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Out of South Africa: What Indians wrote before, during and after Apartheid

Everything you wanted to know about South African fiction by writers of Indian origin.

In 1983, J.M. Coetzee talked of South African literature “as a literature in bondage. It is less than human.” He meant the political burden that the literature of the region continues to carry, four decades later.  Indian writing from the country faces not merely this political burden but also a historical one, one which is arguably different from other communities.

Indeed, identity, along with the history that shapes it, has for long played a big role in Indian writing from Africa in general and South Africa in particular,  where the Indian population was discriminated against in different ways in an apartheid regime. The change promised, or what has fallen short in post-apartheid South Africa, is reflected in the writing of South African Indians in large measure.

Inner lives, hidden conflicts

Stories of early Indian settlers have appeared in several works by the first Indian writers in South Africa. Ansuyah Singh's Behold the Earth Mourns is regarded as the first South African Indian novel; the book appeared in 1960.

It is set in the 1940s, when racist laws such as the Asiatic Land Tenure Act have just been enforced.  Srenika, son of an Indian settler who has risen up from being an indentured labourer hopes to return from Bombay having married Yageswari, the daughter of a well-off cosmopolitan family.  However, laws don’t allow brides to accompany Indians to Africa and this prompts Srenika to join in the Gandhian resistance movement.

Yageshwari enters India only through the intervention of a border guard.  But Srenika’s political awakening follows his friendship with an African activist, Serete Luseka. Their relationships appears as a contrast  to the relations  between Yageshwari and Anna, her African maid, and the book shows up how racially motivated laws can creep insidiously into,  and have an impact in, the domestic sphere of the home and the family.

This early  Indian history in South Africa and the convolutions it has witnessed over the decades – appears in Ashwin Desai’s Ratanya Mochi (a part of Rajendra Chetty’s collection), which tells of the vicissitudes in the life of an indentured labourer, who is brought against  her will from  Hyderabad to Africa.

But it is as a sociologist’s perspective that Desai’s work on the unique struggle and search to belong waged by the Indian community in South Africa has proved penetratingly insightful and is rich in detail. In his books, Arise Ye Coolies: Apartheid and the Indian 1960-1995, and later We are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid Africa, he narrates the need for community and yet how this need must cohere with the one to preserve identity and even tradition in the struggle against hegemonies, during and even after apartheid, and that this struggle isn’t merely one to be viewed in Manichean terms.  He doesn’t really deal with the Indian question is isolation, but how it has taken different turns over the decades.

In her collection, Jesus is Indian, Agnes Sam explores not only the life of the indentured labourer, but also the conflict within the community, as specially waged by the women who made the migration.  This journey is arguably different – as it appears in the narratives of Agnes Sam and also Farida Karodia.

Sam’s great grandparents came to South Africa from India.  One of her stories in this collection, titled And They Christened it Indenture, is about the resilience of those who made the long journey, and also the community that was forged from this journey, crossing ties of faith and region.  In her other stories she details in a wise compassionate manner, the hidden choices that women have to make – for they have to face domination not merely from the state but within the household too, which remained entirely male-dominated.

In High Heels, two friends, Lindiwe and Ruthie, make a pact.  Lindiwe says Ruthie can only have the right to wear high heels once she enters a secret room, which turns out to be a “secret” Hindu prayer room maintained by her mother, in a largely Christian house.

The title story has Angelina, a schoolgirl who constantly questions Sister Bonaventura, the nun who is her schoolteacher.  This is also a story about her sister, Honey – the travails of her sexuality in a conservative society and then about her mother (she calls her Hama) who worships Jesus in her native language and believes fervently he is Indian because he listens to her.  Hama also tries to bring Angelina into line because she isn’t “Indian” enough.

Sam’s more recent works have been The Pragashini-Smuts Affair and The Pragashini-Smuts Conspiracy, about the twists and turns of an interracial love relationship, a theme that resonates with other writers as well.

Sam was expelled from South Africa and moved to England; she returned for a while after the end of apartheid as did Farida Karodia, whose stories also highlight this unique women’s experience.

Farida Karodia’s  hauntingly sad story  Cardboard Mansions is about the burden a grandmother faces as she journeys to another faraway Indian settlement where she hopes her grandson will have open fields to play in. Karodia’s Daughters of the Twilight tells of a family expelled from Durban, following the Group Areas Act of 1950; it then finds itself the only Indian family in their new neighbourhood. This sense of distance is inevitably linked by the need to find some security and to belong. The book later became part of a trilogy which tells the saga of an Indian family over the generations.   The trilogy speaks about the volatility, the constant flux sensed by Indians in Africa, who have been, due to apartheid laws, displaced twice over.

Torn apart by race

Karodia is part of a new generation of novelists and writers who emerged after the 1940s and 1950s. The 1950s were a period of intense political activity as the government passed laws like the Group Areas Act, which segregated communities on racial lines and resulted in a large numbers of Indians being forcibly evicted from their homes and businesses in areas that were now declared “whites only”.

Ronnie Govender’s  At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories also features Durban. Cato Manor, a part of Durban, saw frequent demographic changes when the blacks moved in and rented land from Indian landlords, who had run small market gardens there.  But violence broke out once the Group Areas Act of 1950 was enacted, as Indians and others were forcibly moved to other places. Govender’s stories are vibrant with his use of colloquial language – he is also a playright.

Shunna "Sonny" Pillay is a jazz musician now based in the US, who wrote a novel, Shadow People, highlighting his own musical career in some senses. Dhava Aiengar is a promising pianist but his prospects appear thwarted simply because he happens to be Indian in apartheid South Africa. His movements are restricted, as are his choices about whom to live with and where. His life becomes one of constant evasion – dodging the police, rioters, even gangs run by Indians and white thugs. But he has friends who, regardless of their differences, stand by him. Their performances win them acclaim even as the shadow of apartheid hangs over them.

Aziz Hassim wrote about the Casbah and the area also known as Grey Street Complex in his The Lotus People, where the Indians of Durban lived before it was all displaced by the Group Areas Act of 1950.  This one is a generational story too, but interspersed with politics, and how governmental crackdowns forged a unique brotherhood among the boys of the area.  Despite the illegal acts they indulge in, these gangs become a united symbol of resistance to a cruel state.

In 2009, a year before his death, Hassim wrote his second novel, Revenge of Kali, which tells the tale of indentured Indian South Africans and the conflicts and differences within this society.

For writers, the quest has been political: Seeking a society beyond racial and cultural identity markers, but they grapple with questions about identity.  The nostalgia for the “home” country –India – is turned over and analysed.  These novels don’t hesitate to portray the inherent tyranny and conservativeness within the Indian community, a fact that has had an impact on the writers themselves.

For instance, Zainub Priya Dala, attacked by her own community for expressing her admiration for Rushdie’s writing, has written about Durban’s history in a book edited by Ashvin Desai and Goolam Vaheed, Chatsworth: The Making of a South African Township.  At the time of the attack on her, her first novel,  What About Meera? was due to be released.

Then there are also writers who have written about the post-apartheid South Africa, where identities and histories of the past have sprung new challenges about unity and belonging.  Achmat Dangor calls himself African, acknowledging that he has Dutch and Asian blood in him. His books, written in diverse styles, talk of how difficult it is to establish pureness in identity matters and the new conflicts that might arise in a post-racial times. Identity may have been overcome but not history.

Kaflka’s Curse takes on a popular legend when a gardener becomes a tree to be nearer the woman he loves.  In this book Omar Khan becomes Oscar Kahn, taking on a Jewish persona so as to marry a white woman.

The lingering past

Bitter Fruit made it into the Man Booker Prize shortlist. It is set in the late 1990s, a time at the end of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, with Thabo Mbeki as his successor. It is the time the Truth and Reconciliation Committee is to submit its report.

A former African National Congress activist, Silas Ali, son of a white Afrikaans mother and a Muslim father, is shattered when he realizes a truth brought out by the TRC’s findings. He learns it is François Du Boise, a white policeman, who had raped his wife Lydia 20 years earlier, while Ali had been locked up in a police van.

This past intrudes and violently ruptures into the Alis’s present. Their only son Mikey, who is a gifted university student, is incensed on learning this truth – that his father is Du Boise – and embarks on his own quest for revenge.  As with other post-apartheid South African novels such as J.M. Coetzee’s DisgraceBitter Fruit talks of such interracial transgressions and what this might mean for a new South Africa.

Yet another writer setting his tales in a tumultuous post-apartheid South Africa is Imraan Coovadia, whose books beginning with The Wedding cover a wide terrain.  Coovadia’s The Wedding – the love story of Ismet and Khateja – is actually a fictitious account of his grandparents’ journey from India to South Africa.

Khateja actually moves with her husband to South Africa, because she is too hot-headed to live in the same household as her mother in law, and the novel takes hilarious turns as Khateja learns to adapt to a new country and its new customs. More recently, his ambitious and daringly imaginative, Tales Of The  Metric System traces in interesting ways, South African history from 1970, when a professor who has been politically active finds himself threatened to more recent times in 2010 when South Africa hosted the World Cup in football.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.