Crossing the Kala Pani: Cause for "Celebration" or "Commemoration" 150 Years on? Portrayals of Indenture in Recent South African Writing

Article excerpt

Summary

In 2010, the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured labourers from India brought across the Indian Ocean--the kala pani--on the SS Truro in 1860, was marked in a variety of ways by the descendants of those original pioneers. One of the many letters to the press during last year asked whether cultural organisations should be "celebrating" or "commemorating" this anniversary given the harsh conditions under which indentured labour was carried out. This article picks up on this point--to "celebrate" or "commemorate"?--by seeking to assess how the topic of indenture is handled in the local press and also in fictional works of selected contemporary South African writers of Indian descent; for example, Neelan Govender's Girrmit Tales (2008), Rubendra Govender's Sugar Cane Boy (2008), Aziz Hassim's Revenge of Karl (2009) among others. These titles are all recent additions to what could be called a South African plantation literature which is flourishing at present in local writing circles, given perhaps the 150th anniversary mentioned above, but also given a coming of age for South African Indian fiction post apartheid.

Opsomming

In 2010 is die 150e herdenking van die aankoms van die eerste kontrakarbeiders uit Indie (war in 1860 aan boord die SS Truro oor die Indiese Oseaan--die kala pani--na Suid-Afrika verskeep is) op verskillende maniere deur die nasate van die oorspronklike pioniers gevier. Een van die bale briewe wat verlede jaar in die pers verskyn het, het bevraagteken of kultuurorganisasies hierdie jaarfees moet "vier" of "herdenk" in die lig van die moeilike toestande waarin die kontrakarbeiders hulle bevind het. Hierdie artikel bou voort op hierdie vraag, naamlik of die gebeurtenis gevier of herdenk behoort te word. Dit probeer vasstel hoe die onderwerp van kontrakarbeid in die plaaslike pers en die fiksiewerk van geselekteerde kontemporere Suid-Afrikaanse skrywers van Indiese afkoms hanteer word, byvoorbeeld in Neelan Govender se Girrmit Tales (2008), Rubendra Govender se Sugar Cane Boy (2008) en Aziz Hassim se Revenge of Karl (2009). Hierdie titels is almal onlangse bydraes tot wat 'n Suid-Afrikaanse plantasieletterkunde genoem kan word. Dit is 'n letterkunde wat tans in plaaslike skryfkringe floreer, en is moontlik te danke aan bogenoemde 150e herdenking van die aankoms, of die mondigwording van Suid-Afrikaanse Indiese fiksie in die post-apartheid era.

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On 16 November 2010, a remarkable anniversary was recorded in South Africa: that day marks t 50 years since the arrival in Durban on the SS Truro of the first shipment of Indian labourers destined to serve a five-year period of indenture in the sugar cane fields of Natal. The harsh beginnings of what has been likened to slave labour for girmitvas--"from English, agreement, referred to indentured workers, those who had signed an agreement" (Dhupelia-Mesthrie 2000: 14)--defines this anniversary as a bitter-sweet one. From the various commemorative projects launched in the course of the year, the overriding tone is one of pride at the achievements of the descendants despite their very tough start on African soil; plus celebration of their resilience, not only then but throughout their sojourn and settlement in South Africa.

This article was prompted by a letter to the press (see below) which led me to reflect on what this momentous 150th anniversary might mean to the South African Indian descendants of today, especially the writers. What is immediately evident is the growing number of fictional texts by South African Indian writers, many of which have as their topic the subject of indentured labour, as well as the number of works of historical research on the same topic. It is clear that the broad field of study surrounding South African Indians is rapidly attracting attention from many quarters, particularly from South African Indians themselves. And such attention, evident through the wealth of writing currently available, is not only from academics but from people from all walks of life: medical doctors, journalists, lawyers, accountants, teachers. …