat certain memories or things she said to her parents or what her father says about her when she rebels against her family’s restrictions. The strength of the book lies in her ability to be honest about her life, including the eventual divorce from her teenage love, her relationship with her parents and their move to England, which was the ultimate dream for many Asian Ugandans. England, she realised, was not how they perceived it to be: racism was prevalent here as well. Yasmin is extremely critical of Margaret Thatcher’s policies, which she considered to be hostile to immigrants. “Perhaps I should keep a bag half packed. Just in case.” Uprooted from Uganda where her family suffered hardships, she says: “The loss of our homeland, empty longings linger on and on. [And] sometimes seem to be getting worse. We got the houses and cars and business and gold — bigger and better than most ever had in Africa?”

The Settler’s Cookbook is not just a book about family history peppered with recipes; it is also a critical evaluation of different dictatorships and governments, and a look at diasporic communities and their history.