Aug 18, 2015

Bead Bai: Swastika in Khoja Feminine Memory

Seals from archaeological excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro 

Acknowledgment: The British Museum Collection

The earliest Swastika, a symbol for Blessings of Abundance, is found in seals from archaeological excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (approximate region of Sindh). These were the pre-Hindu and pre-Islamic civilizations of the Indus Valley between 2600 to 1900 BC. The symbol has been preserved for thousands of years by many a culture, over many geographies, religions and ideologies. Today it lives as a living tradition in Khoja women's memory when it is re-created in the sapatia configuration in one of the elaborate ritual arts of Ismaili Khoja marriage . The suu-astik reminds the bride and groom of their origins as they are blessed stepping over the threshold to make a family of their own and a new generation. Making of the swastika in rice grains is also called saathia puro.

Extract from Bead Bai (2nd Ed 2014)
Part Eight   Chapter 31   pages 264 -269

Su-astik at the Threshold
I step into the Devji family home, a sixteen year old bride in a pink velvet frock on which flows zari vine at the side from the ankle to the shoulder. People of the town come to see me, the wife of their own Nairowua born boy with smallpox marks on his face. Haiderali was born of Khoja Momna bead merchant family on the border of Kenya Colony and Tanganyika…
“She is the wife of my first born son,” proudly says Ma Jena Bai to the women of her jamat khana volunteer group called the Naandi Committee. The Naandi Committee receives, sorts out and arranges the evening’s food offerings at the veranda where the evening draught pushes the fragrance of the cooked curries and smoke of loban over red hot coal into the open courtyard. “She is a blessed Saurashtran devi,” someone at the back whispers. Yes, I am beautiful like the ancient women of Ajanta, fairer than all the men and women of the Devji family. I am of narrow waist on broad rounded hips and a backside bulge under my long velvet frock…
I stand on the patlo stool like a statue on a pedestal at the threshold of the Devji home, listening to my sass, Ma Jena Bai, bragging how she found me. However, she knows my Dadabapa gave me to Devji Momna, her husband’s father, to seal their friendship with a tie of their grandchildren’s marriage, forever. She talks about my accomplishments as a zari embroiderer and teacher’s assistant at the religion school. “She is shy,” I hear someone say.  In truth, I felt lonely. Uneasy among the people I had never seen before. I was not shy. I keep my eyes down, screened by my pachedi pulled over my forehead in laaj, avoiding any eye contact. Eyes that are studying details of my symmetry. I feel like a prey, circled by a pride of lions whose hungry yellow eyes are fixed on the impending kill and feast.  I tense my body, push my shoulders in and hold myself together standing on the patlo stool. In my hands is a coconut, the seed of life awaiting fertility to birth. Meethi Bai told me I would be bringing new life into the Devji family home to continue their progeny, honour and name. Haiderali stands by my side on another patlo stool. He is laughing and joking with the women who in turn laugh at him in fake mockery, lisping audible whispers, “You are such an ugly toad. You are black. You are short like an eggplant. Your nose is a trumpet. Your hair a mesh of wire. You don’t deserve this bride! This jewel of Nairobi!”  Cold sweat trickles down my nape under the pachedi…
“Jari, come and sit here beside me,” Ma calls Zarina her daughter. “The rice is for fertility,” says Ma Jena Bai to Zarina, instructively, as she goes over the su-astik with a second line of rice trickling from her funnelled fingers. She performs the ritual of describing the su-astik before us speaking in resolute sentences. “It’s the su-astik that connects the ancient religions of Saurashtra - Jainism, Buddhism, Satpanth and the many panths descending from the Vedas that hold pirs’ words sacred. Here in the centre where the four lines meet, we place a piece of silver, the mark of Laxmi and Light of Satgurpir. Put it here in the centre of the su-astik,” says Ma putting her finger on the point at the union of the four sides of the su-astik. “The union is propitious. It’s the meeting of the four directions. Marriage is such a union.” She gives Zarina a fifty cents silver coin with the head of bearded King George, crowned and cloaked in fur.  “Now take this betel nut and stand it on the fifty cents sumuni. The hard seed protects the shine of prosperity in the house. Keeps evil away.”  I know the su-astik is the chakra’s centre of life’s energy from all directions and a welcoming sign to the lucky bride, the incarnate Lakhsmi who brings abundance as she steps over the threshold into her new life.

I step over the threshold with my right foot and crash onto the inverted clay saucers revealing the su-astik sketched in rice. Suddenly the sound of crashing clay under my feet awakens me into a new life. Consummation of my marriage? I ask myself. I step over my childhood and enter into the Devji home, a woman. I have accepted the ancient sacrament of my forefathers and made a covenant with the Earth below my feet to take me home. 

Aug 7, 2015

Bead Bai: Book Review by I Akthar, Prof of Khoja Studies, International University of Florida,

Journal of the Indian Ocean Region Publication: Published online: 05 Aug 2015.

Bead Bai, by Sultan Somjee, Charleston, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013, Second edition, vii + 457 pp., glossary, US$19.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-1475126327 

This historical novel traces the life of its protagonist Sakina, a second-generation Asian woman of a merchant caste in early to mid-twentieth-century Kenya. The title of the book, Bead Bai, refers to Asian women of this era who worked as beadwork embroiderers known by the Gujarati honorific bā’ī, which may be prefixed or suffixed to names of women such as Sakina’s step-grandmother – Ma Gor Bai. The subtitle of the book is in Gujarati – khōṭā mōṭī nā sācā vēpārī – is the clever turn of phrase on the sign of Sakina’s family business that loosely translates as ‘honest merchants of false (i.e. imitation) beads’. 

Sakina was born in Kenya and appears to be of Kāṭhiyāvādị̄ origin. She grows up with her stepmother, who migrates to Africa and later becomes a widow and is subject to the Indic cultural practice of shunning due to her bad fortune. Sakina is married off early to a Momna family and leaves Nairobi for Nairowua in Masailand, which straddles the southern border of Kenya and northern Tanzania. Marriage is difficult for her and here Somjee provides interesting cultural sayings that illuminate the intimate life of the characters, such as consolation given to her about her wedding night, ‘you will heal from the sore of a man when the red henna on your hands fades’ (p. 269). Sakina finds escape from the restrictions that her husband’s family imposes on her through communication with the Masai as a dukawala (‘storekeeper’) selling beads and other sundry supplies. Her learning of the organic spiritual patterns that compose the female Masai beaded collar, the irpusi or esosi, allows her creativity real expression. Recognising her power and position as an expectant mother, she has her stepmother brought from Nairobi to assist her in childbirth and shortly afterwards the novel ends with her return to her childhood home with the newborn son. 

Somjee’s novel is based on nine years of research interviewing these women who were and are now in Western Europe and North America. The amount of material he was able to capture helps to recreate this world of Asians in Africa that has been neglected in the national narratives of postcolonial Sub-Saharan African states. The political instability and hostility towards Asians that reached its climax in the 1972 expulsion of Asians from East Africa dealt a deathblow to many of the scattered communities of Asian merchants throughout eastern, central, and southern Africa. From their initial settlements of the Zanzibar littoral, two hundred years of African settlement created a unique culture that was Indic in origin but African in expression. Unlike the ambiguity, conflict, and contestation between African and Asian identities that characterises M.G. Vassanji and Shajila Patel’s writings, Somjee’s protagonist finds her realisation of being and completeness by embracing African civilisation. 

A sense of melancholy pervades Bead Bai for the loss of Khōjā culture that saw its fullest realisation in colonial Africa. Somjee refers to the communal world he creates as that of the ‘Satpanth Khoja’. This caste identity has almost been lost in 2015 period as the Khōjā define themselves along three Islamic creedal identities of Sunni, Ithnā ʿAsharī, and Ismaili. The South Asian origins of the Khōjā are unclear, but the communities that developed in the late nineteenth-century Africa developed mercantile networks from the littoral to the interior of the continent. They followed religious practices that were grounded in vernacular liminal devotion that later was discretely characterised as Hindu or Muslim. According to Somjee, the ‘Khoja Gita’ (p. 38) was an important text that was ritually recited invoking an Indic narrative of creation. Interacting with other Asian castes in Africa, such as the Lōhāṇā, qua a Khōjā identity allowed for a camaraderie that mirrored the long dhow voyage. While rhetorically concomitant, Khōjā identity prefigured the Ismaili identity of the community. Khōjā identity was dynamic and brought an ethnic pan-Asian solidarity to the fore in opposition to the Swahili, Omani, etc. As became the case with the western diaspora of the East African Khōjā, ones coreligionists can be different from caste brethren and herein lies the loss that is echoed by other contemporary African Khōjā authors, such as Hassan Jaffer. They are devout believers in their modern Islamic creed and yet feel great sadness for the loss of an ethnic Khōjā identity that has been subsumed within modern Near Eastern modelled forms of Islam, on which communal authority is based. They cite the loss of Gujarati and exogamy as examples of how the Anglophone Khōjā have forsaken their heritage. From this perspective, the Khōjā have become unbound from their ancestral lineage and duties of filial piety by embracing a secularist ethos of individualist consumerism. Jaffer presciently asks of the future in the subtitle of his latest book, Whither Khoja? 

Bead Bai is an invaluable contribution to the foundation of what Emma Hunter describes as ‘intellectual history from below’ in African studies. There is a lacuna of research on how Indic religious cosmologies developed in the context of transnational migration throughout the western Indian Ocean. Indic religions were foundational in the shaping of social, political, and economic institutions that Asian communities developed in Africa. Much of Khōjā communal histories focuses on great traders, such as those of Alidina Virsam and Nasser Nurmohamed. The voice of women, the poor, and those in the periphery of the jamāt (‘community’) structure are rarely found. The fact that many of the original African Khōjā communities have disappeared and those that remain have an identity shaped more by Edmonton and London than Zanzibar. This means that these narratives will endure as an epitaph of the dynamism that Africa once provided for the development of the Khōjā. Khōjā Studies benefits greatly from such thoughtful and well-researched historical novels, such as Bead Bai and Allidina Visram. This form of historical fiction is a popularly accessible preservation of life experiences and perspectives on the past to be understood as a lens for examining the historical continuity of migration and dynamic identities that undergird the present. Communal historians, such as Somjee, are an important part of the subaltern writing of multivocal western Indian Ocean transnational histories. To wit, the more that participate in its thinking, discussion, and writing, the richer and more complex our understanding of this cosmopolitan period of Asian African history. 

© 2015 I. Akhtar, 
Khoja Studies International University,