Uganda and triggered observations.

Author:Baker, Robert

RajatNeogy declared himself referee and demanded a formal exchange of insults contest between Paul Theroux and me. It was the fag end of a very Scotch evening in Rajat's cluttered, dusty living room up in the green hills of Kampala. Brimming ashtrays and empty beer bottles lay on tables and chairs. Everyone was gone except the three of us. Rajatgrinned a brilliant grin as he scribbled down his insult scores as Paul and I exchanged jibes. He grinned and goaded us on. We drank some more. Rajat declared that I had won. Paul was briefly sullen but we had another drink and he came around. Paul is smarter than I but had likely drunk more. We staggered out, leaving Rajat as the rising sun peeped through his windows.

Rajat in 1966 was the Indian editor of Transition, Africa's only literary magazine in English, not run by Europeans. Rajat published most of Africa's leading writers and many from Europe and the U.S. Paul was then an impecunious English teacher living in a bachelor flat at Makerere University and a commercially unsuccessful novelist. I was Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer at the dusty, run-down American Cultural Center and Library on Kampala Road.

Married with a wife and two little kids, I was at my first Foreign Service post in 1966. I had met Paul when I overheard him ask my African librarian if he could borrow some 16mm films about American writers. The librarian told him we had none. I stepped to the counter and handed Paul the list of our film holdings which I had just compiled. It included about a dozen documentaries on American writers. That led to our friendship.

Uganda's President, Milton Apollo Obote, was beginning to dump the democratic institutions left behind by the British colonial power. Tribal warfare had already broken out, but I was there during an historical pause in Uganda's national decline into a decade of bloody chaos. Hundreds of thousands were killed before the current authoritarian regime restored a semblance of democratic order. The recent discovery of oil in Uganda raises hope for Uganda's future, or at least, for the future of its rulers.

Like Paul and myself, Rajat came from an odd background. His parents were among Uganda's Brahmin, middle-class Indians. They raised him like a prince. He was the mango of his mother's eye, as I was the apple of mine.

We were all about 30 years old; Rajat and I had gorgeous wives. Paul was single but found love with "banana women" on his bachelor quarters floor. They carried stalks of bananas over their shoulders and peddled them door to door. Rajat had detatched his American wife from her husband, an American pediatrician doing research at Makerere Hospital. Rajat was strikingly handsome and previously had sired a couple of children by a wife in India. Years later in California, after his wife divorced him, he went on to additional love affairs as part of his sad decline into acute alcoholism.

When Uganda became independent, Rajat deliberately gave up his U.K. passport to demonstrate allegiance to the new African nation. Very few did that. That patriotic act served him ill when the government jailed him for a year in solitary for his very mild criticism in Transition. The then President of Uganda, Milton Apollo Obote, strongly favored his own tribe and clan in giving out jobs in the Army and Government service. Rajat alluded to that practice mildly during Obote's drawn out dismantling of Ugandan democracy. Obote had won in Uganda's last free election. He correctly foresaw that...

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