A FEW WEEKS ago as I arrived at the Pearl of Africa Hotel for the launch of ‘The Call Of The Peacock‘, I noted how gentle and professional the Special Forces Command officials were as they guided us into the celebration room.
They were markedly different from the soldiers I grew up dodging, and from the parking lot to the very entrance to the ballroom I kept thinking of the term ‘Customer Care’ and musing at how it could now be used in reference to some of the toughest soldiers on the Continent.
At the entrance, I burst into a laugh when a plainclothes officer politely asked, “Is Madame not coming?” as he inspected my card.
He knew neither “Madame” nor myself, since the card didn’t bear our actual names. But he was quite polite.
These were small signs of how things have changed in Uganda since the days in which Mahendra Mehta was born, or when his father first came to East Africa.
The bigger sign was the book launch itself. The car I drove into the hotel had five books in it – Trevor Noah’s ‘Born A Crime‘, Karen Bugingo’s ‘My Name Is Life‘, Rakesh Wahi’s ‘Be A Lion‘, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s ‘Kintu‘ and Rita Kenkwanzi’s ‘Kamwe, Kamwe, Nigwo Muganda…and other lessons from my father‘.
Three of those five books were Ugandan (I have claimed Karen because Rwanda and Uganda blah blah blah) so three out of five books were from home. Plus, it feels to me at if every week we attend or read or tweet about a book launch by a Ugandan.
That feeling makes me happy but is also unsettling a small personal challenge I created last year. See, on doing up my small home office or study space, I had a nice, solid bookshelf installed on the wall at a height designed to inspire me to fill it without braining myself often in excitement at any piece of literature.
One section of the bookshelf has been reserved for population with only books written by Ugandans or, I later decided, about Uganda.
I knew that wouldn’t be easy but I’ve been encouraging all the remarkable people I meet regardless of their vastness of age and breadth of experience to write books – swiftly brushing away any counter suggestions that I go first.
Waiting for the President to arrive and officiate at the launch, we got the opportunity to buy up our own copies and pester Mahendra Mehta to autograph them – which he graciously did.
Two gentlemen at my table told us that Mehta’s father, Nanji Kalidas Mehta, had written a book of his own about his life in Africa and India – ‘Dream Half Expressed: An Autobiography‘ – that inspired many to venture out and chase their dreams. The fellow enthusing about it said how the older Mehta fell in love with that Lugazi hill on his travels when he first saw it and swore he would one day buy it up and build a house there.
Mahendra’s book, as I read it right there in the ballroom, started for me at that very spot – the hill, the house, and the orderliness and beauty of the peacocks he brought there from Nairobi.
It is difficult to put ‘The Call Of The Peacock’ down if you are sensible. I only did so that night to walk round a little bit and was pleased to find, at the table next to Mahendra, Manu Chandaria – founder of Kenya-based Chandaria Industries.
We met in March this year when he graced the East African Business Council Anniversary ceremonies and spent the day with us at higher energy levels than most even though he was ill. He had just turned 89 and chided the rest of us for being so sedentary compared to him – which he called “the problem in East Africa”.
Age formed a large part of our discussion at the table after I read the part in the book where old man Mehta left India at age thirteen (13) and set sail for Africa, leaving behind a young wife.
The fact that a 13-year old could board a ship for another continent entirely, leave alone the idea that he had already started a family, made me resolve to buy each of my children a personal copy of this book so it would be easier for them to Uber across this city. When I told the family that my sixteen-year old was taking a job serving at a Cafe I met with protests.
Worse, I even have peers who can’t get onto a boda-boda round Kampala, they are so damn spoilt and lazy and complacent.
Mehta, however, made it across the ocean in a simple dhow and hopped from country to country till he got to Lugazi. Reading about his progress and hard work translates into the hard evidence we see in his sugar factory and other investments.
It makes sense because genuine, long-lasting wealth and success simply don’t happen overnight – and that’s another reason my children are each getting a copy of this book.
Our EmCee of the night, Patrick Zikusooka, was Senior General Manager with the Mehta Group where he has worked for 44 years – as long as I have been alive, and yet still serving steadfast in a manner many of our youth cannot possibly contemplate!
The celebrated publisher Ashok Chopra, at the event, described the book well as “immensely educative, informative and entertaining.”
Those three ingredients created an emotional recipe to pass on to generations to come regardless of race and origin. By Page 33, read that evening at the launch event itself, I was planning to bequeath copies to my as-yet-unborn grandchildren.
Apparently Mehta refused editorial guidance and structure because he insisted that this was HIS story and detailed HIS memoirs! Mind you, the book design and binding told its own story!
His son, when he took to the podium and reflected a young yet strikingly similar elderly figure of his father’s, wondered if the tradition of story telling his grandfather and father before him would continue in this age of television, internet and social media.
The books of the old men, he said, laid down the value foundations of their family – and that challenge faced him but, more importantly, face all of us in Uganda!
Reading this book reminded me why I like the culture of the Indians so much.
Jay, as he spoke, proved that even he had a book within him ready to be written, and brought to life at an hour respectfully removed from that of his father’s. He might not have known it, that night, but it was there in his speech just as it was suggested in the words of his grandfather and his father before him.
He expressed the same doubts about his fathers love for him that his own father wrote about HIS father before him, and made those of us who had arrived at that page in the book shake our heads.
President Museveni, when Jay recited excerpts from the book from memories of the 1980s, smiled widely and nodded his head as he recalled the very same events – and later in his speech re-affirmed them even though he hadn’t yet read the book.
‘The Call of the Peacock‘ is written evidence that Mahendra Mehta made a personal pledge to Uganda because of the kindness and trust of Ugandans – represented by the people selling vegetables by the roadside along Jinja Road who refused to take his money in spite of their destitution and misery, understanding that return of the Mehta’s would rebuild the economy.
THAT is the spirit of UGANDA! In a live sense from his actions and writings, WE are the Peacocks he speaks of, and we should be as proud of ourselves as Peacocks are of their feathers!
Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta first came to Uganda in 1904 – earlier than some of our own grandfathers – and Mahendra Mehta has lived here 65 years. When Mahendra told the story of how he first met the Museveni’s at Nairobi airport by pestering them, the President and First Lady laughed at the memory.
From his story that night it was obvious that this old man had been keenly paying attention to politics and governance in Uganda and following closely everything that was being said by serious political leadership. He is one of those who uses political declarations to make wise business decisions – which is different from basing business on politics.
He only rejuvenated the Mehta Sugar Factory on January 25, 1988 after the government – particularly President Museveni himself as the supremo at the time – had promised there would be no bureaucratic delays.
Going back to age, Mahendra Mehta was barely in his twenties when he began to operate as a successful businessman – which should make us all think twice before we type out our next WhatsApp message, Facebook post or Tweet.
Read his book, everyone and think again about what YOU are doing about your life TODAY in relative peace, freedom and comfort.
That night, when the old man launched the US$1million Mehta Foundation focussing on disabilities and children’s health, we applauded with respect. Haters can talk, but the stories in the book and the actions of his father followed a logical flow to build up to this.
President Museveni launched the book with his usual conviviality tempered with Pan-African ideology and emphasizing the respect that many lack when they approach Indo-African relations.
“I found Indians at a Temple in London mourning about Amin kicking them out of Uganda and I told them to stop mourning because Amin only killed three (3) Asians and about 500,000 Ugandans!” he said.
“I also joked with them that the NRA/M went to the bush to fight but the only bush the Indians knew was Shepherd’s Bush!” he quipped, sending the room into the disarray we needed to get out of the deeply emotional state that Mahendra Mehta’s family story had evoked in all our minds.
The link between the Mehta’s and Uganda’s revolution is as clear in this book as it was in Museveni’s speech the night of its launch, as he recounted personal stories and confessed his appreciation of Mrs. Mehta’s bagiya.
At our table we laughed when one of us bumped into Henry Okello Oryem, Minister and Member of Parliament, who had found mention of his father in the book side-splitting. One time, when Mahendra had left the country for India during the unstable days of the 1980s, he sent his wife back home to look after things here. The day after she arrived a Colonel arrived with a note requesting her presence before General Tito Lutwa Okello himself.
She was suitably alarmed and fled the country then called her husband to complain about sending her into the lion’s den. He laughed. The General, he explained, was his friend and only seeking to make her comfortable at his behest.
The now-departed General’s son found this mirthful as his memories of his father were of the same kindly nature rather than the fearful reputation that caused Mrs. Mehta to flee in such fear.
This book TELLS one, REMINDS one, and TEACHES of A LOT!
It is ‘The Call Of The Peacock‘.