Zainab Priya Dala’s “What Gandhi Didn’t See: Being Indian in South Africa”

Speaking Tiger | ₹499

Review: Anjana Basu, Kolkata

2018 was the 125th anniversary of Gandhi’s being thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg, an event which changed his views on politics and society. Zainab Priya Dala puts together a slim volume of essays and memoirs that talks about how deep Gandhi’s impact on the lives of Indians in South Africa really was. Her great grandfather was an indentured labourer in a sugar cane mill and her father commented that great as Gandhi as, he never went to a sugar mill to see men and women workers harnessed to a sugar crusher. As a result, his influence never penetrated where it should have.

As in her previous book, Dala also discusses the problems of negotiating the everyday complexities of  the lives of Indians in South Africa. Post-apartheid the existence of Indians has become one where a simmering undercurrent of dislike threatens their existence, mainly because Indians were marginally better treated than blacks by the white government. She vividly recounts experiences and delves through family history to inform her opinion pieces, pointing out that caste isn’t a dividing line but what is – is whether one’s family was indentured or not. Dala makes a point of the fact that her family was several times through the chapters. 

According to the author, money is the main differentiator in modern South Africa, The nation is ‘scratching in the dust’ to find heroes and it is her feeling that Gandhi needs to be made more accessible – taken out of what she calls ‘the manicured glass box’. Dala wrote the book in the hope that her children would understand more of what Gandhi meant to South African Indians and find a sense of belonging to something greater than the mundane realities of money and colour. White complexions are prized among Indians in South Africa much in the same way as they are in India. In fact Indians reading the book in their own country might be surprised to find that they share common traits with their NRI brethren in the Cape.

Dala does wonder somewhere near the end, referring to a re-enactment of the Pietermaritzburg incident whether, if Gandhi were alive and visiting South Africa today, he would be feted and met only by the rich of the country eager to take selfies and very little more. A very pertinent comment, judging by the way the world is going.

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