Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
A Memoir of Love, Migration and Food

Yash Tandon is drawn into a state of melancholic nostalgia by fellow Ugandan Yasmin-Alibhai Brown's , which, despite its 'beguiling distractive title', has a 'serious political side'. In a 'beautifully carved memoir of a brave woman', Alibhai-Brown 'draws from forgotten sources a memorabilia of facts and foibles to spin out the multiple contradictions in a country that slowly, but painfully, metamorphosed from a colony to a politically independent neo-colony of Britain'. Alibhai-Brown's accounts of 'daily life caught in the maelstrom of national and global politics' are interspersed every few pages 'with a cornucopia of culinary delights'. 'It is a compelling odyssey worth reading, both for its political message and for its gastronomic delights', says Tandon.

In spite of the beguilingly distractive title, The Settler's Cookbook: A Memoir of Love, Migration and Foodis not essentially about food or gastronomy. The title hides, obscures, its serious political side until you begin reading the book. It is almost a Homeric odyssey of a person whose life began in the periphery of the Empire, in Uganda, to join the flow of the River Nile to the Thames – to the heart of imperial Britain. For this book reviewer, also from Uganda, it is a shared odyssey, a kind of vicarious journey in which the author is in command and the reviewer, reading through, finds himself in a state of melancholic nostalgia. The author finds a home. London is her home, '(T)he city where no one belongs is where I belong'. This is both significant and sad. Her humanity is confirmed only when it is denied a national home. It is where no one belongs. Thus ends this beautifully carved memoir of a brave woman. If the world is unforgiving and hard as the pages of this book shows, so is Alibhai-Brown. She has little time for racists and rascals of this world. But she has a softer side. She has a warm heart and an unwavering belief that no matter what, you can always win the other person’s heart through his or her taste buds. Or the opposite. Talking about her first estranged husband, she says, 'When TL rejected my food, that should have shown me I had lost him forever'. At the other end is her warmest tribute to an African, Japani, 'the family’s loyal servant' whom the police took away because he was alleged to be a Mau Mau agent. 'I refused to believe the liars. I have never forgotten him, my Japani, the sweetest, most loyal man I knew then'. From him she learnt 'Lemon, Chille and Ginger pickle'.

Alibhai-Brown has a delightful way of telling a compelling story. A touch of the bizarre aspects of daily life caught in the maelstrom of national and global politics are recessed, every few pages, with a cornucopia of culinary delights. The East African historian, Charles Miller, in a 600 page book 'The Lunatic Express' (1972), chronicled the building of the East African railways from Mombasa to Uganda. So Alibhai-Brown is not quite right to say that the history of the two million people transported from India by Britain, with their 'tragic experiences', has gone 'unrecorded'. But her brief retelling of the story has certain panache. The evening meal of Indian railway workers, she recounts, consisted of Kichri, 'a mixture of rice and lentils cooked by placing an aluminum pan in a thick turban… in a hole covered with leaves and soil with fire lit on top and cooked slowly'.

Alibhai-Brown draws from forgotten sources a memorabilia of facts and foibles to spin out the multiple contradictions in a country that slowly, but painfully, metamorphosed from a colony to a politically independent neo-colony of Britain. One of these contradictions was between the Asians and the Africans. Following Amin`s expulsion of Asians from Uganda, 'some Asians believed that British citizenship gave them security. Black Africans took this to be a sign of disloyalty'. The author has incredibly candid, sometimes even shocking, accounts of her family and friends, including her intrepid father who floated between London and Kampala as a 'brown sahib' and posed as an 'Edwardian gent' with an unending passion for unworkable projects that perpetually put him into unpayable debts. As for the political leaders of East Africa, she has not many nice things to say. 'Obote was the prototype, the stereotype writ large, of a post-independence African leader who marched his people into the valley of death all too soon after the balloons came down and the flags went up.' She is a bit too harsh here. I knew Obote well. Yes, he did unleash an army against innocent civilians for which he should be judged by history, but he too, like the rest of us, was caught up in the devilishly difficult heritage of class, ethnic, racial and religious contradictions left behind by colonial misrule of which Darfur is the latest horrific manifestation. This excuses nobody of course. There are multiple sinners, among them those that, like Tony Blair who sits on judgment over Mugabe when he should share the responsibility (in may view 60 per cent of it) for the tragedy in Zimbabwe. Alibhai-Brown gets a few historical facts wrong here and there. It is not true, for example, that it was Museveni who 'delivered Uganda from Amin with the help of the Tanzanians'. This credit goes in the main to Tanzania, with the help of the Uganda National Liberation Front. I was, with Museveni and others, among the founding members of the UNLF.

Alibhai-Brown has some very interesting insights of the country that finally becomes her residence, England. She burrows deep into the psyche of the multicultural nation. 'Enoch Powell had entered my subconscious', she says. She recounts the daily, sometimes hourly, often remorseless battles with cultural arrogance and bigotry of a corrupt political elite (now, as we write, visibly displayed as honorable but corrupt members of Parliament, the mother of all parliaments), and all too often misguided press. But England is a nation whose people otherwise are generous and humane. Her favourite author is Shakespeare, she says. But some of her writings remind one, rather, of the English humorist P.G. Wodehouse, whose fictional characters, especially the lower class Jeeves, parodied the British upper class that is portrayed as ignorant buffoons. Alibhai is not a humorist, but like Wodehouse, she parodies the real life (not fictional) characters of the British upper classes that are modern versions of Victorian England.

Her tribulations and challenges as she wades through multiple responsibilities as bread earner, a media person, a wife, and daughter and sometimes as a single parent are described with literary robustness and almost scandalous transparency. She worked for a time with the New Statesman and Society – 'an amalgam that never worked' – whose staff showed 'gross intolerance of Muslims' that were expressing their legitimate opposition to Salman Rushdie`s Satanic Verses.'I came out as a Muslim at this time… It was arguably the worst time to declare such an allegiance…' But for her it was a 'political label, embraced for political reasons'. It was a gesture of defiance in a world where 'We had to surrender totally to the hegemonic West or be damned'. But she is balanced in her views. She is equally damning about the Taliban who 'want to drag us into the Bora Bora caves.' For her views against racism she is pilloried by both sides, by the white racists as well as the extreme Islamists, who accuse her of being an 'Apostate Brown'. She danced in the streets of Covent Garden when Tony Blair ousted Margaret Thatcher but the new Prime Minister was a disappointment; he turned out to be 'the proud son of Thatcher, charming and therefore more effective than she ever was.' She was honored by Her Imperial Majesty with the Order of the British Empire (MBE) which she first turned down ('threw it in the bin'), and later accepted it 'shuffling with embarrassment and shame that I had surrendered to this system.' But in 2003, she returned it, partly in protest at the Labour government, particularly its conduct of the war in Iraq, and has since criticised the British honours system as 'beyond repair'.

From her accounts, she goes back to East Africa whenever she can. But as I and the reviewer have discovered, nostalgia is not an emotion to nurture for too long; it has its rejuvenating and spiritually uplifting moments, but nurtured for too long it has its darker side effects. Some of these effects are visible in the book.This brave indomitable spirit is part of those who defiantly speak up against prejudice, injustice, intolerance and bigotry. Alas, there are too many of these in our blighted world. We do not have to agree with all Alibhai-Brown`s views on politics, race or religion, but one has to admire her courage for daring to speak truth to power. It is a compelling odyssey worth reading, both for its political message and for its gastronomic delights.

* Yash Tandon is former executive director of the South Centre, and chairman of SEATINI (Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute).
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at