What the Hell Happened in India?


I’m fascinated by the stories of people who studied in India. It always sounded like they went to war and we didn’t. They are always so texturized with debauchery, with woes, hopes and deaths, and failures and triumphs. Such gritty shit.

In 1999, my brother Julius (named after Nyerere Kambarage) travelled to India for his undergraduate at the University of Mysore. After four years he was back bearing a degree in Bsc. Computer Science. He’s now married with a daughter and works as Telecommunications Engineer for a major airline. For all intents and purposes he is very well adjusted guy.

Sometimes I run into his friends who they were with in India when I visit him at his house. When they get together they are always reminiscing the good (and bad) old days in India and I’m always amazed at those tales. Whenever they settle into the bosoms of those stories I always feel locked out, I always feel like I haven’t been initiated into life. Those days I always feel younger than him even though I’m older.

The other day we were WhatsApping and India came up and I asked him to write something. Back in the day, he was some sort of a fledging writer, he would write me long letters from India, letters I would read over and over for the prose. He always said that writing is the one thing he should have pursued but he didn’t. I asked him to send me 1,500 words on his experience in India. He said he could barely scratch 100 words; it’s been 10 years since he wrote any prose. Today morning he sent me 2,300 words. “The story came on without prompting,” he explained.

In this story there are things that he has never told me about and things that we have always talked about. I hope you see your own stories through his experiences. I have had to struggle cutting the story to fit, but his voice remains preserved. So does his story because I’m unworthy to touch that experience.

Gang, this is Julius’s (Julius’?) story.



I’m a son of a teacher. Mom was a primary school teacher. I’m also a product of India, just as are many of my friends like Buluku, Kariuki, Sam and many others.  These guys are a mirror in which I can see my inner self, my journey to where I am presently. Some respect us, some look at us fishily, while some cannot just imagine that we came back and even got jobs.  Surprisingly, we even managed to get wives and some have children who think the world of us. After scratching a living in India and toiling for our degrees, whose authenticity you sometimes get a feeling is frowned upon, we are here doing all that we all do.

Life in India was a mixed bag of fortunes.  I remember my maiden train journey, from Chandigarh at the northernmost tip of India to Mysore which is the southernmost tip, a 39-hour journey which took me almost 50 hours on a ramshackle train, snaking its way through Indian towns and villages. The year was 1999. The train was crammed, with rural Indians craning their necks across the carriage to see the black man on the upper bed.  Somehow, it seemed that word had travelled to every one in those remote train stations we pulled into that some black guy was in a specific carriage.  And behold, wasn’t I a spectacle! I had this black bag on my neck; I bought it in what was previously known as Sunbeam on Moi Avenue.

Two weeks earlier, 18th July 1999, when I boarded my flight from Nairobi, I had 250 US dollars.  My mum – bless her abundantly – as I could see, had spent all her money on my air ticket and still managed to spare me some as I left. You see, I went to India to enroll in a college in Chandigarh, but fate conspired. The temperature there was punishing, peaking to around 45 degrees Celsius. The black students commonly known as ‘miros’ over time had fallen foul of the residents in that beautiful town.  Drinks, parties and women had ensured that the very conservative Sikhs were now hesitant to admit any more blacks to their schools; neither rent their houses to them.  Most Kenyan students were leaving anyway, having completed or dropped out of their courses. Kenyans were more profiled, as they had assumed legendary status for all things wayward.  And such was the situation I landed in.

And so two weeks after landing in Delhi, travelling to Chandigarh and being hosted by a Kenyan student, I was again on the move.  This time to a city known as Mysore – whoever knew where that was? I only remember my pal, Meshack, telling me he was headed there.    I had travelled in a bus that looked like the former Kenya Buses from Chandigarh to Delhi, where I boarded the train, ready for the 2,531km journey, to a place I had never been – Meshack’s city.

Meshack and I were high school mates and he was with me on the flight from Nairobi to Mumbai, he and some group were headed to this place called Mysore, and he regaled me with all those nice tales of how that place was ‘happening’ and how I should join them down south. And they looked happening themselves. Meshack, now a pharmacist, was then sporting dreads, and looked like they had been indulging on that flight.  They looked cool and I figured if they happened to be headed to Mysore, then Mysore was also cool. I was the quintessential boy, straight to a fault, who was determined to stick by the rules. Why did I not even ask for a beer on that boring 6-hour flight?!

Anyway, back to the train. I got an upper bed in a not so congested coach, my home for the next few days of travel. I was on the edge, literally. I only had 100 USD left in the bag after naively spending most of it on a cab from Delhi Airport to Chandigarh where I was to report to school, a distance of almost 260km!! Stupid! Meanwhile, on departure, Mum had promised that my fee would be sent shortly after my departure. I did not see how she would manage that after the sacrifice, and it never came for the next few months. And I totally understood.

During the train journey, I remember the sun setting twice, rising twice, me waking up twice and brushing my teeth twice in what was apparently a bathroom.  For the first time I knew that in a train, that the loo gives way right onto the tracks.  Imagine squatting to relieve yourself and all you hear is the chugging and squealing of wheels on the tracks? And so, 50-hours after boarding the train in Delhi, one mid morning, it eventually pulled into some town known as Bangalore, the current silicon valley of India. I have never seen such din, such disorder in my life!  A multitude of people stretching as far as the eye can see.  The distance from Bangalore to Mysore was quickly covered in a bus, again. I eventually met Meshack again, in a party and so started the new chapter in my life that transformed me to what I have become.

I will make no pretenses at having lived a life as comfortable as some of my fellow students did, no I don’t think I did. Life was an ebb and flow and at its lowest ebb, I often walked to the nearest villages, beaten and broke, to look for paraffin to light my stove and cook some ‘dal. I remember the young nimble Indian children following me and my jerrican, some requesting to touch my hair, or just feel my black skin. It’s only once that I encountered a hostile group who called me ‘manga’, the local dialect of monkey.  One day later I asked my landlord what it meant and I could see the pity he felt for me, but I only felt emboldened by my travails.  He was a great chap, with a nice wife who used to make me tea and biscuits, every time I used to pass by his place, to inform him again that I will be late with rent.

As for school, which was almost 8 kilometres away, I had learnt to walk, back and forth, or have Simon give me a ride. Sometimes my Indian classmates who stayed a mile from me would offer me a lift, or my very rich Tanzanian friend Jimmy. The worst times were the beginnings of the term, during registration when I would sit down the chairman of the school board and tell him to allow me to proceed because money was coming. Whenever it would come. The chairman got to know me very well, I wonder whether as the poor foreigner or the beggar. I would never get to know. At some point in my life, I stopped knowing that I had no money in my pocket.  How would I know and yet the nice dukawallah, Raju, had assigned me a book to be recording the stock I took from his shop as debt.  You can imagine the horror on my face on days that I walked by, confident of getting flour only to find that his shop was closed.

The only thing that sufficed without fail was God’s grace and favour.  He was unflinching in his promise, and I rarely lacked.  After he showed me how to put pride aside, I was at home with asking for help when the occasion called for it.  The most amazing thing? One that shows that God takes care of his own? I never got sick for even a day the whole time I was in India even though we drunk ourselves silly!  And isn’t it such a wonder how friends can buy you drinks and not entertain you when you ask them for money for food??

But other than the ebbs, there were the flows too; I marvelled at the emails I received from home, you never saw anything better than an email or letter from home.  Once Biko sent me some FILA sneakers with a cassette (CDs were not as common then) of zilizopendwas.  Heaven!

Integral to my life in India was my departed mom. Biko has always written beautifully about our dear departed mom here, but still his writing doesn’t do justice to what mom really was. Mom was a force that words can’t capture; resourceful, very loving, genius, caring, hardworking, funny… Good old mom, struggling to sustain me and praying for me. Again and again. Several years after I came back, and a few before she went to be with the Lord, she confessed to me how the sound of a plane taking off always traumatized her.  Apparently on the day they saw me off at the airport to India, in her heart of hearts, she was not so sure her young boy would make it because the only tales from India were of drunkards, those who lost their heads smoking weed and the works. Somehow as a plane took off, she imagined me in it, the son she might have sent to destruction, and that sound stuck with her ever since.

Looking back, it always amazes me the character that was borne out of this escapade. Running out of money has never been a worry in my life again; worrying about minor issues is not part of my DNA at all because there is always a way out. God must always provide as long as you keep him in favour. I have enormous respect for Indians, how can I not? They helped me when I had no one to help me. They kept me alive; they allowed me education when I was late with fees.

And I salute all those who have gone through similar situations, my friends in India who never made it back and even those who came back in coffins: Claude Munyao may you rest in peace.

There must be no let-up in this discourse. India for me was mostly about the role of mothers in our lives. Those mothers breaking their backs for their children, you see them all over the road, rushing kids to the clinic, waiting for matatus, being afraid at the roadside that it will pour, having no money for a cab to rush babies to hospital. I’m talking about those single mothers who are strong for their children, who have searched their inner souls and learnt that it must be them to do it, and not the other, those who have unbridled hope and ambitions.

To those stuck in India, afraid to come back to face their limitations or failures, come back. This is home. To those who came back and made something of their lives; Simon Buluku (remember how we would survive on 5000 rupees -7K- for months?), my friend Kariuki (the ever so silent and humble lawyer who now drives a sleek long German beast) and to the numerous friends I can’t all mention here, greetings!

I have since travelled to other countries in pursuit of education and my job has made me travel around the world, met men who are smarter than me but nothing humbles me, grounds me like my experience in India.

Long live those of you who survived India.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Looks like writing runs in the family.
    Interesting piece.
    Wrote about my school life here also–> https://pmakau.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/school/

  2. Biko your brother’s story just depicts the trials and triumphs of everyday life. We all go through trials in this life. The story just mirrors all of us who had at one time struggled with life. Unless your father was one of those powerful civil servants in the kenyatta era higher education school fees payment had to be a struggle for the family. I salute Julius on this one. His story is like baptismal with fire.

  3. FILA sneakers and a cassette of zilizopendwa?Eish. Did he also write to you in hieroglyphics? Omera you people are ancient.
    Also, si Sunbeam still exists, koso?

  4. Why did they send people to study in India back in the 90’s? My big brother was sent there too, and what he became when he came back even us can’t tell.

  5. Wow! I am speechless. They say what matters is what you become and not what you went through and what you went through can either shape or break you. It’s for you to decide.

  6. Beautiful Beautiful piece…your bro sure can write huh? Good penmanship. The destination isn’t as beautiful as the journey getting there.

  7. I guess most of us left behind always assume guys ‘Majuu’ are living the life. Thanks for flipping the coin and showing us the other side to that Majuu living.

  8. Beautifully, beautifully written. His words transport to a time and a place we can only marvel that this is what it made of him

  9. A friend left for India two months ago. I am sending him this link ASAP and i hope he can relate to the story in a year’s time. Julius (am tempted to call him Julius Zulu), writes well, and that’s a really nice tribute to your mom in there.

  10. Wow! Such a moving story. My curiosity has been satisfied as I always asked the same question “what the hell happened in India?’

  11. My mum also struggled while was in India. She also feared the sound of planes for the exact same reasons as Biko’s mum. She also passed on a few months after my graduation, 6 months into my first job. Thank you Julius for sharing my story.

  12. Amazing recollections, the beauty of reading is that one is able to take the journey with the writer.Just went to India and back in this write up.

  13. This seems to be like my story. I schooled for my first degree in cardigan. Was staying in sector 32 and latter 21 and went to college in sector 46. I latter went to Mysore university . Was in IDS under prof Nataj and later prof Urs. This is real life as we lived it.

  14. On that part of the plane traumatizing your mum, it was right on! My elder bro Dickson went to India. After he was dropped at the airport my mom never slept that night wondering whether he would make it to India. He did make it alright and is now back. Pity is, mom went to be with the Lord when Dickson was in India and it took us quite long before telling him (it was before emails and cell phones). I feel it still affects him to date

    1. Tom,
      My condolences to Dickson first for being in India and not knowing that your mum was buried ages ago. Then to you for your mum’s loss.

  15. Greetings to you Julius. There should be an India Veterans Club. I am glad to have done time in Mysore though it forged us in fires of hell. Looking back, I am grateful we didn’t have much to live on……it translated to less misadventures. Best years of my youth, those. I miss my Yezdi Roadking. I cannot touch a motorbike today but the memories are still crystal clear………have a Pitcher on me.

  16. India is definately an experience.3 years changed me totally..extremes teach you to appreciate the life on either side of the coin…

  17. earlier in the week I saw some guy with FILA on his sweatshirt and got me thinking (still I am ) , Nike and adidas are still very common, what happened to FILA? I shags at one point during xmass, it was cool to have FILA on ones head after the visit to the barber shop on 24/12/2014!!! lovely piece

  18. I felt like I should go on reading this after the last paragraph. Very enthralling. Interesting experiences Julius had.

  19. Most of the tales that I’ve heard from those who went to study in India didn’t have the desired ending. Julius’ (yes, that’s the right version) story is the second success story I’ve heard out of 7.

    ION, Sunbeam was the ish!

  20. Fantastic piece . Transported me way back to India and specifically Chandigarh sector 37. I remember the train rides of 54 hours from Delhi to Goa . He forgot to mention the “cut” chai and puree in the trains . The experience in India is life- changing . I guess it would need a whole book to capture the diverse experiences , the learning points. The lessons to be learned are as diverse as the country itself. This is a wonderful tribute

  21. Beautiful way of telling our life’s struggles. Mothers ooh mothers, been brought up by a single mother,the sacrifices she has made! a toast to all the mothers!

  22. The only thing that sufficed without fail was God’s grace and favour. He was unflinching in his promise, and I rarely lacked… You can say that again. Beautiful piece. I celebrate you for finishing well.

  23. Your bro is one of the lucky ones. My experience with guys who studied in India is almost all are terrible alcoholics and drug addicts. And I’m not talking stuff like marijuana, mostly the much harder stuff the rest of us don’t even know where they are sold/bought. His experiences have encouraged me and hope will encourage many more

  24. At least I now know what my bro and cousins went through in India, coz they never talk about it. Glad you pulled through.

  25. Julius did it also. My Lord, everytime you write about either your mom or dad you invite me to experience the beauty of your life. Thank you Biko
    Now India…those that survived came forth as real steel. I know a few. Congrats Julius

  26. Oh Biko, I never miss your pieces – am always the silent listener (reader) but this one brought tears to my eyes. I can relate to your brother’s story and yeah – the experiences cannot all be told in a sitting.

  27. Just Great. Resonates especially with those of us who went outside Kenya for work and/or education. Unfortunately there is often an incorrect narrative among our fellow citizens that going out of the country equates to a pampered lifestyle.

  28. Interesting account..you gotta love mothers!! Had two brothers study in India, one quit and got into the wrong company and begun to live in slum sort of conditions…my mum boarded a plane, traced him and brought him back alive…the other graduated, came back as an alcoholic…one fateful day in December of 2009, just a week before Christmas, he was crossing Mombasa Road after a company end-year party and was knocked down by an Akamba bus. They both had so many stories about India…I hope to visit one day as a traveler..grateful for the souls that made it back alive, for those gone ahead..may their souls RIP..

  29. Reads like a script from a the movie of my life in India…. 3 and a half years in Aurangabad, and the story was so similar….you have captured it so well…. Memories are made of this.

  30. beautifull writing… the one thing all those who studied in india have in common is survival…ive had several tales and the common theme is that of survival..esp in a foreign land.

  31. Then I popose that there should be a part 1, 2 3 & 4, and even 5, 6 & 7 need be, for there aways are lessons to learn from these stories!!!

  32. Beautiful piece, True account of a miro’s stay in India. Was called ‘KALU’ (Monkey) for the entire stay by people of darker skin. Hey you forgot to mention the guys bellowing Tomaaato Soup on the train from very early in the morning till the entire train got up. Train Ride from Chandigarh to Pune – 36 Hours. Will never forget. Amazing Experience & stay.

    1. If you were in chandigarh you would know Rakesh the shopkeeper. I think I may know you kinyua 1990-93. I was in 26

  33. Maharaja’s college, University of Mysore, is my Alma mater (2000 – 2003). I remember those days with nostalgia. Waiting for the post man to deliver the ‘draft’ years before we got mobile phones and Western Union. Doing six months leases on houses – that had toilets inside the sitting room, or worse, the kitchen. My longest train journey was Mysore to Bhopal; over 1,000 kms. And the silly 3 hour bus rides to Bangalore to eat KFC kuku, pizza Hut and and Baskin and Robins ice cream – and even chips. Claude Munyao – RIP. That was a tough one.

    1. Wow Joy you just reminded me of KFC Bangalore. They are now all over Mysore!
      Glad am still in Mysore with my family. Long live India!

  34. I identify with your bro. Technological advancement made life a bit bearable. India was a training ground, and 5 years in Mysore particularly J.S.S. Law college holds pretty good memories for me.

  35. wow Julius. What a piece of literature. Other than what Kina Buluku narrate, i think you have summarized. Quite inspiring. Kudos…..

  36. that is inspiring. i survived India and i can confirm that those who were discipline and focused come back proud and better citizens than they left. Congrats for surviving India.

  37. Big up man for sharing your story…”Integral to my life in India was my departed mom. Biko has always written beautifully about our dear departed mom here, but still his writing doesn’t do justice to what mom really was. Mom was a force that words can’t capture; resourceful, very loving, genius, caring, hardworking, funny… Good old mom, struggling to sustain me and praying for me. Again and again.”…….the only reason i am still alive. 1990-97 Jabalpur India.

  38. Hmm the Thing about being in India, after all is said and done,and you reflect on your life,is that there will always be that special de-javu feel,the feeling of flying without quite knowing how you will land,a feeling of swimming without actually being sure which direction is the shore.

  39. This is Nostalgic.. reminds of the 48 hours train trip from Mumbai to Allahabad.. the experience shapes you … Your have more to learn when you travel there .

  40. Aurangabad 2 years – Mumbai 2 years. 1998-2002. Yeah, that place is an experience and a half. Your mindset along with your level of discipline to a large extent determines what that place does to you. I thank God for making me an optimist, go getter, risk taker & survivor. I’m one of the few students who started working even before i completed my studies. Bollywood made me who i am today working in numerous movies, TV series, commercials & music videos. There were many opportunities but the mindset Kenyans go with there of, “you cannot work/there is no employment like in the US/UK”, confines them to depending on their parents/sponsors. The price of booze and availability of harsh legal changaa-like liquor coupled with idleness is the reason many get lost. That is not a place for a student who is easily influenced.

  41. Long live those who studied in India!
    Clearly, writing is a family affair. I went to India thinking and feeling I was all grown up. I had so much more growing up to do, and I’m glad for my time there.

  42. Julius…….what an experience. He should write more, very interesting. Not to pry but I can’t help but notice how your Dad is not mentioned at all. Anyway now i know better, India is not your cup of tea.

  43. Thanks for the story. Now you just made me understand my friend paul. He went to India for his degree in something but he never talks about india. Its as if it never existed.

  44. i am in india right now in salem tamilnadu….i must admit things have changed over time..but there are several things that cant n wont change about india….Hardship n tough that make u understand just what exactly life is all about.just as kenya n everywhere else in the world people make choices and live upto the consequences.

  45. Its true thats the reality.but all those who made it through are now like smelted iron which can stand the test of time.
    RIP Ondego,an indiawalla.

  46. Having gone to India and back successfully, I can live anywhere on earth. The same goes for all who went to India. In India you get the best and the worst. The choice is yours

    Tony Kawawah

  47. Great piece, it was a wonderful experience. I hope part II is coming up soon, that is just the introduction.

  48. This reminds me of my 7 years stay in Mysore…..having left India 3 years ago i truly miss the place. that place made me what i am today. the numerous train journeys from mysore to Delhi,Aurangabad, Allahabad, Pune, Chandigarh,erode, trichy to name a few. apparently life in india has changed now, aplace like myhsore has turned out to be a modern metropolitan city. many are time i tell guys that i studied in india and the look at me weirdly but all i can say Kenya is along way back to catch up with India

    1. You got that right,a long long way to go.
      Looks like I wasn’t the only footloose,I’ve been to all those places and then some.

  49. I enjoyed re-reading this piece. It is indeed a true reflection of life in India. The sum of all the ups and downs while in India, is I had a ball!
    There is an association called Bharatwallah Alumni Association which alumni are free to join. We were extremely privileged to meet Prime Minister Modi when he visited Kenya recently.

  50. Boy reminds me of Agra kids calling you black monkey girls wanting to hang around to improve their english boys hating you for that cold winters really hot summers and worse monsoons, the water the flies and huge rats .. remember eating out for a week because i saw those huge rats in kitchen boy the stories i could tell i survived the war front.