Kusum explores lives of Indians in South Africa

Updated: Jan 10, 2011, 14:58 PM IST

New Delhi: South Africa is a rainbow nation with complexities of colours and strands of life, says noted vernacular writer Kusum Ansal, who has come out with her new book "Beyond Silence".

Published in both Hindi and English, the novel was released in the capital Sunday. The book is a vivid description of South Africa encountered by a young woman from a small north Indian town, who marries into an Indian family in Durban in South Africa for love. She finds herself living amid the Indian community in the rapidly changing contemporary South Africa.

The community describes itself as "hundred percent South Africans".

As she begins her life there, the protagonist Anvita experiences the "multi-layered life of the fledgling democracy which thrives on its colour and racial diversity having battled the horrors of apartheid". She learns of the nation`s racist past and witnesses the ongoing turbulence ranging from AIDS epidemic to endemic violence which besets the nation. Parallel to South Africa, the author explores the life in Unna, a small sleepy town in Punjab from where Anvita migrated to Africa.

The book was released by Ela Gandhi, the grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi, and Deborah Balatseng, the deputy high commissioner of South Africa in India.

Ansal said her "research revealed that the first batch of Indian indentured labourers to South Africa was from erstwhile Madras (Chennai) to Durban on Nov 16, 1860."

The first batch of Indians who migrated to South Africa were "mostly Tamil and Telugu speaking South Indian Hindus and other unencumbered immigrants who followed them were mainly Gujarati Muslims from western India", said Ansal, whose book "Ek Aur Panchavati" was made into the movie "Panchavati" by Bollywood director Basu Bhattacharya.

"They were called coolies and their identity was `tin-ticket` or a `pass` which carried their number, not name. They were forced to live in barracks, which measured 1,344 feet and housed a minimum of six people. The barracks were made of iron, wood, felt and paraffin tins, where the roofs leaked all the time and air was stagnant and offensive. The food was insufficient and the work load was immense. A white `sirdar` monitored their input in the sugarcane fields and whipped them mercilessly," Ansal said.

In 1863, a law helped several Indians pay their "five pound commutation fine" to relieve themselves of their obligation to the government and country and establish their own businesses.

"My memory travels back to the days when I was invited to Durban for a writers` meet in 2003. I came across several shops in the city with Indian sounding names and my eye caught temple domes in the city. When I entered the Indian Council, there were quite a few Indians in the audience. Much of their lives had remained unspoken. Their world was very different and they had different identities. My desire to breach their mystical silence grew stronger. The silence travelled back with me to India," Ansal recalled.

The myriad "social, moral and political issues pulled me back to the Indians in South Africa", Ansal said and she went back to South Africa to research for the book in 2007.

"I wanted to experience the pulse of the city. I visited several Indian homes in South Africa, shared their simple meals and they helped me absorb their simple middle class lifestyles," Ansal said.

`Beyond Silence` has been published by Roli Books.