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'Nairobi attack is a blow, but we will come out stronger'

September 25, 2013 19:05 IST

Recalling her visit to Nairobi,’s Anita Katyal speaks to a Gujarati businessman she met on her trip, who says he is shaken by the incident but indomitable.           

“This is indeed a huge tragedy for all Kenyans but we cannot allow the terrorists to scare us. I’ll go back to Westgate Mall for coffee as I did earlier once the place is open,” remarked Manu Shah, a Gujarati businessman, who has been living in Nairobi since 1937 when his father brought him to Kenya’s capital as a child from Jamnagar.

I met Manubhai when I went to Kenya earlier in May on a holiday. When I first heard about the terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall, I immediately thought about all the people I had met in the course of that unforgettable vacation.

I thought about my cousins -- Poonam and John -- whose warm hospitality made the holiday so memorable. I thought about my nephew Joshua, who would spend hours with his friends at Art Cafe, a popular coffee place on the first floor of the mall.  Mercifully, his older siblings -- Sasha and Tanya -- were away at a university in the US.

My thoughts also went to Manubhai who had hosted me over a cup of coffee at a charming restaurant La Rustique, barely a five minute drive from Westgate Mall. We had chatted amiably about how his father came to Nairobi as a trader, and then went on to import and eventually manufacture iron and steel. Manubhai today heads a multi-million dollar conglomerate.

In fact, after our two-hour-long talk about the enterprising Indian Diaspora in Kenya, Manubhai had dropped me off at the Westgate Mall since my cousin had recommended that I visit it at least once. In addition to the regular shops, the mall also had several vendors selling Kenyan crafts in the atrium.

I remembered the charming young salesgirl who helped me make up my mind when she found I was undecided about a bag I wished to purchase. Each time I carry that bag now, memories about the Westgate Mall, Nairobi, and its wonderful people come rushing back.

When I called up Manubhai (after speaking to my cousins and confirming they were fine) during the stand-off between the terrorists and the security forces, I thought he would be feeling low and depressed. On the contrary, he did not allow himself to be put down by the horrific incident. 

“I admit this attack is a big psychological blow to all Kenyans…a big trauma.  But we have to carry on. I am sure we will come out of it stronger or else life will come to a standstill. We can’t let that happen,” he said.

As I listened to Manubhai’s calm yet forceful response to the terrorist attack, I realised that it was this “can do” spirit which has been driving the Indian community in Kenya. Most Indians came here either as labourers or traders in the mid 19th century but now run big business houses in the country.

Primarily from Punjab and Gujarat, the 90,000-strong Indian community has become an intrinsic part of Kenyan society. Its presence is inescapable. You cannot miss the 30-odd temples dotted across Nairobi while Diamond Plaza (the equivalent of Queens in New York and Southall in London) is a must on every visiting Indian’s itinerary. The mall has its share of Indian eating places, selling everything from khandvi to tandoori chicken, sari shops, jewellery stores and tailoring outfits for the mandatory sari blouses and salwar kurtas.

Manubhai tells me with great pride about how the Indian community is accepted, recognised and respected by the locals. “Our views are taken seriously by the authorities,” he says, adding that not only do the Indians run some of the major business houses in Kenya but also hold important positions in universities, government, banking, medical sector and the judiciary. In fact, the biggest supermarket -- Nakumatt, which has a branch in Westgate Mall, where the terrorists eventually holed up -- is owned by an Indian.

If the Kenyans have embraced Indians, the latter have also sought to identify with its adopted country. Indian festivals are celebrated at the various community centres, temples, gurdwaras, while Indian weddings here are said to be straight out of a Bollywood movie.

Manubhai tells me how the Indian community pitched in during the terrorist attack. For instance, the Oshwal community centre, located near the Westgate Mall and run by Indians, became a nerve-centre for doctors from the Red Cross and soldiers. “The Centre was open the whole night on Saturday, the day the attack took place, while 9,000-10,000 meals were served during the next few days,” he said.

As Manubhai speaks about Kenya, it is difficult to miss the deep affection he feels for the country. But that is understandable. It was the same for me -- I fell in love with the place even as I was driving down from the airport on a chilly-misty morning to my cousin’s place in a Nairobi suburb.

The downtown area is like any other city -- crowded streets, traffic jams and towering buildings -- but the beauty unfolds as you drive towards the suburbs and out of Nairobi. The British-style homes, lush foliage, the flowers, the wide open savannah, the glimpse of a giraffe and zebra on the roadside, the thrill of spotting a lion, hippo and rhino. It is sheer magic.  

The weather, pleasant through the year, with the temperature never crossing 25 degrees C.  All the warnings about  the poor law and order situation pale into insignificance as one savours the beauty of the place and the warmth of its gentle and charming people.  

It is indeed a wrench to leave the place. In fact, I was yearning to return even as I was winging my way home after a blissful two-week holiday.

I am determined to go back for a visit and like Manubhai, I will not be deterred by the terrorist attack. And I will make it a point to drop in at the Westgate Mall for a coffee and for that special cappuccino cake served at Art Cafe.

Image: Kenya Defence Forces soldiers are seen in windows as they comb the rooftop of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi

Photographs: Noor Khamis/Reuters

Anita Katyal in New Delhi