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KZN Literary Tourism reviews contemporary South African fiction and poetry.  Reviews are done by academics and members of our KZN literary community (contact us if you would like to review for us).  View reviews as articles or list.

Review of Ashwin Desai's The Archi-texture of Durban: A Skapie's Guide PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 15 October 2014 11:57

Review by Rasvanth Chunylall


Although primarily recognised as a tourist paradise for its sandy beaches and perpetual sunshine, Durban is a city with a rich historical background that has been shaped by politics, colonialism, economics, class divisions and race relations. This history is explored in Ashwin Desai’s latest self-published work, The Archi-texture of Durban: A Skapie's Guide.

Following a successful launch at Ike’s Books and Collectables in August, the text has received positive reviews in the Witness, the Mercury and exposure in the Post. It isn't difficult to understand the appeal of this guide. Desai paints a vivid but unromanticised portrait of the city and its surroundings. There is the warfare and bloodshed of the Isandlwana region; taboo interracial relationships of the Midland Meanders, the increasing poverty of Mooi River, the political tension of Cato Manor and gangs of Chatsworth. He also highlights popular landmarks such as the Roma Revolving Restaurant, Botanic Gardens, Durban Country Club and Emmanuel Cathedral.

The nostalgia for a past Durban is balanced with Desai’s concern for Durban’s future. He questions controversial projects like Moses Mabhida Stadium and King Shaka International Airport, the dubious honour of Point Road's renaming to recognise Mahatma Gandhi and the continual dispossession and oppression of some of its inhabitants.

Desai’s frustration is understandable considering his attachment to Durban. The guide acts as part autobiography and reveals the way he has been shaped through his experiences growing up in the city. There are touching tales of the time spent with his father at the beach and watching rugby matches at Kings Park Stadium and playing cricket with his friends at Springfield Park. His account of the language of Chatsworth gangsters is amusing as is his description of eating crab curry which elicited much laughter from this reviewer:

Eating crab curry, like regime change, is a very untidy business. As you bite into the crab, the gravy flies in all directions. And so crab curry is best eaten only with your underpants on. We sat around the table, six young males with only our polka dot briefs (all the rage in the 1970s)(44).

Desai has acknowledged that The Archi-texture of Durban may “ruffle feathers”. In in his efforts to create an intensely personal piece, he writes uncomfortable descriptions which may alienate readers. As someone shaped by Apartheid, his admissions can be overlooked. What cannot be forgiven is the sloppy editing of this book. Some pictures are uncaptioned so their significance remains unclear. There are frequent typos like "under-married moulanas" (102), fragmented paragraphs and poor formatting. After he gives a stirring account of a rickshaw puller's story, the chapter concludes by providing the contact details of another rickshaw puller in a way that cheapens his prose. This can be attributed to a possible rush to release the text during the potentially profitable International Union of Architects Conference event this year. Perhaps, it can be chalked down to the draw-backs of self-publishing. Whatever the reason, it is unfortunate that the text has been released in this condition in light of Desai’s reputation as an accomplished writer and academic.

Despite these flaws, the guide is a must-have for anyone interested in the history of Durban or the way ‘place’ has the ability to shape a person’s identity. Desai writes, “…there is also something beyond the stories of deprivation, humiliation and melancholy that surveys, statistics and quick-fire research can never capture” (45). It is autobiographical narratives (like this) written with great humour and the passion of a true Durbanite which succeed in a way that academic and marketing reconstructions cannot.

Review of Many a Cold Night by Cyril James PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 10 August 2014 18:22

By Thomais Armaos

A self-published life account by Cyril James, Many a Cold Night tells of this Durbanite’s journey towards finding peace – or even a stable job after a lifetime of hard living. Born to a coloured mother and an Indian father in Durban in 1945, James provides a grim account of trying to gain acceptance from his father’s strict family. Having roots in such racial diversity as having family from Hindi, coloured and Zulu cultural backgrounds, his childhood is surrounded by diversity but with no real hope of assimilation and belonging to any one of these backgrounds. However, this challenge during his youth helps him adapt and develop the strength needed to face the challenges of life that were presented to him in these diverse forms. Alcoholism, abuse, racism, drugs, crime, gangsterism, rape, murder, poverty, near homelessness, and prison form part of a visual landscape that had surrounded the life of the writer. His is a story that all South Africans can identify with in one way or another, regardless of the circumstances surrounding your birth. James, in this instance, is a sort of South African everyman.

The title, Many a Cold Night, gives the reader somewhat of a hint about its attachment with colloquialism. Like any avid reader, I had high hopes that this title would reveal some deep insight, some universal truth that the writer had become aware of in his late age. Unfortunately, even in the most fruitful of critic’s mind, there is no artistic meaning in this work. Rather, I believe, it to be a story that must be told, for the sake of telling it. Perhaps, this, if any, might be a fair response to a life that had endured so much. Perhaps it is a reflection of human endurance in the face of trial and affliction. The reader will gain a sense of this almost immediately in a reading of the title and from the cover art.

The cover depicts a graveyard with petrified stone angels grasping baskets of flowers with a prayer on their lips, for the dead perhaps or for a man who crawls between the stone slabs that mark the lives of those long passed. Dark clouds form a shadow in the distance as a full moon sheds a supernatural light over the graveyard, providing a portal into what is a grim depiction of the writer’s circumstances. This provides the reader with a sense of foreboding as to what the narrative is about, and the solemn story would undoubtedly follow.

The story is a first person narrative told from the viewpoint of the writer himself, looking back at the events and circumstances of his life. It is a very simple read, almost too simple as that which any writer or critic might deem essential to any novel – dialogue – does not exist in this memoir. Although it seems as though it may lack any essential artistic description, Many a Cold night does give us a considerable degree of insight into the life of the writer; one that I have not experienced in all my years of reading. It is raw, and solemn; perhaps that is where the art lies. It is a slice of life. It is what people do, say, think, feel, how they react, it brings the reader closer to a more real version of the South African experience. It is clear that Cyril James has experienced an unbelievable variety of traumatic and painful life experiences but it does not dwell on the unfamiliar.  Many a Cold Night essentially tells a story that we know but will not acknowledge. It distances itself from the good, light-hearted commercial South African narrative. Primarily, this is the case because the author is not a writer by occupation, and the reader must take this into consideration when reading his work.

Although it is as rough as only a seaman could have written it, it does offer some indirect references to historical, political and socio-economic circumstances of the greater Durban area from the 1940’s till today. Whether these depictions are accurate or fair representations of the people who are in them, however, is to be debated. I find that this text does not try to alleviate the racial and character stereotypes of various ethnic groups that were formed during apartheid. Even worse, I believe that that some racial stereotypes of the time are upheld in this text – negative stereotypes are evident in depictions of characters such as James’ paternal grandmother. The reader can easily be drawn in to attribute this depiction as a desire on the part of the writer to belong. However, in post-aparthied South Africa, this book does nothing to provide historical substance to any youthful Durbanite. What it can provide, however, is insight into the trauma of everyday life; a life full of choices and the trauma being a result of poor choices. In a way, I would call this novel a motivational book – one that undoubtedly uses the shock factor to convey its message. The message is clear, and reminiscent of the stories of our collective history as South Africans: in spite of one’s circumstances or experiences it is quite possible for the spirit to prevail and live without any bitterness.


The Heart Knows No Colour PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 03 March 2014 15:51

By Praba Moodley

Review by Rasvanth Chunylall

How does one describe Praba Moodley’s The Heart Knows No Colour? Is it a sweeping family saga? A soap-opera styled romantic tale of secret passions and forbidden love? Or perhaps the novel’s intentions lie within Moodley’s dedication to her forefathers; there is a strong awareness of the need to acknowledge the sacrifice and perseverance of previous generations and to preserve one’s culture and heritage.

The novel explores the life of Chumpa Suklal and her kin as they arrive in South Africa in 1879. With nothing but their hopes for a better life, the family begin work as indentured labourers on a sugarcane plantation in Natal. Moodley vividly paints the conditions synonymous with the experience from the humiliating bathing ceremonies undertaken after disembarking, the cramped living conditions, meagre wages, a lack of support structures for the sick and uneducated, to the brutal lashings received from Sirdars or overseers. The novel illustrates how strong family bonds helped Indians overcome these indignities. Chumpa notes in the beginning of the novel, “I have family with me, and together we will find the courage and strength to meet whatever awaits us” (15).

This family dynamic is challenged through subsequent generations. After their contracts expired some chose to return to India while some bought their own plots of land to cultivate crops with painstakingly saved wages. Others (especially young Indian men and women stifled by the confinement of their contracts) chose to try their luck in the city and this proves an interesting plot point for Chumpa’s son, Gopi, who eschews the banality of the farms, its hardships and lack of opportunities for the alluring cocktail of danger, prospects and freedom offered by the city.

Thematically, skin colour and its insignificance in matters of the heart is the focus of the narrative. In one of the most pivotal and possibly most touching of scenes in The Heart Knows No Colour, Sita rejects the discrimination of her mother, Chumpa, when she disparages Gopi’s choice of a darker-skinned partner. “We do not choose the people we fall in love with”, she declares. “It is something we cannot control” (67). The idealisation of lighter skin by Chumpa remains a troubling issue with how little we have evolved, as evidenced by the blooming market of skin lightening products in South Africa.

Readers will enjoy Moodley’s colourful use of language and her efforts in creating a piece that accurately reflects the time the action takes place. The rich tapestry of family dynamics may disconcert readers but Moodley remedies this in the equally compelling 2009 sequel, Follow Your Heart, which provides a family tree of the Suklal family.

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