This week on The Trip: Shravan Vidyarthi on the life and legacy of Indian-Kenyans.
No problem, he said. I’ll send my best boda-boda guy to come and get you. What followed was a 90-minute mototaxi ride that was a thing of unusual adrenaline and speed, like silver salmon darting upstream in the slow and muddy river that is Nairobi traffic. Beautiful, except that every once in a while, I would smack my helmet on the sideview mirror of a truck we passed, or, as we thunked across yet another crumbled median in order to fly the wrong way down a nighttime highway, I would cuss and clench my ass like I was trying to crack walnuts down there
But today’s guest, Shravan Vidyarthi, was right: if he had not sent his boda guy, I would still be stuck in the daily Donner Party that is Nairobi gridlock. It’s why, with a flight to catch later on, I ended up taking UberBoda, suitcase and all, to the airport. There is also another tremendous upside to the ride: the back of a mototaxi is the best way to view the most extraordinary spectacle of Nairobi’s streets: the Matatus.
Journalist Barbara Wanjala once wrote in our Roads & Kingdoms guide to Nairobi that Matatus were by far the best available metaphor for life in Kenya. They should be a simple thing, just collectivo minibuses that run set routes around the city. But they are so much more than that. Each one is completely customized, with a different combination of graffiti, lighting, sound system, even amenities like on-board wifi. The louder, brighter, bolder, the better to attract riders, turning public transportation into a competitive, nonstop mating display. The outsides are painted often with famous faces, like Tupac or Biggie, Che or Fidel, Mandela and Fela, always accompanied with t-shirt-ready phrases like Awesome God or Stoner Advisory: Extreme High.
And here’s the metaphor—it can be a good thing or bad, not for me to judge—but I think the Kenyan mind tilts toward atomization, and away from homogeneity. The most dominant force in Kenyan politics, after all, is factionalism. There were 43 different tribal groups in Kenya, all played in varying degrees by the shrewd current president Uhuru Kenyatta. And then, just before his re-election two years ago, he designated a 44th tribe. Not an offshoot of Maasai or Luo, but instead, the 44th tribe are Kenyans of Indian descent.
Depending on your view, this was either just electioneering or something far more meaningful. But there is no disputing that South Asians have been a huge part of Kenyan life, from pre-colonial coastal trading to mass emigration during British rule. And whatever plans the British had to place Indians above native Africans in their shitty colonial racial jenga games, the 44th tribe found its own future in solidarity with Kenya. And no one did so with more revolutionary heroics than the martyred Indo-Kenyan photojournalist Priya Ramrakha, whose biographer (and relative) is the filmmaker Shravan Vidyarthi. The same man who sent his best Boda guy to come and fetch me.
Once I made it safely to his home, Shravan and I cracked a bottle of Johnny Walker Black—the unofficial, but sort of official, drink of the Indian diaspora here—and talked about it all, from the early days of diaspora to Priya’s murder in Biafra, to the wonders of whiskey chicken.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Shravan. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.
Nathan Thornburgh: Well, fuck, let’s get right into it then.
Vidyarthi: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Thornburgh: First, let’s have a toast to this drink.
Thornburgh: Cheers. You have picked this drink for ethnic reasons?
Vidyarthi: Sure. Why not?
Thornburgh: It is Johnny Walker Black. What’s the connection there?
Vidyarthi: As a kid, you just see your parents and their friends drinking Johnny Walker Black Label, and eating curry, or cooking what they call a karoga, which is a Wednesday evening get-together where people cook a curry around a fire. It’s very stereotypical.
Thornburgh: Sounds delightful.
Thornburgh: And maybe even better with Johnny Walker Black.
Vidyarthi: Exactly. Sometimes they call it whiskey chicken. It’s a stereotype. And it’s also traditionally associated with the Punjabi community more, which is the Indian diaspora in Kenya historically, from Northern India, as opposed to, for example, another larger group which is the Gujarati, who are vegetarian and tee-total. It’s not generally Indian, at all.
Thornburgh: How does the community divide out here? The Indian community in Kenya? There’s the old community, that’s been here since the railroad, then there’s a new community that’s come since Independence, right?
Vidyarthi: Since Independence or even later. You could argue as late as the 90s, or even now, actually. In the last 10 years. The contractors that built my house are Indians from Gujarat, but they’ve been here for six, or seven, eight years. Not that long. It ranges from Indians who came four generations ago, late 1800s, to that.
Thornburgh: The late 1800s, are those Punjabis, or are those from all over India?
Vidyarthi: All over. And actually, interestingly, for example, my ancestors came from a part of India that is now Pakistan. Pre-partition, basically. When we trace back our family tree, it goes back to Pakistan now, as opposed to India.
Thornburgh: How far back to you guys go in this country?
Vidyarthi: In this country? Four generations. My generation now has kids, and then their parents, which is my generation, and then my parents, and then my parents parents were also born here. My great grandparents were the ones who first came over. Four to five, I guess.
Thornburgh: Got it. They would have come… When would that have been? Would that be just after Independence?
Vidyarthi: No. Late 1800s. My great-grandfather came over to work on the railway.
Thornburgh: I assume it was the colonial government that made some grand policy that they were going to use Indian engineers and workers. What was that about?
Vidyarthi: This is fascinating. Can I give you the long version?
Thornburgh: Yeah. We have a lot of whiskey, and it says on my SD card I have five hours and 58 minutes of memory remaining.
Vidyarthi: I love how you first define time in terms of whiskey quantity. That’s great.
Thornburgh: It’s like an hourglass. But it’s whiskey.
Vidyarthi: Before I begin there. Long version. It goes back to when the British were colonizing globally. India was essentially a jewel in the British crown. There was tons of trade between India and the UK. Tea, especially, was a big deal. In this jingoistic time of British imperialism, India was instrumental in terms of dictating how they ran their foreign policy. It was almost to some extent get around India. The big fear, of course, of the colonizers was, “What if we lose these awesome territories that we’ve gently taken over?” The thinking was that India was actually really close to East Africa, in a sense. India, it’s a five-hour flight, but it’s also straight across the ocean. The thinking was that, “If East Africa fell to an unfriendly power, then India would be vulnerable somehow to people being able to come across that way.”
Thornburgh: That’s an insane domino theory.
Swahili was a global language for slavers
Thornburgh: It’s close, and there have been ties that predated the British. Between this part of the world and India.
Vidyarthi: Right. That’s the even longer version. You could go all the way back to the early Indian sailors and Arabs, and the Portuguese slave trade. Swahili is a language that’s made up from all the countries that traded on the slave route. Swahili is spoken on the slave route, primarily.
Thornburgh: I did not know that. I’m super fascinated by Swahili, as anyone that comes here is, because it sounds amazing. It has English script so you can actually start to fuck with it a little bit…
Thornburgh: Read what’s going on. It was a global language for slavers?
Vidyarthi: Yeah. It was a way for slavers coming through, “Okay, we need to be able to talk to people along this route.”
Thornburgh: Like an evil Esperanto.
Vidyarthi: It goes from the Tanzania Coast all the way into Congo, and then stops there. And doesn’t really go north or south. Anyway. To protect India, the British said, “Let’s try to secure the East Coast of Africa.” They decided to colonize Kenya and said, “Close enough to Uganda. Let’s also take that over.” Domino effect, right?
Thornburgh: Yeah. But, the offensive, not the defensive version.
Vidyarthi: Of course, when they colonized the place, they had already had experience of colonizing India really efficiently using railroads. That was a real instrument of imperial penetration in India. They wanted to do the same thing in Kenya, but when they came, Kenya had no system of money and slavery had already been abolished at that point. There was no way of finding local labor for the railway.
Thornburgh: Just all their favorite things, cash and slaves, were not available.
Vidyarthi: Exactly. Your currency is not valid here, basically. The Africans were like, “You can’t enslave us, and we don’t have a system of money, so you can’t pay us.” They just figured they would bring over indentured labor from India, who already knew what money was, could get paid, and were also British subjects at the time.
Thornburgh: And could see a value proposition in sending shit back home?
Vidyarthi: Yeah, absolutely. They were entrepreneurs in a sense. They thought, “Let’s go over there and make some money.”
Thornburgh: It’s also so amazing because it’s like the Brexit fucks who say, “But we gave them a railroad.” You just keep seeing it pop up again and again as a defense of colonialism. Massacres and mass segregation but, hey, how about that railroad?
Vidyarthi: Right. Exactly. Even those railroads, were developed to facilitate the economy, the British imperial economy, not the local networks.
When my grandfather came back to Kenya, he started inventing himself as a militant journalist.
Thornburgh: I’m excited to hear about the fiascos that followed. I guess they did camp out here for a while. It wasn’t an immediate failure. They brought Indians over. At all skill levels, right?
Vidyarthi: Yeah, exactly. Laborers, but some engineers here and there. My great-grandfather ended up becoming a station master at a place called Athi River, which is around 26 kilometers from Nairobi. In today’s traffic, that’s three days by car.
Thornburgh: Ten minutes by flying.
Vidyarthi: He decided to stay on in Nairobi. There was still enough of a tie between India and Kenya, at that time, that the Indians would send their children back to India for school, and were able to. Sent his kids back to India, and that was right around the time that Gandhi was picking up speed in India. They came back full of nationalistic ideas. And just really fired up about this idea of independence. They, themselves, had grown up and were living in the color bar that Kenya society was apartheid, basically.
Thornburgh: Gandhi had also learned some portion of what he knew from having been in South Africa, too. That seems like a common Indian experience at the time. Being able to translate how fucked you are at home into how fucked you are in other parts of the British empire, and probably realizing, “Wait a second. This whole globe has nothing great for us.”
Vidyarthi: Exactly. It’s just divided and ruled society.
Thornburgh: That was your grandfather’s generation who went back and brought some fiercer ideas that generations before about what the Raj could do to itself.
Vidyarthi: And I think the early manifestations of peaceful resistance was a big part of what they learned. And so when my grandfather came back [to Kenya], he started inventing himself as a militant journalist. He started a handwritten newspaper that he would distribute to people in the neighborhood. And then somehow acquired a printing press. And then started the first anti-British newspaper in Kenya. He was the editor, he got together a whole bunch of other like-minded Indians who had also studied abroad, or who had gone wherever, and who were all living under the British color bar. To essentially agitate against the colonial government.
Thornburgh: Militant journalist. I want to find who has that on their LinkedIn. That’s a great description. And sadly, not applicable to enough people these days. It’s the opposite of the click-bait journalist.
He got a hold of a printing press, started to run a paper for the community here. How did that go down? I’m not sure what this picture is. I imagine an overweight, middle-management colonial, who’s deep in gin anyway, and having a hard time keeping it all together. This is my picture of what the late British empire was like. Did they have the opportunity to, both repress local uprisings, as well as the suddenly very frisky and militant Indian population here. Was this a dangerous thing your grandfather was doing?
Vidyarthi: Yeah. Totally. Initially, he started the first anti-British newspaper in English, but he went even further and started Swahili language newspapers, and even further, and Luo language newspapers, which is one of the bigger ethnic communities in Kenya, as well.
I don’t know if those papers necessarily went that far, circulated that much, but he was causing a stir. What’s interesting, too, you have to remember that Indians were actually still a very small population. The majority of people were black African. The political power that they were trying to influence was not so much Indian, but generally the oppressed. But was primarily the black African community. Like I said before, because the way the color bar was structured, the black Africans didn’t have access to anywhere as much money as the Indians did. It was the Indian financial access combined with the African political reach that gave these fledgling presses and publications the momentum that, to your question, really started to annoy the British, basically.
Vidyarthi: And actually, what ended up happening… I don’t remember the exact year, but my grandfather had met with Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of Kenya, and they had had a tea meeting. He said, “Look, you can do whatever you want in my paper. You have a blank slate to write whatever you want. As many pages, and really get your message out.” That’s when the British arrested my grandfather, and he was sentenced to a year in prison with hard labor. I think his first offense was having criticized the British for recruiting African soldiers for one of their wars in Burma, and then not compensating them in the same way that the white soldiers were compensated.
Thornburgh: He had a lot of nerve for bringing that up.
Vidyarthi: Yeah, exactly. Consorting with the black Kenyans.
Thornburgh: That’s the father of the nation, that’s a very big deal. It strikes me as a moral intelligence to be able to see through the [system]. Clearly, the colonial system was based on trying to get Indians to think, “Hey, we got it better than black Africans. We’re not them. We have more rights than them. We have a slightly more exalted position in the hierarchy.” What’s amazing about Gandhi’s story, about your family’s story, is the ability of people to whatever machinations that was supposed to inspire, to just see right through that shit and be like, “No.” And on the reverse, for people like Jomo Kenyatta to sit down with your father, and not take the bait that’s also offered of, “Here are the people who have been brought in at a slightly higher station than black Africans.” The mutual understanding that everybody is in the same boat, and they should just be rowing as quickly as possible, away from Britain, that’s a pretty awesome historical moment.
All right. Let’s [talk about the book]. Because I think obviously it’s a big project that you’ve been working on over the past little while. It got this beautiful write up from Paul Theroux in the New Yorker, who was there at the ultimate days of this uncle of yours, this cousin once removed. It’s incredibly evocative, I think, when you’re thinking about the relationship between Indian Africans and black Africans, and that common fight they all had. This relative of yours was one of the great and terribly forgotten visual voices on this entire era. One of the best African photojournalist of that era, was related to you and happened to be an Indian African. This book is something that you have pursued. I want to hear about the process of finding these photos and deciding it needed to come out, and trying to get the word out. It’s an incredible artistic context for all of those conversations that we were just having about the relationship between these communities and history. Tell me, how did this start? What was the first germination of this book as a project?
Vidyarthi: [That my grandfather] was going to jail is especially relevant to the subject of the book, because when my grandfather was publishing this militant journalism that we talked about, he had taken my uncle, Priya Ramrakha, on as a staff photographer for these newspapers. There’s this really clear link between the next generation and my grandfather’ generation, because he was photographing for these anti-British publications.
Nationalism could be defined as a lot of people having the same idea at once. And a great way to do that is through a newspaper.
Vidyarthi: Priya was my grandfather’s nephew, and he would have grown up, of course, messing with photography, but then suddenly from a very young age, 12, 13, 14, getting small assignments here and there for this extremely aggressive and controversial publication. He was deeply exposed to this idea that what the newspaper was doing was important. That the newspaper was a way for a large number of people to see what was going on, and develop ideas together. One of the people we interviewed, that I interviewed for the film version of the book—because I made a film about it—he talks about this idea of nationalism and how nationalism could be defined as a lot of people having the same idea at once. And a great way to do that is through a newspaper. If people are seeing a picture, and if they’ve seen a picture of someone, a large group of people knows what somebody looks like and what they’re trying to say, and it creates this collective thinking.
Priya was sensitized to that at a very young age. I think, unlike a lot of the fledgling photographers at that time, fledgling Indian photographers, he developed a political sensibility. As opposed to what a lot of photographers were doing, which was doing the studio rounds and photographing people in studios. West Africa has this large history of studio photographers, Malick Sidibé and that whole genre. East Africa has the same thing, too. It goes back again, to this financial thing of Indians could afford cameras. They could afford to set up studios. He was very different in that he wasn’t going the commercial route at all. It was very much this, “This is what my uncle is into. This is what these newspapers are doing. I’m going to be a journalist, specifically.”
Thornburgh: From militant journalist to militant photojournalist. That’s the line.
Thornburgh: Tell me about the book itself. Not to abridge this life which was so unworthy of being abridged that you should just buy the fucking book so you have the whole thing, but this man lives his ideals until his death, basically. Right? He chased all of these wars of independence around the continent, and did so at very great proximity. It ended up costing him his life. For whatever reason, despite the fact he was working with all of the best and the biggest overseas publications for these news assignments, somehow he wasn’t remembered, I guess, in the canon. That’s the sense I have.
I don’t know if that was part of what motivated or animated you, feeling like more people should know this guy. He was there for all of these big moments, and he was one of the great photojournalists of his time. And yet, his name doesn’t ring out in that same way. Is that true? Was there part of you when you were looking at this story was like, “If more people knew, then they would know they should have known.”
Vidyarthi: Yeah, I think so. It’s a wonderful question. It really ties into this idea of history, and what we need to know about our past. I think about it when I think of the story about Priya, I think he’s a hero of Kenyan history in many ways, as you said, not many people know about. I think it raises two thoughts for me. One is, I feel like in Kenya you find a dominant feeling of collective amnesia. There are heroes of Kenyan history, often opposition politicians that are written out of history in many ways, or certainly not explored anywhere near the extent that they should be. And that is really sad, because there are these wonderful stories that people aren’t going to get to know about.