“You here, you think you are African? And you over there, American? You see? Indian first, no matter which place we call home.”
Jennifer Acker, founder and editor in chief of The Common, recently brought out her powerful debut novel, The Limits of the World. about a successful Indian emigrant family from Nairobi. The book traces the journey of the Chandarias. Premchand is a doctor; his wife, Urmila, runs a gift shop of African artifacts at their home in Ohio; and their son, Sunil, has dropped out of medical school and is struggling with his Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard. (“The other Indian kids he grew up with, they were still leashed, fulfilling their parents’ scripts.”) When the family members decide to meet with extended kin in Nairobi, a pandora’s box of shocking family secrets are revealed all at once, forcing all to think once again about their origins, their journeys, their choices and their truths. In a sense, the book is about cultural gaps between generations of immigrant families. (“We’re so many different kinds, and it is not always easy for Hindu, Jain, Ismaili, et cetera to see the same side.”)
Interestingly, Acker is married to an Indian, and so she was naturally inspired firsthand by real events and stories. The book is a deeply personal look at a recent period in their lives, in which they had to learn to take care of each other. Also, she also spent many months living and teaching English in a Kenyan village. Acker also drew inspiration from V S Naipaul’s various novels, particularly A House for Mr Biswas, to write the book, which took ten years to complete.
The book is deeply researched on the subject of the history of Asians in East Africa. Sunil and his Jewish wife, Amy’s travels through Kenya take them to well known sites such as Karen Blixen’s house as well as the Maasai Mara game drive, which remind you of scenes from Out of Africa (1985). A reference is also made to an infamous incident in 1898 when two maneless, nine-feet long man-eating lions killed over 135 railway laborers—Indians brought by the British—who were building the Kenya-Uganda railway. There are also detailed descriptions of how things changed for the locals and the Indians once Kenya gained independence from the British.
“Africans grew bolder and more desperate after Independence. Nairobi burst its seams as people moved in drives from the countryside. And when there are more men than jobs, men with families to feed, ruthlessness takes hold. The education system started off with a bang, free for all, really a thing to be proud of, but then it unraveled. You know, you have seen it. Thievery increased, then the violent crimes and murders. Yes, people to whom we gave opportunities!”
Overall, an enlightening read for anyone who knows or wants to know about Africa; or simply, anyone who is interested in human relationships.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com