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'A History of Burning' author taps into family history to create Indo-Ugandan saga

Author Janika Oza. (Courtesy of Yi Shi)
Author Janika Oza. (Courtesy of Yi Shi)

Host Deepa Fernandes speaks with “A History of Burning” author Janika Oza. The book follows four generations of a family who settles in Uganda in the early 20th century but is forced to leave when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin orders the expulsion of Asians in 1972.

The cover of “A History of Burning” by Janika Oza. (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘A History of Burning’

By Janika Oza

Pirbhai, 1898

The last day Pirbhai spent in Gujarat was ignited by a sun that could not last. The heat was a dry beast, scorching the fields yellow as gora hair. He eased himself onto a step by the water’s edge, letting his chappals graze the foam. Jamnagar offered him nothing. For as long as he could remember, every day was the same. By foot, or sometimes hitching a ride on the back of a cart, he wandered the streets, pleading for work. Today the landowner barely raised his eyes, and he knew he was probably one of many boys turned away. Look around you, dikro, the man had muttered. Do you see any rice, any grain? Dry, all dry. Come back after monsoon. When Pirbhai pointed to the white buds bursting across a field, the man laughed until he coughed. His lips cracked and blood pulsed on his stained teeth. Those are for British exports. Not for us.

That morning, Pirbhai had watched his ma ask the gods for forgiveness, praying over his middle sister, whose bones clacked as though loose inside her skin. For days her body had expelled water— sweat-water, wiwi-water, chee-water—and now she was limp and dry as the crops outside. When his ma had turned to him and told him to try Jamnagar today, that a neighbor’s son had found work there last week, Pirbhai had imagined saying no. He had thought about rolling over on his sleeping mat, refusing to leave home and playing gilli danda with his siblings in the deadened grass instead. They would fight over who got to be striker and who fielder, and as the eldest, Pirbhai would get first pick. He would strike the gilli all the way to the sea, and his siblings would whistle, Ma looking on in awe.

But he was thirteen, the oldest son, no longer a boy. If he returned bearing nothing again, Ma would suck in her cheeks, then silently scrape her portion onto his plate; a reminder of the strength he would need for tomorrow. Bhai, his mother always called him, brother, reminding him of who he was, to whom he was responsible.

The reddening sky warned him to start his journey back, but the wind pulling off the water stilled him. He pressed his palms to his face, the imprint of the sun behind his eyelids a single ember. When he opened his eyes, there was a man. A merchant, his belt buckle polished and skin supple and oiled so that its brown shone almost gold. The man shifted a lump of tobacco in his cheek, exposing teeth like chipped bricks.

“Looking for work, dikro?”

Pirbhai nodded, eyeing him, too weary from the day to believe.

The man opened his fist for a second. It was long enough for Pirbhai to spy a pile of coins, grimy but solid, winking in the late afternoon light.

“You and I, we were meant to find one another,” the man said, and pressed a coin into Pirbhai’s palm. Pirbhai closed his fingers over the skin-warmed metal, unable to resist its unnatural weight.

“You have work?”

The man pointed out at the water.

“I’m looking for boys just like you. Young, tough, hardworking. You’ll work hard, na?”

Now Pirbhai focused, aware that this was his chance. He raked a hand through his hair, relieved that he still appeared strong and capable, even as his stomach curled around itself. He smiled to show the man his teeth, that they were straight and square, his best feature— a sign of inner health, his ma always bragged.

“I’ll work the hardest,” he said, and he meant it.

The man clapped him on the shoulder and fished into his pocket, drawing out two things. First, a small tin of tobacco, which he flipped open and offered to Pirbhai. Tentatively, Pirbhai accepted, taking a pinch and dabbing it inside his lip as he’d seen so many men do: languorous restless men, hungry-eyed. His heart leapt knowing that he might no longer be one of them.

Beneath the tin of tobacco, the man shook out a long strip of paper. It was crisp and covered in small black etchings. Pirbhai’s spirits sunk. A test. He had hardly been to school, never learned to read. Now he would have to prove himself smart enough for the job, and he would fail.

The man passed him the sheet of paper. He didn’t ask Pirbhai to read the words, or to recite a poem like the wealthy boys could, or to take up a pen and write. Instead, he produced a small cap of ink and tapped it open, gesturing to the line at the end of the page.

“If you want to work, you just need to put your thumbprint here,” he said.

Marveling at his luck, Pirbhai let his right thumb sink into the pool of black, all the way until it hit the bottom.

It was nearly dark when they climbed onto the boat. The man hadn’t said where they were going, only that Pirbhai should wait until nightfall, when they would begin. Briefly Pirbhai imagined his ma worrying where he was, but he had asked a cart driver who was traveling through Porbandar to send word to his family. He pictured the driver calling to his ma from the cart, how his eldest sister would rush to offer him a glass of salted chaas for bringing such prosperous news. How proud they would be.

The dhow was small and wooden, and it creaked as Pirbhai and the others slotted themselves into the narrow hull, side by side like sacks of lott. Some were boys who looked no older than ten, others fully grown men, bearded, speaking of wives and children. Pirbhai recognized them all, though he knew none of them. Like him, they were all thin, dusty, made twitchy from months, perhaps years, of searching. The air glimmered with possibility. Pirbhai felt a greasy fullness, having bought some batata bhajias with the paisa the merchant gave him, upon the man’s insistence that he would need energy for the journey. The oil had curdled on his tongue as he thought of his middle sister, who hadn’t swallowed food in days, but he forced the thick mash down, sucking away the salt that burned his lips.

Now, Pirbhai didn’t see the merchant. Instead, three goras stepped onto the dhow, their shoulders broad and uniforms crisp. Captains, Pirbhai thought, British. The men were speaking, laughing, but the words that tumbled from their lips were unintelligible. He knew only a few words in English, gleaned here and there on his searches for work— hello, thank you, country, bread—and he heard none of these now.

“I heard there’s work in Karachi, that’s maybe where they’re taking us,” the boy beside Pirbhai said, scratching at a constellation of mosquito bites on his forearm. His name was Jameel and he had skin like midnight. Pirbhai’s was more like water-soaked wood. Pirbhai’s lungs swelled with relief to know he wasn’t the only one unaware of their destination. Not that it mattered: by morning he would be working, pocketing rupees to bring home to his ma, enough that they could buy medicine for his sister, maybe even call on a doctor, enough that they could buy milk and lott from the shop without having to sweep the floors and clean the toilet pit for a discount, or worse, buying the items on credit that his mother repaid later, at night, in secret, though Pirbhai had always known. A breeze lifted the hair from his forehead, and he tasted salt as a spray of seawater covered the men like a shroud. As the dhow groaned into the water, Pirbhai watched the oil lamps on the shore of Gujarat flicker, then fade.

Excerpted from A History of Burning by Janika Oza. Copyright © 2023 by Janika Oza. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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