Gujarati Communities Across the Globe book review

LeftCentral Book Review

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Imagine if you will that you and your family have been designated non-citizens by your government and ordered to leave your homeland within ninety-day`s. Add to this, the fact that the announcement is made by a political leader noted for his volatility and cruelty. And during the ninety-day count-down you hear reports of atrocities against your neighbours, every knock on your door becomes a potential threat. This is a nightmare scenario, which nobody should face but the Asian community in Uganda in 1972 was confronted by this precise set of circumstances. This happened after a dream which compelled President Idi Amin to expel all the Asians from Uganda. A decree initially limited to “non citizens” extended to include all Asians, including non Gujaratis Goans, Muharhastrans, Sikhs and Punjabis.

The majority of those expelled were of Gujarati origins, which is a term applied by Mohamed Keshavjee, encompassing those of “Indo-Pakistani origin, citizens and non-citizens, who lived in Uganda prior to the 1972 expulsion”. Adding the “Ismailis, the Parsis, the Bohras and the Ithna`asharis, in addition to the Shahs and the Patels” who Keshavjee informs us were Gujarati speakers. The decision and rationale for expelling this community from Uganda is explored, analysed and outlined by Keshavjee and placed in historical context. The chapter written by Ramink Shah reviews the legal framework, again placing the issue in historical context. Outlining how ideas about citizenships and rights have altered through pre and post colonial generations. Shah also highlights the significance of the British Nationality Act 1948 and the decisions and advice given by post Independent India to the Asians living in East Africa.

Keshavjee focus is a set of interviews with fifty-people, all expelled from Uganda. Many ended up as refugees, in a variety of locations. With recollections of spilt second decisions about which country they should go to. Ashak Nathwani, found himself in Sydney while other family members landed in far off places. This is a migration that destroyed homes and families making “laughter merely a cherished memory”. Property was expropriated, only returned in the late 1980s, when President Museveni attempted to encourage the Asian community back to Uganda.

The comments made by Sultan Teja recounting his experiences as a refuge in Canada illustrate the struggle he and his fellow Gujaratis had in dealing with officialdom. The reliance on aid and the charity of a Samaritan who clothed them, given an amusing spin by Teja. The capacity for hard work, to take any job in order to provide food for the table is outlined by those who spoke to Keshavjee.

This book testifies to the absolute resilience, intelligence, imagination and energy of the Gujarati community across the globe. Of the fifty people interviewed by Keshavjee “one person owns one of the oldest merchant banks in England, one is a leading plastic manufacturer in Canada, one became the Minister of Health in a Muslim country, one became a Senator in Canada, one became a deputy High Commissioner to the UK.” Indeed, according to Keshavjee just fifty families in one city in Canada have the combined wealth of the entire GDP of Uganda. A testament to the lack of bitterness is the story of Dr Pirani expelled from Uganda as a child. He is now a Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery opting to choose Uganda to pilot a study into the condition of club foot, work undertaken without pay.

This is a great book, which traces the experience of the Gujarati community in a variety of locations, UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Africa. And as the editors remind us in the introduction, a diasporic study of the Gujarati community should not lose sight of the large percentage of Gujaratis living in Gujarat. This region benefits from assistance from the diaspora – for example the role played by the Nizari Ismaili Muslim Community. This is outlined by Anjoom Mukadem highlighting this minority group’s role and the charismatic leadership of the Aga Khan IV.

The book concentrates on developments in Gujarat, focussing on the studies of Katherine Twamley, Antony Pryce and Karina Kielmann. In particular on the impact of globalisation and role of the Western media and the part Bollywood is having on spouse selection and arranged marriages within Gujarat. Sheena Raja takes this issue out of India focusing on marriage practices in North America, so called parent assisted marriages which are common amongst the Gujarati-American community. This is a fascinating chapter, particularly highlighting the dual role of Gujarat women. They are expected to be westernised, educated and professionally qualified all seemingly combined with a traditional view of the domestic role of women in the home.

In the foreword written by Professor Raymond Brady Williams he points out that Gujarat is one of South-Asia`s most rapidly developing industrialised areas. The urbane Guajarati’s have also settled in large numbers throughout the cities of the world. What makes up a Gujarati is explored throughout the text, requiring a focus on language, culture, geography, traditions and religion. Do these factors asks Mawani and Mukadaw, make up a Gujarati, or are they “simply a tie that binds an individual to their ancestors and to the land from which they originated”.

In the spirit of the Gujarati people, this book enters unchartered waters. It successfully attempts a unique study into Gujarati identity, from the standpoint of the daily lives of a diverse people spread across the world. This objective is achieved with an array of brilliant academics, contributing from a range of academic areas who Professor Williams explains are “specialists in history, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines”.  This is an important and inspiring book; it reminds us that we were all once migrants, a process not without pain but one which “also provides great freedom for redefinition and transformation.”  

Gujarati Communities Across the Globe edited by Sharmina Mawani and Anjoom Mukadam (Trentham Books 2012)

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