In a few days I will be able to share some of my experience in Alipore with my father. I know he is anxious to see my pictures and to hear me tell of the place we have talked about all these years.
There are many other Lahers in South Africa and elsewhere who can trace their roots to Alipore. Just recently I came across a site that hosted queries by folks who wanted to trace the Laher name to Alipore. This is the now tarred street where generations of Lahers lived and still live.
I feel settled with my 'return' to Alipore. There are some misgivings about things I should of looked for, like the graves of my great-grandparents, and maybe other living relatives. But intellectually, and this aspect is really more present in my being, I have looked at what is and pieced together what may have been.
I have written below in a previous post that I did not spend too much time in Alipore, or rather Lahermolla, the suburb where my great-granfather lived and died. I know only sketchy details about his life in Alipore. It is said that he was the first to travel to South Africa. He may have left before or around the time that Gandhi went to live in South Africa. What I do know is that he did not stay. He returned to Alipore and his son, my grandfather, went to live in South Africa.
I was told that he lived to be more than 100 and that he died in our family house. I was very surprised to find furniture in the house that belonged to him. The floor is exactly as it was when he lived there.
The beams in the house are also the ones he had installed in what must be close to two centuries now. No changes can be made to the house because it apparently is held in trust by the surviving sons (my father and three brothers). It is, however, apparent that the house and its surroundings need to be refurbished.
This is three generations of the Patel family who now live in the house. Mr. Patel and his son, Mustapha, also administer land that still belongs to my family. I visited them in ramadaan and was grateful to have the opportunity to look around the house and the land. Mr. Patel told me that he wanted to make some changes to the house but he needed an OK from my family. I would not even know where to start on that issue.
Mustapha and I rode around on his motorcycle to see some of the land held in trust. There is probably more land than even my father and his brothers realize. At one point I asked Mustapha who the people were who lived on some of the land. He said "they are black people who have worked for your family for generations." I was caught off-guard for a moment and realized he meant that they were so-called 'lower-caste' people. Mustapha had lived in South Africa for a period in the nineties so he was familiar with some of the socio-political categories we labor under.
I talked to my dad about these people and he agreed that the land belongs to them. Of course, he may have some say in the matter, but there are others too. I also regret that I did not speak to any of them directly. My regret comes also with the admission that I did not want to feel like an intruder. Or worse, a representative of a past belonging that is only tied to me by virtue of name.
My great-grandmother, Amina, grew up just three houses to the left of where my great-grandfather lived. This is a picture of what is left of her family house. I looked inside and there was nothing but the shell of the outer walls.
Like I said above, my grandfather is the one who left India permanently for South Africa (he died at 40 when a drunk driver smashed into his car). I do not know when and why my grandfather left for South Africa. My grandmother, Ayesha, grew up just across the street from where my grandfather lived. This is a picture of what remains of her family house. She never returned to her family or Alipore after leaving for South Africa. She was handicapped by the accident that killed my grandfather but lived long enough to hold me in her arms. She passed before my late sister Natasha was born.
Across from where my family lived and died is a recently rebuilt mosque. I have been told that the mosque sits on some land donated by my family. Unfortunately I do not know any of the details.
A ways down the road is this shell of what was supposed to be an Islamic learning center and madressa for the Muslim kids of Alipore. The donors were South African. I was told that they began building the structure without the necessary paperwork from the Gujarat authorities. So, the construction was stopped and now the donors do not seem interested in pursuing the project anymore. I can only imagine the bureacracy that must be involved.
For my father and his brothers the question of what to do with all the land left to them by my great-grandfather and grandfather is a matter that must be settled. The land sits in an around a very busy highway corridor that runs between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. I have been told that the land is very valuable and both the government and developers are eager to buy.
I don't know how all that is going to pan out.
My heritage is in the stories and places I have seen. Some remarkable people lived in Alipore and some remarkable people still live there. The story continues even when they and I are not listening. It would be wonderful if the land is ceded to the bigger story of justice. But my hands are not tied to matters of capital and in the end the story of the land may be one that is too familiar.