Manu M Savani: Incredible Family Story by an Accidental Writer

Newly released author Manu M. Savani has shown that it’s never too late to pursue a new passion or dream.

Born in Mombasa, Kenya, the 80-year-old now lives in America and has just written his first book Jambo, Samji Kala. His first serious work since a PhD at Oxford Brookes University in England in the 1960s is the incredible true story of his father, Mohanlal Kala Savani, who was one of over 32,000 migrant workers brought to East Africa from British India from the 1890s .

Using detailed text and old family photos, he tells the story of an impoverished immigrant with a rudimentary education who landed in Kenya as a teenager in 1918 and built a thriving business that included importing the first Indian silent films to East Africa in the 1920s and building cinema chains. It charts the rise of a visionary-turned-movie mogul, textile and cotton mega-merchant, industrialist, real estate developer, and philanthropist, while showing how settlers laid the groundwork for future generations of Native Americans in East Africa.

Eastern Eye caught up with the Southern California-based writer, who was himself an Indian film distribution pioneer in the US, to talk about his debut book and his inspirational father.

Jambo, Samji Kala is a detailed account of your father’s extraordinary life. How long did it take to write the book?
I started writing my manuscript as a family journal in 2019, but then stopped collecting information and writing for over a year. During the pandemic, I started writing again in late 2020 and finished the manuscript in late 2021. I would say it took me about 18 months to write as it wasn’t my full time job.

His book

What was the biggest challenge in writing?
The greatest challenge was collecting data and records, since no family member had ever written diaries or collected photos. Most of the family members had settled abroad and everyone thought the family home had kept the photos and 8mm film. There was no video back then, so the family would capture special events and occasions on 8mm film. I started looking, but unfortunately they are not found. Luckily we found old photos which I included in the book.

Did you learn anything new while writing this book?
Yes, I learned a lot about my father Mohanlal Kala Savani (popularly known as Samji Kala), his struggles and success. I also learned about the ordeal he and other immigrants faced in a new country. He turned his ordeals into opportunities through hard work, absolute dedication and a zeal to succeed in business. When he landed in Mombasa, Kenya, in 1918 at the age of 18, he had only a primary education and empty pockets. I also learned that life in colonial East Africa in the early 20th century was fraught with hardship for the Asian community.

What do you admire most about your father’s story?
The journey of his life. He ended up in Mombasa, where most people hadn’t even seen a photograph in 1918, but he dreamed of introducing motion pictures. When he left India he had seen the great success of Dada Saheb Phalke’s silent films. In 1922 he managed to import an Indian silent film. At the same time, he imported a hand-cranked 35mm projector to fulfill his dream of introducing films and building cinemas. He was successful. The rest is now history. What I admire most about my father’s life journey was that he remained humble throughout his life.

What kind of readers do you hope to connect with this book?
I hope to connect with the new generation of immigrants in each country. The life and times of Samji Kala will be an inspiration not only to future generations but to all young people of today. Where there is a will, there’s a way.

Mohanlal Kala Savani

Do you have a favorite moment or time in his journey?
Not one moment, but many! He expanded into the textile business in East Africa, first buying from local suppliers and then importing textiles on a large scale. Eventually, it imported millions of yards of textiles and became a leader in raw cotton exports from Uganda and Tanganyika. He became a leading textile manufacturer.

How important is it to keep stories like your father’s alive?
It is important that people know what Asians have done for East African society. In doing business, the philanthropy and contribution of people like Mohanlal Kala Savani is often forgotten. Before him were Asians like Allidina Visram, AM Jivanji and Saif Bin Salim and many others.

You published your first book when you were 80. Will you write more books?
I consider myself an accidental writer as I had never aspired to be a writer before. This book started as a family diary, became a biography, and finally a book! I don’t know what the reaction will be when people read it. If you ask me that in six months, I’ll answer your question better. Until then, whatever will be, will be!

What books do you like to read?
I’m a movie buff! I read everything and everyone about the movie business. Be it Hollywood or Bollywood. Since 1968 I have been working as an Indian film distributor in the USA and Canada. Fortunately, at this point, my hobby became my profession.

Why should we pick up this book?
To get to know the extraordinary path of an ordinary man to reach the pinnacle of success worldwide – be it in textile, cotton, real estate development, in hotels, in industry, in film distribution or in the development of cinema chains.

Jambo, Samji Kala is published by Notion Press and is available now

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