OBITUARY: Rajat Neogy

Rajat Neogy was the founder and editor of Transition, one of Africa's most influential literary and cultural magazines.

It is hard to imagine a little magazine that influenced writers on a whole vast continent, but that is what happened with Transition. Neogy began his magazine at just the right time and it became a rallying-point throughout the 1960s. It helped that he was a local boy, with the experience of a British university, and it showed in the way he spoke, moving from Swahili, to Hindi, to English. Kampala then was a small green city, and Uganda was prosperous and full of distinguished people: in 1966, Chinua Achebe, V.S. Naipaul, Ali Mazrui, Ezekiel Mphalele, and distinguished anthropologists from Makerere. Neogy had lived through Uganda's later colonial years, its independence and hopeful years; he was also to experience its disintegration and terror.

We made our introductions through our work, and met in person later, which is the right sequence for writers to get acquainted. Africa was a small place then - or so it seemed, because it was one place, where writers were eagerly signalling to each other: Chinua and Wole and Chris Okigbo and Ulli Beier from Nigeria, Cameron Duodu from Ghana, Dennis Brutus and Nadine Gordimer and others from South Africa, Zeke and Ngugi from Kenya, David Rubadiri and I from Malawi, and yet others in the Sudan, Ethiopia, Zambia, Tanzania. Nearly all these signals were directed towards Uganda, where Rajat Neogy edited them for publication in Transition.

Neogy was brave, he was forthright and funny, he was a tease; he had tremendous confidence, not the fearful bravado that was common among some Ugandans, but a stylish poise that was both intellectual and social. He was handsome, clever and young. He used all his gifts. He travelled. His magazine mattered. He liked me, he published my work - he was the first publisher of my work - and I felt lucky to know him.

One of his strangest requests to me - but typical Neogy - was that I agree to sign a paper saying that I had committed adultery with his wife, Lotte. This was 1965. Adultery was grounds for divorce in Uganda, and it had to be proven. "I wouldn't ask this of anyone else," he said. "I am asking you because you're my friend." Well, that was true, but Kampala was such a small place that I was afraid of the social consequences; I was not married, and I did not want to be known in town as a "co-respondent". Neogy said that he had excellent contacts at the Uganda Argus - the printers also worked on Transition - so he would see to it that my name would not appear in the Court column, where divorces and criminal convictions and bankruptcies were listed, once a week in very small print.

Although I had never laid a hand on the woman, I agreed to be named and said that I had slept with her on three occasions. I was soon served with papers. I was warned by Neogy's harassed attorney that this was illegal - connivance, in fact. In court, the magistrate said, "This Theroux chap - isn't he supposed to be a friend of yours?" Neogy admitted this was so. Magistrate: "Some friend!"

In spite of Neogy's promises, my name appeared in the Argus, and afterwards, when I showed up at parties, people - expatriates or leathery ex-colonials - smiled at me knowingly. At the age of 24, I had my first experience of celebrity. It was also one of the happiest periods of my life. I fell in love. Neogy approved of the woman, Anne Castle. He was a witness at our wedding - his elegant signature on our marriage certificate. Neogy married two more times and fathered six children, now scattered around the world.

In those years, because we were friends, because we were in Africa, I saw him every day. (I had started out as a Lecturer at Makerere; a few years later, because of the rapid departures of expatriates, I was Acting Head of the Adult Studies Centre.) Neogy's natural element was at a large table - City Bar on Kampala Road was one. He sat, he talked, he teased, he encouraged; he then went back to his office and worked on his magazine. We all assumed that Uganda would just get better. Naipaul disagreed. The politicians were clearly opportunists and crooks, he said. "This country will turn back into jungle."

We did not really know what would happen. You never do. But it got worse, many of us left. Neogy stayed and got thrown into jail for sedition - criticising the Ugandan government, something he had been doing for years. His detention in prison might have broken him. Or was it disillusionment? It was revealed that for some years the magazine had been partly funded by the CIA, the grubby money dispensed by the clean hands of the Farfield Foundation (Encounter magazine was another recipient). He brought his magazine to Ghana in 1970 and edited it for two years. He then went to the United States, and he just about vanished. He was found dead a month ago in the San Francisco hotel which had been his home for a number of years. He was 57.

After he left Africa, he was not the same. But when I knew him he was brilliant. His friendship meant everything to me.

Paul Theroux

Rajat Neogy, editor: born Kampala, Uganda 1938; died San Francisco 3 December 1995.

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