/ 24 September 2008

Between romance and nostalgia

Conversations and exchanges between India and South Africa — whether cultural or literary — appear to revolve around the romantic and the nostalgic. Whether it is the shared politics of Mahatma Gandhi or the contributions of South Africans of Indian descent to the evolution of this society’s art, politics or broader sensibilities.

These have been considered through rose-tinted spectacles, usually steering away from issues such as shared experiences of religious fundamentalism or the insularity of swathes of the South African Indian community — developed through notions of India’s caste system exacerbated by apartheid rationale.

Although in a few instances the Words on Water: India and South Africa in Conversation discussion forum held at the University of KwaZulu-Natal continued in this vein, the discussions also (thankfully) interrogated more relevant issues: identity in a bewildering post-colonial milieu and the personal experience in examining the birthing pains of that society, for example.

This was also an engaging reminder of several macro-literary themes that transcend even the borders of these two former British colonies.

Themes, which pointed to the role of stories in reflecting the universality of the human experience and condition, including the role of writers in relating ”simple truths you know through otherism” and the assertion that a writer’s ability to empathise is vital in creating these timeless universal stories.

An exercise in encouraging dialogue between Indian and South African writers and part of the multidisciplinary Shared Histories project, the forum opened with Michael Cawood Green and Nayantara Sahgal discussing ”Fiction and History”.

Sahgal, the daughter of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who was the sister of postcolonial India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has published extensively, including three memoirs and 10 novels.

By her own admission her novels ”always have India as the main character” and are linked to her intimate knowledge of the political landscape. A Situation in New Delhi (1977), which picks up after the death of a character modelled on Nehru, follows the ensuing power scramble.

Green’s work include Sinking: A Verse Novella (1997) and For the Sake of Silence (2008), a fictional account of the Marianhill monastery in KwaZulu-Natal, founded by Trappist monks who were expelled from the order for initiating missionary work.

The discussion drew on the commonality of India’s post-colonial experience after 1947 and similar resonances in South Africa post-1994, when, as Sahgal pointed out, ”the status quo and long-held beliefs are shaken”.

There was agreement that historical fiction provides ”an escape from the tyranny of history as a sequence of events” — providing creative succour that interrogates one’s constructed notions and memories of history.

Green also imparted an intimate view of the generative processes feeding his work, including his finding himself ”completely and radically repositioned [as a white male of a certain age] in a kind of new society”.

Green noted the relevance of his historical work to contemporary South Africa, especially because of ”themes of silence, of being silenced, of silencing oneself” as society dances around the individual.

Pointing to identity sometimes being sacrificed at the altar of nationhood and a globalisation characterised by homogeneity — largely dictated by the American world view — Sahgal noted the importance of India as constantly emerging as the primary protagonist in her novels: ”It is important to retain identity in a world where some identities are allowed to be kept and others have to be surrendered,” she said.

Travel writer William Dalrymple, in discussion with Aziz Hassim author of The Lotus People (2002) on ”Literature and Place” expanded on writer Jonathan Raban’s remark that ”old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead, and that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong.”

Dalrymple, who has published extensively on Indian and Pakistan, including The Last Mughal (2006) and City of Djinns (1994), asserted that contemporary travel writing is essential to stripping off the veneer of globalisation and focusing on the differences” which feed as much our understanding of the perceived ”other” as ourselves.

Urvashi Butalia, who discussed ”Literature and Engagement” with Pitika Ntuli and Vikas Swarup, concurred with Dalyrymple that travel writing was not merely about geography and that a writer’s interrogation of society, especially with political engagement, ”things become more universal”.

Swarup, a diplomat who has taken a rapier to the Indian middle-class in Six Suspects (2008), reduced the notion of the ”other” and of differences and similarities being the two sides of one coin when he noted ”you only know about yourself”. Writing needs to be done through the ”culture of empathy” and one ”appropriates characters through understanding humanity”.

The Words on Water forum, although intended as a ”conversation between Indian and South Africa”, emerged rather as a global discussion peering into humanity’s commonality and differences.

This is an apt end-point at a time when fundamentalist religious violence spreads through India and South Africa, continuing the obsession with constructed notions of race and ethnicity not far removed from apartheid.