Uhuru street, p.1
Uhuru Street, page 1
M. G. VASSANJI
“Vassanji probes beneath the surface to create a compelling and poignant portrait of human displacement.”
“One of the country’s finest storytellers.”
–Quill & Quire
“Vassanji’s prose is simple and evocative, with a light touch he recreates places and times, deploying flashes of colour with a careful attention to detail.”
–Financial Times (U.K.)
“One of the most impressive voices in postcolonial literature.”
“[Vassanji] writes in an inviting, straightforward style laced with humour.…”
BOOKS BY M. G. VASSANJI
The Gunny Sack (1989)
No New Land (1991)
Uhuru Street (short stories, 1992)
The Book of Secrets (1994)
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003)
Copyright © 1992 by M. G. Vassanji
First published in the U.K. by
Heinemann International Literature and Textbooks
Trade paperback with flaps published 1992
First Emblem Editions publication 2004
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.
National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Vassanji, M. G.
Uhuru Street: short stories / by M. G. Vassanji.
PS8593.A87U5 2004 C813’.54 C2003-906714-9
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and that of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.
This is a work of fiction. The community described, and the characters in it, are fictitious, as are the events of the story. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
My thanks to Ellen Seligman and Natalie Warren-Green for their patience and time; and to the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for support.
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
The Canadian Publishers
75 Sherbourne Street,
For My Mother
Other Books by This Author
In the Quiet of a Sunday Afternoon
For a Shilling
The Relief from Drill
The Sounds of the Night
What Good Times We Had
Ebrahim and the Businessmen
All Worlds Are Possible Now
About the Author
Dar es Salaam is a city on the east coast of Africa, a coast that over the centuries was visited by Arab, Indian, and European: traveller and merchant, slave trader, missionary and coloniser. Some 50 miles away on the Indian Ocean lies the former metropolis and slave market of the area, the isle of cloves, Zanzibar, barely visible on a clear day by some accounts. In 1498 Vasco da Gama stopped for rest and provisions on the coast, and took two guides along. His object lay across the ocean, beyond the horizon to the north and east, India: several weeks’ journey by dhow when the Trade Winds allowed, later two weeks by steamer, now a few hours by plane. Dhows from Cutch and Kathiawad brought Indian traders here. In 1885 when Karl Peters began signing up the land around Dar for the German emperor, there were already small Indian settlements dotted along the coast.
Once upon a time Uhuru Street was called Kichwele Street. The change marked a great event in the country. Uhuru means ‘independence’. This street of independence ran through the city. It began in the hinterland of exclusively African settlements, came downtown lined by Indian shops, and ended at the ocean. Here, where ocean liners came from distant lands, where a German ship was sunk to prevent a British warship from coming up close, where dhows once brought traders from Cutch and Kathiawad and Oman when the Trade Winds allowed, where the new quays were named after Princess Margaret after the old ones were destroyed by fire, Uhuru Street met the world.
Over the years Uhuru Street changed its looks; so did Dar, so did the country. The stories in this volume are about the Indians of Uhuru Street during these years of change.
The Dar es Salaam of these stories is a place in the world of fiction. But it is the real Dar es Salaam, just as it is also the other towns there, on the coast and beyond, through which Uhuru Street runs and seeks access to the world.
In the Quiet of a Sunday Afternoon
Sunday afternoon languor descends over the street as usual. The day is hot but clear and a soft breeze blows bits of paper about. The street gradually empties of people and business comes to a halt. The last strains of Akashwani on the airwaves from India mingle with the smell of hot ghee, fried onions, and saffron that wafts down from people’s homes. Hussein, my father-in-law, sits on the bench and stares out through the doorway, as intently as though watching some action on the pavement. In his hands are the two halves of a ball, a soft bouncy red ball, the kind kids call flesh-ball, and he squeezes the two parts together.
A short while ago the ball fell from a roof three floors up, bounced a few times on the street and pavement and landed inside the store. Hussein was upon it even before I realised it was there. Minutes later some boys came in, with a side of wood, their bat.
‘Uncle, did you see a ball fall here somewhere?’ they asked.
‘Pigs!’ yelled Hussein, jumping up from his seat in rage. ‘Do you want to hurt people? How many times do you have to be told …?’
‘We won’t do it again, uncle,’ pleaded a boy.
‘Pigs from hell! I will show you … devils!’ He brought out a large knife and sliced the ball in two. A bit of rubber fell to the ground. ‘Here,’ said the old man, ‘take this –’ They looked at what remained of their ball in his hands and ruefully left the shop.
The boys call him ‘German,’ because, he says, he can speak German. I’ve heard him say two things, ‘Mein Herr,’ and ‘Mein Gott,’ which I presume are German. He was still a youth when the Germans were here, and when he’s in the mood he can spin quite a yarn about those times. We all have a name here. They think I don’t know they call me ‘Black.’ Because I’m dark, almost an African. They have to give me a name, and what better name than something so obvious. Black. My wife is ‘Baby’, the whole town calls her Baby, and you have to see the rolls of blubber hanging on her to see why. She was brought up on nothing but the purest butter, proclaims her mother proudly. ‘Our Baby was most dear to us,’ says Good Kulsum, whenever I need reminding of the good fortune that has come my way. How I landed in this situation is another story. I married to attain respectability, but right now I wonder if I’
Now Baby and her mother sleep after the biriyani and I wait up, the shop half closed as usual. The quiet of the Sunday afternoon has always been mine – it is nice and pleasant in the shade and the town sleeps. I sit on the armchair and read the Sunday Standard column by column, and when I’ve finished and solved the puzzle set for children by Uncle Jim, and noted last week’s winner, I have tea and wait for the woman to bring samosas. All this peace while they sleep and snore. But not today. Today German sits with me.
And the woman who brings samosas at four every Sunday will not come, today she catches the bus to go to her brother’s town.
Her name is Zarina and she first came a few months ago and called out softly from outside, ‘Brother, do you want samosas for tea?’
I looked up from the paper and gave a good look at her and said, ‘Yes, I’ll take a few.’ She came in, a small dark woman, her shallow basket covered with a newspaper. I fetched a plate from inside and she squatted and counted out five samosas and spooned out the chutney. I looked at those firm and large hips, the tight bodice, and I felt my blood thicken, a tightening in my limbs. Oh, how long since I had a good woman before my days of respectability began. What blubber I have to manipulate just to father a child. Her face was smooth and round, her hair long and wavy, tied at the back. What misfortune befell you, woman, that you are reduced to ferrying samosas, I thought. I looked into those dark shiny eyes and I touched her arm as I gave her the shilling.
She pulled it back and her eyes flared. ‘Aren’t you ashamed, brother? Just because I am a widow and I come unaccompanied doesn’t mean that I am a loose woman! My boy is asleep and I didn’t have the heart to wake him up.’
‘Forgive me, sister,’ I said. ‘I was not myself.’
She prepared to go. ‘Baby is asleep?’
‘Yes. They’re all resting.’
The following Sunday she brought her son, and every Sunday thereafter. He would sit on the doorstep, watching the empty street, and she would sit inside on the bench. Her husband had been a coal seller and had died suddenly of a fever. She had only recently rented a room in the old house across the street and lived with Roshan. This Roshan has a certain reputation for her free ways. In any case, Zarina made a living selling snacks which she prepared and her son Amin helped to bear from place to place. Amin was ten years old or so and a quiet sickly fellow, surprisingly fair, for the coal seller wasn’t very fair either. I would look at him sitting on the step and wonder, How long before he takes to the streets, before he starts stealing and pimping …
It turned out so that whenever we were out of bread in the morning, I crossed the street for fresh vitumbua. The door was always kept ajar there for customers, and I would walk inside into the dark and narrow corridor, at the end of which she sat beside the fire. There were three rooms on the left which I passed, closed with curtains. Zarina’s face glowed like the coals and there would be a film of sweat on her face. The air was rich with a sweet smell of frying and the ceiling was covered with soot. She sat on a low stool, her hair undone and wavy, the hem of her frock tucked in front of her. The dough would be ready by her side, yellow and yeasty, which she would pour with a ladle into the small woks in front of her. Then she would prod the contents and turn them with a long skewer until they were raised like little tummies, brown and crisp, sizzling in the oil, almost filling the woks.
Baby loves vitumbua and she could eat two at a time. I would watch as Zarina brought them out one by one, and Amin would get the first lot to take away and sell. When he was gone I would await my share. Roshan would bring tea, and the two women would start to kid me. ‘You left Baby’s side early today!’ Once Roshan caught my eye at the door as I was leaving and said: ‘You know, if you find it difficult at home, you can always come here!’ There was suggestion in those eyes and a wickedness in that smile that could give your heart a flutter. At the far end of the corridor the flames glowed yellow and blue, the little tummies sizzled, and Zarina watched us, one hand on a skewer. Without a word I stepped outside into the brilliant morning sunshine.
German’s suspicions were aroused perhaps when he saw me give a shilling to the boy.
‘Eh, Amin!’ I called out one afternoon as he emerged with a few others from behind the store. He came in and stood in front of me, eyes shining and mouth open. ‘What were you doing back there?’
‘Don’t take me for a fool! I too was your age once – shall I report to your mother?’
He knew I had him, but gave one more try. ‘Tell me, then, what was I doing?’
‘Smoking! And shall I also tell you what? Why, look at you – all bones you are and you want to burn your insides smoking cigarettes! Play cricket, play football –’
‘We don’t have a ball!’
I still don’t know what exactly it was that made me do it. ‘Here,’ I said, ‘take this – buy one and stay out of mischief.’ I gave him a shilling.
It was at this point that German shuffled in.
‘You know, bapa,’ I told him, a little guiltily, ‘it’s a pity there is no playing ground around here. The school is too far and at the Khalsa ground the caretaker chases them away. Boys need room to play.’
‘They are pigs, all of them.’ He made for the bench and picked up the measuring rod.
I thought this was too much. ‘Why, what have they done to you?’ I asked, a little sharply.
But the man refused the challenge. ‘I said they are all pigs,’ he said simply, and with that we stared silently in front of us. Good Kulsum was out and at the back we could hear Baby commanding the servant in her thick husky voice. It was dull and hot outside, few customers came in, and you wondered how long the lull would last. A little later, towards evening, things picked up. Baby puffed in and Good Kulsum stepped in exhausted from her rounds. German stood up and went out for a stroll and I was glad to see the back of him. Customer traffic picked up. Kulsum sang hymns in her grating toneless voice, counting beads from the bench, Baby served the customers and I gave out change and helped with wrapping. Baby is good with customers. She walks them in from the door, chatting amiably with them, and sees that they walk out with at least a good feeling if not something more.
That night she was angry and hurt.
‘One whole shilling to someone we hardly know!’ She looked at me reproachfully as she applied a generous layer of butter on a thick slice of bread, spread jam over it and handed it to me. Good Kulsum looked mournfully at me as she poured me my tea, and German smirked, slurping over his bread over which he had poured his tea.
‘We should be charitable to our neighbours,’ I said in defence. ‘We should do things for each other.’ At which Baby and Kulsum remained silent, and the old man let out a series of muffled grunts through his skull, until I was forced to murmur, ‘Watch it, bapa, the bread does not get into your brain.’ And Kulsum looked more mournful than ever.
One morning he shuffled in as I sat kidding with the two women, sipping tea and watching the vitumbua frying in their woks.
‘Indeed,’ he muttered, ‘one also gets tea while one waits!’
‘Oh yes, bapa,’ I said, ‘have a seat, have a seat. Roshan, bring my father-in-law a chair!’ You would have thought I owned the place.
‘I have no intention of sitting,’ said the man testily. ‘I have a home. If it takes this long to cook vitumbua here, we can go elsewhere.’
The two women eyed each other. ‘Go,’ Zarina then said. The old man stood watching the fire.
‘You are the daughter of Jamal Meghji,’ he said at length.
‘Yes,’ said Zarina.
German loudly cleared his throat as if he were about to spit on the floor, then shuffled off to the door, stuck his head out and spat.
‘I knew your father,’ he said when he returned. ‘What town was he from?’
‘Mbinga,’ she answered.
‘I know that! Where in India?’
‘I don’t know. In Cutch or Gu
‘Mudra,’ he said, nodding at me. ‘I remember when he came to Africa.’
She said nothing.
‘Third class family,’ he told me, as we came out with our basket of vitumbua. ‘You know how he made his money?’
‘They were rich, then?’
‘He bought stolen goods. Flour and sugar. Then he sold it back. To the Germans. In one year, when the Great War in Europe began, he made all his money. And at the end of the war he lost it.’
‘Ah!’ His mood changed as we approached the shop, and he waved away my question. ‘But remember,’ he said, ‘third class family.’
That night after supper he told the story. The table lay uncleared and we all sat around, waiting for someone to start something. First he burped, and then he asked his question, which is his way of starting a story.
‘How did Jamal Meghji lose his wealth, Kulsa?’
‘I don’t know, it was all so long ago,’ Good Kulsum murmured.
‘Listen, then.’ He looked at me. ‘In the year 1916 a rumour went around that the Germans were losing the Great War, in Europe and even here. And with that rumour went another little rumour that the German soldiers were going around looting the businesses. People started hiding their cash and their jewellery, burying it and stuffing mattresses. Some other time I’ll tell you what I did. This is what Jamal Meghji did. He had a lot of cash, ten thousand rupees, it was said. Even for Europeans that was a lot of money.
‘Outside his house was a large tree, from which hung six, seven beehives. In those days this was the custom among Africans. People kept beehives. And according to the custom, you did not go near other people’s beehives. You could not touch them, no. So Jamal Meghji hid his money in beehives. And there it was as safe as it could be. He could go to sleep in peace.
‘The Germans were losing the war. Some months later some German troops camped about five, six miles from the village. One day early in the morning a few German soldiers set out in search of food. And when they saw the beehives hanging from the trees, they pointed their rifles at them and shot them down. Jamal Meghji’s beehives came down with all his wealth in them. In this way the woman’s father died a pauper.’
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