‘What Gandhi Didn’t See — Being Indian in South Africa’ review: Lines of separation

One of the things we learnt about Gandhi in school was how his sojourn in South Africa — and specifically being thrown out a train at Pietermaritzburg — led to a shift in his politics and social views.

Last year much was made about the fact that it was the 125th anniversary of his eviction from the train and Zainab Priya Dala’s What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa has an account of re-enactment that ends with the question “If he came here today, to modern-day South Africa, would only the rich be allowed to have an audience with him? Would anyone else even care?” She wonders whether South Africa has “begun engineering a relevance to Gandhi that serves popular politics now in a country that is scratching the dust for heroes.”

A slim volume of essays that combines history, memoir, and opinion, the book also talks about negotiating a complicated history on a daily basis. Dala digs into family history and her own experiences to show how Gandhi did not really touch the labouring classes in her country. A telling remark comes from her father — whose great-grandfather had come to South Africa — as an indentured labourer: “Gandhi was a great man... but he never came here, did he?” ‘Here’ was a sugarcane mill where men and women were yoked to a sugarcane crusher.

Dala offers quick sketches of life in South Africa post the abolition of apartheid, how Indians who had been treated marginally better than the Black South Africans now face animosity and hate, of how caste didn’t quite matter but what did was whether one arrived as indentured labourer or as trader.

Today, Dala writes, the line of separation is money. For a country that is grappling with many of the issues that Dala writes about, the book holds up a mirror to ourselves. The South African Indians have moved far away from the canefields and the time they felt Gandhi was far above them, says Dala, arguing that young people need to be able to reach out to the Mahatma and his words. She wants Gandhi to be taken out of the ‘manicured glass box’ by people who keep him like a ‘memento’. Just one grouse: was it necessary to go on repeating her family’s antecedents?

What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa; Zainab Priya Dala, Speaking Tiger, ₹499.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 12:19:42 PM |

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