New Delhi,UPDATED: Nov 22, 2022 13:34 IST
By Srimoyee Chowdhury: While studying history, as one turns the pages filled with stories of the bygone era, the issue of refugees is that one constant crisis that keeps popping up from different parts of the globe. With the current situation in Ukraine, people have come to know about the plight of those who lost almost everything and had to start their life from scratch in an alien country. Experiencing the horrors of an enforced expulsion is not something anyone would understand and that’s where Neema Shah’s shocking yet poignant debut novel Kololo Hill shines.
The novel details the story of an Indian family’s painful departure from the place they once called home and starting afresh amidst the emotional damage and baggage being carried across borders. The real-life horrors of the entrepreneurial Indian minority from Uganda are presented to the reader through the eyes of a fictional family complete with several complex characters.
Before diving into the synopsis of the novel, let us give you an idea of the backdrop of the novel. When Uganda was a part of the British Empire in the 1890s, thousands of Indians were brought to the country to build the railway network. However, Uganda gained her independence in 1962. Fast forwarding through years, in 1971, a political leader named Idi Amin rose to power through a military coup and ordered the forced removal of the Asian minority from the country.
Shah’s novel weaves the story of an ill-fated Gujarati family residing in Kololo Hill, an affluent neighbourhood in Uganda. As the reader explores the different characters, they can figure out how the question of nationality and the meaning of home become complicated when considering the history of colonialism and the economic disparity between classes in Uganda.
The parallel ongoing stories of the central characters Asha, Jaya, Vijay and Pran has been well-put by the author. However, after reading the novel, one cannot stop pointing out how the typical submissive portrayal of an Indian woman at contemporary times was smashed by the author. The character graph of the matriarch Jaya, who already bore the brunt of being an immigrant, had to lift up her carefully set up life and settle in England again. The strength shown by her after dealing with the death of her husband is commendable and makes the novel a much more gripping one.
On the other hand, Jaya’s daughter-in-law Asha’s perspective of the expulsion is quite naive. However, as the chapters commence, Asha grows into an independent woman capable of making her own decisions despite being challenged by her husband to return to Uganda with him. She finds determination to build her life in England by finding a job that makes her happy. Marrying nostalgia with the ongoing plot is quite tough to pull off, especially in a novel that is based on history. But Neema Shah does it in a fluid manner where she cruises along the lives of Pran, Jaya and Asha.
Now, coming to the storyline, it is quite an intriguing read as each page contains toiling details of the topsy-turvy situation that the characters had to go through emotionally. Other than being a historical fiction, Kololo Hill gives a surprisingly fresh take on the exceptional hardships endured by a family that had to leave everything that they held dear. Neema Shah’s observational skills definitely make the story more enjoyable and vivid.
The book does explore how events beyond our control can manipulate our closest bonds and the doubts that accompany us in difficult times. The story will unfold in front of the reader like a vivid picture and one can easily experience the vividness of the landscapes described in the novel.
The book revisits the similar kind of horrors portrayed in Hafsa Zayyan’s We Are All Birds of Uganda. The emotional complexity, changing social structure and the notion of uncertainty are what makes Kololo Hill a fascinating read, as the story will be imprinted on your mind for quite a long time.