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August 13, 1999


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In South Africa in the Lotus Position

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Amitava Kumar

On my recent trip to South Africa, I mentioned to an interviewer on radio that I had woken up before dawn on February 11, 1990 in chilly Minnesota so that I could watch on television the sight of Nelson Mandela being released from prison.

The interview was for Newsbreak, a morning news-show on Radio Lotus, South Africa's Indian radio station. (The station's slogan is "You are now in the position. Lotus.")

I also told the interviewer that later the same day I had written a poem for Mandela and mailed it to him. (I didn't have an address for the newly-released prisoner. On the envelope I had simply written, Mr Nelson Mandela, Soweto, South Africa.) In the accompanying letter, I had said that I wanted to teach in a free and democratic South Africa.

Now, almost ten years later, I had finally been able to travel to South Africa. I was there to do preliminary work, with my collaborator Sanjeev Chatterjee, on a documentary entitled Where Gandhi Became Indian. I also had a chance encounter with Mandela at a staging of a play Mahatma/Madiba in Johannesburg.

Mandela is a revered leader among all Africans. But I was struck by the respect and admiration he evokes in Indian South Africans. I don't believe this has only to do with the undeniable charisma of the former South African president; it has as much to do with the pride that Indians have of their own participation in the long struggle that Mandela epitomizes.

And what certainly cannot be contested is the fact that Indians have made important, decisive contributions to the political and economic structure of modern South Africa. This is evident not only in the present leadership of the African National Congress (with a presence of Indians that far exceeds in proportion their population vis-a-vis Africans and the so-called "coloured" people) but also in other groups going back to the days of the Natal and the Transvaal Indian Congresses.

Or so I would like to believe.

In interjecting this qualification, I want to signal the fact that many Indian South Africans do not necessarily give much credence to that particular past. Sadly, their sense of pride is premised only on a long distance Indian nationalism which has nothing to do with struggles and sacrifices in the broader African struggle.

I learned this at my own expense also on Radio Lotus.

One evening, driving in a car in Durban, I was listening to the program Viewpoint on the radio. I had heard about the show, also on Radio Lotus, from several friends in Johannesburg and Capetown. The show's host, Ashwin Desai, I had been told, was smart and provocative.

The night I finally got a chance to tune in the topic was 'Identity'. A man called in to say that he was Indian because he prayed every day. Desai asked him if, for example, Jewish people didn't pray every day. Did that make them Indians? The caller insisted that he was Indian because India, the land from where his forefathers came, is, as we all know, the greatest country in the world.

The radio station's headquarters are in Durban, a city which has an Indian majority. In the Durban telephone directory, the entries under 'Naidoo' totaled 15 pages, the highest number of pages for any name. The second longest list of entries, which ran up to 10 pages, also belonged to an Indian name, 'Pillay'. It was exciting to be among such a large group of diasporic Indians, and the kinds of questions that Desai was posing were, I think, both hard-hitting and vital. One rather conservative caller was asked by the host, "Can I be a homosexual and still be Indian?"

I came back to my hotel room and called the show. I said that I was in town to do research for a film. On air, I asked Desai why one of his callers felt he was Indian because he prayed every day -- and not because an Indian by the name of Yusuf Dadoo had laid the foundation for Indian and African liberation in South Africa or others like Laloo Chiba and Ahmed Timol had been tortured in prison for their resistance to the system of apartheid?

The callers on Viewpoint did not answer my question that evening, but Desai invited me to be on his show the next night.

Delighted, I went. I also got my answers to my earlier questions.

An irate listener called in to say that we were Indians because we were a special people descended from Lord Shiva. So, who the hell was I to be saying anything about the need to examine what it meant to be Indian?

Another caller from nearby Phoenix asked the host on the air if he wasn't right in believing that folks from the subcontinent were "a bitter lot," envious of all that the Indians in South Africa had achieved. I replied that I was indeed envious of Indian South Africans.

I was envious that so many of them had fought against apartheid.

I had just read Indres Naidoo's prison memoir. I remembered one line from his 1963 trial report about Laloo Chiba and his wife's visit while Chiba was in prison: "Laloo had suffered because the warders had insisted that he speak only Gujarati so that the two of them had simply had to stare at each other for the whole visiting period with tears in their eyes and saying nothing...." I had met and interviewed Chiba for the film in his ANC office the previous week. He had not mentioned his prison experiences, but Naidoo's description and my meeting with Chiba had made this part of South African history real to me.

I was envious that there were so many Indians among those who, choosing amongst their idols everyone from Mohandas Gandhi to Steve Biko, had faced imprisonment and death. And I was envious that, rather than think of themselves as a separate people, men and women of Indian origin in South Africa had made common cause with Africans and fought a united fight.

At least some of them had.

But, why envy?

I asked myself this question later on. Granted, that word was not used by me first on the radio show. But still, why would I consider that an acceptable emotion?

It is not my intention to idealize South Africa or Indian South Africans. Clearly, if nothing else, some of the inanities of my interlocutors on Viewpoint would certainly halt unchecked optimism. And, as Ashwin Desai points out in his acerbic book South Africa Still Revolting, prejudice is still pervasive there: "Among Indians the latest is, 'Muslims bury the same day, Hindus the next and Africans after a week because they have to find the other leg in the bush'.

So, if I still use the word 'envy', it is primarily to acknowledge the differences I perceive between Indians in South Africa and the US. The main difference, I believe, is that when it comes to the question of a struggle for a non-racial society, Indians living in the US have done nothing that even merits comparison with the Indian South Africans.

Prejudice, especially against African-Americans, reigns in our communities here. Let me return for a moment to the prison memoirs of Indres Naidoo in pre-democratic South Africa. A policeman asked Naidoo: "What's the matter with you Indians? You've got a long history of civilization, you wore silk long before the white man, and here you are jumping from tree to tree with these barbarians, what's wrong with you, man?" In the US, quite frankly, we haven't waited for the white man to impart us this piece of racist wisdom. We have produced it in our own heads and embraced it with unabashed fervor.

And even in places where that prejudice is absent, there is hardly any evidence of a passion for solidarity either. If you read the pages of any Indian publication here, you might encounter a lot of breast-beating about apathy among Indians. There are several column inches devoted to the need for political awareness among Indians, but it is as narrowly identitarian as doing the garba dance and eating samosas.

There's nary a word about laying a coalitional, democratic foundation for a non-racial society.

We'll fete second-string white legislative leaders. We'll have parties for dignitaries in the Indian embassy and consulates. We'll don ill-fitting suits and thrust out our paunches in pride everytime any mainstream politician will praise India for the most fatuous reasons.

And, in this picture, you see me rubbing my oily forehead against the chappal worn by Jesse Helms -- or for that matter anyone who is anyone in Washington, DC.

But, that is the insider politics of lobbying! Every group -- from soy manufacturers to the sellers of guns -- has its lobby. The point of politics, however, is or can be the discovery of new identities, especially if they are identities forged collectively and aimed at the greatest good of all.

The discovery of such identities for the Indian communities will begin with a recognition that they form a part of a mixed majority of people of color. And that their success as a group and as a people lies, in large part, in taking a stance against an unjust society that keeps black and brown populations disenfranchised and poor.

A drive through the inner cities of America, even through the safety of our Honda Accords and Mercedes-Benzes, should confirm not our feelings of false superiority but the realities of an invisible system of apartheid at work here.

Author of Passport Photos to be published by the University of California Press soon, Amitava Kumar teaches English at the University of Florida.

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