Publication Date

January 9, 2019

Perspectives Section


Dawood was born in 1916, in Kuvadva, in Kathiawar peninsula, India, three and a half hours’ walk northeast of Rajkot, which was then a bucolic town of 29,000 people nestled on the banks of the Aji and Nyari Rivers. Today, Kuvadva and Rajkot are practically one large industrial city in the state of Gujarat. The two rivers are trickles in places. Two nearby dams harvest their waters to meet the needs of the region.

Dawood’s British Indian passport.

Dawood’s British Indian passport. Courtesy

Dawood, his three brothers, his parents, and his paternal uncle and aunt were pilgrims. “We were originally Brahman Khatris from Mohenjodaro, Sindh. Sometime after we converted, Sindh experienced famine, and so we moved east, to Kathiawar,” he said to me one day when I asked where he had come from. A decade into his life, Dawood’s family fell on hard times again. They parceled out the kids to live with relatives and friends. One, a gifted banjo and accordion player, left to pursue higher education in Mumbai, the only one to do so. The other two, barely 10, were put to work, one in a textile mill and the other at a restaurant. Having lost nearly all—land, house, and cattle—to predatory lenders, Dawood’s father became a street vendor of hand-rolled cigarettes.

His uncle’s family members, however, had taken a different route. They migrated to Mozambique, where it was said one could make a fortune if one worked hard in the retail business. Dawood followed in his uncle’s footsteps. It is unclear if this was his decision or his family’s. Judging by the first British Indian passport he got from the Rajkot Civil Service, Indian Empire, he accompanied his uncle, Umar Jiwa, as a minor of 14 and, according to him, was instructed to send money home for the family to survive. Dawood did just that.

At that time, the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company had ocean liners going from India to ports along the East African coast. Dawood took one of these ships, and upon arrival at the port of Beira, he went directly to Buzi, where a job was waiting for him. Once there, he was put to work right away, first as a commercial salesman and then as a supplier of wholesale goods for a network of retailers in the district of Sofala. He remitted part of his salary to support his family in Rajkot and barely survived with what was left of his paycheck. Circumstances changed after he married and had two kids. He was then forced to look for a better-paying job. It is not clear when that happened. What is certain is that after some eight years of marriage, he found a job as a mechanic for a fleet of cars operated by Companhia Colonial do Buzi, the local sugar concession company.

Dawood worked through what he and others had already done to repair the car, why he had failed, and what he needed to do next.

I was nine then. He would invite me to his personal “garage.” It wasn’t a garage, really! It was a rectangle, big enough for a small truck to park next to the house. A papaya tree framed the garage at one end and a rough-hewn wood pillar, propping up the zinc roof of the verandah, marked the other. The rest of the space bled into the dirt road that led to the mangrove swamp, abundant with crocodiles and coconut trees.

I would lean against the pillar, resting my butt on the square cement base, elbows on my bare knees, the palms of my hands holding my head up by the cheeks, and wait for orders. “Spanner,” he would yell. I would rush to give it to him from the nearby toolbox. Between orders, he kept humming a commentary of sorts. “Now let me see why you are sick. I see. Your plugs are full of soot. What else? Hello! What we have here? A damaged carburetor! Hunh! It needs some major adjustment. Aha! Busted gasket and oil spill. Oh. This one will need a rebore.”

Once the car was repaired, he would start it or ask me to do it. The engine would ignite. Sometimes a repaired car would misfire, but in the end, all would come alive. He would slam the front bonnet shut and get into the cabin. On some occasions, he would invite me to get in. With the car in neutral, he would accelerate to get the RPM going. He would smile at the dashboard if he was happy with the sound—grin even, if elated with his handiwork. At idle, the car seats would rumble. That motion he loved most. He then floored the gas pedal, straining his left ear to the steering wheel to better gauge the quality of the engine roar. It is time to test-drive this steed, he would say, his head turned to me with his ear still to the steering wheel.

Sometimes, his handiwork would fall short of expectations. The car would spurt oil, spew smoke, and die. He would turn his back on the car and come and sit on the concrete steps near me to regroup, talking loudly to himself. Of course, I understood nothing of what he said or the disappointment he felt at the time. All I got was that he still had a problem on his hands, and if invited, I was in for another session of spanner handling and a new set of commentaries strewn with expletives and hammer throws at the offending mechanical beasts.

While he sat and worked through what he and others had already done to repair the car, why he had failed, and what he needed to do next, I was off with the car on imaginary trips. Every rev to diagnose what was wrong was a rev closer to my first destination. Pedal to the metal, I hopped in and out to visit people and places too far to walk. I always stopped first to see the village storyteller to replay her last chapter, before she revealed her next installment at the weekly gatherings at her house. Next came the shoemaker, whose son was about to enter the priesthood. Then came the bakery to smell the bread ovens, then the sugarcane fields to pick a stalk to chew and suck.

I had stolen my father’s jalopy to visit people, places, and prickly snakes in my imagined landscapes.

I would be soaked in sugar and dripping with memories. It was time to see the jacaranda trees in full bloom lining the gravel road to the hospital. Zoom, zoom, zoom, off I went. Here the trick was to lie under the trees and look up at the sky through the green leaves and purple fragrant blossoms. I would then dash at breakneck speed, twisting and turning along the curves of an unbridled mind to visit the local church, where I drew crucifixes for the school, and then head to visit the muezzin of the mosque to listen him recite the Qur’an. Hell, I even visited the tall palm tree near the mosque abutting our yard. A large mamba sat curled up at the bottom of its girth. I never quite managed to talk it out of its burrow. Invariably, Dawood would hit the brakes. “Where are you? I asked you for a pair of bull-nosed pliers.” I never told him that I had stolen his jalopy to visit people, places, and prickly snakes in my imagined landscapes.

After a year, I left the village. I didn’t see him again until 1971, when I returned from monasteries in Asia, where I had spent most of the intervening years. Dawood and his wife had moved to Lusaka, Zambia. He was working at Star Motors on Cairo Road, a real garage, and he had his own repair bay. Mercedes-Benz was his specialty now, he said. “Oh! Come and have a listen to what a really good car sounds like.” By then, he was the proud owner of a secondhand 250 SE Mercedes-Benz and the preferred mechanic for the diplomatic community in Lusaka. He was given the honorific Madhala, Old Man!

Twenty-two years after I saw Dawood in Lusaka, I got a call telling me he had passed away. Memories of him and his life flooded, and then faded, as the years went on. I felt his presence, though, even more strongly once I sat down to write my last monograph. I too began my project as he had done his, by analyzing the problems resolved so far, before identifying the issues left unaddressed, which ultimately led me to devise methods to tackle these, with data parts new and old. The resulting narrative, like his repaired cars, was road worthy: solid enough to advance the scholarly narrative and safe enough to take you to places real and imagined.

Twenty-two years after Dawood died, I got a Porsche 997.2 Sports Carrera Convertible: 3.8-liter direct fuel-injected engine, stick-shift manual, in gunmetal gray with black interior. A new pair of bespoke gloves arrived three months later, and one day a pair of finely designed matte black and red canisters from Japan were waiting in the mail, one for coffee and one for water, one to match the interior, the other to match the red brake calipers, both with gunmetal tops to match the body paint. My life was complete now. I was a historian inspired by Dawood and others, with a thoroughbred steed, ready for drives on California highways.

Dawood was my father!

Mustafah Dhada is a professor of African history at California State University, Bakersfield. He is the winner of the AHA’s 2017 Martin A. Klein Prize in African History for The Portuguese Massacre of Wiriyamu in Colonial Mozambique, 1964–2013 (Bloomsbury).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.