/ 4 September 2023

South African Indian literature explores identity

Fabric Of History
May 1939: Indian women indentured workers leave the sugar cane fields after a day’s work on a plantation at Mount Edgecombe, Natal. Photo: Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images

There are untold stories in each of us, and it is through the sharing of these stories that we begin to learn about ourselves and each other — and appreciate the value of good literature in a fast-paced world. 

The literature we consume can come from books, music, movies, photographs, theatre and conversations, and through each of these sensory experiences we can gain knowledge that gives us a better understanding of the world, and more importantly, our place in it. 

As a journalism Master’s student, doing my research on the formation of Indian communities following the Group Areas Act in 1950s, and as a born-free South African Indian who was raised in one of these [former] Group Areas in Lenasia South, in the south of Johannesburg, I am curious about my community’s origins, and its practices and struggles is of great interest to me. 

I pick up stompies from the conversations that the elders have about their old homes with a shop in the front, or how they were forcibly removed and relocated into areas that were far from the city centre. I watch them reminisce over old black-and-white studio photographs in their awkward poses, trying to place where the picture was taken, who took it and if they’re still alive. 

These anecdotes and memories, some vivid, some vague, are just about the only literature I can rely on to understand my family, my community and myself.

But for a curious scholar with unending questions (that often have few concrete answers), it’s simply not enough. These conversations are also an anxious reminder that as we’re losing people, we’re losing their stories, too.

It has led me down a fascinating path of new conversations, discussions, memories and a plethora of literature that has the potential to give me the information I seek. 

An enlightening experience for me was at the book launch of The Indian Africans by Paul David, Kiru Naidoo, Ranjith Choonilall and Selvan Naidoo, which documents the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa in the 19th century, and the stories of working on sugar, tea and wattle plantations during colonial rule in what was then known as Port Natal.

It also documents in detail the struggles against the violence of indenture, child labour, and to find a place to call home and start a family. People will identify with the stories because their families have similar stories. These stories are also told so others can learn from them. As Selvan Naidoo said, there is value in documenting these stories not just for ourselves, but for people outside our circles. 

The history detailed in The Indian Africans was retold in a fictional way in Joanne Joseph’s Children of Sugarcane. Set in the 19th century, it is about a young Indian woman who escaped an arranged marriage in rural India and came to South Africa for opportunities, but is instead taken as a labourer on the sugar plantations in Port Natal. It’s a story about her resilience and struggle, but also shows how the politics of the past shaped the lives of generations to come. 

The book was sparked by Joseph’s curiosity about her great-grandmother who was one of the thousands of women to arrive in South Africa some 150 years ago. 

The conversations and musings around the launch of this beautifully written yet painful novel further enticed me as a scholar interested in history and the present to further research the topic of South African Indians in literature. 

Professors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed are articulate scholars in this field, and their work is particularly striking because they touch on topics relating to identity and belonging of Indians in post-apartheid South Africa. 

In one of their papers, they say that the Indian identity has been constructed, deconstructed and continuously reinvented because of South Africa’s complicated history with colonialism and segregation laws during apartheid, as well as global events and political shifts in South Asia. 

South African Indian identity remains a challenge for many, and it is indeed a recurring theme in the literature I read. 

This was something that Nedine Moonsamy, a senior lecturer in the English literature department at the University of Pretoria wrote about her in her novel titled The Unfamous Five. Starting in 1993, it’s a story about five teenagers living in the Indian suburb of Lenasia, who are learning to navigate the dynamics of a young democracy as individuals and as a member of a society that also has its rules. 

It maps out the culture of the Lenasia community, and within the complex storyline of the five brown teenagers, I was able to find a little piece of my own story. I was most grateful. 

The late Juby Mayet, a wildly eccentric and bold South African journalist, also wrote about the complexities of her identity in her autobiography, Freedom Writer. She lived in Lenasia and Fietas near the centre of Johannesburg, but was only deemed Indian by virtue of her marriage to an Indian man. 

After being widowed, she lost her identity and was reclaimed as  Malay. But inherently, Mayet was a South African, for all South Africans. 

The topic of identity was also raised at the book launch of The Indian Africans. Someone questioned the book’s title. The simple response from Naidoo was: “I was born in Africa and essentially, Africa was born in me,” adding that it is time to embrace this mixed identity. 

There’s an opportunity to fold the two identities into one that signifies our belonging to the place we were born in, and the place where we came from — to show “a notion of collective history”, to quote Joseph. 

The various events I attended for my research, and in the process discovering my own history, I realised one thing: we need to document more stories. 

Lesley Mofokeng spoke about this at the launch of The Man Who Shook Mountains, an investigation he undertook to tell the story about his grandfather, a prominent Dutch Reformed Church evangelist, and the launch of a family memoir called Our Mother, Our Luxmi about one woman’s life in South Africa after leaving India, encouraged us to do the same for our own families. 

This is just a drop in an ocean of knowledge we can explore, but amid my explorations, I discovered the story of Lenasia South had not been written about or documented, and so I took up the task to tell the story about my hometown, and the people who developed it. 

It’s just one story in the kaleidoscope of stories that exist in South Africa’s vast literary canon, and we should continue documenting and archiving such stories to remember yesterday and shape tomorrow. 

As Joseph said in an interview on Ubuntu Connect-ED Video Podcast: “I think there’s a lot of good work to be done through literature. A lot of useful, functional work that can change our society, but you’ve got to be open to reading, you’ve got to be open to learning, to asking the right questions, respectfully, and you’ve got to be open in some way of absorbing the kind of pain that your countrymen and -women have experienced — these are the stories that made us.”

I couldn’t agree more. 

Aarti Bhana is a content writer at frayintermedia. She is the Canon Collins Trust 2023 Mail & Guardian Scholar.