Mukund breathed a sigh of relief as he left the immigration office in Dembe, capital of Babanya Letu. He had found his passport, which the immigration department had not even known they had lost. A less charitable individual would have viewed that as monumental incompetence, the inevitable collateral damage left by the wind of change that was blowing with such relentless force across the African continent. An easy-going individual, he took comfort in the fact that his devalued British passport still had some role to play in independent Africa – even if it was to hold up the pillars of a creaking bureaucracy.
In his early forties, Mukund was a short man with a pot belly, a pleasant round face and beginning to bald slightly. He spoke with a slight stammer. He was part of a larger Asian minority in Babanya who had failed to opt for the country’s citizenship within the timeframe allowed to them. Like others, he was afraid: ‘What if they took our shops away without giving us any compensation?’ and ‘What if they refuse us a trade licence?’ and ‘What if they refused our children admission in schools?’ Finally, the greatest ‘what if’ of them all, ‘What if they ask to marry our daughters?’ So Mukund became a part of a ‘what if’ stereotyped minority that became castigated for keeping their tun (body) in Babanya, mun (mind) in India and dhun (wealth) in England. That suited him fine, as long as he was given a licence to continue trading without hindrance.
This prevarication was convenient for the government. The argument that Asians did not know where their loyalties actually lay gave them the necessary time to Africanize the economy, or so they thought, while having the comfort of not appearing to be racist. This status quo was also convenient for the British. It put off the inevitable, though they did recognize the fact that someday the Asians would arrive on British soil. India displayed a laissez faire attitude: ‘If they come here, we will have to accept them. But, meanwhile, let the British and the Babanyans sort out the problem. After all, it is of their own making.’
Mukund, fully aware of all this, returned to the old colonial building in Dembe, housing the immigration department where he had submitted his work permit application with his British passport attached to it, and approached an official with a degree of trepidation.
‘Has my work permit arrived?’ he asked.
‘No, sah!’ replied the officer. ‘It will take time. These days we are so overworked and, in fact, there is such a backlog of files. It will still take a while.’
‘I have been told this everytime I have come here and you know this has been happening for a long time now. I need my travel document urgently. I have to go for a family matter to Koruga and I cannot travel without a passport. I would like my passport back. Now!’ said Mukund, almost losing his temper.
‘Impossible,’ responded the official, shaking his head.
Mukund took a deep breath to control himself. ‘My niece is getting married and I have to be there. In our culture, if we do not attend events such as these, it can cause family strife which takes years to heal. You have to help me,’ he pleaded.
The officer looked at him with a gleam in his eye, the significance of which dawned on Mukund instantaneously. ‘Why don’t you go for a cup of tea and come back in an hour,’ the official suggested. ‘We will see what we can do. I am sure something can be worked out.’ Feeling somewhat hopeful, Mukund repaired to the Curry Pot tea room in downtown Dembe.
At the tea room he met a group of friends indulging in the same light- hearted banter revolving around the same subject: ‘What will happen to us?’
‘What do you think the government will now do?’ asked Harish, to which the full-bearded Abdul answered, ‘Nothing. They are stuck with us and we will stay put here. We aren’t going nowhere. They will need to push us out with bayonets.’
‘There is nothing for us in India,’ said Kumud. ‘We will be fools to go there.’
‘As for Britain, do we want to go there to do drudgery?’ asked Esmail rhetorically. ‘At least, here we do not have to pay for heat. We will die in the cold in that country where they have heat meters in the rooms. And what is more, you have to feed them with coins in icy cold conditions,’ he reminded everybody. Mukund sat quietly, soaking all this in, feeling a sense of comfort that he had a contact now at the immigration department, albeit at the lowest counter level. But at least, it was a start. One could only go up the ladder after that.
Armed with new information, even though it was of the type one normally hears in a barber shop, Mukund returned to the immigration department and spotted the officer again.
Addressing him politely as rafiki (brother) he asked him his name in Swahili. ‘Njina yako nini?’
‘Mimi na itwa Samwell,’ (I am called Samwell) the officer replied politely. ‘Haya,’ said Mukund. ‘Sasa nini?’ (What now?).
‘I have some bad news for you,’ said Samwell. ‘We do not have your passport with us. We have checked everywhere. Are you sure you left it with us?’
‘I brought it in myself, personally, a few months ago. I even have a slip to that effect,’ Mukund protested somewhat angrily, bursting into a stammer. ‘I, I, b- b- b- b- brought it, her- her- here and …’
‘Calm down, Mr Shah,’ cautioned Samwell. ‘Let us take this gently. We want to help you, but we need to do this with calmness.’
‘I, I, underst- st- stand, b- b- but it is a British passport and these days, they do not give you a new passport because so many passports have got lost. You ha- ha- have to help me. You have got to find my passport,’ Mukund pleaded.
‘Might it have got mixed up with some other file and can you check that out?’ he asked.
‘With a name like Shah it could have found its way in one of ten thousand files,’ cautioned Samwell. ‘How are we going to sort that out?’ he asked rhetorically.
‘Can we look together at the files, if possible?’ asked Mukund. ‘Maybe we will be able to spot something.’ Samwell conceded that and together they went to the back of the office and looked at the utter mess in which the files were kept. Gazing at the thousands of files on the shelves and the floor gave them a feeling of utter hopelessness. Some files had passports in envelopes attached to them while in others the envelopes had become detached. They looked at a few names but the task seemed daunting.
‘Look here, Bwana Mukund,’ said Samwell reassuringly, ‘why don’t you leave the matter with me and I will get a junior clerk to look through these files and see what can be done. It will take about three weeks, but I will take a crack at it. Let us see what comes up.’
As Mukund got up to leave, Samwell turned to him and said, ‘You know, Bwana Mukund, I have a brother who lives upcountry and he is out of a job. He needs to feed his family and I am looking after all of them. He is a good carpenter. Do you know of anyone who may be able to employ him? He is a good carpenter, and what is more, he is a very honest man,’ Samwell added.
‘Samwell, get me the passport first and if you can also handle the work permit side, my friend Arvind and I are thinking of opening a property management business here in the heart of Dembe. It may be possible to do something for him.’
‘Mzuri’ (good), intoned Samwell.
As Mukund walked through the corridor, he spotted a table on which were piles of files up to the ceiling. He glanced up and down and his gaze fell on the legs of the table, one of which had a small wedge which looked like a small block. Suddenly it dawned on him that that might be a passport. He immediately drew Samwell’s attention to it and asked him if that document could be extricated by lifting the table slightly. With the help of another officer they managed to extricate what turned out to be his passport. Mukund opened the first page and there he saw his photograph staring at him unsmilingly.
With a sense of relief, he turned to Samwell and said, ‘It shows that a passport is not totally useless. It served to keep your office table standing upright for quite a while.’
‘Come and see me in the morning,’ Samwell said. ‘Babanya can do with a good property management company. And what is more, my brother will ensure that all the tables have legs that are of the same size. You will need no props!’
Mohamed M Keshavjee is a lawyer cum mediator who has specialized in cross cultural mediation. He has written two books, Islam, Sharia and Alternative Dispute Resolution based on his doctoral dissertation on conflict resolution and Into that Heaven of Freedom, a memoir based on his family’s diasporic journey after leaving apartheid South Africa in the 1960s. He is now in the process of finalizing his third book, Diasporic Distractions- New Faces in New Places his first book of short stories. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Darwin International Institute for the Study of Compassion. He lives in the United Kingdom where he lectures on ADR and Law at various universities.