The Sadhu of Nairobi
‘Squalor’ was the one word that most came to mind as Vishnu observed the living conditions of the Indian community in the Pangani area of Nairobi.
For the past seven years, Vishnu had been living in a small one room apartment within a rundown tenement apartment building occupied one hundred percent by immigrant Indians in Kenya.
Floor upon floor of the tiny residences crammed next to each other, much like a prison complex, rising endlessly, framing an open-roof atrium area in the center that served both as a concrete playground for children and an open cooking area with wood fire stoves from which swirling, spiraling aromas of spicy, cooking curries and rich biryanis, of ghee and condensed milk confections, flooded every level.
This was a microcosm of India within a seedy and sordid section of Nairobi.
Most of the Indians that Vishnu had met over the past seven years, during which he had been a part time resident in this tenement building, came from some of the poorest parts of rural India, to seek a better future in Kenya.
In Vishnu’s building, he had met individual and family residents from Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, West Bengal, from his home state of Gujarat and even from his home Gujarati village of Kathiawar.
Boyhood memories of Kathiawar were harsh memories for young Vishnu, whose mother Aparna died in childbirth, and whose father Badagara died some time later, of overwork, laboring in the salt pans of the Raan of Kutch.
Vishnu himself had worked as a salt pan laborer as had generations of men in his family history.
When orphaned he was raised by his resourceful and resilient aunty Saraswati, whose indomitable spirit was Vishnu’s strength.
Vishnu had lived in Kathiawar until he was seventeen years old, after which he emigrated to British East Africa, to what was then Tanganyika, to take up an apprentice position in a lumber company in the capital of Dar es Salaam.
That was over sixty years ago, and today, Vishnu seemed like just one more poor and elderly man, living out his days in Pangani, in a squalid little room.
Abhay just bought his first ever home on Deans Road in Hanwell, London.
He and his wife Ashmina, had now officially become first-time homeowners in Great Britain, which gave Abhay a sense of pride within his heart that he had never felt in his entire life. This accomplishment was beyond anything he could ever have imagined, as a young child growing up in Bihar, India. Abhay had grown up in the Champaran district of Bihar, and for generations, his family had been indigo farmers.
It had been a terrible and exploitative legacy for generations of Abhay’s family members who, at various stages in this history, had served as landless serfs and indentured laborers, heavily taxed by the British Raj in India. Conditions had not changed much in the state of Bihar since Indian Independence, and Bihar still remained one of the very poorest states in India.
His home district of Champaran had been plagued by outbreaks of famine and drought throughout its history. It was not a place where one wanted to stay, it was a place where one had to leave, if possible. Abhay’s father, a poor indigo farmer in frail health, wanted a better life for his wife and children, and managed to save enough money for a passage to East Africa. The family eventually settled in Nairobi, Kenya.
Education was a priority for Abhay’s father, and though they had very little money and his father worked as bookkeeper for an Indian sari shop owner on Ngara Road in Nairobi, Abhay was able to graduate from high school with flying colors. He had received excellent results in his three ‘A’ Level subjects of Physics, Math and Chemistry, deliberately selecting those three subjects in order to keep his options open for the professions of medicine, engineering or accountancy.
Although this had been his aspiration, reality soon set in once Abhay completed high school and realized there was no money for him to go on to university.
He had a cousin who had managed to get to London, England, and get a job as an accounts clerk, which helped sustain his cousin while he went to night school at a local polytechnic in London, to study chartered accountancy.
Abhay loved this idea of being able to work and study for a professional qualification at the same time, like his cousin had done, and thus Abhay found himself dreaming more and more of becoming a British educated and qualified professional chartered accountant.
By a somewhat unexpected and mysterious good fortune, a local foundation in Nairobi contacted Abhay and asked for him to apply for a bursary to study chartered accountancy in London. Abhay applied and received the bursary, as well as expenses for his flight to London to begin his accountancy studies.
Abhay had now lived in London for six years. It had not been easy, but he was accustomed to hardship and to hard work. Most of all, he was extremely grateful for his good fortune of having the opportunity to come to England.
For the first four years of his life in London, Abhay lived in a ‘bedsitter’ – a tiny rented bedroom, in a large Victorian house in Southhall in west London, within the London Borough of Ealing.
He clerked with an accountant’s firm in Southhall, and took the double-decker bus back and forth in the evenings after work, from Southhall to Ealing Polytechnic, where he took and passed the one year foundation course and then the regular three year accountancy course, to prepare for the rigorous series of chartered accountancy exams.
It had taken Abhay a full four years to finally complete and pass the series of chartered accountancy exams and it was a very proud day when he finally qualified as a chartered accountant. Abhay felt most fortunate that his father, although in very poor health, had at least lived long enough to witness the qualification of his son as a professional accountant.
His mother had already passed away a few years before.
Once Abhay had secured a fulltime job for himself, he invited his father to come and visit him in London in springtime, since his father had never traveled to Europe. It filled Abhay’s heart with joy to become a fellow tourist with his father, and they visited some of the sites such as Madame Tussauds, London Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.
Most of all, Abhay’s father loved visiting with the Indian community in areas such as Wembley in northwest London and Southhall in west London. Here, in areas that could easily be termed ‘Little India’, Abhay’s father met with retired Indian men his own age, at local chaat and curry houses, and at Indian sweet marts, exchanging immigrant war stories with each other.
Of course, Abhay’s real reason for inviting his father to London finally came to surface when he announced to his father that he had fallen deeply in love.
The girl who Abhay had fallen in love with was Ashmina, the daughter an Indian shopkeeper in Southhall. Unlike Abhay, Ashmina had been born in London, and had also gone to university, where she had majored in Social Studies. She had then passed her exams to qualify as a social worker.
Ashmina now worked as a social worker in Southhall, dealing in particular with the traumas of racism inflicted by white supremacist skinheads upon the local Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities living in Wembley and Southhall.
Over hot, orangey, sweetly, syrupy jalebi, and hot Indian chai at the local Kwality Sweetmart in Southhall, Abhay and Ashmina smiled shyly at each other, as they were seated next to both their fathers who discussed the marriage match in traditional Indian tones of unabashed pragmatism.
“Now you see,” Abhay’s father stated matter-of-factly to Ashmina’s father, “This is good match, I tell you, because your daughter, she is qualified with university degree, isn’t it? And she has job serving our Asian community?”
“That is right,” acknowledged Ashmina’s father, bobbling his head, “And your boy, he is chartered accountant. Wawa! What more can I ask, isn’t it? And now he has good job as staff accountant with Brentford Nylons and also he is looking at buying house in Hanwell. Abhay, what kind of house it is?”
“Semi-detached,” stated Abhay’s father proudly, answering on behalf of his son, “You see, mortgage-borgage is no problem now for Abhay, isn’t it? He has accountancy qualification, he has good job; he has good income also…”
Both the elder men now bobbled their heads simultaneously and in harmony.
The Kwality Sweetmart deal was done and now, wedding plans commenced.
That same evening, after the meeting at Kwality Sweetmart, Abhay put pen to paper and began to write about this milestone moment, which was now yet another joyous milestone since his arrival in London. There had been several: the milestones of passing his various exams, of meeting and falling in love with Ashmina, of both their fathers giving their unreserved blessing for the union in marriage, and of closing the deal on the house in Hanwell.
The habit of writing down these milestone events in his life was originally prompted for Abhay, after a very polite and nonintrusive request from the foundation in Nairobi which had provided Abhay with the initial funds to come to London in the first place, and the regular stipend for Abhay to study for his accountancy course until he qualified and found an accountancy job.
The Nairobi foundation had recommended that Abhay send them regular correspondence, if that was convenient for him, so that they could gather a sense of how their bursaries and scholarships were effective for recipients such as Abhay, in order that they might refine and improve their methods in future. It was a way for the foundation to gauge the true value of their work.
Abhay was so grateful and overjoyed for the Nairobi foundation’s support, which had so positively transformed his life and brought so much happiness to his family back home in Nairobi – particularly his father – that Abhay took to writing letters to the foundation regularly, sharing both his trials and his triumphs of living in London as a student and as an aspiring professional.
The chief administrator of the Nairobi foundation, which had so generously supported Abhay, an Indian from Goa, Mr. Da Gama Rose, was always delighted to receive Abhay’s updates on the progressive milestones of his life in London and encouraged Abhay to write frequently and in much detail.
What began as a sense of duty, and an elaborate series of ‘Thank You” notes to the foundation, now became a much more vibrant and vivacious series of correspondences between Da Gama Rose and Abhay. Da Gama Rose had never been to England, and found himself living somewhat vicariously through the mild mannered adventures of Abhay.
Sensing this need for the Nairobi-based Da Gama Rose to get a flavor of life in Abhay’s London, the enthusiastic and ebullient Abhay began to write thoughtful and detailed letters to Da Gama Rose about life for the Indian community in areas such as Wembley and Southhall. When Abhay started to court Ashmina, he would provide detailed accounts of the plight of Asian immigrants who, at this time in the early 1970’s in London, were subjected to both political and physical attacks, mostly racially charged and often cruel.
From the political rants for anti-immigration policies against Asian immigrants by Enoch Powell, a Member of Parliament in Britain, to the rise of the racist white supremacist National Front political party to the regular rough-ups and sometimes fatal stabbings by gangs of youths such as Southhall Skinheads and Hanwell Bootboys, life was difficult for Asians in Wembley and Southhall.
Abhay actually began to feel that these letters to Da Gama Rose were very cathartic as a means of expressing his horrors, his despair, as well as his respect, for the resilience and resolve of the Asian community in London. Abhay was genuinely concerned for the plight of his community, which was probably why he had such a symbiotic understanding and an empathy with Ashmina’s work as a social worker in the community. Moreover, through Ashmina’s work, Abhay began to understand much better, the lives of those Asians who were not, like himself, from the Indian subcontinent, such as the Bangladeshi and the Pakistani communities.
Ashmina also worked with the African immigrants in Wembley and Southhall, including Somali, Ethiopian and Sudanese refugees, and their plight also expanded Abhay’s perspective.
All of these perspectives, all these accompanying insights and reflections, on the immigrant communities which Abhay was learning about through living in London, and through his fiancé Ashmina’s interactions with immigrants as a social worker, were meticulously jotted down by Abhay and relayed by regular correspondence to Mr. Da Gama Rose, the chief administrator of the Nairobi foundation that had financially supported Abhay.
The regular letters, which now turned into regular ‘reports’, written with Abhay’s very keen and precise accountant’s sense of organization and attention to detail, were both received and responded to with an overwhelming sense of appreciation by Da Gama Rose in Nairobi. Abhay was further incentivized when Da Gama Rose reported to him that the founder of the Nairobi foundation was now taking a personal interest in Abhay’s reports and was reading them regularly.
It was not much long after Abhay learned that the founder of the foundation was reading his reports, that Da Gama Rose relayed a question directly from the Nairobi foundation’s founder, who, Da Gama Rose explained to Abhay, fiercely guarded his privacy and wished to remain anonymous. The question that the Nairobi foundation’s founder wished to ask him about the immigrant communities in London that Abhay was reporting on was: ‘Where is hope?’
Where is hope?
A simple three-word question, but a very powerful question.
It occurred to Abhay that this was actually quite a shrewd question, because it had the potential to shift the narrative.
The challenges within the Asian community in London, at a time of highly charged political, economic and racial tensions, often seemed insurmountable. Most of Ashmina’s work as a social worker seemed to be remedial at best, focusing on how Asians in the community could at least learn to cope with the challenges, not on how they can be surmounted. There was little hope to overcome all the tribulations.
Yet, here was this provocative question that asked, simply: ‘Where is hope?’
Abhay asked the question to Ashmina hoping that his fiancé had an answer.
“Where is hope?” asked Ashmina to Abhay, reiterating the question of the Nairobi foundation founder, “Is it not obvious to you, Abhay? Curry Club.”
The Curry Club. Yes, of course, thought Abhay.
The Curry Club was the one shining glimmer of light and hope for Abhay amidst all this darkness. Abhay resolved to write about the Curry Club to Da Gama Rose in Nairobi.
Two years ago, when Abhay had just qualified as a chartered accountant and was hired for his first job as staff accountant for Brentford Nylons in London Abhay was simply grateful to make a decent salary and be able to be in the market to buy a decent house in Hanwell.
Yet, in the past two years, Abhay could not believe his good fortune, which seemed like an embarrassment of riches to someone who was born in the extremely poor Champaran district of Bihar in India, the son of an indigo laborer. In the past two years, he had received three promotions and several salary increases, and today, Abhay made almost twice the salary that he made when he started two years ago.
The company was growing rapidly and was doing a gangbuster business.
In a span of a few years the firm grew from less than one hundred employees to almost two thousand employees. As a staff accountant that had now been rapidly promoted to Deputy Chief Accountant, Abhay with his own growing staff of accountants, bookkeepers and payroll professionals, was a busy man.
Moreover, the company was a supportive sanctuary for immigrant cultures.
Started by an immigrant refugee from Armenia, Harry Pambakian, whose entire family except for one surviving sister, had been slain by the Turks, the company, which sold nylon and polyester bed sheets and bed covers, had grown into a multi-million dollar enterprise. Harry Pambakian himself, as the chairman of the company, would arrive to work every day in a chauffer driven Rolls Royce Corniche. His was the ultimate immigrant success story.
Pambakian had begun the company with one sewing machine, in a bedsitter in Shepherd’s Bush in London. He hired a handful of immigrant and refugee workers like himself, many of whom had been discriminated against when seeking jobs elsewhere, and had Pambakian’s work ethic. Pambakian hired Greek Cypriots, Indian, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Trinidadians and Jamaicans to launch his company, which now was headquartered in smart offices on the Great West Road toward Chiswick, nearby the M4 motorway.
Abhay was overjoyed that in his very first job as a chartered accountant in London, he was able to work in a multicultural office environment, and to befriend work colleagues from such a diversity of developing countries.
When Abhay first started working at Brentford Nylons, he would take his lunch break in the frequently empty tables at the very back section of the company canteen.
The only other person that frequented this back section was one of the company janitors, a Bangladeshi gentleman named Safwan.
Abhay and Safwan started to have lunch together, and while they had their lunch they would exchange stories about their homelands, Safwan about Bangladesh and Abhay about India and Kenya. Abhay always brought along a plastic lunchbox which contained a cheese and tomato, or boiled egg and tomato sandwich, which he made himself daily before he arrived to work.
Safwan always brought along a tiffin box, the lunchboxes traditionally used in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that are often sectioned inside, in order to compartmentalize the various cooked items, such as: a curry, basmati rice, chapatti or roti or paratha, yoghurt raita, and gulab jaman.
Abhay would always look enviously over at Safwan’s tiffin box and say:
“Ah Safwan, you lucky fellow, you have a wife who loves you and cooks!”
“Mr. Abhay,” Safwan would say, “I am old married man, you are young man and soon you will to be marrying with Ashmina, isn’t it? Now come, come, have some of this nice curry and rice, come, come, please to eat.”
Eventually, one of the other janitor staff, a Trinidadian by name of Ambruce, noticed how much fun Abhay and Safwan were having and came and joined them. Ambruce also looked enviously at Safwan’s delicious home-cooked food, so neatly and appetizingly displayed within a compartmentalized box.
Within the next week, Safwan arrived with two extra tiffin boxes, one for Abhay and one for Ambruce. When both men displayed embarrassment at being given a tiffin containing a delicious lunch cooked by Safwan’s wife, Safwan waved them off and told them not to be concerned.
“You see Ambruce and Abhay, my wife Chandhi, she is caterer so she does to cook for families in Southhall sometimes, so it is no problem for her.”
Once Abhay discovered that Safwan’s wife Chandhi did some informal catering in her neighborhood in Southhall, it got him thinking. Especially once the table at the back of the canteen began filling up with more visitors.
By now, there was a Fijian, two Pakistanis, two more Indians, a Jamaican, an Egyptian, a Sudanese and a Malaysian. The group was growing so rapidly and it was the Malaysian, Farhad, who first made the astounding observation that this growing group had not noticed although it was hidden in plain site.
“You know, gentleman,” observed Farhad, thoughtfully, “Our group has one thing in common – we are all from former colonies of The British Empire!”
Farhad was right; that was the one theme that appeared to have united this seemingly disparate group of individuals. This factor, combined with the fact that Safwan’s wife Chandhi was a terrific cook and part time caterer, and also combined with the fact that Abhay had just received a promotion and a salary increase and was in a generous spirit, made Abhay blurt out:
“Farhad, you are correct! We are all of us from countries that are castoffs of The British Empire.
“That is what we all have in common. And,” continued Abhay, not really knowing why he was about to say what he was about to say but blurting it out anyway, ”Because the British always created clubs to keep us out, I want to create a club that will keep us in! Gentleman, welcome to the Curry Club! Now, to launch our club officially, I am going to commission Safwan’s wife Chandhi with a lucrative catering contract: From now on, Chandhi will cater her delicious tiffin box cuisine for our Curry Club! And one last thing, gentleman: We will, in our club, be better than the British were to us; if any British person wishes to join Curry Club then they are more than welcome. Only one thing: We will ask Safwan’s wife Chandhi to make curry in Britisher’s tiffin box extra spicy, isn’t it?”
That is how Curry Club was launched; in a moment of wild abandon by the otherwise so cautious, frugal and measured Abhay.
When he explained the Curry Club initiative to his fiancé Ashmina, she was elated and smiled:
“Abhay,” she teased, “Here I was thinking that I was going to be marrying a boring and mild mannered accountant, and you’ve become a revolutionary!”
“Ashmina,” said Abhay quietly and somewhat baffled, “I really don’t know what came over me and how I suddenly became inspired about Curry Club.”
“I know exactly why,” Ashmina explained, in a comforting tone, “It has so pained your heart to see us hopeless castoffs from The British Empire still suffering the indignity of discrimination. You wanted us all to have hope.”
‘Hope’ was the word that came to mind as Abhay thought of Curry Club.
Weekly reports of this atmosphere of ‘hope’ that pervaded the back of the cafeteria at the Brentford Nylons office building on the Great West Road; detailed and dutiful reports by Abhay of the remarkable lunchtime story exchanges by the immigrants and refugees that comprised the vivacious, vibrant tiffin box lunching Curry Club, reached Da Gama Rose in Nairobi.
The dutiful Da Gama Rose passed on the Curry Club reports to the founder of the Nairobi foundation that had sponsored Abhay’s professional studies.
This time, the foundation’s founder, a man who prided himself greatly upon his discretion and privacy, as well as upon secrecy and anonymity in terms of revealing this identity to recipients of financial support such as Abhay, also seemed to have become infected by Abhay’s sense of wild abandon and ebullience, when it came to the Curry Club.
The founder told Da Gama Rose that he wished to meet Abhay and his wife Ashmina in person. Moreover, since the foundation founder was planning a visit to London from Nairobi, he requested Da Gama Rose to request if Abhay and Ashmina might perhaps join him at his nephew’s home in Knightsbridge for dinner one weekend.
Abhay and Ashmina were delighted to receive the invitation and to finally meet the anonymous financial backer of Abhay’s student years in London.
The date was set for a Saturday evening, and Abhay and Ashmina dressed to the nines in order to attend a formal dinner party in Knightsbridge hosted by the nephew of the Nairobi foundation’s founder, a Mr. Vinoo Patel. When Abhay and Ashmina arrived at Vinoo Patel’s home and were ushered in by the butler, they realized that they had just stepped into the top of the Indian immigrant food chain, within a house that was well worthy of being featured in ‘House and Garden’ or ‘Architectural Digest’.
The furnishings, ornate but tasteful, were eclectic and included exquisite artwork from the Swahili coast of East Africa, from Dar es Salaam to Mombasa, from Malindi to Lamu.
There were magnificent Persian rugs and inlaid Zanzibar chests as well as priceless Mughal Indian paintings on the walls. Abhay and Ashmina were introduced to their gregarious and welcoming host Vinoo Patel by the butler after which they met Vinoo’s wife and children, his brother Potco, Potco’s wife Lahkshmi, and finally the uncle of Vinoo and Potco, Vishnu Patel.
“Abhay, I want to thank you and your fiancé Ashmina for attending the dinner party at my nephew Vinoo’s home last evening. I am so happy to have finally met with you Abhay. I hope you like this Lyons Tea Shop.”
“Oh Mr. Patel, the honor is all mine. Truly, the blessings that your Nairobi foundation has brought to me and to my family are beyond anything I could have ever imagined. My father is the happiest man alive after visiting me and Ashmina recently, here in London. And yes, I like this tea shop!”
“Your father is a remarkable man, Abhay. To have labored as a poor indigo farmer in Champaran and to have dreamt of a better life for his family; to have then moved his family to Nairobi – it is a story of tremendous courage.”
“Yes, and this is the courageous story of so many immigrants Mr. Patel, as I have been learning about in the Curry Club lunches at work.”
“Abhay, please call me ‘Vishnu’ – ‘Mr. Patel” reminds me I am very old…”
“Yes, of course, eh… Vishnu.”
“Abhay, I have a confession to make – and I truly hope you will forgive me: I knew your father some years ago, and I even remember you as a teenage boy. You see, Abhay, for about the past seven years, I have been a part time resident in the Pangani tenement apartment complex where your family moved to once you all emigrated from Bihar. I befriended you father, and he always spoke proudly of his son, Abhay, who had received such excellent results in his ‘A’ Level subjects – Math, Physics and Chemistry, wasn’t it?”
“Yes! How did you know… I don’t understand, eh… Vishnu. I mean, you are a rich man, so…”
“I shall try my best to explain, Abhay. You know how, in our Indian history there is the tradition of the sadhu, the ascetic, who, for centuries would leave his entire family, even if he was a wealthy man, as I am, and make a solitary trek to the Himalayas, where he would spend the remainder of his old age in contemplation and meditation, receiving alms of food and blankets from the local villagers. This is our Indian history and tradition, as you know.”
“Yes, of course, Vishnu, the tradition of the sadhu is so respected by India.”
“Well, I have an aunty, Aunty Saraswati, and she visited me in Nairobi and she noticed how opulently I was living – rather like my nephew Vinoo does in Knightsbridge – and Aunty Saraswati shook her head at me, and then she wagged her finger at me, and then she frowned at me and then she started to scold me for being a spoiled, indulgent man, the ‘Maharajah of Muthaiga’.”
“You have a house in Muthaiga, Vishnu?’
“Yes, I do. It is more like a palace than a ‘house’, but there you are. In any case my persuasive and shrewd Aunty Saraswati made me promise her… well, I would say, she pressurized me and browbeat me, into agreeing to become what we decided to a call… hmm… let me see… a yes, to become ‘The Modern and Practical Part Time Sadhu of Pangani’.”
‘That’s why you lived in Pangani?”
“Yes, Abhay, but only part time, you see? I have been living in that Pangani building in which you used to live for about two to three months, for these past seven years. The purpose of me living there, was sort of to ‘spy’…”
“I have no other way of putting it. To spy – or as Aunty Saraswati put it – to ‘research’. You see Abhay, I needed to understand the conditions people lived in who were in desperate need, and I needed, most of all, to be able to discover and discern who the people were that had real potential, so that if I helped them, I would be giving them a hand-up and not a hand-out…”
“Interesting, Vishnu… Fascinating!”
“I had a lot of conversations with a lot of the Indian community in the building and researched who was in need of help. When your father told me that you had done so well in your ‘A’ Levels, but that you had no money to go to university, or to pursue your dreams of studying chartered accountancy in London, I saw an opportunity to give a young man like you a hand-up.”
“It is social investing, then? You wanted to invest in people who were willing to work hard and pull themselves up out of poverty?”
“Precisely, Abhay. And furthermore, to help their families and community.”
“I see. So, your strategy was to invest in those whose lives had a positive ripple effect upon others…”
“… As has your life, Abhay. I understand that you have been helping your father with his medical bills and you have been funding the fees for your younger sister to study at Nairobi University?’
“Yes, that is correct. She is studying medicine.”
“There you are then, Abhay, a ‘positive ripple effect’ if ever there was one – by investing in a driven and dedicated young man like yourself, others within your orbit are also availed of opportunities. You, Abhay, are a perfect case study for my Nairobi foundation, which is why we loved your reports!”
“Vishnu, I am assuming that you usually retain your anonymity in terms of not meeting with the recipients of your foundation’s financial support?”
“Yes, that is right, Abhay, usually, I do my best to avoid meeting with the recipients of scholarships and bursaries because I do not wish for there to be any awkwardness in terms of the recipients feeling beholden to me. Abhay, in your case, I have made an exception – I never do this.”
“Why have you made this exception with me, Vishnu? I feel honored.”
“When I was a young man of seventeen years of age, I left my village in Kathiawar in Gujarat, and I took the Indian Railway to Bombay, from where I eventually took a steam ship passage to Dar es Salaam and to seek my fortune in East Africa. I met an old man on the train – we shared the train compartment – he seemed so very old to me, and I know realize he was perhaps the same age that I am today. In any case, this old man bought me a cup of chai from the chaiwalla, and we sat and drank chai – as you and I are doing now – although this English tea is nothing like the chaiwalla’s chai.”
“Oh, I completely agree – nothing compares to chaiwalla’s chai, Vishnu!”
“You know, Abhay, I actually have here in my briefcase the two mud cups in which this old man and I had chai on the train. Actually, with the first two cups we threw them out of the train window – these are from the second chai we had together – you see how beautiful they are – made from the mud of village India, only… a taste of the real India… the salt of the earth.”
“These two chaiwalla mud cups make me homesick for India, Vishnu…”
“So, as we are chatting, this old man and me, he tells me that he is going to the Himalayas to become a sadhu. And that he was actually a successful businessman who had decided to give up his worldly goods, and now lived the simple life of an ascetic in contemplation and meditation.”
“How lovely, Vishnu. Did he have any wise words to share with you?”
“He did. He said to me that it was well and fine to have ambition and to even seek my fortune and become a successful businessman. However, I should never be so puffed up with pride and ostentation that I could no longer be able to ‘mix back’ back into the earth. He pointed out that the British bone china cup cannot ever mix back gracefully into the earth if you throw it out of the India Railway train window…”
“…But the chaiwalla’s mud cup mixes back gracefully and effortlessly because it is biodegradable and is made of the same mud as the earth.”
“That is a beautiful lesson and metaphor. Is this the reason that you wanted to reveal your identity to me, Vishnu? To pass on this metaphor which you learned about as a young man, when you were starting out?”
“Well, Abhay, this is an important story and metaphor, from that old man’s own experience, so I am glad I shared it, yes. However, the reason I wanted to meet with you, is to tell you a story from my own experience… I do hope Abhay, that you will indulge me…”
“I am honored, Vishnu. I feel privileged.”
“Well, where to begin… Ah, yes… when I was a teenager in Gujarat, I was already working in the salt mines of The Raan of Kutch in the sweltering sun under merciless conditions. Of course, my father Badagara, and his father before him, on and on, down the line, had all been salt laborers and we had – like your father and forefathers, Abhay, as indigo farmers – been so cruelly exploited by The British Empire. Wherever there was big money to be made, whether it was from salt pans in Gujarat, or from indigo farms in Bihar, our Indian community, your father, my father, their fathers also, all suffered.”
“Yes, Vishnu, it was unspeakable, I agree. Unspeakable.”
“Yes, unspeakable. And it pained my soul with anguish and anger. So angry I was, Abhay, as a young teenager. I was just as angry as the skinheads you wrote to me about – the Southhall Skinheads and the Hanwell Bootboys.”
“What prevented you, Vishnu, from becoming violent like the skinheads?”
“Aunty Saraswati. She had a cool head and made me see reason. One time – and this tells you how old I am – this was over 60 years ago now, Abhay – we had a state visit in Gujarat from the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon.”
“Vishnu! You were alive during the time of Lord Curzon! Oh, sorry…”
“It’s quite alright, young man… yes, Lord Curzon. He and Lady Curzon were touring through Gujarat and the day before, the Imperial Indian Military Police came to the little hovel of a dwelling of me and my beloved Aunty Saraswati – I was orphaned by then you see, so Aunty Saraswati was the only family I had left – my older brother Sashi had already left for East Africa by then – and these policemen they told us to make sure we were respectful to Lord and Lady Curzon, and I, being an angry teenager, called them ‘puppets’ of The British Empire, and one of the policeman, he over to me and he whacked his billystick – his truncheon – right on my shoulder and cracked my shoulder bone in half – it was incredibly painful but I did not care… but then, Aunty Saraswati came running and she persuaded the policeman to not drag me to jail, and she promised that she would take me to the procession of Lord and Lady Curzon the next day, and that I would be respectful to the entourage of the Viceroy… to the pomp and circumstance – the ridiculous show of the Indian Cavalry Horse Brigade and the Ceremonial Indian Elephant Brigade and the Imperial English Brass Band and Scottish Bagpipers … absurd peacocks prancing through our impoverished Gujarat where the salt pan workers like my father and forefathers had suffered.”
“I can see why you were so angry, Vishnu. This was the height of arrogance of the British Raj – Lord Curzon was the epitome of the cruelty of The Raj.”
“Exactly, Abhay. My blood was boiling, and then, Abhay, my blood began to boil in anger more recently, when you sent reports to Da Gama Rose which he then passed on to me, about the white supremacist youth gangs terrorizing Asians such as Southhall Skinheads and Hanwell Bootboys.”
“I can well imagine, Vishnu. It made my blood boil with anger too.”
“Yes, this is what happens. However, what I have learned from my beloved Aunty Saraswati, is precisely what Ghandiji had cautioned us when he said ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’. You can avenge hatred with hatred. You can only, like Lord Vishnu himself, when he avenged the evil and wicked Baali, avenge hatred through imagination.”
“Yes, Vishnu, I see that. Using one’s imagination to find a solution to problems of violence and hatred is the only way – Einstein said you cannot find the solution to a problem by applying the same methodology that created the problem in the first place. You need to use your imagination.”
“Precisely! We need to find imaginative and innovative methods to address these problems if we can ever hope to solve them. And that is why, Abhay, I asked Da Gama Rose to send you my three-word question: Where is hope?”
“Ah… of course, that is why, Vishnu, you asked me ‘‘Where is hope?’”
“Yes, Abhay, that is the reason. I wanted to see if we could step out of the darkness and into the light. Step out of the mesmeric cycle of hatred and violence and racial strife, and see if we can imagine a new narrative, if we can find an innovative way into shifting the paradigm… And you, Abhay, you answered the question ‘Where is hope?’ so beautifully, when you sent the series of reports on the Curry Club! You brought this old man tears of joy, Abhay, you have warmed my heart with your delightful Curry Club.”
“Thank you, Vishnu, you honor me. I am not what one would call a passionate man. I have the temperament of a mild-mannered and methodical accountant. It even surprised Ashmina when I had the inspiration to initiate the Curry Club. I am not a natural leader of men, by any means.”
“Abhay, you were being moved by something more powerful than yourself. As I am being moved at this moment. Abhay, as a token of my gratitude for Curry Club, I gift you these two mud cups from the chaiwalla on the Indian Railway, that I have now kept with me as a keepsake for sixty years.”
“Thank you Vishnu. I am honored to have these mud cups from chaiwalla. ”
KARIM AJANIA , January, 2016, All Rights Reserved
Registrant: Karim Ajania
Author: Karim Ajania
The Sadhu of Nairobi
Registration Number: 1822808
FILE NAME: Sadhu-of-Nairobi.docx
EFFECTIVE DATE: 2/1/2016