For months, no one knew where Bapuji and Makuba were. The last anyone had heard was that the two of them were bound for Kenya—“until things settle down over here,” Bapuji had told his African partners. But Kenya wanted nothing to do with Asians from Uganda, so Bapuji and Makuba remained aflight, waiting to see which European country would take them.
Bapuji and Makuba were the last of our family to leave Uganda, having encouraged their children to leave soon after the violence began. Guli Aunty had left just a short while after her brother, Sadru. One week she was a graduate of Makerere University with a Bachelor’s degree in Education, the next week she received a job offer from the same department, inviting her to be a faculty lecturer—she was that smart. Mummy had put together a parcel to send her sister full of carefully selected gifts of congratulations. Then, she’d heard perhaps her sister would join us in England for a while until the political unrest died down. Mummy had been jubilant and decided not to mail the parcel after all. It stayed in a corner of the bedroom, its brown paper growing wrinkled and leathery as the weeks went by. Above it, a pile of newspapers gathered—newspapers whose front pages showed people lined up at Entebbe Airport, citizens of Uganda pleading to become refugees anywhere else. Mummy prayed for her sister to come back from Kampala, before it was too late to leave and impossible to stay. She’d read that Asians were being shot by the thousands in the night. People she knew—Hindus, Parsees, Goans, and even some Ismailies. It wasn’t safe for Guli to wait to use her ticket to England; she fled on the first plane that would carry her, clad in just a summer dress and sandals, bound, as it turned out, for a Canadian snowstorm.
Words like coup, Milton Obote, and Idi Amin sounded terrible to me even at that age. Perhaps it was because of the trembling look on my mother’s face whenever she uttered them. Mummy had been beside herself for a year. This is how she had explained it to me when I asked. When she spoke to me after that, I would look at the space beside her to see if I could catch a glimpse of my real Mummy—the one I remembered before this trembling, lip-biting woman had taken her place—but, beside her I saw only empty air above a dark, spider-thin shadow. Sometimes, she would disappear to the post office and I would panic. I would ask Daddy, “Where’s my Mummy gone?” He’d say with forced seriousness, “She’s gone back to Kampala.” When I’d ask her about this upon her return, she wouldn’t deny his far-fetched fiction; she would simply stroke my cheek and say, “Don’t worry, betha. I came back.”
Then came two telephone calls that really brought my mother back to herself. The first one, from the Red Cross, had her weeping with joy; Bapuji and Makuba had been located in Italy—would she take them? Mummy cried yes in every language she knew. Then came the even better news that Guli had been found working in a factory that made bell bottom jeans in Winnipeg. Since Canada had agreed to take Bapuji and Makuba on a permanent basis, Guli would come to England to fetch them.
My mother spent days on the ritual preparations to gather her family to her—running the Hoover, wrapping and re-wrapping gifts, ironing clothes and curtains, grinding masala for chai, and now, in just an hour or two, she would have them all together and the magic would be complete. It was no small feat after all. They were creating the only Kampala they had left—in each other, in the kitchen.