It’s a classic family portrait; black and white, children standing obediently to attention while their younger siblings look shyly towards the camera. The father, his white turban and dark beard, cuts a striking figure at the head of the group, one of the four children proudly clasped to his hips. The mother, resplendent in her salwar kameez and with her children around her, smiles like the Mona Lisa, the baby of the family in her arms.
In the 1950s, when the photograph was taken, the Jandoos were one of the most prosperous families in the Ugandan town of Masaka. Studio portraits were commonplace at the time.
Nearly all the families who belong to the Ugandan Asian Diaspora have either a collection of photographs or a series of tired-looking but carefully-preserved albums in which their past is visually documented.
Photographs were one of the few things that were not confiscated by Idi Amin’s military as the Asian community reluctantly and with heavy hearts checked out through Entebbe Airport in October 1972. Anything else that carried a hint of monetary worth was taken and, according to Amin’s decree, was the rightful property of Uganda. Photographs though, had no value whatsoever to the regime, they were relics of a past they were all too eager to expunge.
Glancing through the family album, Gurbax Jandoo reflects on her old life in 1960s Masaka. Now in her 70s, widowed and living with her children and grandchildren, Gurbax is painfully aware of how isolated she has become, from her former community and from the past. With the Diaspora scattered across England, Canada, America, Pakistan and Austria, there is no binding community structure. People don’t care like they used to, she laments.
She and Tarsem had been inseparable, united through arranged married, bound to each other by an unfaltering sense of mutual respect and love. Gurbax was just 14 and Tarsem 17 when they married. The only time they were apart during 40 years was when Tarsem was incarcerated for 13 days and Gurbax was forced to go into hiding.
Generational shifts & overlaps
The album from which the family portrait is taken is part of a set of five that were hastily packed into one of the two suitcases they were allowed to ship to the UK before they left. The cases still stand in a corner of their Essex home, a 1930s semi that’s a far cry from the expansive six-bedroomed purpose-built dream home they had in Masaka.
Some similarities though have been retrospectively imposed. A talented engineer turned carpenter, Tarsem redesigned the living rooms that adjoin two originally separate bungalows so the extended family could live as one. They had only lived in the original Masaka version for two years before they were forced to leave it all behind, structure, contents and all.
Gurbax recalls the garden of their home in Masaka being so big that she learned to drive in the grounds surrounding the house — the same grounds where Amin’s soldiers knocked her to the ground when they came looking for her husband.
Family was, and is, the pillar of Ugandan Asian life, in every sense of the word, not just the blood ties, but the bonds between families and the people they employed, in the family business and in the home.
For Tarsem, charity and compassion was a cornerstone of that familial set-up, and it extended beyond the borders of the house, the village, the town.
It was for this reason that he was so widely respected and loved in Masaka, where Sikhs lived beside Muslims lived beside Gujaratis lived beside Ugandans beside Hindus. Not only had he worked tirelessly with siblings and neighbours to establish a successful business empire, Tarsem had also forged links between the multitude of communities and cultures that once populated East Africa.
Like many of the first generation of Asian migrants from India and Pakistan, Tarsem’s family had moved to Africa as economic migrants, building up a successful enterprise, the Masaka Welding Engineering Works, employing hundreds of workers across several welding workshops and a furniture factory in Masaka.
They traded with everyone, including members of all political factions — soldiers of Obote and Amin’s fraternity, as well as those of no alliance. Unbeknown to Tarsem, this unconditional integration was viewed far from positively by Amin’s government. The fact that Tarsem had sold goods to Obote’s men — Amin’s enemies — was enough of an excuse for Amin to consider Tarsem a threat to the new order.
On the night they came looking for him, five jeeps of soldiers came to the house and barged their way in. They held a gun to Gurbax’s head and hit her with the butt of a rifle on her back, an injury she still suffers the consequences of today, physically and psychologically.
They ransacked the house, took the family gold and were especially careful to take Tarsem’s hunting rifles — having an armed community in his midst was a threat to Amin, far better to leave them defenceless.
Tarsem was eventually tracked down at one of his workshops, violently captured and taken imprisoned in a dugout in the middle of nowhere, where he was held and repeatedly tortured for 13 days.
In the meantime, Gurbax, fearing for her family’s safety, had taken the children into hiding. Soldiers would regularly patrol the streets, on the lookout for anyone they suspected of harbouring those they believed to be serving Obote’s affront to Amin’s position. Even women gathered in their neighbourhoods preparing chapatis were a target. Gurbax remembers seeing the soldiers disbanding a group of women in the street. Slowly but surely, Amin was fracturing the bonds of the East Asian community.
Tarsem was ultimately rescued after a friend of a neighbouring Muslim family, Nazir Mughal, tracked him down, begging and bribing soldiers along the way. When they found him, Tarsem’s left foot was severed, he had been beaten to within an inch of his life and could barely walk. He would later tell his children that on the day he was rescued, he came back from death.
Days later, Amin made the now infamous announcement that all Asians were to leave Uganda immediately. With Nazir’s help, Tarsem managed to board one of the British Colombia flights that left Entebbe on 1 October 1972. His first step onto British soil was one full of every kind of anguish.
Arriving in the UK, like many other Ugandan Asians, Tarsem found that his previous experience and success stood for little. Work was hard to come by in 1970s Britain, lesser still for people who could not prove their qualifications or employment record.
“It was really difficult for him,” recalls their youngest daughter, Amrit. “He was used to being the boss in Africa, having everything done for him, he had never been the worker. He never resented it and he was always thankful for the help he got in the UK but he wasn’t happy here. This was the rat race, there was no time for anything to be done with care or loyalty or passion.”
Tarsem worked hard to find a job, eventually taking up a post at the local council and later building a new business as a carpenter.
Tarsem returned to Uganda several times in all before his death in 1994. On his last trip in 1982, he found his former house keepers, who had seemingly kept a silent vigil for him, old photos on their mantelpieces. Amrit accompanied her father on that visit. Even though she was just six when they originally left in 1972,memories of the airport and the streets came back to her when they landed in Entebbe.
The pair visited the Gurdwara in Masaka that Tarsem had helped to build, within the foundations of which is a carving of a moon and a sickle, the symbols of the Pakistani flag, laid by a Muslim associate and symbolising the perfect unity with which Muslims and Sikhs lived side by side.
“Somehow my subconscious mind knew the whereabouts of our home, the temple, and Dad’s workshop,” recalls Amrit. “I remember some of the people crying with joy on seeing my Dad and one showing him a photo of him and our family. He also said he knew Dad would come back one day.
“For me that visit was very emotional, to see the goodness my Dad left behind. He was a very kind person, that’s the legacy that connects and grounds me. Uganda has a big part in that connection, even though it’s geographically distant, the bond remains just as strong.”