Commerce with the Universe

Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India, and the Afrasian Imagination

Gaurav Desai
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 352
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Commerce with the Universe
    Book Description:

    Reading the life narratives and literary texts of South Asians writing in and about East Africa, Gaurav Desai builds a new history of Africa's encounter with slavery, colonialism, migration, nationalism, development, and globalization. Rather than approach literature and culture from a nation-centered perspective, Desai connects the medieval trade routes of the Islamicate empire, the early independence movements galvanized in part by Gandhi's southern African experiences, the invention of new ethnic nationalisms, and the rise of plural, multiethnic nations to the fertile exchange taking place across the Indian Ocean.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53559-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. 1-19)

    “Darasingh the famous wrestler, Dilip Kumar the affable thief, and Mangala the Indian girl. Who has not at one time dreamed of going to India and marrying one of these actresses with the voice of a nightingale?”¹ Thus queries the narrator in the Cameroonian director Jean-Marie Téno’s 1993 film Afrique, je te plumerai. The film is a sharp critique of the history of European colonialism, particularly in Cameroon but more generally in the African continent as a whole. Drawing on documentary footage produced by the former colonial powers—footage originally meant to justify the colonial project to European metropolitan audiences—...

  5. 2. OLD WORLD ORDERS: Amitav Ghosh and the Writing of Nostalgia
    (pp. 20-54)

    If one were to think of a contemporary text that has appealed to a variety of critics for its vision of travel, migration, and the lived experience of cosmopolitanism, Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land would surely emerge as a contender.¹ On its first American appearance in 1993, Clifford Geertz celebrated its historical vision of a “multicultural bazaar,” and his favorable reading was echoed with only minor caveats by numerous reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times Book Review, the American Scholar, and similar brokers in the creation of metropolitan tastes.² Indeed, the book was much anticipated...

  6. 3. POST-MANICHAEAN AESTHETICS: Asian Texts and Lives
    (pp. 55-84)

    This image of the Indian (and more particularly the banian) as a crafty and shrewd opportunist in the passage from Charles New’s Life, Wanderings and Labours in Eastern Africa is in keeping with a long tradition of English discourse on that figure. Recall the famous speech in 1788 by Edmund Burke in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, in which Burke declares not the Englishman but “the black banian, that is the master.”¹ Burke suggests that the banian outsmarts the newly arrived young and inexperienced English officer in India, secures his employment, and then proceeds to use this position to tyrannize...

  7. 4. THROUGH INDIAN EYES: Travel and the Performance of Ethnicity
    (pp. 85-111)

    This chapter and the two that follow are interested in individual narratives and the local knowledges that they produce. Reading lives at this scale considerably muddies the general categories within which we think and narrate histories. It also muddies the political and ethical stakes that often, implicitly if not explicitly, frame our historical narratives—the closer we examine individual lives, the harder it often gets to sort out those that might seem to us to be ethically exemplary from those that seem less so. In the texts I examine, we will encounter individuals who were allied with the British colonial...

  8. 5. COMMERCE AS ROMANCE: Mehta, Madhvani, Manji
    (pp. 112-150)

    In February 1968, J. S. Mangat, then a lecturer in history at the University College in Nairobi published a provocatively titled article in the East Africa Journal: “Was Allidina Visram a Robber Baron, or a Skillful and Benevolent Commercial Pioneer?”¹ The question, as posed, signaled the prevalent postindependence distrust of Asian traders as exploiters, and Mangat’s aim was to argue that early traders such as Visram may have contributed to the economic infrastructure of East Africa more than they had been given credit for. Born in Kutch, India, Visram arrived in Zanzibar at a very young age.² He found employment...

  9. 6. LIGHTING A CANDLE ON MOUNT KILIMANJARO: Partnering with Nyerere
    (pp. 151-171)

    In his discussion of the plight of Asians under both the first Obote regime and Idi Amin, D. P. S. Ahluwalia reminds us that the Asian community in Uganda, like elsewhere in East Africa, was not homogeneous, but rather composed of two main groups. “The first was made up of those individuals who were traders and clerks in the Civil Service and the second was a small group comprised of the industrial wing of local Asian capital. The existence of these two groups meant that the State was able to deal with each separately.”¹ While it was expedient to scapegoat...

    (pp. 172-204)

    Asians in East Africa have always engaged in imaginative projects, participating in plays drawing on historical figures, performing in religiously derived drama such as the stagings of the Ramayana, writing poetry and sharing it in community readings, engaging in essay competitions, and writing short fiction and play scripts for newspapers. Literature, performance, and associated cultural forms have, as I argued in the case of Mehta, Madhvani, and Mustafa, also played a significant role in the shaping of modern Indian Ocean lives much like poetry did in the twelfth-century world of Ben Yiju. Most of this Asian creativity has been invisible...

  11. CODA: Entangled Lives
    (pp. 205-216)

    Writing in the midst of the Kensington refugee camp in the immediate aftermath of Idi Amin’s 1972 expulsion of Asians from Uganda, Mahmood Mamdani recalls a particularly dramatic moment in Kampala prior to his arrival in England. Standing in a long line of Asians at the Uganda Immigration Office waiting to have documents processed, Mamdani overhears a fellow Asian ask a black Ugandan officer, “So you think we milked the cow but didn’t feed it?” The question is an echo of an accusation made by Amin in his public speeches denouncing the Asian community—accusations that included charges of social...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 217-268)
    (pp. 269-276)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 277-296)