I finished reading More Matata, a novel by Braz Menezes, a few days ago. It is a very good novel. The protagonist is called Lando and in this, the second novel in a trilogy, he focuses on a lot of the give and take of political issues in Kenya from the ’50s up to the early ’60s. Lando provides realistic and passionate discussions between Goans who have different points of view about the issues that concern them and their future such as the take over of Goa by India in 1961; the forthcoming Independence of Kenya in December 1963; the portraits and actions of the most powerful African politicians in Kenya; etc.
I had made a few comments and asked a few questions in Goa Book Club after reading Volume I. Specifically, I wondered how it was possible to tell the story of Goans working for the civil service in Kenya during a time of Mau Mau without mentioning the Mau Mau at all. But I see now that my questions were being answered in Volume II, subtitled “Love After the Mau Mau”. Lando not only knew everything I asked, he knew it in fuller detail than I did. What I thought were secrets mentioned in whispers were actually given expression directly by different people in Kenya. They were only whispered in the Ministry of Finance in Uganda, where I worked in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
The second novel is very political. Lando describes the landscape, the flora and fauna, with great depth and insight. But it also includes the people, something barely noticed by tourists busy watching animals making love instead of people fighting to get back their land. Lando went everywhere in the country, not only out of curiosity but also following his occupation after graduation as an architect. His father was a bank employee and member of the Goan Gymkhana, full of civil servants, so he grew up being aware of what was going on. Being an architect gives him a particularly practical way of looking at and seeing everything.
I have a question when it came to Saboti, mentioned in the first volume and in more depth in the second. When she returns into Lando’s life and he finds out more about her, he realizes she is not from Seychelles as he had thought: she was English through her father and Masai through her mother, so she was nusu-nusu, half and half. My question: Lando loses her in England after too short a time apart, loses her to an Englishman. At this time, love across the races was difficult — but what happened would suggest that their love was not love but infatuation. Yes, such a relationship across colour lines would be difficult at that time, but the novel gives examples of overcoming such a barrier such as Joseph Murumbi, whose father was Goan and mother Masai. But the ultimate meaning of the relationship will depend on what is presented in Part III.
Lando is a good storyteller. He is observant and has a wide and deep knowledge and is sympathetic to the Kikuyu people over their land alienation and yet is not blinded to political betrayals or to the scheming of the British. By good storyteller, I mean that several episodes are very dramatic. The chapters are short, almost anecdotal. There is a fine sense of humor and irony in the chapter titles.
Menezes’ way of structuring the novel is not external like an architect but internal in that certain images become iconic and represent more than what they seem to be such as the cover image of the two zebras attempting to kiss. What does this mean? We have to figure it out. Maybe it has more than one meaning.
In his acknowledgements, Menezes says that most people are unaware of the special culture of Goans that developed under 450 years of Portuguese rule. The point is WE EXIST! We do not define ourselves through tourist brochures, we are not like zebras for tourists to gawk at, though the black and white colours of the zebras could be a metaphor for Goans, who have combined cultures, East and West, who have not merely resided where they went, whose children became part of the people and the land and had an awareness and made contributions. A big struggle for Goans has been to prove that we exist as a people.
But after the event, after decolonization, the task is even more important: Goans are being made invisible and that what they achieved seems to be in danger of being lost to history. What is history? On one level, it is a record of what happened. If there is no record, what happened disappears, and so do the people.
Lest one gets too caught up in the stereotype of the obedient Goan civil servant, one should pay attention to the text. The Goans were not totally obedient and did not stay out of politics. On the contrary, More Matata provided details and portraits of Goans who were anti-colonial political activists such as Pio Gama Pinto, JM Nazareth, and others. Pinto was imprisoned by the British and after independence, he was elected to parliament in an African constituency. He was assassinated in early 1965 and is considered to be Independent Kenya’s first martyr without any concern about the fact that he was a Goan. To this day, questions are asked about who killed him — when it is well known who did and why. So the notion that Goans stayed out of politics was a cover for political involvement in Kenya and an ongoing debate about whether those working for the British could go against British interests. A lot of such debates take place in the novel in the Goan Gymkhana and the other Goan institutes.