The long strug­gle for Di­wali

First of­fi­cial cel­e­bra­tion was in 1910, 50 years after the ar­rival of In­dian in­den­ture

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OVER 80% of the in­den­tured, who ar­rived in Port Na­tal, were Hin­dus. It is one of the fas­ci­nat­ing as­pects of his­tory that the first of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion of Di­wali was in 1910, 50 years after the very first land­ing.

To the colo­nial white pop­u­la­tion in Na­tal, Hindu mi­grants were “hea­thens” and when you mar­ried, un­der re­li­gion, was writ­ten this very word.

As JD Kelly wrote: “The colo­nial Euro­peans had lit­tle com­pre­hen­sion of, or pa­tience for, the In­dian re­li­gious tamasas, rit­ual fes­ti­vals of in­den­ture days. They saw hea­then, un­godly, lewd­ness, dan­ger­ous tu­mult and dis­or­der all the more ev­i­dence of the In­di­ans’ bad char­ac­ter.”

For the au­thor­i­ties, the in­den­tured were beasts of bur­den, cogs in a labour­ing ma­chine.

Wit­ness the words of the med­i­cal of­fi­cer of Stanger Dr HW Jones writ­ten in 1900: Mr Hulett, you don’t err on the side of mercy in the treat­ment of c ****** s. Dur­ing the sum­mer months, you make your In­di­ans toil in the blaz­ing sun from sun­rise to sun­set, a pe­riod of 12 or 13 hours… It is not an un­known in­ci­dent for In­di­ans to drop down in the field from sheer ex­haus­tion. You pro­fess a lot of Chris­tian­ity, the psalm smil­ing ma­chine is on the jog nearly the whole day – but you don’t prac­tise it.


There were cer­tain sugar barons, who de­manded that an in­den­tured woman spend her wed­ding night with him. Overseers, who brazenly raped women on the sugar cane field.

Wit­ness the tes­ti­mony of Sasamah: “I am the wife of Chen­gadoo of Ry­dal Vale Es­tate, Duffs Road. I am em­ployed on the es­tate as field labourer. Three Mon­days ago, the over­seer asked me to lie with him. I re­fused. He asked me sev­eral times after this to lie with him. I de­clined to do so on all oc­ca­sions.

“On Mon­day week last in the af­ter­noon, I was put to work alone apart from other women close to a cane field. I re­fused to work alone. He said that I must work where he says. I was do­ing my work. He left me and came back a few min­utes after and said that he would have con­nec­tion with me.

“With that he car­ried me into a large cane field. I cried out for help but there was no one work­ing near to hear my cry. He car­ried me and threw me on my back in the field. He lifted up my cloth and got be­tween my legs. Be­fore com­mit­ting the act, he stuffed cloth in my mouth. I felt he passed se­men into me. Be­fore leav­ing me he said if I told any­one he would cut my throat.”

Vel­lach com­plained to the Deputy Pro­tec­tor that Hul­ley, her em­ployer, of­fered to pay her for sex while she was in his bed­room while she was clean­ing: “He came in, strik­ing his pocket say­ing he would give me 3 if I would lie with him, as the mis­tress and her fam­ily had gone to town. I re­fused say­ing my hus­band would beat me. He said he would not tell him.”

Hul­ley’s de­fence was that he could not have made this propo­si­tion be­cause Vel­lach was “unattrac­tive”. He was found not guilty.

Sasamah’s case yielded sim­i­lar re­sults. The em­ployer’s word was sacro­sanct.

In this con­text of ca­sual ev­ery­day bru­tal­ity, the story of Rama and Sita be­comes a po­tent source of in­spi­ra­tion.

The in­den­tured too saw them­selves as ex­iled like Rama: “Bereft of goods, a men­di­cant, as slave, Rama to spend 14 years in the woods.”

In the Ra­mayana, Sita is por­trayed as the faith­ful wife, Rama as the brave war­rior and Ra­vana as evil. In Sita, the in­den­tured men saw the model of a faith­ful wife, many of them hav­ing left their wives in In­dia, or had part­ners, who were con­stantly open to abuse, as the case of Sasamah il­lus­trates.

In the fig­ure of the evil Ra­vana, they saw a “model of the delu­sions of pow­er­ful evil”, not un­like the overseers, Sir­dars and em­ploy­ers they con­fronted daily.

The play had a pow­er­ful res­o­nance among the in­den­tured pop­u­la­tion, as it showed that what­ever the chal­lenges faced, good would al­ways over­come evil.

At a time when slave-like con­di­tions gave peo­ple a feel­ing of what John Berger called “un­de­feated de­spair”, how more pow­er­ful a nar­ra­tive to grip the imag­i­na­tion and give peo­ple hope than the story of Rama and Sita?

His­tor­i­cal records re­veal that de­spite the warn­ings and vi­o­lence meted out by the bosses, in their limited time-off, the in­den­tured used drama and mu­sic to keep their spir­its go­ing. Take the case of Durga, in­den­tured number 84560, who worked for WB Turner of How­ick.

Durga told the In­dian Pro­tec­tor in 1903 that around 7pm, he and “the other In­di­ans were sit­ting in my house and pass­ing our time by singing songs. My mas­ter came to the house and took the drum from me and chopped it to the ground. When it didn’t break, he went and brought an axe and chopped it into four pieces”.

Turner ad­mit­ted break­ing the drum “be­cause they would not stop play­ing and singing all night”.

But the in­den­tured re­fused to stop danc­ing and singing, re­mem­ber­ing tra­di­tions left be­hind.

One is re­minded of Rumi: “Don’t worry about sav­ing those songs/And if one of our in­stru­ments breaks/It doesn’t mat­ter/We have fallen into place/where ev­ery­thing is mu­sic.”

De­spite the poverty wages and a sys­tem that his­to­rian Hugh Tinker de­scribed as a new form of slav­ery, the in­den­tured built nu­mer­ous tem­ples in those ini­tial years.

Em­ploy­ees of the Durban Cor­po­ra­tion, who were housed in the Rail­way and Mag­a­zine Bar­racks in the city cen­tre, built three tem­ples in the 1880s.

Of these, the Durban Hindu Tem­ple in Somt­seu Road still ex­ists, and con­tin­ues to host the ma­jor cel­e­bra­tion of Ram Navami.

Babu Tal­wants­ing and Chun­doo Sing, both of whom came as in­den­tured work­ers, founded the Gopal­lal Hindu Tem­ple in Veru­lam in 1888. One of the fi­nanciers of the Um­geni Road Tem­ple, orig­i­nally built in 1885, was a woman, Am­rotham Pil­lay, who came as an in­den­tured mi­grant.


Tem­ples were a pow­er­ful source of com­fort for many, as it was here that com­mu­nal wor­ship was ex­pe­ri­enced, birth, mar­riage and death cer­e­monies ob­served, and fes­ti­vals cel­e­brated.

These were the very first in­cu­ba­tors of com­mu­nity in an en­vi­ron­ment of in­cred­i­ble hos­til­ity.

The only time the in­den­tured could leave the plan­ta­tion was for three days to cel­e­brate Muhar­ram, what the whites called “c ****** Christ­mas”.

De­spite be­ing a Mus­lim cel­e­bra­tion, in­den­tured of all re­li­gions ar­rived in the city to cel­e­brate. They took over the city and of­ten fought pitched bat­tles with each other.

In 1891, the Su­per­in­ten­dent of Po­lice, Richard Alexan­der, re­ported: “On Sun­day morn­ing, dur­ing the Divine Ser­vice, the pub­lic were dis­tracted by tom-tom­ming car­ried out in the Rail­way Com­pound. I went my­self to stop it. I found about 1 500 half-drunk coolies… I stopped the tom-tom­ming, but heard it again be­fore I reached home.”

In 1908, divine in­ter­ven­tion ar­rived in the strug­gle for some of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion of Di­wali.

Swami Shanker­anand ar­rived on these shores and im­me­di­ately took up the strug­gle for Di­wali to be of­fi­cially recog­nised. Ini­tially, the colo­nial au­thor­i­ties fobbed him off, mock­ingly in­quir­ing, “how many c ***** Christ­mases do you want to have?” But he per­sisted, send­ing let­ter after let­ter.

In Jan­uary 1910, the Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment de­clared Di­wali a school hol­i­day. En­cour­aged by this, in April 1910, Shanker­anand or­gan­ised a mas­sive Ram Navami Fes­ti­val.

Par­tic­i­pants met at the Um­geni Road Tem­ple, and after the speeches, a crowd of ap­prox­i­mately 4 000, ac­com­pa­nied by char­i­ots, marched through the streets of Durban chant­ing “Shree Ram­chan­draji”.

When the pro­ces­sion re­turned to the tem­ple, a feast was laid on and three wrestling bouts be­tween North and South In­di­ans, at which the African Chron­i­cle news­pa­per re­ported “in­den­tured In­dian (South) was the best”. It was an im­pres­sive dis­play and the white au­thor­i­ties took note, with the Durban Mu­nic­i­pal­ity grant­ing em­ploy­ees a day off to cel­e­brate Di­wali.

And so it came to be that in 1910, Di­wali took to the streets of Durban.

Some 108 years later, I stand at the Durban Drive-in, watch­ing thou­sands of peo­ple come in search of spir­i­tu­al­ity and shop­ping. I want to tell each one about the long and his­toric strug­gle to make Di­wali a re­al­ity, the sac­ri­fices made to build the very first tem­ples and how, even in the depths of de­spair, they sang and danced to the rhythms of their gods.

I want to tell them that over a decade ago, at the height of apartheid’s power, my fa­ther and I drove past this drive-in. I was 7 years old, al­ready a vet­eran of the Raj and Avalon Cin­e­mas.

I saw the sil­hou­ettes flick­er­ing in the dis­tance.

I begged my fa­ther to drive in. He stopped on the side of the road and put me on the roof of our bor­rowed Zo­diac. He did not have the heart to tell me we were not al­lowed to en­ter this ci­tadel of white priv­i­lege.

To­day, we take the Di­wali at the drive-in for granted, obliv­i­ous to pre­vi­ous strug­gles and turn­ing our back on those still to be fought.

This Di­wali, when you burst those fire­works and gorge on one more sweet­meat, spare a thought for those who fought so hard to keep the spirit of Hin­duism alive.

A Hin­duism full of de­sire for jus­tice and an in­ner force of hope. Spare a thought too for the present Kali Yuga and how those old sto­ries from the Gita can help in­spire new gen­er­a­tions.

What the his­tory of in­den­ture teaches us is that good only over­comes evil, not be­cause it is writ­ten in the scrip­tures, but be­cause it is fought for.

De­sai is Pro­fes­sor of So­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg. The story of Di­wali is recorded in the award-win­ning book In­side In­dian In­den­ture, co-au­thored with Pro­fes­sor Goolam Va­hed. A limited number of signed copies are avail­able at Ike’s Books in Florida Road.

Re­fus­ing to be turned into num­bers: Keep­ing cul­ture alive

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