In 1972, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin ordered Asians to leave the country within 90 days. In the process, emboldened soldiers seized control of Asian properties, stole valuables from fleeing families and raped women.
Against the backdrop of this historic canvas, first author Neema Shah painted the story of a Gujarati family’s struggle to escape East Africa with their honor intact and start a life over in a culturally hostile country.
At its heart, Kololo Hill is a story of displacement, the often delusional concept of home (as with political refugees) and the resulting conflict over race and identity. Terror and excitement are not synthetic, but arise from family encounters with armed soldiers, scenes of rape and looting, and the difficulty of being the other. It is both unimaginable and a historical reality that many experienced in the 1970s.
It’s also about survival, a concept not too far-fetched for refugees and exiles, but uniquely Indian in the way the author portrays family and how the characters remain both independent and part of it. unity. In fact, it’s quite astonishing how a family forged with traditions and customs can find the resilience to survive on two continents and find hope in their struggles.
The novel has a distinct arc and a delicate interplay of four characters: the matriarch of the Jaya family, her two sons Pran and Vijay, and Pran’s newly married wife, Asha. Pran takes risks to resuscitate his father’s general stores and faces the prospect of abandoning him while his brother Vijay, a young spirited with a faulty arm, participates in his brother’s efforts by risking his own safety.
Asha feels something strange about the events between the brothers and is rightly betrayed when she learns that her husband has lied. Despite the tensions between the newlyweds, the family remains united thanks to the death of Jaya’s husband, Motichand. This and several other crisis situations in the book bring out Jaya’s courage.
Indeed, Jaya’s characterization challenges archetypes. She is no different from any Gujarati woman you met in your hometown, covering her up sari chunri by heart and by remaining modest in the company of outside men. She fits perfectly into a temple scene with hymn singing and ringing bells, but she’s not the sweet housewife who sobs helplessly or acts sly to get herself out of tough situations. His quiet authority, dignity, adaptability and ingenuity are refreshing.
Asha’s generational difference with Jaya goes beyond sartorial choices. She is much more assertive, fearless and determined. Despite the trauma, she emerges from the challenges as more independent. She’s also the one who never stops until she gets what she wants, whether it’s with the British Embassy official or foiling her husband’s fantasies of returning to Uganda. Asha indeed appears as the strongest character in the book.
Without being unnecessarily melodramatic, Kololo Hill is heartbreaking. But for this book, the ordinary reader may not know the pains of having to abandon their home, estates, and hard-earned cash and queue in charity kitchens in a cold and hostile country. Men strutting around in their best suits and driving high-end cars are forced to wear donated clothes and ask for government help, not knowing if they can start a business in their country of asylum where they are being treated. reminds around street corners that they don’t belong.
What is satisfying, ultimately, is the fact that you leave the characters in a cold, hazy London with hope that they would find ways to rebuild their lives just as they found their independence and safety.
Neema’s daring attempt to capture the story rightly earned recognition, like the Bath Novel Award. It also leaves readers waiting for more from him.