Thursday, 18 February 2021

Kololo Hill by Neema Shah

Kololo Hill by Neema Shah
Published by Picador today, the 18th February 2021.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When you’re left with nothing but your secrets, how do you start again?

Uganda 1972

A devastating decree is issued: all Ugandan Asians must leave the country in ninety days. They must take only what they can carry, give up their money and never return.

For Asha and Pran, married a matter of months, it means abandoning the family business that Pran has worked so hard to save. For his mother, Jaya, it means saying goodbye to the house that has been her home for decades. But violence is escalating in Kampala, and people are disappearing. Will they all make it to safety in Britain and will they be given refuge if they do?

And all the while, a terrible secret about the expulsion hangs over them, threatening to tear the family apart. 

From the green hilltops of Kampala, to the terraced houses of London, Neema Shah’s extraordinarily moving debut Kololo Hill explores what it means to leave your home behind, what it takes to start again, and the lengths some will go to protect their loved ones.

Kololo Hill focuses on Idi Amin's expulsion of Asian families from Uganda in the early 1970s. It's set around the same time as The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumba and shows a very different side of Ugandan life. We see how an Indian family have their lives turned upside-down by Amin's decree. He does not consider them to be Ugandans even though Jaya and her husband, Motichand, have lived and worked in the country for decades. Not even their eldest son, Pran, born there and in possession of a Ugandan passport, escapes the ruling. Shah tells the family's story through three characters: elderly Jaya, Jaya's daughter-in-law, Asha, and Jaya's younger son, Vijay. I was particularly fascinated by the relationship between Jaya and Asha which illustrates not only a wide generation gap but also shows how far Ugandan Indians have diverged from their parents' culture. Jaya has always followed a traditional way of life for Indian women of her class and caste, keeping herself in her husband's shadow, whereas as Asha, brought up in Uganda culture, expects the right to speak and that her opinions should be acknowledged. Neither woman is equipped for the situation in which they find themselves, but I loved how Shah plays them off each other as they struggle through.

Asha's husband, Pran, provides much of the story's drive which is a little strange because, as readers, we don't get to hear his voice directly. As he and Asha are newly married, she often doesn't understand this secretive man either so their lack of connection often causes more problems. Kololo Hill is as much about this family's interpersonal relationships as it is about the outside situation in Uganda and I felt the almost claustrophobic sense of them being trapped together worked very well to add atmosphere to the story. It's even more effective once some of the family arrive in England, others having been lost along the way.

I remember seeing old newsreel footage of dozens of expelled Ugandans arriving at one of the London airports, obviously bewildered and certainly not dressed warmly enough for the weather. Shah managed to put me right into the middle of that moment, and into the months that follow as these refugees attempt to rebuild their lives from scratch having had to leave practically all their possessions behind. Kololo Hill really brought home to me just how traumatic such an upheaval was, and still is for the people going through similar experiences today.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Neema Shah / Historical fiction / Books from England

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