Trac­ing In­dian iden­tity in South Africa

The Hitavada - - PASTIME - ■ By Saket Su­man

IN HER re­cent book, What Gandhi Didn't

See: Be­ing In­dian In South Africa, au­thor Zainab Priya Dala looks back from the van­tage point of her own per­sonal his­tory -- a fourth-gen­er­a­tion South African-In­dian of mixed lin­eage -- and re­calls that, as a child, she was hes­i­tant about ac­cept­ing her In­dian iden­tity, but con­tends that she has now come to terms with it.

She has shared me­mories of her grow­ing up in South Africa in the 1980s -- a time of the State of Emer­gency, the atro­cious Tri­cam­eral Sys­tem ad­vo­cated and sup­ported by many South African-In­di­ans, and the height­ened ef­forts to have Nel­son Man­dela re­leased from prison and fi­nally usher in a demo­cratic gov­ern­ment.

“The largest chal­lenge I think I faced was ne­go­ti­at­ing the ap­par­ent and false safety of be­ing an In­dian rather than a Black child, and watch­ing many of my com­mu­nity ac­cept the Tri­cam­eral Sys­tem, which was a means de­vised by the rul­ing White gov­ern­ment to give a place in Par­lia­ment to In­di­ans,” Dala, who has writ­ten two pre­vi­ous nov­els and has won ac­co­lades for her short sto­ries, told IANS in an email from Dur­ban in South Africa.

She said she could see that the In­dian com­mu­nity were be­ing given more priv­i­leges and ac­cess to ba­sic hu­man needs as com­pared to the Black com­mu­nity, and this un­fair­ness went against her for­ma­tive ideas of democ­racy. “It irked me that many In­dian peo­ple ben­e­fited and lapped up these hand­outs and en­riched them­selves on a false sense of fair­ness. I felt that we were be­tray­ing Nel­son Man­dela by our com­plicit ac­cep­tance of this bet­ter life, and when he was re­leased, I hoped that the play­ing fields would be lev­eled. But, the fur­ther chal­lenge then came for me when I saw that un­fair­ness seemed to again rear its head in that, again, ev­ery In­dian was be­ing painted with the same brush and looked at by the Black com­mu­nity as op­por­tunists and sell-outs,” she re­called.

She goes on to men­tion in her book that the truth is “I am South African”, ex­plain­ing that she re­lates more to a Black woman than a woman from In­dia. But then she also states that all race groups in the coun­try are now search­ing for their defin­ing roots.

She said South African-In­di­ans to­day are very mu­ta­ble, ac­cord­ing to the en­vi­ron­ment. They have al­ways man­aged to main­tain a cul­tural iden­tity that is strongly In­dian, and with that comes re­li­gion. She ex­plained that most South African-In­di­ans have held onto their re­li­gious be­liefs, but in do­ing so they have also ap­pro­pri­ated the lan­guage and cul­ture of the Afrikaner, the Blacks and all oth­ers in be­tween.

Dala, who lived and worked in Dublin and has now moved to Dur­ban, said the defin­ing roots of South African-In­di­ans re­main in re­li­gion and cul­tural prac­tices, but that is only when they are in their own com­mu­ni­ties and fam­i­lies.

“When we are out there in so­cial sit­u­a­tions and work­places, we have de­vel­oped this abil­ity to be chameleons, and fit our­selves into the melt­ing pot that is con­tem­po­rary South African so­ci­ety. But... in their own com­mu­ni­ties and homes, (they) are deeply In­dian in their lives and prac­tices. It's like we have these two lives, and we are con­stantly weav­ing in and out of these two worlds,” she added.

Dala con­tends in the book that the In­dian di­as­pora in South Africa has come full cir­cle and, in the last 10 years, more and more peo­ple are ea­ger to know where they came from.

“I think af­ter South Africa be­came a democ­racy and is­sues of colour were re­moved from the ta­ble, peo­ple be­gan to fi­nally look at them­selves and pos­si­bly felt safer to ask the ques­tions of their lin­eage. They felt more free­dom to find out about where they came from in­stead of hid­ing it all away, and pre­tend­ing to be White,” she said, in re­sponse to a ques­tion on the on­go­ing churn.

She said that trade has be­come a fac­tor in this new wave of peo­ple con­nect­ing to In­dia and hailed the In­dian gov­ern­ment as well as the BRICS group­ing, which have set up op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple in both In­dia and South Africa for busi­ness. These have led to more fre­quent flights to In­dia, and tours to In­dia are be­ing pub­li­cised. She also said that the surge of Bol­ly­wood made it “cool” for South African-In­di­ans to iden­tify them­selves as In­di­ans. What Gandhi Didn't See: Be­ing In­dian In

South Africa is pub­lished by Speak­ing Tiger and is priced at Rs 499.

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