Dance of the Jakaranda
Peter Kimani
(Akashic Books)
Twenty-one year-old Rajan is one of the most famed musicians of 1960s Kenya. One night, the lights go out during his performance at the Jakaranda Hotel. They often flared out there at nights at the bar, which "elicited a mixture of exasperated shouts, yells and groans from the bar patrons who instantly recognized the range of possibilities that the cover of darkness provided: scoundrels would would flee without settling their bills, lovers would snuggle closer, and villagers would get a chance to hurl rotten eggs."

On his way for a bathroom break, Rajan runs into a woman whose face, in the dark, is impossible to see. "Without uttering a word, the stranger planted one of the softest kisses he had ever received and then drifted into the darkness." The kiss, the softest kiss, one, tellingly, with just a hint of lavender, the lavender kiss, the one that drives Jakaranda, and drives the reader to get entangled with her and Rajan and his grandfather Babu Salim (he helped build The Kenya-Uganda Railway) along with Master, Ian Edward McDonald, the Brit charged with supervising this most complex of colonial constructs. And, finally, there's the good Rev. Richard Turnbull, Church of England, friend to McDonald. And possibly father to the girl of the lavender kiss.

All of them are involved with each other, really, in a most peculiar way, in a place where passion was allowed to flower, but only with certain strict bounds. To be specific: bounds of color although here, in Jakaranda, , in Kenya, we learn, that in this British colony, as with all, no one is really safe within the supposed strict color bounds: black with black (the indigenous); brown = with brown (indentured workers from Indian); white with white (guess who?)

Thus, often, in the passion department, it was not brown on brown but brown on black. And, most egregious, white with their fingers in the black and brown pies, as it were.

Even the most stuffy of the colonials, it turns out, were fondling those who, it was said, should never be in such a mixed bad. I mean bag.

This is the gyre that turns Jakaranda Hotel into such a hotbed of delight, agony, pleasure, misery - - - where those who we believe to be minding the store, if not their manners, are, it turns out, minding other things instead. Like this forbidden cross-color cookery.

§   §   §

Winston Churchill thought the building project to be a most "brilliant conception." He wrote,

    The British art of 'muddling through' is here seen in one of its finest expositions. Through everything - - - through the forests, through the ravines, through troops of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating Parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway.

He was speaking of one of those turn-of-the-19th-century engineering marvels, the Kenya-Uganda Railroad, begun in 1896, terminated in 1901.

It was built mostly as a convenience for the British, who presumed themselves to be owners of the newly formed country of Kenya. The railroad made it possible for them to bring food, supplies, and arms to the highlands of Lake Victoria. It was a startlingly difficult venture that was to consume many lives (a few white; some brown; mostly blacks). And the whole project was later to be dubbed "The Lunatic Express."

Building a railroad through such unforgiving territory was made possible only by unlimited, disposable manpower, a population made quiescent by British economic, social, and military conquest. The project was indeed a miracle of late-Victorian engineering, though it claimed some 3,000 worker's lives (later in his book, author Kimani will suggest a much larger figure).

§   §   §

The author has built here not only, on these pages, not only a railroad, but the singular triumph of a highly diverting novel. Besides weaving an excellent plot-line, he offers the reader a classic, understated writing style that haunts much of this book, turns it into a minor masterpiece. Listen:

    In that year, the glowworms in the marshes were replaced by lightbulbs, villagers were roused out of their hamlets by a massive rumbling that many mistook for seismic shifts of the earth. These were not uncommon occurrences - - - locals experienced earthquakes across the Rift Valley so often they even had an explanation for it. They said it was God taking a walk in His universe. They believed this without needing to see it, but on that day the Villagers saw the source of the noise as well. It was a monstrous, snakelike creature whose black head, erect like a cobra's, pulled rusty brown boxes and slithered down the savanna, coughing spasmodically as it emitted blue-black smoke. The villagers clasped their hands and wailed: Yu kiini! Come and see the strips of iron that those strange men planted seasons earlier - - - which, left undisturbed, had grown into a monster gliding through the land.

    The gigantic snake was a train and the year was 1901, an age when white men were still discovering the world for their kings and queens in faraway lands.

This is the very first paragraph in the novel, and in this, the author, in a gentle and artful way, sets in the keystones for the book: the railroad, the white men, the creatures of the night, the "sesmic shifts". . . and the divine.

We will soon meet Rajan, who, being twenty-one and a famous Kenyan musician, will run into Mariam, a lady of the soft, lavander-flavored kisses, ones that nuzzled him to life in the dark recesses of the hotel Jakaranda.

And then, much later, after much searching, when he finds her again, he will ultimately bring her to meet his grandparents, Babu and Fatima. Whereupon Mariam and Rajan will get unceremoniously booted from the house. She runs to the train station, buys a ticket for Mombasa . . . as does Rajan.

But this is 1960s Kenya, just barely beginning to shake off the laws of racial separation, that fiction that ruled the country for so long.

    Mariam was already on board; Rajan scampered after her.

    "Don't you know the rules, young man?" the ticket inspector scorned, pointing Rajan toward the cabin for Indians.

    Mariam, with her milky skin, was dispatched to the cabin for whites. So there they were, in the belly of the beast, gliding on the rail that their forebears had laid with their bare hands, going to confront a past that would reorganize their compartmentalized lives, or foster a collision from which none would ever be the same again.

    They stood side by side for a reasonable portion of the journey, blowing kisses through the glass partitions that divided the cabins, giggling and laughing like little children. Before long, both exhausted, they gestured that they needed to get some rest and slumped back into their seats . . .

"The train trip felt rather surreal, hurtling though landmarks featured in Rajan's songs, mostly from his grandfather's narratives."

    Rajan noticed the small mounds of earth that dotted the track. They were graves of men who had fallen by the wayside, and of whom Babu had said nothing in his recollections. At Mtito Andei, the train halted long enough for Rajan to step out and read the bronze plaque on a phallus-shaped monument at the station.

    In Memory of 5,000 Men Who Laid Their Lives to Lay This Rail

    it announced, the tiny letters below that listed the names of the deceased dancing in the sun, bequesting them new life. Muted in the neat scrolls of the letters were the cries of grief that their families had unleashed upon receiving news of their demise, the message often delivered by a worker, sometimes years after the tragedy. For others, it was the sudden end of money dispatched every month that presaged their loss. Where a family was lucky, they would receive an urn bearing the ashes, or even a bone salvaged from the savage attack of a lion, wrapped in the clothes the deceased had last worn.

    Not all deaths were violent: the prickly bites of mosquitoes or tsetse flies deflated life and sapped energy from their victims like a punctured tire. Before long, they were no more. Rajan was disturbed by the find, as well as Babu's silence on the casualties of the railway. Perhaps it was his grandfather's way of coping with the pain, Rajan thought, as their revelation led him to ponder what other traumas the old man had borne in silence.

Mariam and Rajan, we learn, are going to Mombasa to retrieve documents left in storage at the time of the death of Rev. Richard Turnbull, Church of England - - - documents that will turn this whole grand story on its head, that will change their lives forever. And, perhaps ours too; teaching us the unforgiving myths of colonialism.

The railroad is one of the prime drivers of Dance of the Jakaranda. A second is, as I have indicated, color. Black, the indigenous peoples of what we now call Kenya, are the ones who were to work and die building the rail line. The brown, mostly Punjabis lay in the middle, between black and white. The whites were the ones giving the orders, taking what they wanted, when they wanted; punishing any who protested, or get in their way. Like Babu.

The driver in this story is the train, but, also, naked lust. Which is OK by me: I don't mind the rattle of passion on the rails, as long as it doesn't get too messy. But here we find the most unfortunate element in the whole dynamic. It was the women who lived between Mombasa and Nakuru, along the ultimate route that the train was to take. The black women who had to put up with the usual rapine.

§   §   §

Let us leave you with loveable Rajan, the star rock musician of his day, working out of the Jakaranda. His followers often delight in his mugithi, the train dance where he leads

    the brigade of old and young alike trooping through the Jakaranda's uneven and crammed dance floor to imitate the movement of the train, hands on shoulders and thick waists, feet falling with the perfect synchronicity of a centipede tread.

Rajan is rightly on his home ground here, for he was "bringing onstage the stories that Rajan's grandfather Babu had narrated about his life building the railway." Oh that we could be joining them in the snake dance through the night.

§   §   §

We will be giving Dance of the Jakaranda one of the famous stars in our index, awarded to those books we feel to be vaut le voyage. We wish it could be three or four or five, but, unfortunately, our sour editors limit us to one.

We hope, however, that it will be a gold one, filling the firmament of this and other literary publications with light. For what Kimani has given us here is a wildly funny, at times tragic, often ridiculous work of art that demands your attention, and should, at the same time, get your full affection.

--- Pamela Wylie
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