Author: Anita Eleanor Patel
Reviewer: Farah Qureshi
This is a warm and embracing family narrative, detailing the diversity and movements of the author’s large family. Patel spares no detail in explaining her family’s diversity and interconnectedness in this large family saga.
This book is informative, but dense. The narrative is illuminating and endearing, but also at times difficult to follow, due mostly to the breadth of representation the author aims to cover from this large family.
Patel starts The Power of Two as a biographical narrative of two protagonists married at a young age: Shantaben and Ramanbhai. The first part of this book considers how both of these characters navigated the responsibilities of large Gujurati Indian families before emigrating to British East Africa and establishing themselves within the country. In this respect, the book offers a rare but important narrative on migration and cultural identity by colonial subjects in the twentieth-century.
I found the historical biographical perspectives enriching and educational. Shantaben and Ramanbhai’s experiences provide an opportunity for the reader to reflect on how a diverse and international origin can affect a family who emigrated to East Africa. To this end, it would be interesting to compare Patel’s narrative of Shantaben and Ramanbhai’s experiences against other historical authors such as M G Vassanji, Cynthia Salvadori, and of course Zarina Patel who considered the position of the South Asian migrant in colonised East Africa.
Throughout this book, the author narrates interesting episodes which illustrate themes of gendered labour roles, caste, and transnational interconnections: themes common-stance in the Kenyan South Asian history, but all the more interesting to observe in a historical narrative. As I kept reading, I ended up finding Shantaben and Ramanbhai’s stories endearing. Without realising, I was completely committed to supporting these two through their journeys, successes, and pains.
Patel’s historical account captures the novelty of the South Asian labourer’s introduction to East Africa. I found her exploration of labour roles and settlement navigation by new South Asian migrants particularly compelling, wondering if my families had similar experiences. In these earlier parts of the book, the writing would break to provide historical information. At these points, the tone switched from biographical narrative to historical overviews. Perhaps as an academic writer, I expected additional citations to support this research or indicate how the author came across the information, purely so I could have the opportunity to research and learn from the author’s sources.
The book grew denser as the family grew (considerably) in size. In this second part, Patel makes a switch to a biography of a whole family, exploring what happened to each of the eight children. Chapters were simultaneously short and long, covering a lot of information in a short few pages as the author followed the accounts and lives of each of these family members, as well as their partners, friends, and children. The book finishes at fifty chapters, but could clearly have had even more. The author is understandably fair, representing as many in this family as possible. While this is an ambitious project, her reintroduction of sections of the family tree helped signal to the reader where her focus was shifting.
Perhaps due to the significantly larger representation the author tries to cover in the latter part of the book (including her own introduction to the family), historical and political context and information gets backgrounded. Events such as Kenyan independence and political distancing of different racial and ethnic groups were glossed over, but no doubt would have affected the protagonists and their families.
Similarly, there are many situations through the book where the author does not unpack cultural insights which are mentioned, but are nonetheless interesting. I noticed this particularly in the family’s interactions with other non-Gujarati groups. Divisions are mentioned, but only sometimes explained.
I felt this book was an excellent exploration of how migrant communities can maintain the concept of origin while simultaneously diversifying their global presence. The family’s concerns in this book are consistent with Asian migrant communities across the world.
Despite the clear connection to the original couple of Shantaben and Ramanbhai, I wondered what the ‘power of two’ from the title suggested. Perhaps this is because both of these two characters proved to be independently resilient, while simultaneously managing a family or the families they came from. A much stronger theme – powerful through all of the relationships outlined by the author and in the author’s own position and relations – is the power of love in this large family. To this end, the clear love, respect, and acceptance is palpable, and enjoyable to see.
From a stylistic angle, frequent breaks to cover a family member’s individual accounts break the flow of the writing. From an ethnographic angle, however, this presentation allows a fair attribution to the author’s sources and perspectives represented. I found it strange to see the author abstract her own position in this narrative, but understand this was in the interest of selflessly representing the family in this case.
The Power of Two‘s multi-bibliographic nature makes the read difficult to follow at times. But if you have the patience, between these long narratives are interesting and insightful insights into cultural history from a unique perspective. Reading through allows you to experience the family’s challenges, and the undeniable growth of love is warming. I certainly felt a connection to this large and beautiful family through my reading of the book.