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A Fire That Blazed in the Ocean - Gandhi and the poems of Satyagraha in South Africa, 1909 -1911 PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 11 March 2011 00:00

The exemplary role of writers in providing a voice against colonial and apartheid oppression is well-known in South Africa, where the traditions of  protest and resistance  poetry  are established, with Soweto Poetry, from the 1960’s onwards, encapsulating the literary-cultural imagination in a clear and unambiguous manner.

This wide-ranging corpus of  South African poetry, which continues into the present post-apartheid era, has been augmented and expanded in an unexpected way by the archival work of two academics residing in the United States - Surendra Bhana and Neelima Shukla-Bhatt -  who have recently published a  new book entitled  A Fire That Blazed in the Ocean – Gandhi and the poems of Satyagraha in South Africa, 1909 -1911 [Bhana and Shukla-Bhatt 2011].

The collection comprises selected  poems,  mainly composed in Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu during the first Satyagraha Campaign in South Africa. The poems all appeared in The Indian Opinion, the newspaper that  was founded by Gandhi in 1903 and dispatched from his printing press at Phoenix outside Durban. They have been meticulously translated by Bhana, a reputed scholar  of Indian history in South Africa,  and Shukla-Bhatt,  who teaches  South Asian studies at Wellesley College in the United States, and who is a Gujarati poet herself.

A Fire that Blazed in the Ocean, is a timely publication, given the burgeoning interest in excavatory work in marginalized literatures in South Africa at the present time, especially those in vernacular and indigenous languages.  It  also contributes to the scant literary work on Gandhi, Satyagraha and Passive Resistance, a field that has been grossly neglected in general South African literary studies [see Govinden 2009]. Past scholarship in South Africa on Gandhi has largely focused on historical, political and socio-cultural elements pertinent to Gandhi’s life and philosophy. This new publication augments the corpus of  Gandhian literary writings, which includes Indian writers such as  Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, R K Narayan, Bhabani Bhattacharya, Kamala Markandaya, and  Nayantara Sahgal,  and South African writers such as Ansuyah Singh and Saira Essa.

Altogether, twenty-six  South African and  nine Indian poets are featured in the collection, including, surprisingly,  a poem by Sir Walter Scott, also published in The Indian Opinion. The  two main contributors are Sheik Mehtab, who originally came from India to South Africa, and Ambaram Mangali Thaker, who is sometimes referred to as  Ambaram Maharaj. Other poets included Ratanji Ranchod, Dawood Mahomed, P O Pandya, U M Shelat and  D M Khan. Pranlal Asharam,  Narmadashankar L Dave,  Ardeshar F Khabardar, Mader, and Amritlal  were   among the poets from the sub-continent who were featured in The Indian Opinion.

With this publication we appreciate once again the way  Gandhi used The Indian Opinion to tacitly educate his  readers on a wide range of issues. By publishing in Gujarati, Gandhi was seeking to  target  his local readership, as well as challenge  the dominance of English, and  “provincialise Europe” [See Chakrabarty 2000]. Bhana and Shukla-Bhatt  rightly include the Gujarati scripts of the poems, as they occurred in The Indian Opinion, and this enhances the authenticity of the collection. They write with insight and sensitivity of their navigation during the translation process, pointing out that they  “travelled through the landscapes of many individuals’ imagination” [Bhana and Shukla-Bhatt 2011:57].


By including the genre of poetry in The Indian Opinion, Gandhi was validating the role of literary expression - no less than  strikes, marches, petitions, and protest meetings - as  a valuable and viable  strategy of anti-colonial resistance. He was tacitly emphasizing the political agency of literary writers and  literary  texts. The performative nature of the  presentations, where the poetry is  rendered in popular literary forms [such as ghazals], with singing and musical accompaniments, is noteworthy. Recited at public gatherings and protest meetings in support of Satyagraha,  the poems would undoubtedly have had a rousing, lyrical effect [with  the listeners poised to translate this, as the history of this period often indicated,  into heroic action].  As Mehtab wrote in one of his poems:

“We will hold on

To the weapons of satyagraha

And run to enter your jails.”

Gandhi was also, arguably, conveying the strength and impetus of the  widespread, local, community-based work of Satyagraha. While inspired by Gandhi, Satyagraha grew into a mass movement, and was not the preserve of a social or political elite. It was  given  depth and impetus by different individuals, among them the poet-satyagrahis, who acted as a  collective.  For Gandhi, tapping into the local was an important strategic option, and was to be mirrored in his Swadeshi Movement, where traditional, indigenous  craft  was favoured to foreign technology and foreign-made cloth.  This leveled society as well, away from class and caste distinctions.

In their introduction to the collection, Bhana and Shukla-Bhatt correctly point out that:

Most poems address satyagraha both as a concept and a phenomenon. Read side by side with Gandhi’s exposition of the topic in prose, they provide valuable cultural documentation on how ordinary people within the diaspora community integrated this innovative concept into their own worldview. It is essential to read the poems as participatory texts in an important non-violent resistance movement. [Bhana and Shukla-Bhatt 2011:19]

Reading through the collection, one is struck by the vibrant political consciousness  that pervades this period. The poems read as an honours list of activists, as they celebrate the  daring feats  of many local heroes. In some instances the poets refer to their own participation as satyagrahis.  Among those satyagrahis referred to in the poems are Parsee Rustomjee, Sorabjee Shapur Adanjia, Ahmed Mahomed Cachalia, Dawood Mohammed,  Thambi Naidu,  Joseph Royeppen, M C Angalia, Omarji Saleh, Amod Bhayat, Imam Abdul Kader Bawazeer, U M Shelat, D M Khan, John Andrew, H S L Polak, L W Ritch, and Rambhaben Sodha. The poets assume the role of  praise singers or imbongis, extolling these and other  fearless satyagrahis; and, in doing so, they directly record the history of the times in their poems. In the poem “Service of One’s Country”, for example, Jayshanker Govindji’s  eulogy of  Cachalia is palpable and unequivocal:

Cachalia, the light of his family,

Is a true gem of India.

Cachalia, the light of his family,

Is drenched in many colours.

Cachalia, the light of his family,

Stood up for the community.

Cachalia, the light of his family,

Fought with all force.

We appreciate the way this first generation of satyagrahis handed over the torch of resistance to their successors [the “Cachalia” name, for example, would resonate in South Africa through the rest of the 20th Century], who fought old and new battles with tenacity and who, arguably, influenced  the long haul of anti-colonial struggles  in different ways across the world.  We also need to note the divisive politics of the apartheid regime, especially in its inauguration of the Tricameral Parliament, that attempted to distort  and deflect this legacy of struggle that was initiated in the early years of the 20th Century.

In his poem, “Remover of Pain, Like Hatem,” Dawood Mahomed praises three eminent satyagrahis, comparing one to Hatem, the brave 6th Century Arab poet:

Rustom is like Hatem – a remover of others’ pain.

Taking others’ suffering and giving them happiness,

He makes his life fruitful.

Wrestling with both hands;

He went to jail without hestitation,

For the pain of Indians.

Rustom is not the one to be afraid.

I will give you another example – of Sorabjee Shapur.

For the sake of his country, he went to prison three times.

How brave was Thambi Naidu!

We have seen none like him.

He struggled for the country and

Became a shining star of India.”

We sometimes fail to appreciate fully the intense and vibrant political and cultural milieu of the early 20th century in South Africa, when oppositional public spaces were actively sought and created. This was also the time when John Dube and Pixley ka Isaka Seme [also from the same region in Natal as Gandhi], among others,  played undaunted roles in the development of Black  resistance. Of course, we need to see these initiatives against the parallel universe of  the growing intransigence of the  colonial and, later, apartheid,  institutional apparatuses, that were also establishing themselves.  A number of the poems are addressed to the Dutch and British, and specifically mention Botha and Smuts and the “Union Parliament”.

A powerful sub-text running through the collection is the principle of non-sectarianism. The collection signals a broad expansiveness, a cultural and religious eclecticism, away from any tendency towards “miniaturization”, to use Amartya Sen’s conceptualization [Sen 2006:47-48]. Gandhi himself, in his many prose writings,  was always opposed  to a narrow chauvinism and encouraged a  broad confluence [and congruence] of cultures and influences. Specifically, the poems inform and educate readers on the importance of unity between Muslim and Hindu, and draw from a deep knowledge of  the rich religio-cultural heritage of both faith traditions. Seamlessly weaving  mythological, historical, religious and political references from diverse sources, the poems dramatise a unity which is the bedrock on which political solidarity and action may be built. As Mehtab writes in his poem,  “Where did Unity Disappear?”

Disunity is like a bite of a scorpion,

Where there is unity

There is victory.

And the enemies shiver.

At a time when increasing fundamentalisms of different kinds hold sway, and growing  sectarian and ethnocentric identity politics gains ground, it is salutary to

see how this generation of satyagrahis actively and singlemindedly cultivated  a political identity beyond doctrinaire and partisan alignments.

In the present democratic dispensation in South Africa, there are many impulses at work in South Africa’s on-going transformation. We continue to grapple with the legacy of race and racism, where the residue of colonialism and apartheid persists. Even though the formal work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is over, there are many ways in which the past is retold and “remade” [see Nuttall 1998:75], in the persistent  pursuit of justice and reconciliation.  One of the many challenges in this “time of memory” is to constantly “counter official and documentary ‘black holes’ ” [Minkley and Rassool 1998:90], as we  re-script and re-map our collective history and remembrance  with a greater sense of inclusivity than in the past.  “A Fire That Blazed in the Ocean” – the apt title is taken from a poem by Mehtab -  contributes in no small way to the larger narrative of South Africa’s Long Walk to Freedom.



Bhana, Surenda and Neelima Shukla-Bhatt. 2011. A Fire That Blazed in the Ocean – Gandhi and the poems of Satyagraha in South Africa, 1909 -1911.

Promilla and Co., Publishers/Bibliophile South Asia, New Delhi and Chicago.

Chakrabathy, Dipesh. 2000. Provincialising Europe – Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference.

Princeton University Press:Princeton, NJ.

Govinden, D, 2008. “The Mahatma, The Text And The Critic - In South Africa.”

In Scrutiny 2.

Co-editor:  Special Issue of Scrutiny 2

[with Prof Isabel Hofmeyr, University of the Witwatersrand: Special Edition on South African Indian Writing and Culture]

Minkley, Gary and Ciraj Rassool. 1998. “Orality, memory, and social history in South Africa.” In Nuttall, Sarah and Carli Coetzee [eds].

Negotiating the Past – The Making of Memory in South Africa.

Oxford University Press: Oxford, pp. 89-99.

Nuttall, Sarah. 1998. “Telling ‘free’ stories? Memory and democracy in South African autobiography since 1994.” In Nuttall, Sarah and Carli Coetzee [eds].

Negotiating the Past – The Making of Memory in South Africa.

Oxford University Press: Oxford, pp.75-88.

Sen, Amartya. 2006.  Identity and Violence – The Illusion of Destiny.

Penguin Books: London.