Hindu Posts

Zainab Priya Dala’s “What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa”

Like a white net veil worn over a red saree, or an ivory satin gown sleeve that borders ornate paisley mehndi patterns, the people of Indian origin in South Africa evolved from holding tightly onto the shreds of Indian culture that they came with inside locked boxes and sewn into hemlines. But, like all migrants, or perhaps refugees the world over, evolution is the Holy Grail, the ability to blend into the current social strata. The result became the South African Indian. A mix of names formed and re-formed, and clothing worn and then not worn, and eventually as apartheid was abolished, an identity searched for and still to be found. 

South African writer Zainab Priya Dala’s What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa is a collection of essays that are a mix of memoir, sharing opinions on the changing political landscape and the growth of Dala as a writer. These essays are sharply written detailing the complicated histories South African citizens of Indian origin have to contend with on a daily basis. It informs their identity. Even details such as if their ancestors came as “indentured labourers” or as “passenger Indians” makes a world of difference to their sense of identity in a foreign land. Zainab Priya is of mixed parentage as her father is a Hindu and her mother a Muslim. Later she married in to a well-established Muslim business family who had come to South Africa relatively recently but she regularly encounters variations between the families in their habits and living styles.

What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa is a slim collection of powerfully written essays. These essays by a South African Indian reflecting upon multiple aspects of her existence is much like this book being the sum of many parts of her life — mother, wife, daughter, writer, activist, migrant, political awakening etc ( and not necessarily in the given order of importance). Fact is the moment you are aware of your personal histories the complexities of one’s ancestry become evident and it is no longer quite as simple to speak of genealogies in puritanical terms or of political action in black and white terms of “us and they”. Zainab Priya Dala is sharply articulate about these complex inheritances and is very aware of the fine negotiations it demands of her on a daily basis which is a given way of life. And it is precisely these day-to-day exercises in living that also sharply bring home to her details in society that Gandhi was blinded by. The South Africa in which he honed his political activism was primarily aimed at the racist modes of governance and not necessarily at recognising the microcosm of South African or South African Indian society and its distinct threads of identity. Curious that Gandhi who otherwise was so very sensitive missed these finer distinctions of identity especially since he and the author both have links to the Gujarati community. Yet for Gandhi it was apartheid of far more importance and it remained so till the 1990s when many of the South African social structures were realigned. In the new era it is not so much as race governing lines of social separation but money. With money becoming the defining factor of ancestries and communal make-up become even more acutely apparent. And as in the jungle, it is the survival of the fittest, same holds true for civil society. Those who survive in the new socio-economic terrain are also confident of their identity while aware of their historical, soci-political and genetic inheritances — a fact that Zainab Priya Dala is clear she will spell out for her children.

What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa  is a sharp commentary on contemporary South Africa. It must be read. The thought-provoking essays will resonate with many readers especially women, across nations. Also for how smartly it puts the reader under the scanner and forces them to question and understand their inherited narratives better.

Read an extract from the book used with permission from the publishers — Speaking Tiger Books.

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My father, a third generation non-resident Indian, whose grandfather had come from a village near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, preferred not to talk much about his heritage. But, things changed when he reached sixty years of age. Why? I will never know. But what I do know is that everything about my heritage from my paternal side had been spoken of by others, including my father’s brothers and sisters, not him. Maybe, he suffered the affliction of a love marriage to a woman who was seen as superior to him, and he wanted to delete his inferiority in the eyes of his children. But, I am seeing now how I also do the similar thing to my children. My husband, like my mother,  comes from the big city of Durban, and his heritage is one of the Muslim business class that came to South Africa long after the indentured labourers** and anyway, let me just say it – he is considered higher class than I am, so we tend to appropriate this onto our children. Perhaps my father had done the same for many years.  And, perhaps he decided to speak openly about our mixed up heritage only after my sister and I were safely and happily stowed away into good marriages. Things are sometimes as ugly as that. But speak he did. It became a river that never stopped. One day a year ago we were at a fancy dinner party held by my cousin from my mother’s side of the family – a very rich and successful doctor amongst a family of doctors. He lived in an area we still call today a White Area, which means that before 1994, none of us would have ever dreamed of walking past a house there, let alone living in one. My father was quiet during this dinner, but perhaps a few glasses of expensive whiskey loosened his tongue, and he started talking about his childhood on the farm. My mother tried to quieten him, not because she was ashamed, but because she knew he was about to cry. The room went silent as if a spell had been cast by a mournful farm-accented voice ringing out among the posh “white” accents of my cousins and his friends. But, minutes into his monologue, my cousin’s husband blurted:“Oh really now, Babs, should we get you an audition for another ‘Coolie Odyssey’?” (‘The Coolie Odyssey’ was a play on the indentured labourers written, directed by,  and starring,  Rajesh Gopie, a South African Indian dramatist).

My father fell into silence, and my husband, who is sensitive to the point of extreme protection of my father at most times, ushered him outside. I was carrying my baby son, and looking at these two men, standing next to a Balinese-inspired swimming pool, sharing a cigarette and probably chatting about the price of fuel, it was not lost on me that I was carrying in my arms the actual reality of a class divide.  My son will always have to negotiate this divide and there is nothing I can do to protect him from it. Why would I need to protect him? Well, to put it as succinctly as I can, in South Africa, we let go of the caste system in the bowels of a ship in the 1800s, but we adopted a system that became very insidious. Fellow writers and historians, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed in their detailed opus, Inside Indenture, A South African Story 1860 – 1914, describe these people who dropped their caste into the Indian Ocean as “twice-born.” Here, they refer to the fact that in the shiphold, there was no room for caste or class. An Indian inside there was an Indian who ate and slept alongside all others. But once they arrived at the port, and the documents of demographics were being created, a lower caste could easily take himself up a few notches. Today, in contemporary South Africa, caste is obsolete. We all know enough by now to question the Maharaja and Singh surname with a studied eye for actual refinement in behaviour, language and of course education. This does not mean there are no divisions. The divisions go deep. They are based on religion, economics, language and colour. Of course, I know that these divisions are changeable ones much like dropping your caste at a shipyard, now you can change your religion, think and grow rich, lighten your skin and perfect your English. This malleability scares the ones who wielded class like gold crowns. I admit, my maternal family and my husband’s family are those that did. They are forgiven because they didn’t know they were doing it.

In South Africa, the business class came to the shores of Natal mainly from the villages of Gujarat. My father-in-law describes it well when he tells me in thick Gujarati: “One side of the street is Muslim Desai family. Opposite side of street is Hindu Desai family. Both Desais understand each other and get along better than even Muslim Urdu speakers or Calcuttiah people.”

I don’t look at anything he is saying as derogatory. The reason is that he is not insulting anyone, he is simply stating facts. The Gujarati community aggregated together in a code of business and called  each other “Aapra-wallahs’. They still use this term today. An acquaintance, who is a great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi,  once came over to my house to collect items I wanted to donate to a family rendered homeless after a fire. I had known him for some years, and had interacted with him many times on charitable or literary correspondence. But, within minutes of the mutual spotting of an Aapra-wallah in the room, I ceased to exist in the conversation. My husband, a Muslim,  and my associate, a Hindu, both spoke Gujarati that went far above my head. I had learned the basics of the language, to communicate with my husband’s family who spoke only Gujarati. My mother’s family were too high class to speak any vernacular, and only the Queen’s English would do. My father’s family spoke a combination of Urdu, Hindi and Bhojpuri. My best friend spoke Afrikaans and the children I grew up playing with spoke Zulu. Add to this mix the terms that each of us reserved for each grouping, which are as derogatory as being called Coolies, and it is no wonder that I cannot sleep some nights.

Indians who left as indentured labourers from the port of Calcutta are called Calcuttiahs, and Indians who left as indentured labourers from the port of Madras are called Madrasis. The Muslim community have their own lines of division and I find that these lines are deeply hurtful. Muslims who arrived in South Africa as indentured labourers are thought to come from Hyderabad. Although many chroniclers say that the majority of the Muslim community in South Africa who are not business arrivals are actually converts to Islam. This is how the Muslim community divide their people – colour and language. It used to be money, but now everyone is keeping up with the Joneses and the famous Gujarati Trust Funds** are running on empty, having cossetted very large and extravagant families for two generations.

The Memon Muslim community is a very small one, but they wield a large economic clout.  They are known to have come from different areas around India, originally from Kathiawar, but finally settled as a community near Porbandar in Gujarat, from where a number of them migrated to South Africa as traders and businessmen. Another batch of Gujarati Muslims came from different villages in Gujarat, and left for South Africa from the port of Surat. They proudly refer to each other as Surtis and use the term “Hedroo,” to describe any other Muslim who is not Gujarati or Memoni. Hedroos, a terrible term, is used to speak of the class of Muslims whom the Surti community look upon as low class and  poor. Inter-marriages between Surtis and Hedroos are still frowned upon. I am reminded of my own wedding day, when my husband’s aunt told me that in the history of the Dala family, it was the first time they had accepted a “mixed” girl for any of their boys. Their bloodline had remained pure Gujarati till 2006, the year of my nikkah. I responded to the aunt by a small nod that day, and replied to her: “Hahn ji.”

***

Footnotes

**Over 100,000 Indians arrived as slaves from the subcontinent in 1684 and lived in Cape Town.  The first Indian indentured labourers arrived on 16 November 1860.The passenger/ trader Indians began arriving around 1875 to meet the need for commercial trade in the community, Black and  Indian as well as  Coloured.

**Gujarati Trust Funds were set up from the mid 1870s by wealthy Gujarati families, to cater for all educational, medical and housing needs of their community. When Gandhi arrived in South Africa, the Gandhi Trust was set up to cater for legal needs and to publish a newspaper called The Indian Opinion.

Zainab Priya Dala What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 150. Rs 499

27 November 2018 

 

Arunava Sinha on translating Buddhadeva Bose’s classic “Tithodore” and the future of translations.

Arunava Sinha on translating Buddhadeva Bose’s classic “Tithodore” and the future of translations.

 

( This was an interview with Arunava Sinha, translator, that I did in 2011 for the Hindu. The original url is here: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/leave-nothing-out-add-nothing/article2539907.ece )

 

Arunava Sinha: A window for translation. Photo: Special Arrangement
Arunava Sinha: A window for translation. Photo: Special Arrangement

Arunava Sinha on translating Buddhadeva Bose’s classic Tithodore and the future of translations.

Arunava Sinha is an award-winning translator of classic and contemporary Bengali fiction. His “day job” is as an internet professional. He won the Vodafone-Crossword award (2007) for Chowringhee, which was also short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, UK (2009). He recently translated Buddhadeva Bose’s masterpiece, Tithodore (1949) as When the Time is Right. In this interview, Arunava talks about translating Tithodore, BB, and the future of translations.

Why and how did you get into translating Bengali writers?

I started with short stories in the late 1980s for a city magazine Calcutta Skyline. But the whole process gathered steam when Penguin published my translation of Chowringhee — which I had actually done at the author’s behest in 1992 -— 14 years later, in 2006.

On what basis do you make these selections?

The primary appeal is subjective: do I love the book and do I want my friends to read it? The only reason not to translate a book that passes these parameters is if it’s so rooted in a local culture and geography as to lose its richness when read in a different cultural context, as translations are.

When did you begin translating Tithodore?

I began in September 2009. The first draft took one month, working six hours a day. I translated as if I was “possessed” by the experience and felt bereft when the exercise came to an end. Once it was complete, I revisited it thrice to iron out all angularities of expression, but I firmly believe in the motto of “leave out nothing, add nothing”.

When the Time is Right reads very smoothly. Comment.

It tells an absorbing and dramatic story, marked by Buddhadeva Bose’s seemingly casual voice which is, actually, intensely poetic. Given that he was a notable poet and verse-dramatist himself, Bose seems to have used these skills in prose. While translating, I discovered that Bose’s prose is rich with the cadences and inflexions encountered in poetry. The conversations are never dull, the dialogue and self-expression is honed and always heard. His observations about people are nuanced and layered and his characters are very aware and articulate themselves through casual conversation. Bose understood language deeply and all his choices of word, phrase and form are deliberate.

When do you find the time to translate?  

Whenever I get a window, which could be hours at a stretch or a few minutes. I was lucky when working on Tithodore, in that my day job was not as demanding as it is now, allowing me to work for about six hours a day. Sometimes, I am working on three books in different stages in the production cycle: actually translating one, working on edits of another and proof-reading a third. When it comes to actual translation, it’s usually one book at a time, because once you’ve got a writer’s voice — or think you do — you don’t want it polluted by anything else.”

Have you considered translating poetry?

Considered, yes. But I’m not equal to the task. I’ve tried my hand at a few small poems, but my work with verse is not good enough to be published.

Where you ever trained in doing translations?

No training. Is there even such a thing in India yet? There should be though.

I hear translations are a very expensive and tedious process…

I don’t think a translator who loves the work they’re doing and the book they’re translating would consider it tedious. Expensive yes; you do have to invest plenty of time and energy. But that’s true of any creative effort, surely. The passion of sharing is what starts it off, but once you’re into it, the need to complete the work becomes a living force in itself.

How would you define a “good” translator?

One who is true to everything in the original — content, form, voice, cadences, spirit — and still make the final product as accomplished and effortless a read as the original.

Is it possible to tell a good translation from a bad one, especially if you do not know the primary language? 

Yes it is. Assuming the original title has been chosen well, if the translation reads awkwardly while telling a great story, you know it’s the translation that’s at fault here.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is a international publishing consultant and critic. She also has a monthly column on the business of publishing, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online. 

 

Wendy Doniger “On Hinduism” ( 15 March 2013)

Wendy Doniger “On Hinduism” ( 15 March 2013)

Wendy Doniger is an American indologist who has been writing for over forty-four years. In her introduction to On Hindusim she says that she always wrote easily and joyously. But her prime audience was an American audience, primarily for her students so she was “totally blinded by the passionate Hindu response to my book The Hindu: An Alternative History“. It simply had not occurred to her that Hindus would read it. “I had figured, the Hindus already knew all about their own religion, or at least knew as much as they wanted to know, or in any any case didn’t want to learn anything more from an American woman ( I was right about that last point, but in some ways I had not foreseen).” But with this book published by Aleph, she has “designed a book specifically for an Indian audience.”

The 63 essays collected in this book have been arranged not chronologically but logically. There are seven sections that deal with the nature of Hinduism, explore the concepts of divinity, consider Hindu attitudes to gender, beginning with Manu’s attitude to women in general, desire and the control of desire in Hinduism, the question of reality and illusion, the impermanent and the eternal in the two great Sanskrit epics and finally four short pieces of autobiography, including an essay on her clash with her Hindu critics (“You Can’t Make an Omelette”). She has revised and reworked some of the essays to make them far more accessible and easy to read.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the essays in the section on “Women and Other Genders”. Wendy Doniger’s lucid style makes complicated stories so easy to understand, her academic analysis is sharp and a pleasure but she wears it so lightly that it is not a chore to read these essays. Her autobiographical essays too are just a right mix of the personal and a perspective on her deep engagement with Hinduism and how it has had an impact on her life — personal and professional.

This is a good volume to have, but at a bulky 700 pages of text and a hardback, it is not a book that can be easily picked up. You need to find the time to read it properly, by sitting at a desk. It works as a reference volume but its content is also available to the lay reader. Maybe Aleph could have considered publishing it in two volumes, preferably the notes, the extensive bibliography as the second volume, and presenting the set in a slip case. It would have been easier to read all though a little expensive to produce. ( I would not be surprised to hear if readers do with this volume what they did with Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy when it was first published. It was considered to be too bulky so ripping it apart in to three volumes was not unheard of!)

Wendy Doniger On Hinduism (Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp 680. Rs. 995)