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Book Review: Lalji's Nairobi by Nitin Nanji

Lalji's Nairobi by Nitin Nanji is a socially, culturally, and economically insightful novel that features the story of one enterprising young man who defies all the odds and builds a successful business setup in one of the colonies of British East Africa – Kenya. As you can guess from the title, the novel features Lalji, and his story from being a poor lad to one of the wealthy men in Kenya. How did that happen and in how much time – the narration fills that.

Though fictional the novel is rooted in history, the time period of the story is the early 20th century, when India was being ruled by the British. Lalji’s family was based in a village near Porbandar port. That time Gujarat was passing through a rough time due to heavy taxes imposed by the imperial government and severe famine. Lalji’s father was worried and in the village, people were either fleeing abroad or converting into Khoja Muslims. The author has finely captured the social and political essence of that time by showing the dominance of British and Muslim influence on the local mass of Gujarat.

Before every place, the story has a profound preface of the region and its allied ambience…be it their village, Porbandar, Mombasa, Zanzibar, or Nairobi. The story shuttles between many geographical locations. Interestingly, at that time the rest of India called Bombay “Bombay” but for local Gujaratis it was Mumbai (derived from Mumba Devi).

From voyage preparation to the sea journey of around three months, to finally reaching Nairobi, the transformational journey of Lalji and his three friends (often referred to as Jehaji Bhais) is captured pragmatically and shows the impeccable knowledge of the author about the migrants of that time. Since Kenya had the influence of European countries and white people, settling down in business and jobs was tough due to stiff competition. Lalji was determined and had business acumen that helped him and others to weave their stories from rags to riches. The novel has a long cast of characters that they stumble upon during their journey, struggles, and work. Samji Lalvani was one such benign character who helped Lalji with his job and guidance. Though it sounds like historical fiction, the essence of building a business remains relevant even today.

The way Nanji describes Lalji’s financial and social struggles, tenacity in tough times, and transformation from a displaced migrant youth to a determined and successful businessman is exceptionally well portrayed. The readers will be on a curiosity hunt to know how Lalji worked to fetch great results on foreign soil. Also, the book’s special capability is to transport readers to a bygone era amidst India and Kenya. Political twists provide depth and context to the story. For sure readers will appreciate the well-drawn characters, intricate subplots, and the seamless blending of history and fiction.

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