For the Uganda Asians, l900-1972
The Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop is an upstairs porch. Anna is at a corner table, half
shaded by a jacaranda tree. The air is soft with breeze and sweet with roasting coffee.
It's busy sounding. Voices rise and fall in spurts Gujarati and English and Swahili
and Arabic and German and Luo. You can hear Acholi from the soldiers and Luganda humming's
mixing in it all.
Anna has her back to voices at the tables. She's looking over the porch rail. She
daydreams out through vines, so the table hum goes faint, far away, as if she's part of
She looks out on Visram Avenue, under the shade of cassia trees, and down the street to
Savji's Toys. Mahdvani's clerk, opposite the bookshop, stands on the sidewalk grinning. He
holds a pen, but his busyness is calling to a woman with a basket on her head. Just under
the porch, she can see a footless leg. It's the leper-beggar's leg. The skin is scaly
white on top of black. A soldier rattles the leper's tin the pavement is spotted
with combat troops. They wear thick boots and they poke rifle butts at beggars. They're
camouflaged for jungle war.
On the grass in the middle of the avenue, a white boy and a white girl catch her eye.
The boy's hair's in a pony tail. He's young he must be on vacation from a
school or college, maybe from England. He's standing holding his bicycle up between his
legs. The girl is barefoot. Both of them are dressed in cut-off jeans and the jeans are
torn and streaked. You see a lot of ragged clothes in Uganda but you're not used to ragged
clothes on whites and the Africans are staring, like Anna is staring. The girl's hair is
long and straight and loose bits hang in her face. She's maybe college age but she's not
The girl laughs and reaches up. She slips her hand under the boy's blue shirt, up near
the collar. Anna catches her breath. The girl's hand is moving, rubbing the boy's neck.
She feels it like they're standing next to her but they are in the middle of the avenue.
The waiter comes to stand by Anna's table but she doesn't look at him. She nods without
turning because she's watching the girl stroke that boy's neck, in the middle of Visram
Avenue. The waiter sets her coffee and her samosas in front of her.
Anna thinks the girl is wonderful, happy, and more beautiful than any girl she's seen.
She grabs a Kleenex from her basket. The movement is abrupt. She keeps her face away
from the tables and roughly scrapes the lipstick off her own face. She will not wear
lipstick the girl's face looks like faces ought to look. She fumbles through her
hair and pulls her hairclips out and lets her hair fall where it likes. The girl's hair is
like hair ought to be. She slips her feet out of her sandals. She's always liked bare
feet. At last she's understood: she's pinched herself in pointed shoes and pins and clips
and paint because she never thought about it and all at once she has no idea why
she never thought about it. Of course the girl is happy. Of course. She, Anna, lives in
the African sunshine and she has kept herself laced up and frowned and rushed around with
lists and she has no idea why.
She breathes more quickly with her lightness, unexpected lightness. She twists around
to search the tables on the porch. Her Indian's not here. There isn't anyone. She would
not expect him yet, but there's no one here to take the smile she feels. She fishes in her
basket for her pad if he's not here she'll write to Giles.
Once Giles taught English in Uganda, in the school she teaches in. Now he's in England.
They played Vivaldi and over vodka they stumbled on the sl words slimy,
slovenly, slavish. She still had a husband then, but he gave up on them,
left them alone they laughed at pedantries, inane ones. But it was innocent their
games. She'd grown up in the fifties in the South and she didn't know she could knead
Giles' neck, under his shirt, and laugh. She didn't know she could take the hairclips out
of her hair.
She writes Giles that his desertion has turned her into a wastrel. He abandoned her to
cafe life which has led her into temptation, which she seized at once and so can't see
because her hair's now hanging in her eyes because she won't wear hairclips ever again
or shoes or lipstick because thanks to the view from their cafe she's caught
up with the sixties' style nevermind her age and nevermind it's 1971. And anyway he
already knew she harbored some envy for her down-and-out hung-over twenties-era
magnificent expatriate woman Jean Rhys, in her Paris bistro life. But mostly, she tells
Giles, mostly the state of her makeshift stab at living is a straight revenge for his
desertion. The Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop seethes, she writes, with Left-Bank
undercurrents since he's left, or maybe with the undertow of thirties' Berlin cabaret,
what with prowling Acholi soldiers.
She's leaning down writing, as best she can manage through hair. But she identifies, at
once, the blur of movement on the porch. She can feel her Indian's walk. She can feel the
twist of his jeans and she's aware he's conscious of her, and he's confused because his
table's taken two Sikh women have usurped his place. She follows him obliquely
him setting his satchel on an alien table and going still, at commotion on the
steps. She can see the way he turns and watches the tips of his fingers on the
tablecloth: troopers lurch through the opening and a hush falls over the porch. A soldier
points his rifle butt at cakes. He demands three cakes. The Goan woman packs the creamy
puffs and cherry tarts and piles of raisin scones. The Muganda waiter rushes to hold
boxes. The waiter's hair is almost white.
Anna hugs her arms across her chest. The sun is still warm, the light is still lemony,
the birds are still red. But now she feels exposed. What is she doing in a coffeeshop, in
Kampala, in the middle of East Africa? She looks around on the veranda, on Visram
Avenue and she can't see anyone she knows. Something will happen. Her Indian's come
out on the porch but she does not know him. She doesn't even know his name and maybe now,
with the soldiers swarming, she will never know his name.
People at the tables start to click their saucers. They pretend the soldiers are not
there. She watches her Indian slip into his chair, cross his arms and lay them on the
tablecloth. (She calls him Saji in her daydreams. She heard somebody yell that once, and
the sound is right.) His black arm hairs stand out against his sleeves. He's settling his
profile she sees he means her to have that particular view. He's right it's
an elegant profile, pencil-fine. It deserves his care with the angle.
She turns back to Giles. She writes him that the place went gray with soldiers but it's
still cafe society, almost genuine, with Uganda politicians and Indian merchants and
English women regulars, all high-strung on rumors. She's overhearing people on all sides
of her that Obote is mad to be in Singapore, that he's leaving this country to the
army and, Last night - did you hear the lorries? On Kololo, or do you mean on
Nakasero? On Makerere as well! And, What is Nyerere thinking? She tells Giles the air
is livelier than ever the town has the sound of rifle snaps and rumbling lorries
and he is missing out because the troops will leave and the air will keep on smelling like
spices and coffee and sweetpeas.
Saji, culturally, appears to be retarded. She knows he's a Makerere student, but he's
acting like James Dean as if Indians haven't figured that's a fifties look. It has
no relation with the committed sixties way you need to set your features when a girl's not
busily massaging your neck. Nevertheless, she sees wisdom in his style, his trailing smoke
through purple lips.
His book looks French it's the soft-paper look with fraying at the edges. She
thinks, only Indians believe being a student means reading French. Last week he saw her
read Siddharta so he's come up with one better. It makes her smile, but she keeps
her head well down.
Anyway, she writes to Giles, "What can England have like this? Who are the people
you're making laugh? If it's a woman, warn her you'll desert her." It isn't just the
French. It's the profile, and the way he bends his hand around just so, with the angle of
his wristbone jutting through his wristhair. The other hand is tapping at his ashes. She
drops her head abruptly. She will not look.
She writes: "And don't be shocked I'm speaking out. Things are changing me
other things besides the sixties' style. You may not remember him but Satyajat Rao, the
metaphysics man, has vanished. In the Mountains of the Moon. The Makerere philosophers
went mountain climbing and he strayed off in fog. They never found him. Life goes out
while your head is turned, while you're clutching what you vaguely meant to give. So. I
now resolve that I will not live vague. I will capture life in words, even, if it
has to come to that. I am starting by writing to you. I'm speaking up, Giles: I never play
Vivaldi now you're gone. I never think of sl words. I walk past your house and it's
your white and orange bougainvillea but Sikhs with purple turbans creep about in it. They
make ablutions, at dawn, with pinkish garments hanging off their waists. They rearrange
walls they are your walls for strangers."
She can see, just barely, through her hair: the way his fingers taper, his wristbone,
his dark hand sculptured on the creamy-white book cover. His arm that holds his book
the way he rubs his hairs along that arm, slowly, back and forth, back and forth,
back and forth. His fingers slip under his shirt sleeve, stroke his arm hairs. It may be
unconscious. Or he may know precisely how it acts on her. She will not look at this man.
His eyes are on her now. She will not reciprocate. To Giles she scribbles anything that
"You pairing off. Everybody pairs off, gets neutralized, drowns their sparks and
the world bogs down to a waterlogged yawn and I'm left splattering ink and forget
this. What I have to do it's stick you in the world right here in the Uganda
Bookshop Coffeeshop. Where you ought to be.
"Nothing's changed if you ignore the boots and rifles. It's the same sweet
roasting coffee that gets to you from half a mile away. I've held myself to two samosas
and four cups of coffee. The same crumbs are on this tablecloth as when you sat here with
me and here's a jacaranda twig and for a second the breeze is ghostly whitening the
leaves and the dirty ashtray is still here and the pink sweetpeas in the muddy vase. Our
footless beggar's on the pavement he's so close under the porch I see only his
stump through leaves. He wails Mpola till a Sikh in a pinkish turban throws a
copper. It bounces. The leper lurches at it. A wooden cart is creaking and is holding up
the traffic and green-blue birds bound in the trees and breeze scatters leaves across the
porch where I'm trying to tell you about it."
Saji's decided he'll play her ignoring game.
She goes heavy at her own stand-offishness she will never know this man. And
that, she decides, is no outcome at all.
He isn't reading. She can tell his book's a prop the way he folds it down and spins his
cigarette. But he won't look at her now. He's pointedly refusing.
He makes a sudden movement, reaches in his satchel. Another book. No. One of the blank
books like she's writing in. He fumbles for a pen. His dark hands for a moment hold his
pen against his shirt. His hands are beautiful, and the way he bends his wrist is
beautiful, and the way he opens his notebook, and stops, and reaches to rub his finger on
his lip, pretending he's thinking oh so pointedly not looking at her but stroking
his purple sexily-shaped lips. Very gently.
"We used to say Kampala was an Indian city," she writes Giles. "We
decided it was sweet with cloves it was a wet-dark Indian city and it flared with
silk-rich saris and canna-lily reds. But we forgot to say we forgot to say how all
at once the breeze swirls saris up and they glint gold through dark green silk until you
can't tell greengold saris from the greengold light and we forgot to say that makes you
dizzy, if you're in a wet-dark jungle city, and the people there have pencil-fine profiles
and soft and darkish purple heart-shaped lips.
"Maybe you can picture where I am. But what you can't picture - I've started a
movement. You can't suspect I'm not the only one scribbling in the Uganda Bookshop
Coffeeshop. There's an Indian student. And he's quick he's caught the style, or
he's faked it good enough. He's put down his book of course it's French he's
uncapped his pen, only he's tucked his notebook in his lap (he can't parade this alien
style in front of Indian traders they're after him to hawk their Yamahas). And
anyway he's scribbling in one of those Patel Press books from Red China so it isn't a
letter to you but here we are, scratching pens, clinking cups, scraping chairs. I hear I
swear Amin CAN NEVER be a threat from the table back of me, Sple-e-endid!
from the other side."
She feels his heavy-lidded eyes on her. He has relented. She will not let gray silt
down on her again he WILL not change his mind. She looks directly at him. The
seconds are charged, before they start to smile. She knows they're smiling because they
grasp they're nutty with their ludicrous self-consciousness. She knows they've staged
their pen seduction grandly, in the style of the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop. She can't
stop her smiling even if her lips are closed so she bends her head down and writes her
gibberish and knows her time has come.
"Did you ever wonder," she asks Giles, "about Indians about why,
say, their legs do not have calves? The Goan manager in her puff-sleeved dress her
legs are lampposts and why should that bother me so? I see her, I re-shape her legs, and I
think maybe it's not genes, maybe it's the cooking with ghee do you think? But then
don't you wonder how Indians' features get to be so fine? Or how their eyes are so
deep-quiet they draw you down you have no idea where?
"I think that student has caught on. I think our Indian Rimbaud has accepted we
are fated, the two of us, to write the great Uganda novel from the veranda of the Uganda
Bookshop Coffeeshop. He's looking my way he's getting up. He could possibly,
possibly be edging his way between the chairs and tables just to interrup . .
Anna doesn't catch her Saji's genuine name. When she asks him to repeat he says
"It doesn't matter, does it?" And of course it doesn't. It's right, the way he
understands details don't matter. Of course they don't. They have cream-soft books and
tablecloths and the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop. Of course they are above details likes
She is waked, in the middle of that night, by exploding shells. She's heard it before
and ignores it, but not long, because Amin takes over the country.
She escapes Uganda. The letter she wrote in the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop has nothing
any longer to do with anything and is dumped in trunks unmailed. The Uganda Asians
that's what they call Indians, Goans, Pakistanis, Afghans, who might be Hindus, Muslims,
Sikhs, Ismailis, Christians all of them, after generations in East Africa, are
expelled from the continent with three weeks notice. No country takes them in.
In New York City Anna comes on a letter. It's a year later. The letter is addressed to
Giles. She is, she feels when she unfolds the sheets, unwinding a shroud. She hears
Luganda hums. She sees green-silk saris and a loose-haired barefoot English girl in the
middle of an avenue, and she sees Sikhs in purple turbans stooping in Giles' orange
bougainvillea. She wants the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop. She wants white tablecloths with
crumbs, pink sweetpeas, samosas, green sunshine.
She finds a diner on 10th Avenue and 22nd Street but it's a sorry-eyed spot. The people
are too much her New York suspicious, Southern exiles or African exiles or both
to make cafe society. She sits in a formica booth and reads Times stories
about Uganda Asians squatting on Malta, foodless, waterless, tentless, futureless.
She looks up, sees an Indian man who has his face part-turned away. She wills it to be
Saji, stares, and holds her breath. He picks up her intensity and spins around, studies
her a minute.
He has a bulby nose and metal New York eyes. He shifts his gaze, hesitant, then pushes
out the door and vanishes in mountains of sacked garbage garbage persons are on
strike. Wet hair strikes her face.
Anna is sobered. She wonders if there ever was a Saji, or a Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop,
or a cafe society.
But she can write to Giles. She can send a new letter, along with what she scrawled out
once in the Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshop. Always she has paper.
She feels eyes on her from all corners of the diner and she grows self-conscious. She
sees herself scribbling over coffee. She sees herself making up her Sajis. Sajis have dark
thin hands and pencil-thin fine noses and black hair curling over white shirt sleeves.
Sajis don't think names can matter. Sajis are safe in Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshops.
She stops writing, leans her chin on her fist, with her pen in her hand.
It must be she invented the place. It must be she read of coffeeshops somewhere. This
morning she happened on a screed of words, and a coffee-smelling spot sprang up.
So. So her sweet places are word ghosts. Cafe societies are spectral-real Indian
Kampalas and Sajis and Uganda Bookshop Coffeeshops. The world you hold is ghosts scrawled
over a page.
But they matter. They matter. And she herself can call them up!
She sits at the stained formica. She leans on her elbows sipping. The coffee is cold,
but at the moment it's okay. The window panes sweat grease, but it's alright. She gazes
toward the smudged-weak light where blurs of gray pass by, but it's not blurs she sees.
She has a Saji in a leaf-bright coffeeshop where he abandons his book, crosses his
arms, and gazes at her. It takes them time. But they have time. And one day she will even
know his name.