The Accident

My dearest Komal, Anjli and Amar,

In this letter I shall try and clarify the cliff-hanger I left you with in my last letter. The cliff-hanger being the tragic accident that happened in the jungles of Kenya, changing many lives and affecting mine too.

It happened on the afternoon of Friday the 2nd of February 1962. A lorry heavily laden with sacks of grains and drums of kerosene was making its journey from Makutana to another remote village called Ortum. It was meant to be just an outing for the ‘extra’ passengers in the lorry. Hence besides the driver and his wife, there was Bhanuba, Pushpaba, Ajaymama the toddler, Purshottamdada, and Ashwindada(Lalitaba’s youngest brother).

There were also 5-6 workers in this lorry. Initially the two Bas, Ajaymama and Ashwindada were sitting in the front, next to the driver. Along the way, Purshottamdada, made the driver stop. He made Ashwindada hop into the back to reduce the crowding up front and he also asked the driver to reduce his speed! The road hugging the steep hills, was narrow, untarmacked and windy. All the trees of the jungle were shadowing the road into oblivion. It was here in the precarious hills that the heavily laden lorry, full of cargo and a mere dozen passengers lost its footing and plunged into the deep ravine!

The driver and his wife ran away! Bhanuba was not aware of the tragedy at this point, and was under the illusion that all would be fine as soon as the vehicle was turned over. The air was filled with the smell of kerosene…..and to this day the smell of kerosene takes her back to this tragic moment. A passing car noticed the upturned lorry and stopped to investigate. They took Pushpaba to the hospital…she had a broken arm. (Pushpaba got married with her arm still in plaster!). They also reported the accident to the residents of the nearest town, Kapenguria. Bhanuba reckons it was almost one and a half hour before the rescue arrived and a little time later before they realised the enormity of the accident. All the passengers in the back had lost their lives: Purshottamdada, Ashwindada and the other African workers. I remember rushing to Makutana from Jinja, with Lalitaba and a 6 month old Atishmama in tow. Thinking of that depressive sad (ભયંકર ) atmosphere still brings tears to my eyes.

It transpired that the family was entwined in a lawsuit of sorts for years after, brought on by the owner of the lorry. The result of that lawsuit? No clue? Who cares?

My question had always been: why was the family conducting business in this remote part of Kenya?- In the first half of the 20th century many Gujaratis ventured to Africa for economic reasons.

Purshottamdada and therefore Surajba-in-tow, were a part of these adventurers. Dada started out in Kampala(my birth town) and then moved to different parts of East Africa in search of work. It was his association with an acquaintance with innovative business ideas that eventually saw him settle in the area of Kapenguria. Initially the Indians set up small shops in the jungles to service the local population. Later on the area of Kapenguria had a dramatic change. The infamous Mau Mau trials were held there.

The Mau Mau rebellion originated in the 1950s as a movement to oppose the policies of the British Colonial Rule. At this time Jomo Kenyatta was emerging as a strong leader for the indigenous Kenyan population. The British believed that Kenyatta was the leader of this militant group. In an endevour to clamp down on this uprising, in November 1952 Kenyatta was arrested and held in this remote region of Kapenguria. A large region around the prison was curtailed and travelers needed permits to enter the area. Lalitaba remembers those times including the one journey where one of the family member had to hide under a pile of blankets as his permit had not been obtained!

This curtailment of Kenyatta and the Mau Mau trials were beneficial to the Indian traders of this region as they were able to service the numerous guards and the British officials that traveled in this area. In 1953 Kenyatta was sentenced to 7 years hard labour in the Kapenguria prison. Eventually Kenyatta was released in April 1961. Finally in December 1963 Kenya achieved independence from the British Rule.

Lalitaba spent only 6 months in the village of Makutana before she got married in December 1952 and moved to Uganda. Over the next decade and a half there were many trips from Jinja to this region. Many other relatives had been enticed to travel to Africa to help run other shops further into the jungles. Lalitaba’s recollection of her trips would make a great murder mystery novel: The setting: dark dangerous jungle; The participants: mysterious close relatives; The plot: disappearance of unwanted bride or unsavoury individuals! All history now. A surprising fact that I learnt was that of Ba’s 8 siblings only two (Ba and Taraba) were born in India, the rest in Kenya! Of course the death of Purshottamdada changed a lot of things. By the late 1960s the family and many of the other relatives moved out of Kenya, either back to India or to United Kingdom.

So there we go, some more juicy tales of Africa. The fact that Lalitaba has been with me for the past few weeks has been useful for adding the details of her family’s life in Kenya. Daddy was also reminiscing his life in Kenya when Sapnamasi and Ajaymasa were here in June. Ajaymasa grew up in Eldoret and his dad and Daddaji were very good friends. Small world eh? When they were here I made Swiss Muesli for breakfast one day. Sapnamasi enjoyed it so much that I have added this recipe on this blog. Hope you all get the chance to make the muesli and if so, please let me know how it turned out.

That is all for today. My sincere apologies for such a tardy letter.

With all my love, hugs and kisses,

Vishfully Yours


7 thoughts on “The Accident”

  1. Reading this makes you realise how courageous and historical our grandparents existence was when they first moved to East Africa. Complete admiration for Surajba and all the family for continuing their lives and working so hard in East Africa, UK and USA to build new foundations.

  2. There are many more stories to tell you. Keep reading. You mention Lalitaba and her siblings…. they can become deafeningly loud when they get together.

  3. Thank you for your comment Himanshu. Our families had quite a few adventures in the jungles. Your mention of teaching in schools etc., reminds me that I have a wonderful letter which Daddaji wrote recounting his early days as a teacher in Kenya. It makes great reading. Maybe my next post?

  4. Always fascinated by your Africa stories – mine were never so dramatic!
    Just more observations on Eldoret, my birthplace. Ajay’s (masa to you all children) uncle, eldest of the brothers, was our neighbour and taught in the same school as dadaji. Ajay’s mum and Motta foi also taught in the same school where dadaji was the Headmaster!
    On a different note, the story of the lorry reminded me of another one I read in the papers in Pune. An overladen lorry carrying steel rods toppled over on the highway and killed 25 people! Most were sitting on top of the rods (extra cash for the driver) and were crushed to death. Amongst them was a wedding party!
    In the west we must wear seatbelts and carry car seats for the safety of our children! Will India ever catch up?

  5. What a sad story, thanks for sharing mum. I too was intrigued by Laltaba’s stories when I was in Zurich last month. I was shocked to hear that she didn’t see much of a parents in her early years growing up with her grandparents in India, and also that she didn’t meet many of her siblings until she was 8 or 9. So incredible that all the siblings are so close to one another despite this distance in their childhood! I look forward to hearing about more Africa stories in your future letters!

    Love, Anjli

  6. Thanks for your letter mum. As always, a pleasure and an enlightening read. I was to hear more of these murder mysteries!

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