Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.

Website: ramnikshah.blogspot.com

The House That Stood Still

Author: Shailla Matlock-Karimbux

Reviewer: Ramnik Shah

The eponymous house is the historical Karimbux mansion in Nakuru. It represents the essence and captures the spirit of this endearing family saga told, as has now almost become de rigueur among South Asians in East Africa, by a third or fourth generation scion of the family in question. I was so engrossed in the book that when I finished reading, I spent the next two or three days just savouring it, not wishing to get into another straightaway. I felt that I had come to know all the Karimbuxes, past and present, intimately and so found the end-piece rather moving. I later attributed this to the book`s style, which is more in the tradition of oral story telling than its literary equivalent. It is as if the author has transcribed verbatim a series of talks that she might have given to an appreciative live audience in the age-old manner of a venerable mzee – albeit a bit disjointed, rambling and punctuated with interesting diversions here and there!

But despite its technical flaws (more about which later) the book presents a colourful portrait of the Karimbux clan, who were to become a well-known brand and a pillar of the local community in the Rift Valley by the 1920s. The starting point of the tale is the life-story of Ibrahim Karimbux (Ibrahim), the author`s great grandfather. Though born to a successful fruit merchant in Punjab in British India in 1876, he grew up at a time when the whole country was suffering from a great famine and a migrationary movement across the Indian Ocean was already taking shape. There was talk of the opening up of Kenya as a result of the railway project that had just begun and the opportunity for advancement that it offered. Like other young men, he too felt restless. So one day, at the youthful age of 19, he left home and his young wife and one year old daughter (to be reunited with them some 11/12 years later) to seek his fortune there. The year was 1895.

He was thus one of those who, in Cynthia Salvadori`s famous words, `came in dhows`! After landing and spending some time in Mombasa he walked, in the company of others like him, all the way through the `man eaters of Tsavo` territory to a Nairobi that was just a marshy swamp then, and onwards from there to Nakuru, where he eventually settled. Here, “(s)etting up shop under a small tent” (p 52), with hard work and a dogged determination, Ibrahim established himself as a reputable transporter and dealer in general merchandise right across the region up to Kisumu in the west.

The author (Shailla) gives graphic and extensive details of his progress and various enterprises as they developed over the next few decades. Indeed, the basic division of the book into The First Generation, The Second Generation and The Third Generation, is a pointer to this familiar East African Asian scenario of the pioneering immigrant laying the foundation for something that was to be transformed into a highly successful business empire down the line.

In Chapter 5, `The Great Trek`, we learn that one of Ibrahim`s `first European customers was “The Rt. Hon. Hugh Cholmondeley”, better known as “Lord Delamere”`. Nakuru was of course at the centre of the `white highlands`. The Karimbuxes` interactions with the European settlers, as of other traders like him, were conducted on a mutually needy basis, and here one is reminded of M G Vassanji`s `The In-Between World of Vikram Lall`. Despite the notoriously fierce temperament of Lord Delamere however, Shailla tells us, he and Ibrahim `struck up a friendship ... which continued through the generations of both families, right until my father, Mohammed Karimbux and Hugh Cholmondeley, 5th Baron Delamere` (sic). (Readers may be reminded that it was the 5th Baron`s son and heir, Thomas Cholmondeley, who in May 2009 was convicted of the manslaughter of an African poacher on his estate and sentenced to eight months imprisonment).

In the next chapter, `Divide and Rule`, Shailla mentions some of Ibrahim`s contemporaries who also later rose to be prominent figures, such as Abdul Wahid Cockar (who also initially settled in Nakuru after working on the railway before moving to Nairobi) Osman Allu of Nyeri and the Moolraj brothers of Elementaita, `just a few of the men who made up the backbone of the Indian pioneers in the highlands, and who the European settlers came to respect`.

Shailla`s father Mohammed was of the third generation, a grandson of Ibrahim through Umardin - the first of the Karimbuxes to have been born in Kenya in 1908. Umardin was educated at home, as at that time `the only established school was exclusively for Europeans`, but Ibrahim mentored and trained him from a very young age. Under Ibrahim`s tutelage, Umardin greatly extended the family`s business and property interests and became a civic and local business community leader in his own right. But despite the family`s standing and friendships with many other well-known European settlers besides Delamere (p 99, ironically under `The Indian Question`), Umardin was conscious of living under a Kenyan-style apartheid system that barred non-Europeans from sports and social clubs, hotels and theatres, quite apart from schools and other public institutions. Irked by such petty restrictions, he decided to build a cinema that was to be open to all races and so it was that `"Odeon Cinema”`, located on “Umardin Road”, opened its` doors to the people of Kenya in late 1929 [where] Africans, Indians and Europeans were all welcome` (p 119). This was still the silent movie era, and among the first films shown there were Charlie Chaplin`s classics such as `The Tramp` and `The Kid`!

Umardin was sadly to die unexpectedly on 17 March 1945 at the age of 37. His sudden death was to shock everybody around and warm tributes were paid by the Provincial Commissioner and other leaders. Indeed, according to one newspaper report, on Monday 19 March, all businesses belonging to Asians and Europeans were kept closed as a mark of respect, a unique and rare honour given to any citizen of Nakuru. His premature passing was of course a grave blow to his parents, Ibrahim and Karmi, who had also lost their younger son Yusuf who had died in 1938 aged 20. Karmi then died in 1954 and Ibrahim himself in the following year.

Mohammed was only 13 when his father Umardin died and he too was drawn into the family business at an early age while still at school. By the time he turned 18 he had taken charge of it, making some radical changes. Then at the age of 19 he went on a six-month business and familiarisation trip to Britain and Europe. This was a ground-breaking event and was noted in the `East African Star` newspaper and in correspondence exchanged between him and a close family friend, Mr J M Patel of Nakuru, in some detail. Upon his return he embarked on several new projects and additions to the business. And like his father, Mohammed also had begun to play an active part in civic and community affairs, so that by the mid-1950s he had achieved a leadership position. He was the first Asian to be admitted to the Rift Valley Sports Club. He also modernised the Odeon Cinema and indeed the grand opening of the refurbished cinema circa 1957 was a glittering social occasion with a mixed gathering of the European and Asian upper crust that was extensively covered in the local papers with photographs and accompanying columns. Mohammed also died suddenly, as had Umardin, of a heart attack in January 1972, just a few days short of his 40th birthday. His death too was mourned by the local community and marked by a closure of all businesses as a mark of respect. This was hardly surprising as Mohammed and his wife Aziza had a huge circle of friends and acquaintances (listed at p 274) from a whole cross-cultural section of Kenyan society.

So much for the iconic representation of the Karimbux trajectory through the first, second and third generations. But there is more, a great deal more, packed into the book. The female side of the family – the wives, sisters, daughters, daughters-in-law – was as important as a whole host of brothers, sons-in-law, brothers-in-law, cousins and other relations. This complex and shifting web of relationships is a central feature of Shailla`s narrative, which also speaks of much love, joy, warmth and achievement. But she is also very candid about family dynamics in general, and does not shy away from discussing the foibles, misdemeanours and other fundamental faults in the character of some individual members, while highlighting their positive attributes or those of others as well.

And like most such extended family sagas, this one stretching over more than a century had its share of death and divorce, decline and disintegration. Shailla describes the denouement from her fourth generation perspective with some sadness, in an unspoken echo of `Gone With The Wind` thus:

The financial empire built by Ibrahim Karimbux was destroyed by a combination of internal family disputes, greed and mismanagement.

Then, accompanied by her husband (whose name she has combined with her own) and their son (the fifth generation), she completes the Epilogue on a lyrical note about the The House that Stood Still: `Embracing it close in spirit, soul and heart, Forever be living, we can never be apart`!

What about the technical aspects of the book? On the positive side, it has an impressive collection of memorabilia in the form of a vast array of photographs (including many charming family snapshots), letters, newspaper cuttings, official communications, sketches, maps, tables and other documents of record. The various chapter headings, separately numbered in each section, provide a clue to the unfolding of the Karimbux drama against Kenya`s changing political and social landscape, for interspersed throughout the text are references to significant developments and other turning points in the country`s wider history.

The basic design of the book is sound but it lacks a precise chronology and generational sequence - a family tree would certainly have been useful. Nor does it have the linguistic or structural clarity, for example, of Kersi Rustomji`s `Jambo Paulo, Jambo Mykol` (serialised on the Africana-Orientalia internet forum around 2006), though that was of a slightly different order, or the disciplined framework of a conventional composite family biography. The undoubtedly rich family archive could have been better researched to date many of the photographs and other material. An unreferenced and unpaginated list of names and places at the end can in no way serve as a proper index. The expression of empathy for the victims of the Malaysian Airways plane shot down in Ukraine in July 2014 (post the 2012 copyright insignia) is plainly sincere but sits incongruously under `Acknowledgements`. All these and other shortcomings would have been overcome if the book had been professionally edited, but then it bears all the hall marks of a self-published work.

Despite these criticisms, The House that Stood Still should be read by everyone interested in the collective history of South Asians of East Africa. It will be a valuable addition to the growing literature of this genre - some consisting of commissioned works by academics or biographers, others written by direct descendants, such as this one. That the Karimbux story needed to be told is clear enough: that as author Shailla should be proud of her liberal Indo-Pakistani Muslim (and Kenyan) pedigree and heritage is even more so.


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