Celebrating Indian women in SA

The Eye of The Leopard by Henning Mankell (Harvill Secker)
Percy Zvomuya

Swedish writer Henning Mankell has been described by Slovenian scholar Slavoj Zizek as “uniquely an artist of the parallax view”. His new novel, The Eye of the Leopard, set in a snowed-under Sweden and a scorching hot Zambia, lends itself to such technique.

One common difficulty of this formula, Zizek argues, is that “there is no neutral language enabling us to translate from one to the other”. Mankell, who divides his time between Sweden and Mozambique where he runs a theatre, has used this approach before.
It is fraught with the difficulty that attends the process of trying “to posit the ‘truth’ of one from the perspective of the other”. As a result, Zizek suggests that “all one can do in today’s conditions is to remain faithful to [this] split ... to record it”.

The Eye of the Leopard is about Hans Olofson, the son of a Swedish alcoholic lumberjack and a disappeared mother, remembered only in faded photographs. Early on Hans shows remarkable precocity, asking himself: “Why am I who I am?” He also wants to know: “Why he was who he was and not someone else?” These are remarkable questions for a 12-year-old because they have infinitely more permutations than the relatively easier “who am I?”.

It’s about this time that Hans is plotting to leave this unforgiving and frosty landscape. His desires take him to Zambia, a place he instantly dislikes. He finds the airport an “insurmountable chaos”; the people he meets are “a billowing mass”. When he leaves the airport to hazard Lusaka, it is through a “creaky swinging door” after which he is dragged into “an indescribably dilapidated car”.

One repeatedly reads about barefoot people or people wearing bad shoes and somehow the fate of these people is linked to the state of their shoes. He thinks that “if the condition of the African continent is the same as the shoes of its inhabitants, the future is already over and all is irretrievably lost”. He is scared too, of its heat and, rather strangely, of its odours. In other words Africans are smelly. “I’m too much visible here,” he concludes, overwhelmed by the black mass.

Hans meets a dissatisfied white couple who believe independence was a disaster. “This would be a good country to live in if it weren’t for the blacks.” This is another way, of course, of expressing love for Africa the earth and not the real Africa, the people. At times the text is rather racially raw and sensitive readers will flinch at the tone of the conversations.

The couple speak approvingly of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, in which a war is about to begin. One that would claim around 50 000 people.

“There [Salisbury, now Harare] we could breathe. Maybe we’ll move there ...The Africans did what they do best: follow orders.”

At times the narrator just states things without elaborating further. It is as unhelpful as it is loaded and this lends to various interpretations, especially in a novel about the state of race relations. One is told at the beginning of chapter eight that “a laughing African comes running to meet them”. Why he is laughing is not made clear and the image of the smiling Sambo came to mind.

The first eight chapters, covering the Swede’s initiation into Africa’s inner workings, were a bit challenging. Rather raw and furiously frank, the chapters are recklessly deployed to penetrate the heart of racism, showing its warped, diseased logic. A character in the novel, Fischer, admits: “Of course I am racist. But I am not a stupid racist.” Fischer doesn’t need to look far to justify why blacks are inferior: all over the place there is proof of a country inexorably going to certain ruin.

After a while Hans realises that he has also changed. He comes to appreciate the diversity of the huge expanse of land in which he finds himself. “He senses that Africa is not actually a unified entity; at least not something that he, with his ingrained notions, can comprehend and penetrate.” He is mystified by how “wooden gods and forefathers speak as distinctly— as the living…” It is a land in which, for him, “European truth loses its validity” when put out into “the endless savannah”. For instance, the word hyena is an insult in Sweden where it is interpreted as a sign of a parasitic person, while in Africa it is viewed as a natural way to operate.

The Eye of the Leopard, which originally came out in Swedish in 1990, may be about the politics of the post-colony, but it is also about Hans and his childhood friend, Sture, their haunts in the snowy forests that gave him the idea that there is a world out there.

Structurally the book is solid and doesn’t feel like two tales: one set in Europe and the other in Zambia. The tension the novel generates, using the metaphor of the mysterious, is indeed at times mystical; prowling leopard and the fever induced by malaria is spread liberally throughout. This is done largely by alternating the story about Hans’s growing up in Sweden and the tale about his time in Zambia. It manages to retain reader interest and also, to a large extent, the disjunctures loaned by the parallax views. Mankell does indeed try “to posit the ‘truth’ of one from the perspective of the other”.

I advise that you do not start reading The Eye of the Leopard when faced with work-related deadlines. You may miss them and find yourself in the mouth of a leopard.

‘Sister outsiders’: The Representation of Identity and Difference in Selected writings of South African Indian Women by Devarakshanam Govinden (University of South Africa Press and Koninklijke Brill)
Meg Samuelson

‘Sister Outsiders’ offers a long overdue evaluation of the place of Indian women’s writing in the South African literary corpus. The book undertakes two linked projects: a gynocritical excavation of Indian South African women’s literary contributions and a discursive analysis focused on the themes of identity and difference. Both are attentive to the ways in which these writers root themselves in a South African identity while retracing the routes that have brought them here.

Govinden shows up the exclusionary practices in South African literary criticism that have failed to accommodate the writings of Indian women in South Africa. Locating the study in the “time of memory”—the post-TRC era—she sets about recuperating these voices, suggesting that “one may discover that Indian women’s writings in South Africa — provide a useful lens with which to read and re-read the important issues of our time” (2)*.

Ansuyah Singh’s Behold the Earth Mourns (1960), for instance, is shown to contrast “the narrowness and xenophobia of [apartheid] South Africa with a more universal, global sense of community” (161) that we are still reaching towards today. Govinden’s re-evaluation of these literary voices “at this particular historical juncture in South Africa” aims precisely “to resist the dominant, separatist discourses of identity and difference and their regimes of representation fuelled by apartheid ideology” (22) persistent in post-apartheid South Africa.

The study reads Indian women’s writings “as an intrinsic part of South African, African and international literatures” (21). To that end it foregrounds the “history of cooperation and solidarity between Indians and Africans” (45) during the South African liberation struggle, particularly in its chapters on Dr Goolam, Phyllis Naidoo and Fatima Meer. The larger commitment displayed towards “a new entry for all South Africans into the rest of Africa” (46) is an increasingly pressing concern today and to the extent that it addresses this topic by unravelling and rebraiding constructions of identity and difference, this is an important book indeed.

“Indian identity” in South Africa, insists Govinden, “is not about reclaiming a lost sense of ‘Indianness’” (48). Rather it is about thinking through the multiple heritages comprising South Africa and creating a platform for articulating various South-South relations. It is, in short, about rethinking South Africa as an “open” rather than “closed” space (Govinden borrows these terms from Sarah Nuttall & Cheryl-Ann Michael’s Senses of Culture) and engaging the entanglements and embeddings that such a conception of the nation entails.

The literary canvas Govinden paints is a richly variegated one, including novelists, poets, auto/biographers, sociologists and political activists, as she remarks on diverse texts ranging from the literary to cookery books and social history. The voices we encounter include those of Govinden’s own grandmother and the author herself. Indeed, what enlivens this study and sets it apart from much academic writing is the intimate connection set up between the author and the subject of her study.

As a South African woman of Indian descent, Govinden dwells thoughtfully on her own self-positioning. Her reconstructive narrative of her grandmother’s experiences of indenture and colonial rule is particularly moving in its personal presentation of the lives of Indian women in colonial South Africa and the questions it raises about what such lives might mean to their “daughters”.

Sadly, a number of the books Govinden discusses are no longer in print and in some instances are almost impossible to locate. One hopes that this research will be a spur to publishing houses, urging them to keep on their shelves these important components of the South African literary mosaic.

* Reference to the page numbers

Percy Zvomuya

Client Media Releases

UKZN humanities academic awarded Ed Bruner Book Prize
Sanral receives high honour
What makes IIE Rosebank College cool?