Rajat Neogy, the founder and first editor of Transition Magazine, who was arrested in Kampala 50 years ago this week, would have turned 80 this year. His personal story has been overshadowed by his remarkable work with his magazine. Except for the obituaries and memorials that were published in The New York Times, The Independent (London) and Transition, we have not been able to find any published detailed account of Neogy’s life.
Extensive reading of contemporaneous newspaper reports, as well as commentaries in Transition and elsewhere has enabled me to put together a preliminary portrait. Reading through all the 44 issues of Transition that he edited has refreshed my memory and, with the generous assistance of his daughter Tayu Neogy and her mother Barbara Neogy Lapcek, I have filled in many gaps in Rajat Neogy’s inadequately documented journey.
Neogy’s arrest and imprisonment in 1968 was a turning point. That’s where we must begin. At almost 85 years of age Barbara Neogy Lapcek, his wife at the time, retains a vivid memory of the traumatising and disruptive events that followed her husband’s incarceration.
Barbara, who now lives in New York City, recalls that Friday October 18, 1968 was a very hot day in Kampala. Her husband was supposed to have been arrested before dawn that morning, along with Abubakar Kakyama Mayanja, a 39-year-old lawyer and parliamentarian whose article and a subsequent letter to the editor Neogy had published in Transition Numbers 32 and 37, respectively.
The heavily armed soldiers of the paramilitary Special Force had been instructed to arrest Mayanja and “the editor.” They had picked up Mayanja and Daniel Nelson, the editor of The People, the government weekly newspaper of the day. The two men had been thoroughly beaten before the error was discovered. Nelson was released, with apologies for the “small mistake.”
Later that morning, six men in civilian suits raided Transition’s small office in Baumann House, located at Number 7 Obote Avenue (now Parliament Avenue) in Kampala. After rummaging through Neogy’s things, they arrested him under the Emergency Powers Act which allowed detention without charges or trial. Buganda Kingdom, where Kampala is located, had been under a State of Emergency since May 1966.
Neogy was taken to the Central Police Station in Kampala, then transferred to the maximum security prison at Luzira, on the shores of Lake Nalubaale (Victoria), where he was placed in a 5.5 X 7-foot cell for total solitary confinement. Mayanja was already settled in his own solitary cell.
For 23 hours every day, eased down to 22 hours a day after the first week, Neogy stayed alone in the cell, and was not even allowed to speak to the warders and prisoners who brought him food. He was not allowed to write, but he could read strictly censored books.
During the 1-2 hours of daily “relief,” Neogy was allowed some exercise in a compound the size of a badminton court. That was his existence for 5 months in a country whose citizen he was by birth, a country whose image he had boosted with his Transition Magazine.
Transition was a first rate publication, the likes of which we have not seen again in English-speaking Africa. Neogy had done much to nurture an environment in which free intellectual discourse and a battle of ideas was beginning to be relished in our infant country. He had given equal space to the rulers and their opponents; to thinkers across the entire spectrum; to the finest literary creators and the full breadth of politics, culture and society.
It was a labour of love that Neogy and a very small group of people had turned into a platform that captivated the intellectual community around the world. Ideological contestation had found a battlefield where there would be no bloodshed.
Rajat had launched Transition at a time when the national debate was about ideas, not about the painfully trivial engagements that would dominate the national conversation in the following decades. When the contributors to Transition spoke and wrote, we listened, read and learnt.
Transition had become essential reading, even for us who were still struggling to master the English language and to understand the issues that were so masterfully argued in its pages. It ignited a passion in us for the well-written word and for balanced and civil debate.
My father invested in Transition, at a cost of Sh.2/50 an issue, in the hope that his children would learn from the masters. We did not know it then, but we subconsciously imbibed the message that if these luminaries could respectfully confront controversial issues with bold analysis and comment, so could we. The real mustard seed was planted.
So why was Neogy in prison? There is a false narrative that he was jailed because he and Transition had criticized the proposals for the 1967 Constitution. In fact, Neogy and Transition did not criticize those proposals. Not that there would have been anything wrong with that.
All that Neogy had done was to provide a forum for Mayanja to respond to an article in the previous issue of Transition (No. 36), written by Picho Ali, another lawyer who was head of Research in the Office of the President. There was nothing unusual about that, for Neogy had also published articles by people like Naphtali Akena Adoko, the head of the General Service Unit, and Apolo Milton Obote, the President of Uganda.
Abu Mayanja who, a year earlier, had written another brilliant critique of the 1967 Constitution Proposals (Transition No. 32), was jointly charged with sedition. The contentious articles, the drama of the trial of Neogy and Mayanja, and the real reason why he was incarcerated – the controversy over Transition’s indirect funding by America’s CIA- are detailed in a separate blog here.
Suffice to say that Chief Magistrate Mohammed Saied dismissed the sedition charges against the two men on February 1, 1969 and set them free. Within minutes of their freedom, they were rearrested and sent back to solitary confinement.
With a direct view of Luzira prison from her family home (House Number 164, Street name, if any, unknown) on Mbuya Hill, Barbara Neogy endured the agony of her innocent husband’s detention. However, she never relented in her efforts to get him released. She faithfully went to see President Obote in his office every Thursday. “He was always welcoming,” Barbara recalled last week.
On Thursday, March 27, 1969, Obote asked Barbara if she had any plans for the following day. When she asked him why, he replied: “You will be pleasantly surprised.”
Barbara arrived at Luzira Prison very early the next morning and found many women at the gate. They were humming rhythmically for a long time. Then the men came out, including Neogy. But Mayanja was not among them. He would not be released by Basil Kiiza Bataringaya, the Minister of Internal Affairs, until August 19, 1970. Nonetheless, it was a happy moment for Rajat Neogy and his family, although their troubles had just begun.
Neogy was a Ugandan. His parents, Sisir Kumar Neogy and his wife Sumitra, were Bengali Hindus of the Brahmin caste, sent to Uganda in 1937 by the Aga Khan to work as teachers. (The majority of Indians in Uganda were Gujaratis, Sikhs and Tamils.) The Neogys, each on a 4-year contract as school principal of (separate) Muslim Schools, settled in Kampala, where they had the first of their three children on December 17, 1938. They named him Rajat, meaning silver or courage in Hindi. Years later, he would be nicknamed Bapu.
We know that he attended a Goan school. We do not know which one at the moment. He sat for his Cambridge School Certificate at 13 years of age and was sent to the United Kingdom at the age of 14, which would have been in 1953. We do not know which school(s) he attended before entering the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1956 to read anthropology. He did not complete his studies. During his stay in England, he had a son, Gardar Larusson, with an Icelandic woman. It appears that they were not married.
In 1960, he married Charlotte Bystrom, a Swede. He worked as a scriptwriter for the British Broadcasting Corporation before returning to Uganda “for good” in June 1961. By that time his parents had migrated to Nova Scotia, Canada and his siblings – a brother called Rathin and a sister called Chitra – were attending school abroad. Neogy was now 22 years old.
Uganda’s Independence Day was around the corner, just fourteen months to go. The young man was burning with a desire to be part of the transformation of his homeland. He would offer a free medium for intellectual nourishment to the young nation, with a goal “to discuss matters of African relevance in an African context.” Besides, he had a “profound abhorrence for the idea of working set hours for someone else.”
As 1961 came to a close, Rajat had settled back home and saw his future nowhere else but Uganda. A few years later, without renouncing his British citizenship, he allowed his British passport to expire and did not renew it.
He published the first issue of Transition in November 1961. Among the featured writers in that maiden issue were Gerald Moore, the head of Extramural Studies at Makerere University College, Daudi Ocheng, a Ugandan economist and future consequential member of parliament, and Benjamin Mkapa, a final year English student at Makerere and future president of Tanzania. Other writers included university lecturers, a constitutional lawyer and a trade unionist.
What followed were another 36 issues, each presenting excellent essays, among them one simply titled “Before” by Erisa Kironde, published in issue Number 6/7 in October 1962. It is a masterpiece that illustrates why Transition took such a hold on us.
Besides an emphasis on literature and politics, Transition covered Jazz and other music, and other cultural topics on a regular basis. The list of contributors to Transition was a who-is-who in the top echelon of intellectual power and political influence. Among them were Chinua Achebe, Picho Ali, U.A. Asika, James Baldwin, Dennis Brutus, Kofi Busia, Peter Enahoro, Nadine Gordimer, Roland Hindmarsh, John Iliffe, Ivor Jennings, Kenneth Kaunda, Martin Luther King Jr., Francis Musangi, Erisa Kironde, Colin Legum, Abu Mayanja, Ali Mazrui, John Mbiti, Tom Mboya, Benjamin Mkapa, Aaron Miller, Gerald Moore, Ezekiel Mphalele, Musa T. Mushanga, John Nagenda, V. S. Naipul, Peter Nazareth, James Ngugi (wa Thiongo), Lewis Nkosi, Semei Nyanzi, Julius Nyerere, Connor Cruise O’Brien, Apolo Milton Obote, David Ocheng, Christopher Okigbo, Okot P’Bitek, Alan Rake, David Rubadiri, Wole Soyinka and Paul Theroux. This is a very limited and biased listing of those writings I have revisited in recent months. It was as though nobody could say no to Neogy’s invitation to write for Transition.
However, even as he earned national and international acclaim, Neogy was struggling with two personal challenges. First, he was a heavy drinker of alcohol, even in his early years. He was a regular at City Bar, a very popular watering hole on Kampala Road, frequented by intellectuals and other civil servants who would repair there for lunch-time refueling before returning to their endeavours in nation building.
In a March 2016 essay in American Diplomacy magazine, Robert John Baker, an American diplomat and intelligence analyst who had befriended Rajat in Uganda in 1966, recalled one night of drinking. “Rajat Neogy declared himself referee and demanded a formal exchange of insults contest between Paul Theroux and me,” Baker wrote. “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. Rajat grinned 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.”
Second, by 1965, Neogy’s marriage to Charlotte, with whom he had three children – Siddhartha a.k.a. Hero a.k.a. Gunda, Erisa and Renu – was on the rocks. He had fallen in love with Barbara Lapcek, an American artist, who had founded the Nommo Gallery in Kampala in 1964. Barbara was married to Dr. Roy E. Brown, an American paediatrician who was working at Mulago Hospital.
In Transition No. 69, Theroux tells the story of Rajat’s divorce from Charlotte. Neogy asked Theroux, then lecturing at Makerere and co-editing Transition, to do do him a favour and sign a paper falsely admitting that he (Theroux) had slept with Mrs. Neogy three times. Theroux had not done such a thing. However, he went along with the plan, the deception worked, and the divorce was granted. Charlotte Neogy and her children went to India. The year was 1965.
Neogy and Barbara had a daughter, Tayu, on August 18, 1967. They were officially married in 1968. Then he got arrested.
After his release from prison, Neogy was informed by President Obote that he was free to resume publishing Transition in Kampala on condition that he toed the line. Neogy chose to leave Uganda, bidding a sad farewell to a city that was his only hometown and to a homeland he had hoped to enjoy in freedom.
The Ugandan rulers promptly stripped Neogy of his citizenship. It was an act of racism. It was certainly not because of the sedition charge, and not even the false suspicion that he was an agent of a foreign government. Had that been the case, Mayanja, his co-accused, would also have been stripped of his citizenship. Neogy, as Ugandan as Mayanja and Obote, was disowned because of his ancestry.
In that moment of supreme folly, Uganda, discarded Rajat Neogy, one of her best, and along with him, Transition Magazine, his brilliant creation. It was an act no different from what Gen. Idi Amin Dada would do on a grand scale three years later.
Neogy, Barbara, Tayu and Jeffrey D. Brown (Barbara’s son from her first marriage) arrived in London at the beginning of May 1969. “I am rather shattered by the experience,” Neogy told the London Guardian newspaper a day after his arrival. “I need rehabilitation.”
The family repaired to a home Barbara Neogy owned on the island of Hydra in the Aegean Sea, Greece. They then travelled to the United States, returning to their base in Greece in July 1969. Neogy continued to fly in and out, looking for a place to settle and revive his magazine.
In October 1970, he and his family relocated to Accra, Ghana, where civilian rule had been recently restored, under the leadership of Dr. Kofi Abrefa Busia. Ghana’s new prime minister was a distinguished scholar and human rights advocate, whom Neogy had interviewed for Transition in October 1966.
In 1971, Rajat, Barbara and 4-year-old Tayu travelled to London and stayed with Robert Baker, their old friend from Kampala, who was now an assistant cultural attaché at the US Embassy. The drinking continued. “Rajat and I made serious inroads into my Scotch (whisky) supply,” Baker wrote in his essay in American Diplomacy. “Late one day, about a month after I had picked them up at Heathrow he, in a mad fit, drunkenly struck his wife. She called me. I went home at once to help. He was drunk and raving that he was a god. She and I wrestled him into a taxi which drove us to the Phipps Clinic. She committed him. The next day he checked himself out and flew to Africa where he tried unsuccessfully to convert to Islam.”
Ali A. Mazrui left us an account in Transition (No. 69) of Neogy’s initial attempt to become a Muslim at Kibuli Mosque. Mazrui stopped him, but only for a short while. He did so privately later, becoming Rajat Neogy El-Amin, and renouncing his Hindu religion. Well, not completely, of course, for his heavy consumption of alcohol continued.
Gen. Idi Amin was now in power and Neogy realised that there was no place for Transition in the Second Republic of Uganda. He returned to Ghana, set up shop on the Second Floor of Damak House, Kojo Thompson Road, Accra and resumed his work on his magazine. He published Transition No. 38 in June 1971, the first issue from Ghana, with a cover headline: Born Again.
Transition kept its bimonthly publication schedule the rest of that year. However, the personal and financial strains were taking their toll. The cloud of the CIA funding for his Magazine via the International Association for Cultural Freedom hang over his head. Neogy, who had not been aware of the CIA connection until it was revealed in 1968, never recovered from the discomfort of appearing to have been part of a deception.
On January 13, 1972, the Ghanaian military, led by Col. Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, overthrew Dr. Busia’s government. Then on August 4, 1972, Idi Amin announced the expulsion from Uganda of all Asians holding or entitled to British passports, and those holding Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi passports. This was followed by an announcement on August 19, 1972 that all Asians, including those holding Ugandan passports, would be expelled. What little hope Neogy had of returning to Uganda was extinguished. The nightmare was intensifying.
That year he published only one issue of Transition. His alcoholism and the fits of violence continued, forcing his wife and their children to leave Accra in 1972. They went to live in New York City, Barbara’s hometown.
They returned to Ghana in 1973 to see him, but found that his drinking had not improved. Barbara and the children went back to New York. That year Transition came out only twice.
Transition No. 44, the first issue of 1974, was the last under Neogy’s stewardship. His journey with his great creation was at an end. That issue carried a celebratory article titled “Farewell Rajat.” It was more prophetic than the writer may have realized.
Rajat Neogy El-Amin handed his beloved Transition to Wole Soyinka, the future Nobel laureate, and flew to New York, USA. He would never see Africa again.
Leaving Uganda had made Neogy a very angry man. Losing Transition destroyed him. Uganda had been his purpose. Transition was his vehicle. Now he had lost everything.
He stayed in New York for a while. By 1976 he had relocated to San Francisco. There he met and married Djamila McNutt, with whom he had two children – a daughter Aisha and a son Kamal. He published a local community newspaper and worked as a taxi driver for a while.
However, his alcoholism worsened. He moved into a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel, an affordable public housing residence with shared toilets and bathrooms down the hall. That small single room was his kitchen, his bedroom, his library. He had a lot of books and was always reading. And drinking. Recalling Neogy’s final years, Paul Theroux wrote: “He was very fragile, dazed-looking, living on welfare. He ended his days in poverty.”
In the last week of November 1995, Neogy called each one of his seven children – his daughters Renu, Tayu and Aisha, and his sons Gardar Larusson, Siddhartha Hero, Erisa and Kamal. One was in Iceland, others were in India and the rest in various parts of America. On Sunday December 3, 1995, he was found dead in his little room, two days after he had died. He was holding his phone book in his hand.
Neogy’s remains were cremated. Some of his ashes were sprinkled over the Pacific Ocean and on Indian soil. In July 2018, his daughter Tayu, who was born at Mulago Hospital in Uganda, took her father home. She sprinkled some of his ashes on the grounds of Makerere University, Kampala. Rajat Neogy was home again.
Muniini K. Mulera
October 16, 2018