Reginald Massey’s review
The inhabitants of India were always reluctant to ‘cross the black waters’ but the vast British empire welcomed, indeed enticed, Indians to work in distant parts of the planet, from the Fiji islands to the West Indies, from Natal to Guiana. Hence the far flung Indian diaspora which on the whole has flourished. Mr Biswas started by acquiring a modest house, as Naipaul memorably wrote, but his descendants now inhabit mansions. A success story and thanks, it must be said, to the Raj which is now often justly maligned.
Anand Panwalker’s recently published book The Place of Cold Water (available from Amazon) is an honest account of his struggles and successes. What appeals to me is his humility and his basic respect for simple human values. Here is a man without bravado, guile or glitz and he writes from the heart. He does not cultivate a style and that is refreshing in this day and age. His words, he says, “flow from the pen of an imperfect person”.
He was born in Nairobi, the capital of the British colony of Kenya and I did not know that Nairobi means ‘the place of cold water’ (one lives and learns). His father left the poverty of India in 1938 to try his luck in Kenya where he started a laundry in which the washing and ironing was done by Africans. This was the pattern in colonial Kenya. At the top were the whites, in the middle the Indians and at the very bottom the Africans. Thus with the rise of nationalism and the Mau Mau insurgency the position of Indians became untenable. The whites had guns, the Africans had machetes, but the Indians were unarmed. In fact, Indians were generally considered to be cowardly and gutless. This of course was a false perception. The Indians were law abiding subjects of the crown, a hard working community, and it was they who slogged in the sun to build the Kenya-Uganda railway.
Palwalker senior bacame fairly prosperous but due to family problems and his own weaknesses became an alcoholic. This caused a tragic rift between father and son. However, the boy did go to a good English medium school. In those days the Cambridge Senior School Certificate was highly considered since the papers were set in Cambridge and marked there. The young Panwalker sat the examination and passed creditably. Since I too had to clear that hurdle I know that the English Language paper was crucial and compulsory, especially the essay section. He decided to describe a sitar-tabla duet featuring Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha and obviously the examiner across the seas liked what he wrote. The young scholar clearly had a streak of individuality.
He then proceeded to a Christian medical college in Ludhiana which is a city in the Indian Punjab. He enjoyed his time there, perhaps a tad too much, and his stories of student life are full of humour. But he then made the mistake of being misled and was one of the chief instigators of a college strike. Fortunately the matter was resolved and with mentoring by a British doctor he took his degree. He now confesses that he was in the wrong.
His time in India is vividly recorded: the humiliation of the Indian Army in 1962, the shortages and the corruption and the sad decline of Nehru. He himself was a man without a home.India was not for him and neither was Kenya. He decided to try America. At the time there was rampant racism in the States. ‘Persons of colour’ were abused in the streets, it was difficult to rent an apartment, barbers refused to cut his hair. And he could not practise medicine until be got American qualifications. However, be persevered through thick and thin; his wife Asha was his rock and anchor. He made a name for himself for the treatment of HIV/AIDS and rose in the medical profession. He is the recipient of numerous awards for teaching, clinical excellence and leadership. He and his wife live in Newark, Delaware, where he enjoys Indian music and gardening.
This book, though a family memoir, examines three continents without bias or prejudice and he concludes that all men can be evil but by the same token all men can be virtuous. This oeuvre is a labour of love and the income from it will be given to charitable causes.
The good doctor is happy in the USA and believes that the number of decent people in his adopted country outweighs the bigots. He declares: “We, the brown citizens of this great nation, have given our blood, toil, tears and sweat and we shall never surrender to forces of evil and injustice.” His next book, which I look forward to, will outline suggestions to reshape the American health care system. He declares: “Trump will not trump!”