Sunday, June 10, 2018

Predjudice and Passion in Nakuru

Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani.

This slow starting novel centers around the Hotel Jakaranda (deliberately spelled with a “k”), which was purportedly among the first buildings in Nakuru.  Originally a house constructed by an Englishman, over the years it morphed into a hotel.   The sketchy plot of the novel initially focuses on Rajan, a young Kenyan raised Indian, a singer at the hotel,  and his quest for a mysterious girl who kisses him one night.  Throughout Rajan is never sure of what he is culturally - Punjabi or African.  That is part of the point of the novel: how did all the various groups assimilate - or not- into modern Kenya?  However, the story expands backwards encompassing those who built the lunatic express - the Indian laborers and fundis, as well as the English managers - all observed quizzically by Africans. 

 In elaborating on various life stories author Kimani weaves complex webs of interactions among Indians, between Indians and English and with Africans.  All told the novel becomes a window into the railway’s history in Kenya and the plethora of misunderstandings caused by incompatible cultures.  Finally, the story does find some traction as these various threads begin to combine into a more coherent narrative. 

The Indian characters, especially Babu, the central one, are fairly well developed, but others Englishmen  MacDonald and Turnbull are caricatures. Surprisingly, Africans don’t figure much in the story, except as needed to make the plot nudge forward, as observers and, of course, as the Kenyan background.

Geographically the novel takes some liberties, but that is normal in a novel. Kimani regularly tosses in Swahili, which is sometimes translated, that gives the setting credibility. Finally, those who know Kenya will note that Kimani skirts very carefully around politics, even those of the independence era, opting not even to name the first president instead referring to him only as “the Big Man”.

This is a fine Kenyan authored novel.  Stick with it your will enjoy it.