Excerpt from the the Train House at Lobengula
Author: Fatima Kara
“Kulsum, Kulsum, wake up! We’ve reached Bulawayo!” Razaak said softly, gently shaking her shoulder, handing her a coffee cup filled with water and a darthan to clean her teeth. It came as a shock when she realized that the rocking motion was no longer the boat, but the train. She opened her eyes and saw a coffee pot, a milk jug, and a sugar basin, stainless steel containers that gleamed. A loud clanging sound drew her attention sharply, then, Kulsum caught sight of a uniformed white man walking along the corridor, right outside her compartment.
“Bulawayo. Wake up! This is the end of the journey!” the man announced in a strange accent.
As the train whistled into the station, Kulsum got up and craned her neck out of the window, looking at the seemingly endless railway platform ahead. There were long porter carts made of steel; uniformed porters with shiny black skin waited patiently to carry goods on their carts. White men in starched uniforms barked short, sharp commands to black workers, and everywhere there was an atmosphere of bustle.
Razaak popped his head right out of the window, hoping to spot his father. “Look there he is! There’s Abaa,” he yelled above the hissing and puffing of the engine. “Quick, before we get too close and you have to take laj.” She rocked back and forth and lost her balance as the train lurched into the station. Razaak encircled her in his arms and she stuck her head out of the train window, “The short one with a topi?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied, “I was with him when he bought that hat many years ago in Hunyana.” Later he told her he thought her cheeky for calling his father short. Even before the train came to a complete halt, Razaak rushed to meet his father. Kulsum jogged behind him, doing her best to keep up with his big strides. Father and son embraced while an African man in khaki shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, arms folded, looked on. As Kulsum took laj of her father-in-law, she discovered a novel feeling about the custom of drawing her scarf across her face—now she could stare at the men, listen to what they were saying, and follow their conversation without being looked at by them. She felt thrilled at her boldness. Watching from behind her turquoise scarf, Kulsum realized that in her village in India where everyone knew her, she would not have dared to even lookup. But this was Rhodesia–even the air was different. Kulsum detected a warmth and excitement in Razaak’s voice she had not heard before. His face was lit up and he could not stop smiling. He had yearned for this reunion while in Hunyana and to think they were united at last on African soil.
“My son, how you have grown,” Abaa said, as he stared up at Razaak. “You look so much like your mother.” Kulsum heard the tears in his voice. Abaa was bald but wore a beard. He had small eyes and a wide smile. His topi-covered head nodded away madly in his excitement at seeing his son. “Jabulani!” he called, “Don’t just stand there. Collect the luggage.” The black man in shorts hurried off with a porter. Kulsum stared through her scarf at her father-in-law’s wide features and pointed chin.
To her fascination, once outside the bustle of the train station, there were no rickshawallahs in the street, no vociferous vegetable sellers, no children playing, no beggars, no goats, no cows. When Razaak and Kulsum had traveled to Bombay to set sail for Southern Rhodesia on the Karanja Ship, Kulsum could not get over the commotion in the streets. The hubbub was ten times more than in Hunyana. But here in Bulawayo, there was stillness, almost magical. Jabulani opened the back of the car and put the luggage in. Razaak and Abaa jumped into the front seats and there Kulsum stood alone on the pavement. Her scarf, with which she was taking laj, fell out of her hand and she stared barefaced at Razaak, who had eyes only for his father. Her heart thundered in her chest. She wanted to shout out Razaak’s name, but nothing came out of her mouth. Should she bang on the window? Her face was getting hotter by the minute. She had no idea what to do when Jabulani opened the back door of the car, smiled at her, and signaled to her to get inside. Kulsum picked her scarf up, draped it over her head, pulled it into the laj position, and hopped into the back seat.
Kulsum gazed at the wide streets and the orderly traffic; lilac flowers covered the trees, their color, and abundance taking her breath away. She thought this place is so quiet. Janat must be like this. When the car stopped, father and son jumped out and continued their conversation. Again, Razaak had forgotten about her. She sat there staring at the shops with huge windows. In one of the displays, there were two life-sized dolls. She had never seen such tall ones before. Kulsum was startled when the car door opened, but Jabulani smiled at her and she felt at ease. She stood waiting on the pavement. Where had they gone? She watched Jabulani heave their heavy trunks out of the boot and did not know whether she should follow him. How could Razaak have just left her there? She felt her chest tighten. When Razaak came back for her she almost grabbed his hand but thought better of it. They walked through his father’s spice shop together, a feast of colors and aromas. Olive green mung beans, shiny orange thuwar dhaar, pale yellow channa dhaar, golden wheat, brown mhatt all in large hessian sacks with the mouths rolled back to reveal their rich, deep colours. Red chili powder, yellow turmeric, rich dark cloves and cinnamon and every type of lentil, bean, and local small grains like millet, sorghum, rapoka, and flours, coarse and fine. All very pretty to look at, but the riot of colours and aromas were overpowering and Kulsum put her scarf over her nose.
As Razaak and Kulsum stared at the exuberance of the spice shop, they heard the banging of pots coming from behind. “Go through and meet Jee Ma,” Abaa said.
Abaa’s second wife, Jee Ma, was short with deep-set penetrating eyes that darted around and missed nothing. She had black hair worn in a single long plait snaking down her back. Her chin hinted at stubbornness, and her ears spoiled her beauty, for they stuck out visibly. She was pregnant but wove her way around the kitchen with nimbleness. The woman welcomed Razaak first and then traditionally greeted Kulsum: pressing her knuckles on the sides of Kulsum’s forehead and the young woman responded by kissing her mother-in-law’s right hand. While Jee Ma dashed around her cluttered kitchen, she talked non-stop. Razaak escaped to the shop to join his father. As the woman tossed her question after question about her own beloved parents, her brothers, and sisters, and even her extended family in Hunyana Kulsum did not know what to say. To Kulsum’s enormous relief, Jee Ma did not wait for a reply as she scooped up chopped onions from the centre table and flung them into a pot on the woodstove, sniffed into a smaller pot, and then using the ends of her thick cotton scarf transferred it to the rickety table beside the stove. When Jee Ma, with her back, turned to her, chopping dhana, asked Kulsum if the jeweler back home still had a crooked door, Kulsum reflected on Jee Ma’s insensitivity: she had not asked after Kulsum’s sisters or her father, and no condolences for her dead mother. Such insensitivity was unforgivable; was it not quom etiquette? Kulsum was silent as Jee Ma droned on. Surely, any minute now Jee Ma would realize her oversight, but not one word of sympathy for Kulsum.
Kulsum’s legs were killing her, and she gripped the edge of the table for support. All she wanted to do was sleep, but the woman’s inquiries and questions did not cease and she talked without intermission. “How I miss my family,” Jee Ma, said. She stood still for a moment and her eyes shone. “When my uncles visited Jarmnagar and Rajkot, they bought fabulous materials for us and the stories from those huge cities entertained us for months.” She flew to rescue a pot that had come to the boil. “I miss the sweetmeats in the shops, delicious and flavorsome, how we tasted every type there was, eating more than our stomachs could take. And the bangle man with his cart of colourful bangles,” she said enraptured. “For Eid, we used to buy a hundred bangles. But here, who even sees you on Eid? When my twins were born, I did not receive a single present. Oh, if I was at home, family and relatives would have filled my lap with presents and my heart with love,” and she began to sob. Kulsum embraced her warmly, feeling compassion for her homesickness.
“I don’t see anyone for days,” Jee Ma said. “I have a few friends, but it’s not the same as having a family with whom I can do things.”
Kulsum felt she must surely be happy to have her as a new female companion in the household.
A baby’s cry pierced the air and Kulsum followed Jee Ma. Two infants had just woken up: wide-eyed, whimpering, and wriggling. Jee Ma breastfed the fair one and patted the smaller dark one who suckled her fist. Kulsum picked up the darker bundle and learned that her name was Jubeda. Jee Ma indicated to Kulsum to feed her. She took the glass Coca Cola bottle filled with milk, topped with a teat, and put it in the baby’s mouth. Very soon, Kulsum would grow to love this dark little girl as her own. “I know I have far more than I ever had in Hunyana, but I miss that life. I miss the people from our quom,” Jee Ma said. “It’s fine for Razaak’s father because he meets people in the shop. The only time I go there is when I take him his tea. The only company I have is in the evenings when he shuts the shop.”
“Now it will be the two of us,” Kulsum said in all sincerity… “We can look after each other.” How naïve she had been back then.
My novel, The Train House on Lobengula Street is about Kulsum, a nineteen-year-old bride who has crossed the Indian Ocean with her husband to live with her in-laws in Bulawayo, Southern Africa. Kulsum is determined to educate her children but, her in-laws decreed that only the boys in the family will go to English school. Although she wins the fight to educate her daughters, their schooling does not earn them husbands in the Bulawayo community. Kulsum is in despair when her husband, Razaak, joins ranks with his parents and arranges marriages for her two eldest daughters. She is told she must accept their kismet and Zora and Rehana are sent off to live in the village of Bushenyi in Uganda, thousands of miles away. Deeply concerned, and under the guise of looking for a bride for her eldest son, she embarks on an arduous journey to see for herself what kind of lives her daughters are living. Kulsum takes the bold step to return with not only a bride for her son but with Zora and her two granddaughters, spiriting them away from a life that was not fit for them. Although terrified, she is prepared to face the wrath of her in-laws, when it comes to protecting her daughters.
About the Author:
Fatima Kara’s novel is based on her experiences growing up in the Indian community in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, where she watched women struggle to give their children a life better than their own. She listened to how they left their villages in India, their possessions in one tin trunk, traversed the Indian Ocean, and began new lives in a foreign country. As a little girl, she watched women struggle to give their children a life better than their own. The Indian men, wielding their familial power, wanted the women to remain traditional and subservient. They did not see that the first step the women took from the ship onto the soil of Africa changed them. There was a current that was pulling the women one way, while tradition was tugging the other way. Fatima Kara speaks three Indian languages and has been in the unique position of listening to the intimate stories of these women and capturing their world in words. The story of the Indian people in Rhodesia and their contribution to the liberation struggle has never been told.