/ 29 November 2021

Children of Sugarcane: Where nothing sweet endures

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Transplanted cultures: Indian women are shown on a sugar plantation in Natal in 1939. Indentured labourers arrived in South Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Photo: Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Memory lives in light, she thinks. Benevolence and redemption, too. But light illuminates all – even the darkened hollows. The sundials’ mad circles have slowed, and the time for concealment has run out. Secrets are wild birds. They cannot be held captive forever.” 

The novel tells the story of Indian indentured workers in South Africa from the perspective of a singular individual, and more importantly, a woman who is introduced as a 14-year-old girl facing the daunting horrors of an arranged marriage in India. Children of Sugarcane (Jonathan Ball Publishers) rises to the author’s feministic intentions, and when Shanti emerges to take a stand, she is bold, terrified yet confident that victory is certain. 

Concerned that her frail and elderly mother has a heart condition, and struck by “her shriveling hands and feet, by the lightness she exerts on the dung floors,” she wants to save both her mother and what is left of her childhood.

On the other hand, for her mother: “The world is cruel. People will take advantage unless you’ve got a husband to love and protect you.” Shanti raises her voice against the pervasive intergenerational violence of patriarchy and the deplorably archaic cultural practices that threaten the lives of girls and women in Indian society. “Ama, please! Allow me to take over your tasks for a while. I have learnt to do most of these chores, and where I am unsure, you can guide me. I will do everything to your liking. I will treat it as an act of love and appreciation for all you have done over the years.”

 She is equally firm with her stunned father: “Apa, you do not see what I see because I am with Ama every day. She has waited on us. She’s served us all. And she’s never complained once about the heap of demand we pile on her head. Look at Ama. She’s grown old. We have made her old. Apa! Do you not see the paleness of her skin? How thin she has become? Apa, you cannot let her die on her knees serving us!” In Children of Sugarcane, hardly anything sweet endures. Instead, what does last in its syrupy aftertaste, is colonialism’s ability to pass systems of oppression to the next generation. In British colonial India, only expatriate British men, no matter “the curse of bloodlines and lineage,” can truly enjoy the sunshine, “often reading a book, seated at a simple table with two chairs.”  

In Shanti, Joanne Joseph has created a rebellious protagonist who uses education to think beyond the confines of her village. Embraced by a wise, elderly village woman in Vakkuruti, who believed if she secretly taught a bright young girl, she could rebel against systems that oppressed women, Shanti dreams and in indentured labour, had hoped for a better life, far from the trappings of forced marriages caste-based oppression. Like Nehanda, her resilience is an astonishing counterresponse. Thunder amid brutality and betrayal.

The novel is a dexterous work, and, from the very early pages, one is drawn into refined and dazzling sentences. Joseph’s poetry is the thing, the mainstay of the novel. A tad too conscious perhaps, yet strikingly beautiful, on the money. Certainly, when the journalist-turned novelist wrote Children of Sugarcane, she painstakingly set sail for a destination, the bluest waters in which superb storytelling is a way of life. 

Despite the wrenching tale being told from the voice of a girl-woman narrator, Shanti, the novel is replete with cherry trees that forever blossom, toasting to Spring songs that enliven the soul. It has taken Joseph nine years to reach her destination, and as she writes in the book, the novel “has undergone multiple incarnations.” 

Children of Sugarcane reads well without peeling off the multiple textures that make the plot rich and full of pleasant tiny surprises. It showcases an emerging novelist writing with immense confidence. Not a newcomer fumbling her way through, totally at sea about how best to tell her story. Ambitious storytelling is central to this novel. Embedded in Shanti’s story is a desire for memory as light and illumination. 

Joseph writes against the violence of British colonialism in both India and South Africa, an ironic tale of the ties that bind. The title itself suggests displacement, homelessness and a common bond birthed by the brutal circumstances of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa in the late 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s.

The novel exposes the violence of British imperialism and how racism, patriarchy and the Indian caste system colluded in the inhumane experiences that defined successive generations of Indians who were indentured to work on the then fledgling Port Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) sugarcane belt. Shanti, who later returns to India, is a haunting figure in the novel whose fire is felt across two continents and four decades. 

Her revolutionary agency evokes the spirit of Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, a mythical Shona spirit medium that inspired struggles to free Zimbabwe from British colonialism. 

Yet many Indians stayed in South Africa after their indenture was over. Like Selvaraj, who came as a little boy to colonial Port Natal. His letters to Shanti who is back in Vakkuruti in the then British-occupied Madras presidency, unwittingly evokes a bitter past for Shanti. Although now married, and happy to see his aging parents derive joy from his children, his navel has rendered him restless and yearning to visit India and retrace his roots. 

In colonial Port Natal, a freed indentured Indian male worker is the only one able to improve his fortunes. He is part of the fishing industry boom so much that he has “little time for leisure or correspondence.” Children of Sugarcane attests that colonialism breeds a collective world whose wild secrets “cannot be held captive forever.” Like a series of rapes by a British sugar baron that murder hope in a young Indian woman’s life, while also exposing the British colonial justice system as a farce.In this sense, Children of Sugarcane speaks to both the Indian diaspora and across borders, worlds where very little is sweet about sugarcane.