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.