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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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