The British Empire Library

The Place of Cold Water

by Anand Panwalker

Throughout reading this book, I was continuously reminded of Oliver Cromwell's famous instruction to Sir Peter Lely to ensure to paint him "warts and all!" as he did not wish to hide his true visage. As much as I enjoy reading memoirs, there is an almost natural tendency for many authors to provide a more positive spin on their lives and experiences. Perhaps they might glide over some uncomfortable truths or decisions or consequences of their actions. This allegation can certainly not be laid at the feet of Dr Anand Panwalker who has written a searingly honest account of his life from being born to British run Kenya to being a doctor in United States via college in India. The author presents himself as a complex character from a challenging family who faced many obstacles in life and had to deal with being an outsider for pretty much his entire life. I guess all families are challenging and complicated if we are honest about it to ourselves, but few are willing to explain those challenges and complications in black and white and bare them for all to see. I salute his fidelity as an author and his honesty gives an invaluable insight into the lives of imperial migrants.

For the purposes of this website, the first half of the book is the more important one as it reveals the author's life as a Hindu-Brahmin Indian being born and brought up in the segregated East African colony of Kenya. The book is very much the story of the two branches of his father and his mother's family and how they both ended up in East Africa and how they later scattered across the world as the European Empires in Africa came to an end in the 1960s. The arresting front cover does indeed provide a telling connection to the author's own East African and his family's medicine links. The picture shows the unconventional Dr Rosendo Ayers Ribeiro riding to his medical practice on a zebra. Horses could find life very difficult in Central Africa due to the presence of Rinderpest (topically we can say one of the few diseases to ever be eradicated through vaccination). This disease meant that attempts were made to tame the Zebra to provide animal power in the era before the Internal Combustion Engine. Few (except for Dr Ribeiro) had much success in controlling the animals and certainly not in teams. The author's uncle would emulate the dedicated Dr Ribeiro and provide the crucial first step for his own father when he made the journey across the Indian Ocean to try to establish himself in East Africa. This uncle would also provide the author with much inspiration for his own medical career later in life. The title of the book 'the place of cold water' refers to the place of the author's birth and offers another strand to explain why so many from the Indian sub-continent arrived in East Africa in the first place. The first wave of mass migration from India was to build the so-called 'Lunatic Line' railway. It started on the coast at Mombasa and moved inland to Nairobi where the Masai had watered their cattle at the springs. This cool water there must have come as a blessed relief for the Indian labourers working in the harsh conditions of Kenya. The lunatic line carried on into the interior ultimately reaching the Kampala in Uganda. It was famously plagued by man eating lions. They brought in the big game hunter John Patterson to deal with the lions. Labourers in tents provided a far too handy food source for the lions who had developed a taste for human flesh. Ironically, the author will later live near to where those lions were stuffed and displayed in Chicago. Interestingly, I have my own connections to that event in that my current office at Crownhill Fort in Plymouth would later be occupied by the same Colonel Patterson as he set up the Jewish Legion there to fight in the First World War. It reminds me of one of the author's amusing lines about Indians only ever being separated by two degrees rather than the normal six degrees of separation when it comes to finding links between strangers. Well it appears that that the author and me might just have that two degrees of separation ourselves.

This book explains the opportunities but also the limitations of Empire. Simply put, without the British Empire there would not have been such a substantial Indian presence in East Africa. However, that same Empire set confines that made it remarkably difficult for the various communities and cultures to interact with one another. There was not just a de facto cultural separation of the races, there was often a de jure one in place with regards to where you could live or what hospitals or schools you could attend. Having said that, the author's doctor uncle treated patients regardless of their race. Indian migrants like the author's father and uncle could and did straddle the imperial divide. The fact that they were numerate and literate and could converse in English meant that they could often find important roles in the bureaucracy and the civil infrastructure of a colony. These were tasks and jobs that in the years before World War Two, most Africans could not undertake. With little or no education, Africans tended to be reduced to the most menial of tasks if they wished to enter the European economy. Of course, many Africans were content to remain outside of the monetised economy of the imperialists and continued to live and work in their own barter and/or self sufficient communities. However, this stratification of racial division would later cast a dark shadow over colonies in East Africa as many Africans came to resent the perceived and relative wealth of the Indian peoples at least vis a vis their own situation. And when many Europeans returned to Britain with the ebb tide of Empire, the Indians appeared to have become de facto top of the tree to many Africans. Indians like the author (who was born in Nairobi) would find that they would be regarded as interlopers even in the land of their birth. Difficult questions of identity and belonging are thrown up by this book. The Empire undoubtedly gave opportunities for population movements on a global scale, but each and every journey was a unique story and often hid painful choices for the migrants or for their families left behind.

The entrepreneurial drive and desire for academic success for their children is another theme running through the book. The author's father, for example, offers an example of someone with remarkable entrepreneurial flair. He served in the British military during the war but used the contacts he built up there to create a dry-cleaning business and later opened a bar and restaurant. Sadly, this all later came crashing down due to less than honest fellow investors and effective bankruptcy ensued. Despite this setback I wad touched by the father's comment: "All I need is a pack of cigarettes, a pen, and a writing pad, and I will create a new business." This entrepreneurial drive even in the face of setbacks goes a long way to explaining the relative success of the Indian community in most corners of the Empire that they spilled into.

Indian migrants formed their own impressive social networks revolving principally around the family unit. The comings and goings of family members across three continents is explained eloquently. Even though many of the living conditions described must have been very difficult, the extended family constantly displays a generosity of spirit to any members facing difficulties or complications in their life that transcended their financial abilities and circumstances. Having read a book like this, you can honestly say that the East African Indian Community could not have been so successful without their powerful family units pulsating with verve, obligation and humanity. The author offers the compelling example of his own father who succumbed to alcoholism with often tragic consequences. Time and again the extended family filled the vacuum and supported the mother and child even when the father was incapable of doing so. It is also interesting how both sides of the family were keen to help the young author irrespective of their feelings towards his father. This relationship between father and son is one that you can definitely apply the 'warts and all' moniker to as the author painfully lays out the impact of alcoholism on the family. There is some redemption later in the book, but it is a long time coming and much of that cool water had run under the bridge before anything like a reconciliation can be made. It is tempting to use Tolstoy's quote of "All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" and the author lays out his own family's unhappiness all too clearly.

The joy of reading memoirs is that often people's lives are far more fascinating than they even know themselves. And things that seemed normal and part of their everyday life may have vanished from the history books forever without memoirs to remind us. Whether it is the teachers who teach them at their local school, what clubs they do or how the local population saw Italian Prisoners of War as being victims more than aggressors or the ripples of influence from the various Indian Independence movements and how they were interpreted in the light of independence and partition thousands of miles from the events on the ground... it all provides a rich tapestry that would surely evade any formal history book. The author does lay the Lion's share of blame for the partition of India and Pakistan at the feet of Britain who indeed share some of the burden. However, I do not think that absolves Indians and particularly the Muslims who were determined to become Pakistanis from all blame either. After all, there had been no united India before the British arrived. It was largely a British political construct and they had wanted to pass it on as a unitary state. It was Muslim leaders like Jinnah who were so adamant that they did not wish to be a minority within a majority Hindu state that blocked the creation of a united India. No amount of British or Indian pleading deflected Jinnah from this belief. It is also telling that the Indian minority in East Africa would almost prove Jinnah's point for him when they found themselves the victims of the majority Africans who were determined to use their newly won independence and democratic mandate to settle what they perceived as historic iniquities. Be that as it may, it was still fascinating to read about the impact of domestic Indian politics on the Indian diaspora in Africa. It is also interesting that the author's family found themselves under the influence of one of the more nihilistic and extreme versions of Hindu Nationalists. 'Warts and All' playing out again for the benefit of posterity.

The Indian perspective of the Mau Mau insurrection is interesting to read too. Indians sympathetic to independence found it unsettling and confusing to find that their fellow countrymen were also being targeted by Mau Mau rebels. It is one of those revealing pieces of evidence that should have tipped off the Indian community that their lifestyles were inextricably linked with the fate of Empire, whether they liked it or not. It is also illustrative that this was the first time that many Indians saw British soldiers in significant numbers for the first time. Previously, administration of Kenya was largely done with a small European officer cadre utilising local soldiers or policemen to administer large swathes of the country. The Mau Mau saw British squaddies in full formations arrive. Often National Servicemen, these soldiers had little in common with the colonists they were ordered to defend. It must be remembered that the British, much like the Indians and of course the Africans were no amorphous mass. Different Europeans arrived in East Africa for different purposes at different times. Those arriving post-war often had radically different views from those who had settled in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

There was still a lot of turmoil in the author's young life including an expulsion, yet more family upheavals all whilst the fate of East Africa is every bit as chaotic and uncertain. The Belgian Congo collapsed in acrimony and Civil War, with Belgian refugees spilling into the British colonies desperately seeking safety to the bemusement of Africans and Indians alike. Harold MacMillan's Wind of Change speech accelerates decolonisation. Kenya descends into lawlessness and uncertainty. Africanisation ,although it sounds equitable, in reality has a chilling effect on the Indian Community who realise that their qualifications may carry less weight than their skin colour in finding places in universities, colleges, apprenticeships or in jobs. The author reveals the complexities and realities of Empire and the very real dangers upon independence with the following paragraph: "We had felt secure in our segregated neighbourhoods. With independence, the racial barrier to housing would break down; the Asian way of life would be disrupted. Africans now eyed Asian property and wealth with anger and envy. They had not forgotten how Asians had treated them as servants. It was time for payback."

A return to India and his extended family there was seen as a way of attempting to ride out these choppy waters of international relations and uncertain realities on the ground in Africa. We then move into the equally fascinating if convoluted journey to Medical School with some interesting lessons into the role of influence and perseverance to get ahead in an India that has not been independent for long itself at this point in time.... it is interesting to read to just what extent family members who might barely know their kinsman were prepared to use whatever influence they had to try and help their family member. But sometimes, perseverance and good luck has its own role to play and the author finally gets a foothold into a medical college in India and starts off on yet another journey down a tributary of life.

The author did return to Kenya once more to try and gain the skills and experience demanded by his medical degree. No matter how much talk there was of Africanisation, Kenya still required trained medical doctors. Despite working in some of the poorest and most desperate parts of Kenya, a growing sense of entitlement from the small but influential African managerial class began to grate. Political power was being used for corrupt purposes by Africans with a growing sense of entitlement and with little to fear from the courts. Feeling unsafe the author weighs up his options. Effectively they had become stateless as they were not Indian enough to go back to India and not British enough to go to Britain and not African enough to remain in Africa. In the end the author comes up with a different solution; he will take his medical degree to the USA and start again there. The eternal outsider would find new challenges and difficulties as he carved out a new medical career starting in some of the more unpromising and unloved parts of the American Health system but ultimately he will thrive and come to love his new home 'warts and all'.

British Empire Book
Anand Panwalker
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform


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