|Aziz Hassim’s Revenge of Kali|
|Tuesday, 21 July 2009 18:00|
“If you listen carefully, and the wind is in the right direction, you will hear them, as I now did - the spectral voices, the soft whisper from the ancients. Listen now, not with your ears but with your heart and your soul. Sink into yourself, below the sound of your breathing, deep into the underbelly of your consciousness.” [Revenge of Kali, 14]
Thiru’s desire to find his past takes him to the Canefields outside Durban where he is transported in time, and he listens to the stories of his forebears, indentured labourers on the sugarcane fields of Natal. The sugarcane fields reveal their dark secrets, and history and fantasy blend. The stories of Thiru’s ancestors echo through the canefields. It is a hundred years after they had lived there, and the spirits of the dead answer Thiru’s call, and he becomes aware of spectral voices speaking in soft whispers. Indeed, Thiru is surrounded by ghosts from the past. The gentle murmurs of the ancestors through the canefields hold him in thrall and this experience becomes part of a homecoming, a return to his roots.
He encounters in graphic detail the story of Ellapen, his great grandfather, who had come in 1860 on the Truro as part of the first batch of indentured labourers, or coolies, to Natal. The labourers were enticed by stories in India of South Africa being a land flowing with milk and honey. Thiru confronts the degradation that Ellapen and his companions endured - degradation in all its starkness and naked reality. The labourers faced brutal, backbreaking work. The women are sexually abused by their white employers. It was a veritable hell on earth. The labourers suffered under the merciless sun, working “from sunrise to sunset” [See Munsamy 1997], and this is captured well by the cover of the book. Thiru also comes to know of the poignant love affair between Ellapen and Angamma, and of their marriage and their raising of their family, of the arrival of Kolapen, who would become his grandfather.
Sadly, among the labourers some of their own kind collude in their oppression. Hassim highlights the pernicious sirdar system, and in this is similar to Girrmit Tales, by Neelan Govender, where the role of the sirdar is also recounted [See Govender 2008]. Such sirdarship seems to be another example of colonial divide and rule, where Indian supervisors are appointed to act as watchmen [there is no record, as far as I am aware, of female sirdars] over their own people. Such a system of a hierarchy of masters was clearly a scheme to make the oppression and exploitation of the white masters more palatable and seem like a normal relationship between employer and employee.
The indentured labourers experience the “ferocious savagery” of indenture  and “heights of inhumanity”, and Hassim protests that this is slavery dressed up in new language. P.S. Joshi [1942:44], among others, had argued that indentured labour was a new form of slavery and was inaugurated in India from 1830, soon after slavery was officially abolished. Revenge of Kali, appearing at a time when the 150th anniversary of the arrival of indentured Indians  is awaited, forces one to look at this history in sombre tones.
Thiru also encounters the close community that surrounds Ellapen, a community that is diverse, linguistically and in terms of religion. They are united in their hostility to their oppressors, and commiserate with one another. Beset by problems of hard labour on the canefields, the labourers dream of returning to their homeland . One of them, Doulat, sings a moving dirge, which is an apt description of their bondage. They are transported to their distant village, and offer prayers that they be taken home. These songs are wrenched from the depths of their suffering.
It is in these dire circumstances that the cane workers turn their eyes to the Goddess Kali, who is actually benevolent rather than malevolent, for respite and revenge. In their extremity, the distraught labourers extol Kali as “the goddess who punishes evil, penalizing corruption and depravity and ensuring justice for the powerless” . In Girrmit Tales we are also reminded of the presence of the Gods and Goddesses - Kali, Mariammen, Amman - entrammelled in the lives of the mortals under the heavens, and overseeing their “karmic gestures”. In the face of cruelty of unimaginable proportions, the overall impression that Hassim creates is of heroism, where agency and resistance take various forms, bolstered by a sense that the Gods are on the side of the weak and oppressed. An important element of the coolie narrative is that though the labourers were subjected to such gross dehumanization they did not allow themselves to lose their humanity. Hassim recreates imaginatively the sense of community and camaraderie that they all shared. And, as Desai and Vahed add, “The indentured were imaginative, creative beings who found all manner of means to resist, survive, or escape the strictures of indenture. It is remarkable how often Shiva’s ‘children’ refused to listen to the orchestra and marched to their own tune” [Desai and Vahed 2007:26].
It is not only the Canefields that echo with the stories of the past. “Within the creases of the beautiful city of Durban nestles what can only be imagined as a village – known as the Casbah. Its streets are a continuous whisper of its glorious past, muted in places, animatedly alive in others”.
Ironically, the Casbah, with its Indian businesses, is directly connected with the story of indenture. It was supported by the exploitation of descendants of those very indentured labourers who worked in the sugar cane fields. This was referred to as the pernicious “Grey Street System”. Hassim highlights a common, through sad occurrence in history, when victims themselves become oppressors [if not “killers”] in one form or another [see Mamdani 2001]. He draws attention to “a brutal system of vassalage refined to perfection. Second and third generations of Indian families ensured a constant supply of skilled labour possessing a work ethic unparalleled elsewhere in the world . The oppressiveness of indenture has been transmuted into new forms of exploitation. And all this occurs against the wider oppression of the apartheid state.
Then there is the suffering caused by The 1949 Riots [Hassim was eleven years old at this time], when Durban becomes a cauldron of ethnic and racial conflict. There is also the violence that is endured on the domestic front, by men who are emasculated by the wider system of exploitation. Hassim deftly juxtaposes the destructiveness imposed from larger, external forces, and the self-destruction that is generated from within.
In the Casbah, Thiru shares a tiny flat with his grandmother, as he could not stand the violence at his uncle’s home in the Duchene, which was where he was born and spent his growing-up days. His Casbah home, at the rear of a building in Prince Edward Street, is the place from which he now struggles to eke out a living. He sells newspapers and savouries like murku and vadeh outside school. Thiru is deeply self-conscious that he does not lapse into complacency, and tries hard to improve his lot.
To ameliorate his harsh living conditions his great Tamil lineage is recalled by his grandmother, who hopes to impress on him his exemplary background. She tells him of Krsna Deva, from Madurai, the city of poets, so that he does not lose this rich heritage. His grandmother wants him to complete school and go to university [“Education is your dharma”, she tells him in profound tones]. Remarkably, he eventually does, completing a law degree, specializing in criminal law, and establishing himself as a leading criminal lawyer in Durban . He relocates from the Casbah and builds a house in Riverside but visits the Casbah whenever he wants to. Thiru’s story is a paradigmatic one - it is the story of the triumph over adversity, and also shows the capacity to rise above negative, life-denying forces. In some ways he is not unlike his indomitable forebears.
By situating Thiru in the Casbah, its world of sailors, the taxi drivers, the pimps, gangsters, hustlers, and the scotens  is paraded before us. Hassim walks on familiar territory here and is able to provide “thick descriptions” of the Duchene and the Casbah, now reconstructed in literature. By invoking the Duchene and the Casbah, Hassim is able to produce a robust narrative of great local colour, where cultural worlds intersect, where there is a blending of seemingly disparate worlds, a merging of popular stories with official histories, and a mixing of colloquial, street slang and formal language, and discourses from a variety of nodes. As much as the Canefields showed inter-group harmony beyond religious, linguistic and caste differences, we also see a vibrant world of inter-racial harmony in the Duchene and Casbah, alongside the squalor and poverty and oppressiveness.
Revenge of Kali is constructed in the form of journeys, both large and small. There is the larger travel by ship, crossing the kala pani of the Indian Ocean. There is the journeys within journeys, as the characters travel across spaces in the sugar estates, and relocate to Newlands, then Durban, and its urban environs. These journeys are made in trusty old cars, or taxis or buses as the characters traverse the different living spaces of the city. And there are journeys on foot. There is walking, and walking, and walking… Sometimes the walking changes to running. Running from overbearing sirdars, or the cops…
In this travel motif Hassim evokes the larger and smaller diasporas of living – dispersion across continents and oceans to follow the [il]logic of mercantile capitalism and colonialism, and dispersion across local and domestic spaces to follow, or transgress, the [il]logic of apartheid and Group Areas segregation. These journeys acts as bridging devices across the imposed dividedness of histories, and show that the histories are inter-connected, interwoven – the “master narrative” [of indenture] is imbricated in petit narratives [of subsequent urban and peri-urban living]. The inner city Casbah is related to the Duchene, related to the canefields, related to transoceanic travel, related to the India of dynasties of emperors, and so on…. New and unexpected contact zones are constantly reconfigured in the world of Revenge of Kali. Time and space are interwoven as the stories ebb and flow through four generations, from the abhorrent conditions of indentured labour in the canefields of Natal, to Durban’s Duchene, to the Casbah district; and the socio-spatial boundaries of the apartheid city are collapsed in journeys across the length and breadth of the city, from the Grey Street Complex to Wentworth. Yet the racially fluid inner city also excludes as much as it includes – it does not include the white areas such as West Street and the Berea.
By invoking the motif of the journey, Revenge of Kali becomes an intriguing novel that pivots around memory. Hassim is able to call to mind the rural and urban landcapes of the past. Vikram Chandra, in his article, “The Cult of Authenticity” , states: “Good artists tend to caress the landscapes they live in, to notice and delight in what is there, what is present.” In the novel we see Aziz Hassim caressing the landscapes of memory, the absent landscapes, bulldozed by time [This is why the old street names have to be used]. Significantly, Revenge of Kali becomes a multi-layered series of journeys, at once physical and metaphorical, introspective and emotional, intellectual and philosophical.
Hassim is also able to bring to the fore many layers of the city that have been occluded by apartheid, or eroded by post-apartheid restructuring, or what is now euphemistically referred to as “development”. With writings such as The Lotus People  his first novel, and now, Revenge of Kali, Hassim is pre-eminent among a host of writers who have put Durban on the map as a “literary city” ; he is similar to Johannesburg writers such as Phaswane Mpe and Ivan Vladislavic, whose writings have resulted in Johannesburg being referred to the “literary city” [See Nuttall 2009]. Other Durban writers include Imraan Coovadia, whose recent novel, High Low In-Between  is also set in Durban and astutely exposes its contemporary faultlines and restores its presence through imaginative literature.
By connecting the histories of indenture in the Canefields with life in the Duchene and the Casbah Hassim is able, as with his first novel, The Lotus People, to weave together a large tapestry of fact and fiction, ethnographic data and popular socio-cultural life. There is a mixture of real and fictitious characters. Agency and resistance is not confined to an elite group of activists but take different forms at different levels. Reference is made to well-known Durban names such as the Bramdaws, Vasi Nair, Hassim Seedat, Aby Moosa, Archbishop Hurley, Yusuf Dadoo, Fatima and Ismail Meer, Monty Naicker, Phyllis Naidoo, Jay Naidoo, and Kesavaloo Goonum, all part of the life of the city. This is similar to Alan Paton’s Ah but your land is beautiful , where there are cameo appearances of well-known activists such as Helen Joseph, Trevor Huddlestone, Albert Luthuli, and Monty Naicker, as well as the infamous Henrik Vervoerd.
In his search for roots, Thiru has one more piece of the puzzle to complete before he can rest. He wants to find his cousin, Miley, who hangs around the Club Lotus, and take him to meet his grandfather, Kolapen. Thiru’s mother, Angamma, and Miley’s father were brother and sister . “I only saw him once in my life, when we were about ten. He lived in the Duchene at the time. I’d like to get to know him better. My grandfather, his and mine, is all that’s left of our bloodline. I thought the time had come to meet him… and also to introduce him to his father’s father” [ 195].
Thiru meets Miley at the moment when Miley has murdered his father, Joe Cayder. Miley was gravely distraught when he saw his mother badly beaten up by his father, and is on the on the run. When Thiru finally finds Miley he is confronted with a life that is one of lost innocence, lost childhood, lost adolescence, lost manhood. He is the picture of a tortured soul, tormented by a thousand phantoms , and one realizes how the rough and tumultuous lives of so many indentured descendants is also part of that history. Thiru has memories of their youthful days: “Images of long forgotten memories flashing before him: there they were, kicking a ball around, then wrestling on the ground as they rolled across the freshly-mown grass and laughing triumphantly as first the one, then the other, took the ascendancy” [ 207].
Thiru and Miley both find their way to the Newlands settlement, to their grandfather’s tiny cottage. Kolapen, the grandfather, knew that his son, Miley’s father, led a deviant life. “Every generation has a recreant issue, a spawn of the devil, the embodiment of all that is hateful” . Tested to the hilt by trying circumstances, some lose their humanity: “He forgot where he was coming from” . And Kolapen embracing Miley, instinctively understands that the [sometimes sanctimonious] justice of a “moral universe” must always be tempered with mercy
The novel ends with Thiru looking at the sky and seeing the key “dramatis personae” of his Canefields story within a circle of light – Ellapen, Angamma, Mohideen, Runga, Daniel and Dhuneema - all arrayed before him. And they seem to be saluting him and Miley. The ensuing emblematic downpour of rain, against the backdrop of the canefields, washes away the detritus of a dark history, and reinvigorates and metamorphoses it into celebratory song of freedom
Indeed. From canefields to freedom . As Thiru ruminates: “I knew then that my odyssey was finally over. All the ghosts that had haunted me had finally been laid to rest” . Thiru is able to rescript his identity, by encountering and confronting the different fragments of his life, both good and bad. He is transformed by his own direct and lived experiences and by those of his forebears that he vicariously lives through. And a new cycle is ready to unfold…
…sometimes we find ourselves living in the dreams of the dead. Who knows the destination of a dream? How many worlds do we live in at the same time? When we sleep do we wake up in another world, in another time? When we sleep in that other world do we wake up here, in this world? Is history the converging of dreams of many millions of people, living or dead?” [Ben Okri 1998]
So far so good.
But what is the purpose of writing and reading a novel such as Revenge of Kali?
In Revenge of Kali indenture seems to act as a template for memory – a memory of suffering, of endurance, of struggle and survival, of quintessential subaltern experience. That this writing has developed largely after 1994 [see Govinden 2009], and particularly in the last decade, shows how Indian identity is constructed against the ‘detritus of indenture”, to use Mishra’s phrase [Mishra 2007:xvii], in order to legitimate national belonging. It serves as an extended Truth and Reconciliation Commission project, where indenture is presented, like slavery, as an epic struggle in the land of one’s adoption or birth.
Recalling these earlier phases of oppression, Hassim intimates, should make us mindful of new oppressions in the post-apartheid state, of our own complicity in these oppressions, and the need to continue to work for an egalitarian society and world.
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