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Authors: M.G. Vassanji

When She Was Queen

BOOK: When She Was Queen
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When She Was Queen

My father lost my mother one
evening in a final round of gambling at the poker table. I have often tried to recall that moment, its exact details of scene and mood, though I was not present there, could not have been. I was, if you will, the contingent phenomenon, a potential lurking in the unholy fug of a revelrous night spun out of control. My father’s gesture was not the nail-biting one of a compulsive gambler who, having lost
all, imagines with diseased mind he will redeem himself with just that one hand that Lady Luck, his kismet, was bound to throw his way. Nor was there an epic dimension to that fateful moment—ancient enemy seeking ultimate revenge—castration in public. My father was unusual in many ways; but he was also a simple innkeeper, who succumbed in an instant to one gigantic temptation. He had already won a few hundred shillings that night, not a trifling sum for him. But then, in all the whimsical naivety of his nature he let his good sense abandon him. He saw a miraculous vision of more, he desired it to distraction. On the table for him to win was a palatial lakeside residence, which turned Mother heartbreakingly wistful and envious every time she set her eyes on it, and which he could never hope to provide her in a hundred years with his wages. When John Chacha, known otherwise as the Asian King of Kisumu, declared magnanimously, “I am ready to bid what is dearest to me, this alishaan mansion—there, you have a chance to wipe me out and move in with your lovely wife into my castle—” Father said, “Don’t I only wish I had something of value to match your bid.”

John Chacha, with his impressive, oversized head and abundant white mane, beamed at my father across the table.

“You have,” he said. “You have exactly such a thing.”

The few people standing around the table followed the big man’s wolfish leer and smiled in nervous anticipation. And my fair and beautiful mother, with her stylishly modern, short brown hair and shimmering olive-green sari, on whom that eye fell as she stood
watching behind her red-faced husband: Why did she choose to remain silent?

I have gleaned this story from whatever my mother Shirin, and my two elder sisters Razia and Habibeh, who were then seven and nine years old, have relinquished to my queries. We all live in Toronto now, far from Kisumu by Lake Victoria, and my father Rashid has been dead twenty years. Let us say that over the years enough allusion to that eventful night had flown past me, uncomprehended, that finally I decided to uncover all the mystery surrounding it.

In the mid-1960s my family were settled in Kisumu, down from the western ridge of the Great Rift Valley, in the cosy equatorial embrace of the Lake Victoria shoreline. It was soon after the independence of Kenya, life in this new sunshine was freer and livelier than it had ever been before; the Indians were emerging from the former mingy, scrappy existence of their neighbourhoods. There was money around, and there was life to be lived. I recall a happy childhood from those days, and legends about the hardships and migrations of a distant past. My father Rashid, who had tried his hand as a salesman at a hunting store in Nairobi, as a safari rally driver and navigator, and as manager of a timber mill and later a tea plantation, had been enticed when the plantation was sold by its owners to manage one Rose Hotel in Kisumu. Rashid Jafar was an outsider in Kisumu, but because of having worked with Europeans and acquired certain mannerisms and habits as a result, and due to his brush with glory when he and his co-driver came close to beating the Swedish aces Erikson and Erikson in the East African Safari rally (their Peugeot
404 overturned on the home stretch outside Nairobi), he was welcomed by the rich Asians of that town.

Every Friday night a certain rambunctious group among this elite would meet at the Rose Hotel for a late dinner from its renowned menu. The kitchen at the Rose was famous from Nairobi to Kampala for its rich spicy dishes—the chicken tikka, the lamb biryani, the coconut and coriander fish, and the naans and parathas; tourist handbooks raved about its tantalizing aromas and rich tastes, and airline pilots were known to hitch rides with each other to eat there. This glory of the Rose was a creation of my father.

He would say his hero was the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley—whose name was more apt to draw scorn and contempt in independent East Africa for his reputed cruelty, but what Rashid admired about that American was his pure gumption, the fact that he, a foreigner, simply arrived on the scene one day and started up the Congo River on foot and on boat and wound up ultimately not far from our town in the heart of the continent. Rashid’s spirit was not of the outdoors type, but he too was a mover, a migrant. Kisumu, he would say, was his final stop.

I loved him. There was never a time when, if you put your hand in his jacket pocket, you would not come out with a Trebor or Bluebird candy, a box of Smarties, a cylinder of Rolo chocolate, a packet of Pez awaiting your grasping child’s hand. Mother said he had a hole in his pocket, but for me that pocket was Ali Baba’s cave. John Chacha would tell him, Your staff eats better than me.

I recall a man slim of build, not very tall, and rather dark, with a narrow face and sparse hair; the face smelling deliciously of Old Spice aftershave and stale cigarette. He had a peculiar habit, when posed to listen to anyone, of facing away, with a tilt of the head downward, lending them his ear, so to speak. Always in a light grey or blue suit, he could be found at the hotel reception, or in the kitchen, or striding along a corridor somewhere in between those two destinations; in the evenings he sat in the bar or the dining room among his patrons. Mother supervised housekeeping and shopping for the kitchen.

My father—so I must call him, still—could talk the ears off someone when he was inclined to, and this would usually be a hotel guest, who had time on his hands and loose change for a beer and the slot machines and would say to him, Have one on me, Mr. Jafar, and my father would reply, No, no, it’s on me, what are you having, and soon he would be rattling on about his life, until a messenger would come to fetch him for an urgent phone call, or an emergency in the kitchen, and the guest would sit back with relief and pick up his mug.

You know, what may seem the most casual or trivial of events can turn out to change your life, my father would begin when asked about how he entered the hotel business.

The old English couple who had owned the Burton Tea Estates near Kericho were packing to leave, and the new owner, a minister in the new Kenya government, had already given my father his marching orders. It was around eleven on a cool misty morning in the hills, father out in the veranda of his bungalow having tea and
sandwiches—his was a wonderfully relaxed plantation lifestyle in the colonial mode, except that his family were out in Nairobi and he would get lonely. The guard at the gate came and knocked on his screen door, saying, “Bwana, there’s this mister here, an Indian whose car has broken down on the road.”

A tall man in a tropical suit, wearing sunglasses, stepped in, followed by two children, a boy of six and a girl of nine.

“John Karmally,” said the man, “from Kisumu. How are you? I believe a gasket is blown.”

He removed the shades, cast an eye around to inspect the premises. The veranda had an old table and chair, a prominent radio, and above that on the wall a calendar bearing the picture of the goddess Lakshmi.

My father bade the visitor sit, noted his oversized head and white mane, though he wasn’t much older. He ordered more tea, and a mechanic was dispatched with Mr. Karmally’s chauffeur to bring the car back to the estate where it could be seen to.

John Chacha, as we would come to know the man, stayed the day. My father, showing him the hospitality and carefree manner that were his mark, took his visitor to the town and introduced him to the local Indian merchants. John Chacha had a delightful stay, spending the night with an acquaintance. And by the next morning, when he was about to set off for Nairobi, having learned of my father’s current predicament, he offered him a job as manager of the Rose Hotel in Kisumu.

My mother was a stunningly beautiful woman, with a bearing suggestive of quiet dignity and arrogance. In the evening she preferred to come out in a sari, which fell as naturally down her body as the plume of a bird; thus attired, when she made her presence known in a room, it was as if the lighting had suddenly altered. Even as a child I was aware of her brilliance when she was dressed and all made up. The ample closet which our hotel home could afford her was a dizzying riot of colours and odours, among which I would sometimes go and hide, to nurse my wounds. But I recall her also in a blue and black kitenge suit with matching headgear, at a Rose Hotel ball to celebrate our independence day anniversary, when the Area Commissioner and the Mayor were among the guests, this being our Indian way to ingratiate ourselves with prickly African politicians. Even now, as I walk with her along Don Mills Road and sit on the lawn outside the Science Centre, as she weakly clutches at my arm and reminds me that she is not as young as I, her beauty and shape have not deserted her. Her face is more drawn but makes her all the more striking, the body is frail but still betrays the shape beneath the sari, and those discerning, curious looks will inevitably land upon her.

I was the youngest of her children and by far, from what I observed myself and of which I have always been reminded, the closest to her. My two sisters were brought up with the assistance of ayahs. But I demanded so much from her, by my frailty and being the youngest, and she was willing to give so much, that apparently all the credit for her later reserve falls upon me. This may only be
sibling rivalry talking. I do know for certain that I needed her a lot as a child, her close presence was a comfort that I often craved.

She was the eldest girl in a modest household. Her own parents had died and she lived with her mother’s sister. Some of her younger cousins had already married, and as often happened in such cases—an orphaned girl with diminished prospects—she was given away a little too easily. My father was a drifting salesman in Nairobi; smoked; drank a bit. He would make a living but would never be a rich man. But, as the saying went, even half a husband, a one-eyed one or a lame one, for example, was better than none at all. My father’s handicaps were hardly so serious; and besides, the two families were distantly acquainted.

BOOK: When She Was Queen
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ads

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