Book Review by Zahir Dhalla: The Voyage of Destiny: From Jamnagar to New York, A Family Biography – Amirali G. Mamdani

Book review:

“The Voyage of Destiny: From Jamnagar to New York, A Family Biography”
By Amirali G. Mamdani, 2012.

266 pages, inclusive of 35 pages of captioned photos and a 6-page index; exclusive of a 4-page introduction and a 6-page glossary. Paperback $23 at Amazon.

The Voyage of Destiny“Opta [in Dusseldorf, Germany] was a large manufacturing plant [for radios] employing more than three hundred people… January [1958] was cold and windy… The view from my back window was a reminder of the terrible war that had brought destruction and death to thousands of innocent people… My neighbors and colleagues occasionally invited me to their home. Now I impressed them with my German, as I could communicate without faltering… One neighbor Herr Willy remembered his grandfather had served in Mafia, Tanganyika [now Tanzania].”

These are one of the many glimpses into the life of the Mamdani family. In the one above, Amirali had been brought to Europe for training in servicing home radios and record players, and later sewing machines. [Later still, his two younger brothers would head off to Japan for similar training, as did other Ismailis, Japan being the other post-war economic powerhouse besides Germany. Some came back with foreign brides! The Mamdani brothers also earned degrees and fluency in Japanese.]

The Mamdani story is set mostly in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, specifically Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile, but also includes a sojourn in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and finally in New York City, USA. It does cover very well the much-treaded ground of migration (droughts, dhows), of settlement (dukawalas, wholesale, jobs, transportation, dealerships, light industries), of pioneers (Tharia Topan, Sewa Haji, Alidina Visram), of community development (jamat khanas, education, health, housing, community service, insurance, investment), of festivals (Idds, khushalis, Milad, Diwali), of milestones (jubilees, royal visits), in which this book does not disappoint at all. But it also shares many gems with the reader like Bapaji’s fish venture on the lake, then a milling business, a bakery, a radio/gramophone dealership, as well as other personal recollections like Velbaima the local homeopath, Bollywood legend Nargis and Amirali’s acting ‘career’, grandma’s tragic industrial accident death at the mill, the Queen’s Correspondence Club through which many young Ismaili lads and ladies found life partners, and much more, including converting natives to Ismailism!

As with other Ismailis in East Africa, the story commences in Gujarat and moves to East Africa when the first of the family members Jiwan Lalji moved to Zanzibar in the 1890s, followed by other family members who typically fanned out into the hinterland, in this case to the shores of Lake Victoria.

The book has an easy-to-follow narrative of Ismaili life in East Africa as seen through the Mamdani family. Anyone wishing to appreciate aspects of this life would do well to read it. And, it also devotes a whole chapter to post-colonial politics, although it curiously omits mentioning the seminal act of 1965 when Tanzania made a constitutional change to declare itself a one-party state which, in retrospect, turned out to be the ground zero of the country’s disastrous downward economic spiral from which it is still trying to recover. Perhaps the author did not see a difference between what was indeed a de facto one-party rule (TANU, the ruling party, held 99% of the seats) and a permanent de jure constitutional stamp legally eliminating any opposition. But this aberration does not take anything away from the precious peeks it offers the reader, including:

[Early 1930s] “One day, while walking by the lakeside [Lake Victoria], Bapaji met Ramazani, the nahoda [skipper] of a dhow Fateh Salamat, inquiring if there was any load he could carry to Mwanza [Tanganyika]. Bapaji could not believe what he had just heard! He had decided to move to Mwanza, and here he met Ramazani looking for a load…There was a regular boat service from Kisumu [Kenya] to Mwanza, but Bapaji, for unknown reasons, ventured to travel in a dhow. Perhaps he must have forgotten the experience of sailing from Porbander [India] to Mombasa [Kenya]!” And on this journey, he observed first-hand at Kirumba, near Mwanza, a ready, high turnover, low-risk market for lake fish, and thus this was his first business venture there for the next couple of years, a partnership with skipper Ramazani. “He habitually wrote long romantic letters to his beloved Sheru [in Asembo, Kenya] from the deck of Fateh salamat, sometimes enclosing his photograph and petals of Maji’s [as Sheru, the author’s mother, was called by the author] favorite pink roses.”

Much later, in Cannes, in 1958, at Villa Yakimour [a truncation of Yvette Labrousse, the Mata Salamat, Aga Khan-i-amour; Aga Khan III used to tease Mata Salamat with the nickname ‘Yaki’] came a major turning point: “Hazar Imam asked about our business and the reason why we were in Europe. The Imam then asked, ‘Have you heard about transistor radios?’ I replied, ‘No, Khudavind.’ He continued, ‘Sony has recently introduced a transistor radio in Japan, which is sold at the American base in Okinawa… [Later, after returning to Mwanza, Tanzania:] Our next strategy was to secure agency for transistor radios from Japan… Sansei responded with the samples of Nivico transistor radios…on six inexpensive D batteries that had a long life… A large number of people attended a demonstration at our showroom [in Mwanza] and were stunned to see the magic of a transistor radio.”

Opportunities such as those quoted above worked hand-in-glove with Bapaji’s motto, in Cutchi:

Naran-may kuro vandho aye, ane naran-ja thoda paisa dena khape-ta?” What is the objection in looking, and to look do we have to pay money?

Reviewed by Zahir K. Dhalla, non-fiction writer, biographer and historian. All his books are non-profit. Search “zahir dhalla” on Amazon.

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