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What Gandhi Didn't See: Being Indian in South Africa

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Back of the Book From the vantage point of her own personal history-a fourth-generation Indian South African of mixed lineage-indentured as well as trader class, part Hindu, part Muslim-Dala explores the nuts and bolts of being Indian in South Africa today. `Written with passion, this book is a beautiful and sincere account of the resilience and strength with which [indentured workers] overcame their terrible conditions...and the suffering and scars that people still have to live with...
Back of the Book

From the vantage point of her own personal history-a fourth-generation Indian South African of mixed lineage-indentured as well as trader class, part Hindu, part Muslim-Dala explores the nuts and bolts of being Indian in South Africa today.

`Written with passion, this book is a beautiful and sincere account of the resilience and strength with which [indentured workers] overcame their terrible conditions...and the suffering and scars that people still have to live with.'

Activist and former Member of Parliament, South African these pages, biography and history collide and collaborate to make for a compelling and visceral examination of what it might mean to be Indian in Africa. Might, because this is a book about activism and agency, about not bowing down to imposed labels but challenging and confronting them in a world in which apartheid still lives.’

About the Book

In this series of essays, Zainab Priya Dala deftly lifts the veil on some of the many other facets of South African Indians, starting with the question: How relevant is Gandhi to them today? Even 125 years after his historic eviction from a train compartment in Pietermaritzburg, have his teachings reached the descendants of the laborers in the sugarcane fields, for whom he fought against the atrocities of indenture, or is he still a remote figure appropriated by the elite business class, with whom he spent much of his time in South Africa?

It is a question Dala answers with searing honesty, just as she tackles the questions of the 'new racism' -between Black Africans and Indians-and the `new apartheid'-money; the tussle between the `canfields' where she grew up, and the `Casbah', or the glittering town of Durban; and what the changing patterns in the names the Indian community chooses to adopt reflect.

In writing that is fluid, incisive and sensitive, she explores the new democratic South Africa that took birth long after Gandhi returned to the subcontinent, and the fight against apartheid was fought and won.

In this new 'Rainbow Nation', people of Indian origin are striving to keep their ties to Indian culture whilst building a stronger South African identity. Zainab Priya Dala describes some of the scenarios that result from this dichotomy.

About the Author

Zainab Priya Dala is a freelance writer and psychologist. Her debut novel What About Meera won the inaugural Minara Aziz Hassim Literary Prize in South Africa and was long listed for both the Etisalat Prize for Fiction (the most prestigious literary prize for African fiction) and the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize (South Africa's largest literary award). Her second novel, The Architecture of Loss, was shortlisted for the Clara Johnson Award for Women's Literature, 2018. Her short stories were awarded second prize in the Witness True Stories of KwaZulu Natal and she has written opinion pieces for The New York Times Magazine, Marie Claire and Elle. In 2017, she received an Honorary Fellowship in Writing at the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa. She has lived and worked in Dublin and now lives in Durban, South Africa.


When I was about eleven years old, my parents, bothered by my shyness and stuttering, sent me to speech and drama lessons. The lessons were run by a feisty limber South African Indian beauty named Saira Essa. She represented to me everything a woman should be. For my final examinations, which were moderated by a place that sounded very important, although I knew nothing about it-Trinity College-I thought long and hard over what I could do in my spoken word essay. My father, taking keen interest in this new outspoken daughter who had replaced the mumbling fumbling bumbler, took me onto our balcony and pointed. The rows and rows of sugarcane dancing in the fields were all my eye could see.

`Tell them about us. About Indians and how we came here to South Africa,' Dad said.

`But the judges are White people, Daddy,' I protested. 'White people are not interested in hearing stories about people of color in our country.'

`Tell them anyway.'

My speech began like this (and I still have the handwritten copy) :

`In 1860, the SS Truro and the SS Belvedere left the ports of Calcutta and Madras, carrying cargo. This cargo was people. They were the first of a many people that came to South Africa from India to work as indentured laborers on the sugarcane fields.'

At the cue of the word, I brandished a sugarcane stalk, held out in front of me like a weapon. As if showing the judges a thin stalk of undeveloped cane would somehow convince them that this actually happened.

I am looking now at the report that the judges gave me. I got 88 percent. But the criticism was that I was 'too passionate'. Since when is that a criticism?

As the years wore on I promptly forgot all about laborers and sugarcane fields. South Africa had so many other things to think about. South Africans of color were fighting battles of inequality enforced by a horrific system called apartheid, and thinking about India was the last thing on anyone's mind. Children of my generation were too busy worrying about why we had to study Afrikaans (a South African dialect of Dutch, enforced on our education system), and why we could not go to the White people's beach during summer holidays. India was a foreign, exotic place, and the only 'Indian' we recognized was religious texts which made no sense to us although we were forced to learn them in Sanskrit, and perhaps a few sporadic LPs of Indian movies that some rich person managed to ship home.

Like my peers, I began to become embarrassed about anything remotely Indian. A one-hour slot on a radio station that was allocated to 'Indian content' had us listening secretly to songs from the movie Amar Akbar Anthony. If my Dad turned up the volume, I would shout at him to lower it. What if my friends heard it? We baulked at wearing stalwart suits to weddings (we called them Punjabis and still do). Women like my mother preferred to wear mini-skirts and I cried for days because I wanted a pair of denims. What was I doing? I wasn't deliberately deleting my lineage. 

Book's Contents and Sample Pages

Item Code: NAQ596 Author: Zainab Priya Dala Cover: HARDCOVER Edition: 2018 Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt. Ltd. ISBN: 9789388070515 Language: English Size: 8.50 X 5.50 inch Pages: 150 Other Details: Weight of the Book: 0.2 Kg
Price: $23.00
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