An Interview with author Nitin Nanji – Lalji’s Nairobi

An Interview with author Nitin Nanji – Lalji’s Nairobi

Akhila Saroha: I would like to begin by congratulating you on the publication of “Lalji’s Nairobi.” What were the events that led to the idea of writing it?

Nitin Nanji: Thank you. I have always wanted to write from an early age. This particular story I had in my mind since I was in high school. Then education, career and life intervened, and I finally got around to it after retirement.

Akhila Saroha: As a title, “Lalji’s Nairobi” makes the readers wander at different levels about its significance and validity. Did you have any alternative titles in mind? How did you come up with this as the title?

Nitin Nanji: ‘Lalji’ is a typical name amongst Gujaratis of that time. The book is about him as a young economic migrant and a refugee from colonial excesses in India.

‘Nairobi’ is where he made his mark against all the odds. He did it his way. In the end he ends up owning a large chunk of Nairobi.

In a sense the two words encapsulate the main narrative.

Akhila Saroha: How easy or difficult was it for you to decide the placement of the pace of the text and ensure that the readers would also feel connected to it in “Lalji’s Nairobi”?

Nitin Nanji: I am not consciously aware that I did that. When you write with emotional connection, many things come naturally. It should ‘feel right’ for the story and be able to connect with the audience.

Akhila Saroha: The book breaks ground by exploring subjects that make it unique in itself. Please share about your past experiences in literary writing as well as your future plans in writing.

Nitin Nanji: ‘Lalji’s Nairobi’ is my first novel. It had a long incubation period in my mind over the years and I enjoyed seeing it come alive in words. My original manuscript was longer, and I edited out some characters who were also unique but would have distracted from the core story. I have not decided on my next project yet, although I am encouraged by reviews asking for more from me in the future. 

Akhila Saroha: Did you have any particular audience in mind while writing “Lalji’s Nairobi”? Which was it?

Nitin Nanji: That’s an interesting question. I knew it would appeal to audiences in India, East Africa and Britain. My knowledge of the three places was helpful to web in subtle nuances and also tackle head on some of the cultural differences which separate people from different backgrounds.

I practised as a doctor in London most of my professional life. Talking and listening to patients from all backgrounds for over 30 years enabled me to understand human nature in more depth. I find human communication fascinating and cultural differences and similarities intriguing. I have learnt over the years there are more similarities than differences between people.

Akhila Saroha: “Lalji’s Nairobi” has a strong significance on the personal and social levels. Was prose the first format of writing that came to your mind to give words to your expression? Would you like to try the same with poetry as well?

Nitin Nanji: I would be completely useless at poetry! So yes, it had to be prose.

Akhila Saroha: “Lalji’s Nairobi” has given a powerful introduction to your potential as a writer. How was the journey of the book in the making?

Nitin Nanji: Generally straightforward. I started to write during the first pandemic lockdown in London, having researched before everything closed. I hired a manuscript reader when I finished. She did not connect with the story, and I realised I had picked the wrong reader. She was good with the technicalities, but I knew better the strengths of ‘Lalji’s Nairobi,’ especially because the story was unique.

I realised then that a traditional route to publishing would lead to compromises and edits that would not sit well with me. Mine was an unusual story, set in colonial times written from the point of view of those ruled by the conquerors. I could not allow the story to be adulterated or doctored by the preferences of agents or publishers. Their agenda is to have a product that sells to the market they know. Hence, self-publishing was my way, and I am grateful this route exists for writers, especially those from backgrounds poorly represented in the publishing world.

Akhila Saroha: “Lalji’s Nairobi” also features a variety of people playing different roles. How easy or difficult was it for you to write about them and remain unbiased and not let the readers’ thoughts be influenced?

Nitin Nanji: That is so astute of you! The nature of the story had to have many characters and as I said earlier, I had to edit out some characters as otherwise Lalji would have got lost amongst them. My life in cosmopolitan London, talking to patients every day, understanding their fears and hopes shaped my experience of different peoples. I guess it is about being able to relate to people but also understanding that each human culture has its own similar set of insecurities and ambitions.

Akhila Saroha: “Lalji’s Nairobi” features a plot that develops swiftly and still manages to keep the readers involved. How did you ensure that the readership would remain involved throughout?

Nitin Nanji: You are quite right. Had it been a straight novel it might have come across as opinionated, a definite turn-off. That is where the history and press quotes in the novel lend evidence and context. The history which we learnt in Kenya was written by the conquerors’, something India is becoming quite aware of. Interpretation of history and events can be very suspect. It needs re-examining through fresh eyes looking through and questioning the evidence and assumptions. Readers are telling me they did not realise some of the things they read in ‘Lalji’s Nairobi,’ even after spending their life in East Africa. 

For example, one of the biggest inaccuracies in East African history is assuming all Indians there are descended from those who came originally to build the railway. The truth is the railway workers, mostly from Punjab, were indentured (bonded) labourers and the majority returned to India. It was the ancient Gujarat-Swahili Coast connection that ensured that the larger waves of traders came after the railway was built. These new migrants set up the infrastructure of the colony when Britain was desperate for their skills.

Akhila Saroha: In the present time, the ideas in “Lalji’s Nairobi” do not find much mention. What, according to you, could be the possible reason for that?

Nitin Nanji: All new revelations take time to be accepted. The world is now ready to examine the excesses of slavery, colonisation and oppression carried out under the guise of privilege and using military power. That includes most European powers who were headed essentially by royal cousins vying for more colonies.

People are calling out for apologies for slavery and the return of the contents of museums of the West to their countries of origin. Logically, this should lead to admitting that colonising people and their lands was also morally wrong, and must not be forgotten as a dark chapter of human history. We recognise Hitler’s holocaust, but say precious little about the genocides in the ex-colonies preceding that.

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