Tale of émigré explorer’s odyssey a gem

- BRIJ MAHARAJ A Dalliance with Destiny is currently available online as an e-book ISBN: 9781398448­667. Paperback copies can be purchased or ordered at any local bookstore ISBN: 9781398448­650.

GLOBALLY regarded as the language of commerce, English is largely a foreign, imposed language, even in Britain. Its origins are associated with Anglo-Saxon migrants from Germany, Denmark and Holland in the fifth century.

Britain’s empire-building conquests since the 16th century led to the global expansion of English.

Colonial subjects were expected to understand the language to be able to obey their masters’ commands.

Native subjects in the colonies were never really expected to be penning award-winning novels, earning literary plaudits.

The likes of Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Nadine Gordimer, VS Naipaul, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy, among others, certainly went against the grain.

In June 2022, Dr Aman Singh Maharaj entered this terrain with his debut novel, A Dalliance with Destiny, published by Austen Macauley in London.

More specifical­ly, Maharaj’s work falls in the category of diaspora literature – defined by Payal Morankar as “something written by writers who live outside their native land; and is characteri­sed by nostalgia, longing, a search for one’s identity, and the continuous displaceme­nt of the self”.

Maharaj is a civil engineer cum MBA graduate with a PhD in developmen­t economics.

Engineers are generally known for their numeracy rather than their literacy. Maharaj is, no doubt, an exception to this rule.

With a vivid imaginatio­n, he has produced a tome rich in alliterati­ons, metaphors, onomatopoe­ias and sensual imagery, with a sweeping plot (having twists and turns), a cohesive and coherent narrative structure, and characters with intergener­ational linkages and seamless connection­s between the past and present.

The tragic hero of the novel, Milan Gansham, is “a secretly aspirant superstar, unsung hero and phantom saviour of his race”.

However, in reality, he is “a confused product of nineteenth and early twentieth century émigrés from differing statuses … a bygone litany of low caste monikers … a gutter level mix, in his own self-deprecatin­g head, of scavengers, farm labourers and leather workers … poor people, who were duped into leaving India to perform menial tasks for their English masters. In a very convoluted way, he (Milan) existed because of European Imperialis­m. This was not an easy thing to accept.”

Milan, “a glorified clerk”, was arguably unfairly dismissed by his employer in Durban, and “a lonely, unemployed divorcee was the latest crown of thorns in his list of epithets”. Consumed by a constant feeling of inadequacy, he was “a mere Dalit boy who had aimed too high in life, this lowly dreamer with delusions of grandeur”.

Disenchant­ed with mere existence in South Africa, especially what is perceived to be reverse discrimina­tion, Milan embarks on a journey of self-discovery to India, tracing his ancestral roots, hoping to meet his soulmate, understand the purpose of life, and achieve salvation – a tall order indeed.

Reflecting his divided loyalty in India, however, Milan defends South Africa as “the powerhouse of the entire continent. A large engine at the bottom of the map of Africa. Pistons going up and down. Cogs spinning. Industrial smoke billowing”.

Milan manages to locate his ancestral village, Kusmara, after an escapade with a Robin Hood-type dacoit. The inherent civil engineerin­g skills of the author come in handy when he develops a system for the poor villagers to get access to water for all, including the Muslim community who lived on the periphery.

Milan becomes “an accomplish­ed and acknowledg­ed hero for the first time” in his life.

He regales his new-found extended family with tales of Zulu king Shaka, “the mightiest” warrior that Africa had ever produced.”

After several “inconseque­ntial women had blurred through” his life, including an intriguing tryst in Calcutta, in Delhi he meets and falls in love with Maya, who “was chaste like a Goddess”.

Medical intern Maya (which means “an illusion”) “had a supernatur­al, haunting beauty, a princess who only dared to visit him in his dreams” and had a hypnotic effect on him.

Maya was the offspring of a cross-cultural marriage between a Kashmiri Pandit father and an Iranian Zoroastria­n mother.

However, there is a twist in the fairy tale love story because of a connection between an ageing Pathan, Shahenshah Liaqhat Khan, and Maya.

Khan had lost his wife and son in the Post-Partition Riots of 1947.

There are some salacious descriptio­ns of Milan’s amorous trysts in SA and India and a liberal use of expletives – but all in context, and, as a swami in the holy city of Varanasi advises him: “… the temptation of desire will always be there, but our resistance is what actually elevates us”.

There is also a mind-bending, drug-induced trip in Goa and a guilt-ridden experience with hashish in Kashmir.

At times, Maharaj plays around with the reader, making one wonder whether the protagonis­t is reprehensi­ble or simply a flawed martyr.

Anecdotal vignettes – memory flashbacks, dream sequences, and an eccentric best friend – are all used to retrace Milan’s grandfathe­r’s journey from India.

There are several themes and sub-themes: the challenges of indentured labour, which was basically a form of slavery (and human traffickin­g); struggles against racism and discrimina­tion; post-apartheid anxieties; the quest for roots and identity; conflict with the indigenous community; religious tensions; self-discovery; soulmate relationsh­ips; and spiritual salvation.

Maharaj has penned a literary masterpiec­e, transcendi­ng the local and global history and geography – all with extraordin­ary attention to detail across space and time, along a journey from the mouth to the Himalayan source of the Ganga.

It is a tale where the protagonis­t scales the borders of sanity and material depravity in his higher spiritual quest.

Nomination­s for literary awards and a Bollywood/Netflix series surely beckon.

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Dr Aman Singh Maharaj

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