For four hours at a medical centre in Sydney, Australia, I was a skinny runt of kid back in Nairobi, Kenya, Eastleigh to be precise. My guide was a young Goan boy, Orlando, aka Lando, who is the hero of Braz Menezes’ charming contribution to Goan historical fiction.
While I have no doubt whatsoever that it is historical fiction, I am somehow fixated that it is an autobiographical work. It has all the hallmarks, but it isn’t.
Menezes’ attention to detail in both Kenya and Goa had me smiling a lot. I knew Plums Lane where Lando lived with his family. I also visited the Nairobi Museum, St. Francis Xavier’s Church in Parklands and a myriad of sights, sites, sounds, and people who were a part of both our childhoods. What is more, this is a very important contribution to the historical record of growing up in Kenya from Menezes’ own perspective and he paints a detail-rich portrait.
There are some great moments and I will only provide you with an appetizer. You will have pick up a copy of the book to enjoy the main courses. For example, I almost fell out of my seat when Lando went to the confessional and blurted out that he had committed adultery. Hey, hang on a minute, this kid is only 10 years old, barely old enough for sex, let alone adultery. As I said, it is a juicy story and the explanation is worth the read.
This is a “like” kind of book about a generally happy boy, growing up in a generally happy family surrounded by generally happy, kind of people and places. Utopia? Not really, it was that kind of a life for the middle class family whose breadwinner was a white collar of some note.
They made no waves, political, economic or social and went about their lives dedicated to church, work and family. It was also a generally happy kind of place. The late 1930s and early 1940s was a time when everything in Kenya was at its happiest. African nationalism had barely raised an eyebrow and colonialism flourished with an abandon that is only the stuff of paperback literature.
It was also a time when each of the participants of this cosmopolitan country went about the business of separate development. There was some contact, at the lowest possible social level: the personal friendship level. The Roman Catholic Goan should equal empathy with the Hindu, the Sikh, the Muslim, the Parsee, the Ismaili and a variety of minor players. Sure we loved the Hindu vegetarian thali, the Sikh chicken curries, the Ismaili samosas and bhajjias and Muslim kebabs. Our fathers had the odd scotch or two with them or they went to get their car fixed, get some work done on the house or a new dining table or wardrobe built.
Just as Lando does in this story, the friendship is sublime yet true as such innocence does allow.
It is this same innocence that grapples with life in ancient Goa where Lando has to taste life without many of Africa’s luxuries. For a young non-resident Goan, life in Goa is challenging in all its aspects and perhaps it was the same for the thousands of young boys who were forced to go to school in Goa by their well-meaning fathers.
“What is it that makes Dad yearn for the day he can retire back in Goa? How could he possibly go backwards and give up all this progress? Could I ever live in Goa at that incredibly slow pace of life? Where do I belong? It would take me a lifetime to learn how to cope in Goa.” Those are Lando’s thoughts and similar to the questions that tore apart thousands of real young minds.
Lando returns from Goa with a head and heart full of experience, but delighted to be back in Kenya just as the first wafts of the winds of change are kissing beautiful Kenya. Soon life will never be the same but a memory. Perhaps that is the stuff of another book!