Mullah Mjanja / A New Novel
I had known Mjanja (an alias, naturally) almost fifty years ago, from my time growing up in Tanga in the seventies. Mjanja means shrewd in Kiswahili. This is a title our friends gave him because he used to be cunning with his teachers, friends, and foes, getting away with daring pranks with the aid of a glib tongue. Mama would clobber my behind at home with her favorite belt if I tried the same mischief. We were good friends, attending daily madressa in the evenings and spending time together during weekends and holidays. He attended St. Joseph’s Secondary School while I went to Popatlal. It was normal for Mjanja to sleep over at my place sometimes and to be seen at our dinner table, having meals. I also got to know his family – his cranky, overly protective mother, and his two sisters, who treated me like another brother. Mjanja was a typical teenager in those days, like me, trying to impress (usually the fairer gender) by growing hippie-type hair, and wearing impossibly tall platform shoes and uncomfortable bell-bottom trousers, fashioned after Bollywood actors.
Mjanja’s behavior changed one fine day, almost overnight. Where he used to be a terror at school and madressa, and the teachers hated and despaired of him, he was suddenly the ideal community son. He chopped off his overflowing scalp hair, sprouted a fledgling beard, and donned a white prayer topi, something he previously hated and disdained. He became regular in prayers, with impeccable manners during salaat. The community elders proudly alluded to this behavior as the ideal example of a teenager that his other friends, and I, in particular, resented and hated. So, just to be mean, I added the title Mullah to the Mjanja and he became Mullah Mjanja. The title stuck, at least for his friends. Then, a couple of years later, I migrated to Dubai, a stepping stone for many of my generation, and then onward to the United States and we lost touch.
Mulla Mjanja resurfaces in my life recently in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I am temporarily located due to many Africa and neighboring CAI projects which need constant attention. I am ecstatic to hear from my long-lost friend and readily accept a dinner invite to his house not too far away from where I live.
A man is standing at the dim 4th-floor elevator of the building lobby when I get off, giving me a startling fright. It’s Mullah Mjanja, waiting to receive and greet me. I know fifty years can change people, but I am taken aback by his appearance. He looks much aged than sixty-eight and is stooped, like someone much older. Unlike me, he has retained his hair which is totally white. Since there is so much to catch up on, we sit in his comfortable living room and are lost in talk for quite a while as dinner is getting ready to be served by his wife and housemaids.
Mullah Mjanja is married and has three children, all married with their offspring. Diabetes, three stents to unblock his clogged heart and hypertension ails him, however. That does not stop him from tucking into a heap of greasy biryani rice and chunks of mutton, after downing three deep-fried beef samosas laced with a fiery coconut and pilipili mbuzi chutney. Followed by the inevitable Khoja elaichi-laced Rajab kheer and poori for dessert.
Mullah Mjanja has retained his religious transformation from yesteryears, sprouting an all-white beard and a mark on his forehead from years of prostration. He lives a comfortable life of affluence, thanks to his move to Dar es Salaam from Tanga and establishing a business in hardware. He has, however, a list of grievances. Government officials are corrupt, the business has slowed down considerably, too much competition, margins are down, gaggas and karias (a viciously derogatory Khoja term for black people) are biting into the trade once only in the domain of the fair-skinned. I look at him sharply, stunned by the utterly racist comment. He does not seem to realize the ugliness of his ignorant comment. I feel so sad. And mad. The rest of the time I spend at his place disintegrates with Mullah Mjanja putting down the people he makes his money from, accusing them of being lazy, ignorant, and always on the lookout for aid. Much to his surprise and disappointment, I leave immediately after I have a half-hearted meal, my appetite ruined by such a religious yet repugnant mindset.
A New Novel
The manuscript of my new novel (my fourth), Two Blue And Gold Diamond Earrings is in deep trouble – it’s awfully late. If I do not complete the manuscript by May 31, 2023, my editor will fire me, something I want to avoid at all costs. As you may know, the proceeds of all my novels go to support the educational needs of about 770 CAI-sponsored global orphans; I take no gain from the sales of the book. This funding is critical for the education of our orphans.
I’ll occasionally post excerpts from the novel for your reading pleasure, tempting you to purchase a copy or two or more. Even if you are not a fiction reader, or do not particularly care for my writing, please consider pre-purchasing a copy or two (they can be a nice gift?) for the future of our orphans – click here to buy, priced at a modest US$50. Allah bless.