African library: The Lotus people by Aziz Hassim

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The African Library: Entry no 138
Aziz Hassim: The Lotus people (2002)

Given that they form merely 2–3% of the overall population, South Africans of Indian origin have contributed literary texts to the local canon in greater numbers than might have been expected (and in texts of unmistakable significance). The novels, plays, short stories and poetry by South African authors from among this internally diverse group constitute a rich body perhaps still under-explored by both literary scholars and so-called "general" readers. I believe that fairly widespread ignorance concerning the Indian heritage and history that manifested and unfolded within the South African context could find few better "cures" than that provided by Aziz Hassim’s fascinating and impressive first novel — a text which Hassim wrote in his late sixties (by then a retired accountant by profession). The novel vividly recreates the rich social and political life centred in the Casbah area of Durban (around Grey Street) and its teeming, bustling and hustling occupants and visitors. The narrative spans a century and depicts it masterfully in all the vivid, complex detail of individual and familial lives intermeshing in alliances and rivalries within an increasingly restrictive web of political and legislative measures, blatantly racist in terminology and application. Terms like saga and epic come to mind as one seeks to categorise Hassim’s text, yet the style has little in common with the more usual portentous solemnity of the aforesaid. It is multigenerational in scope and does use two "dynastic" or iconic families (one of which dominates), through whose experiences the South African tragedy of a viciously oppressive system is manifested; yet, before the account darkens towards its finale, much of the tale has a rollicking quality derived from the characters’ acts of mocking defiance of the system, and resounding successes achieved despite its cruelties. Hassim has a wonderful ear for the mutual badgering and taunting humour of male camaraderie, and the dialogue is often "spicy" in every sense of that term. The entire work is infused with pride in the people on whom it focuses: the South African Indians of the Durban area. Hassim’s evocation of the period 1882 to the mid-eighties in South Africa has a steel-strong political and moral core that, like an underground river, surfaces only rarely, but throughout sustains the authorial vision.

The Lotus people is intricately yet satisfyingly constructed in that it is not a chronologically linear narrative, but moves backwards and forwards in time in 12 chapters of uneven length, which (upon rereading, which is recommended) allows one to discern how deftly interconnected the events and life-changing decisions are in this account, with its continuities as well as discontinuities across four generations. Hassim’s perspective brings important historical threads to attention in a manner that is simultaneously enjoyable, educational and (morally) admonitory. The opening chapter is titled "Durban: January 1882: Yahya/Pravin". The two names are, respectively, those of the Pathan and Hindu ancestral figures of the two most important families portrayed in this novel. Aziz Hassim is admirably even-handed in the respectful, informative way in which he evokes the guiding ethos of the originating culture of each of these two Indian men, who both maintain these guiding values even in this far southern African context. Initially widely separated in terms of their religions, ethnicities and economic conditions, the two men reach an understanding based on mutual respect. This is achieved, it seems, because Yahya Ali Suleiman, descendant of "that fierce tribe of India", (1), the Pathans, whose men are renowned as implacably proud warriors, approaches Pravin Naran (a prosperous Hindu man of business expecting an uncouth, bullying approach from the Pathan) in a way that very agreeably impresses Pravin. His visitor’s unexpectedly well-mannered and reasonable approach of (and appeal to) Pravin is to assist Yahya in a quandary brought about by the latter’s ignorance of the cheating and ruthless "sharp practices" of unscrupulous men. Yahya has (to outline this quite briefly) bought the property on which the small shop that is his only source of income is located, by yielding a valuable family heirloom to the crooks who have "sold" him the land — only to learn subsequently that because he has no written contract to substantiate his claim, the sellers have resold it to Pravin, who, as an astute businessman, now holds the title deed. Pravin has previously learnt about his visitor’s misfortune, but only after he acquired the property, and is expecting an attempt (to which he has no intention of yielding) on Yahya’s part to get back the land by means of intimidation. Hence his surprise at the evident absence of any such intention in Yahya’s demeanour. The men soon develop respect for each other, because both conduct themselves with courtesy and candour. Yahya makes Pravin an offer to buy back the land, offering yet another family heirloom — a unique artefact which is of well-nigh incalculable value, namely a jewel-encrusted dagger — as security. Pravin does not accept the dagger, but offers a reasonable deal based on mutual trust that will allow Yahya as much time as it takes to pay Pravin back, trusting him to do so reliably. This agreement sows the seed that will burgeon into a lifelong friendship between two men of very different backgrounds who meet in some initial mutual apprehension, as complete strangers, but who recognise each other as "men of honour" (9). "A bond had been forged between two families, one that would extend well into the next century" (10).

Several months later, Yahya, living frugally and getting steady business at his small store, gets an urgent message one night from Pravin: "Come quickly. I need your help" (36). Although he is a strong man in business, Pravin does not have the will or capacity to engage in a fight with a gang of thugs — sailors who travelled on the same ship from India that brought gold coins to Pravin, men who got wind of the nature of this cargo and now demand to be paid for non-existent "help" in the safe delivery of the valuable parcel. Yahya soon dispatches the would-be extortionists — no fewer than five experienced street fighters! — but, later that night, his friend Madhoo Daya (a tailor with whom he lodges) rouses him with the terrible news that the thuggish sailors, whose ship has left, have set his shop ablaze in vengeance. Hardly anything is saved. When Pravin, as a matter of course, wishes to compensate him for the loss, Yahya courteously but firmly refuses aid. In his view, it would be an acceptance of "charity" (39). Resolutely, he returns to hawking in the streets from a cart he pushes around; he is also a superb tinker, mending household utensils for very low payments. Soon after this, his family in India send a letter announcing that they have found him a village bride, a young woman he vaguely remembers as a little girl; they have already married him "long-distance" and merely instruct him regarding the ship on which she will soon be arriving. She turns out to be a strong-minded and lovely woman, and, with the generous help of Madhoo and his wife, Kantha, the new couple also has a place to stay. The surprised husband, Yahya, finds that his circumstances have improved with Nadia’s civilising presence and her impressive array of skills. Using special herbs, she prevents pregnancy, but after nine years, she decides they can support a child, and Fatima is born. A second pregnancy, a year later, ends in a sad setback; when Yahya goes in search of the midwife to assist Nadia, he is arrested for breaking curfew, and she loses the child. It is only five years later that she consents to taking another chance, and their son Dara is born. Their life is hard, but is deeply rooted in love and loyalty and is connected to the two families — Pravin’s and Madhoo’s — that have helped them. Their little boy is inseparable from Yahya and accompanies him as he goes hawking his wares and skills: "days were full of activity, with little time for play. The lack of such pastimes, however, never troubled [Dara] — his father provided him with all the companionship he required" (61).

Dara does get a modicum of formal instruction in Islam, English and Gujerati, and, when he turns into a young man of promise, he chooses a bride in the younger sister of a "possible" prospective wife in one of the families he is forced to visit with his mother. Yahya’s business, which started in a small street-side shop in the business district, now expands, and Dara (his junior partner) has a growing family and a prosperous shop with large paid-up stocks; and he is helped by his eldest child, his boy, Yacoob. This boy, 13 years old in 1945, shows signs from early on of becoming the brave, proud and tough young man that makes him the admired and feared "Jake", "king" of the Casbah in many ways and indisputably the novel’s most heroic character (with the second, quieter son, Salim — known later as "Sam" — a close second in social stature, if in a mostly different and more "respectable" sphere). Even as a boy, Jake disputes the efficacy of passive resistance to the oppression of his people in South Africa as espoused by the older generation. Even though he is a youngster, he reasons with unmistakable maturity, explaining to Madhoo, his grandfather’s oldest friend, and to whom Jake is close, why he cannot accept the doctrine of nonviolence. "‘It suits them perfectly,’ Yacoob countered every argument that Madhoo advanced." And, when Madhoo "in despair" tells him, "You cannot fight evil with evil," Jake says: "But you can fight it with justice" (76). It is a moral and political position from which Jake will never budge. It makes him, in the eyes of his mother (herself, of course, of Pathan origin), the inheritor of their people’s honourable warrior ethos. The spirit of resistance to the intensifying oppression of the JC Smuts-dominated, post-WWII South African government is growing, especially as it targets Indian advances in prosperity and political confidence. This happens particularly among the women. At a home gathering of "ladies", the impressive Dr Goonum addresses them with the reminder: "You are Indian, descendants of a great nation." Referring to the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act No 28 of 1946, which cost many Indian families their livelihood and settled homes and plots, Dr Goonum asks: "Do you wish to see yourselves and your children consigned to some bleak and distant ghetto?" (83). Jake’s mother takes him with her to this gathering, at which they are advised of a rally soon to be held in order to show the world their abhorrence of the injustices planned by the government. Here, the "firebrand" Fatima Meer raises the cry taken up by the huge Indian audience in the march that she leads: "TO HELL WITH THE GHETTO BILL!" "This was the beginning" (88), the narrator comments. But the government, of course, continues its repressive measures "under a ludicrous law called the Riotous Assemblies Act" (104), arresting and jailing one after another of the dignified but fiercely outspoken Indian resistance leaders.

Hassim’s narrative never bores, shifting deftly among different, vividly evoked settings, such as home gatherings of multigenerational families and their close friends, huddles of young men such as Jake and his cohort, and married couples shown disagreeing or placidly discussing matters. There is also a constant oscillation of focus between the more immediate aspects of survival, the prosperity and security people desire for their families, and the larger political issues which constrict people’s lives and arouse their indignation, in addition to the moral implications of all these issues and concerns. It is all centred in the Casbah, which the author evokes in its many moods:

The Casbah on a Saturday morning was like no city anywhere on earth. The streets and pavements were clean, the shop windows freshly washed and glittering, the shoppers dressed in festive gear and wearing anything from the sari to the Hawaiian sarong. Old men in turbans and long shirts shuffled alongside the younger generation in jeans and colourful T-shirts.

They came from everywhere, from the suburbs and the country towns, from distant villages and tiny hamlets; White, black, brown and all shades in between smiled at perfect strangers and strolled on the pavements with gay abandon, some looking for bargains, a small number simply out to enjoy the day and meet friends and relatives before moving on to restaurants and bioscopes.

Each street served a specific function [in terms of what it offered to customers and sightseers]. (102)

A big issue that comes up time and again in serious discussion in gatherings of different ages as well as interests is the choice of resistance strategy to maintain the legitimate interests of Indian people.

With the people stuck within an alienating system, the criticism that brilliant analyses of cruel and corrupt rule do not go anywhere and achieve next to nothing beyond the airing of grievances and cementing a mutually comforting sense of social solidarity is valid, but the alternative of taking effective action — inevitably labelled illegal at best, and more often criminalised — can only be undertaken at enormous risk to individuals and their families. The many and various intense and challenging (often acrimonious) discussions depicted by Hassim in authentic and vivid dialogue never underestimate the power and reach of the apartheid government’s control and information systems. The narrative encompasses the historically early practice of employing indentured Indian labour on the Natal sugar estates, notorious still for its extreme cruelty and as the source of the insulting term coolie, derived from the reference to the poor workers. It also shows how legally ratified practices of exploitation and appropriation which preceded the 1948 takeover of political power by the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, which led to the naming of the South African apartheid system, were no less racist or vicious than those under apartheid. But there is full awareness that the hampering and harming of "non-white" lives becomes, in time, more and more brutally efficient and therefore terrifying. The repression is maintained by fear as much as by bureaucratic control, as The Lotus people demonstrates throughout. Gandhi has an early cameo appearance in the novel, and it is perhaps the reverence for the Mahatma (as he becomes) that stops Dara — whose verbally expressed fury at racism is as intense as his son Jake’s — from approving of the latter’s self-extraction from the world of respectable business. Although he is a loner, Jake arouses lifelong loyalty in the friends and allies with whom he shares his deepest feelings. Dara is blind to Jake’s integrity, unforgiving in his resentment at the way his eldest son has turned his back on his own lifestyle of persistent effort and his choice always to act within the law and social mores of his associates. His father sees Jake’s hustling, flamboyant lifestyle as merely thuggish; mother Shaida, however, remains unshakably loyal to and supportive of her eldest son.

An important section of The Lotus people (145–59, with further political and historical background provided on page 164) is devoted to evoking the Suleiman family’s experience of the appalling 1949 so-called "race riots" in Durban, centred in the Cato Manor suburb and the Grey and Queen Street Indian business areas. It has been pointed out that, even though said to have been triggered by an Indian stallholder’s assault of an African boy he suspected of thieving, the event was more in the nature of a pogrom, since Indian families mostly took cover and hardly fought back, while the marauders — a huge group of Africans — bloodily wielded pangas and other weapons, burnt down homes and shops and engaged in widespread looting. It is also widely believed that the attacks were fomented by whites — some even suspect governmental collusion — and the police are said to have stood idly by, allowing the mayhem to continue unabated. On this occasion, Dara and Yacoob (as Jake is still known at home) act in unison, focused on rescuing Yahya and Nadia. They are met with a heart-chilling sight on reaching the old couple’s modest home:

Dara let out an inhuman cry and, throwing caution to the winds, dropped his disguise and darted forward. Yacoob looked up and down the road, in the same motion picking up Dara’s camouflage and quickly entering the comparative privacy provided by the many mango trees that his grandmother had planted as a young bride. Dara was demented, overturning tables and chairs as he waded through the wreckage, his hollow eyes seeking some sign of his parents’ fate. Yacoob stood helplessly, the machete at his side, numbed by his father’s agony. (151)

Yacoob had grabbed the abovementioned disguises and weapons for possible self-defence on their way from an already looted shop in which they had taken temporary shelter, but now they have to return to the building where they had found shelter. They eventually learn that Yahya and Nadia, as well as Kantha (their dear friend, and married to Madhoo — Yahya’s oldest friend), were attacked as they were crossing the road to the safety of the Dayas’ more secure home; they were left mortally injured in the street, where a white driver in a passing vehicle — a Mr Van Rensburg — found them and took them to hospital, later informing the family by telephone (when the lines started functioning again) that the victims had had to be taken to the mortuary. Before he died, Yahya had managed to give the man the telephone number. Although their responses are different, this dreadful event is the key to eventual political choices. In Yacoob/Jake, it is at the root of his later decision to join the ANC and become an inspirational figure in MK; in Dara, it leads to his decision to use his control of the family funds and business to try to ensure his descendants’ survival in another country by placing the money in an "overseas" account, an arrangement announced by him in the novel’s second chapter, which is dated 1986 — a fateful year for the entire family.

Chapter V, subtitled with the name "Sam", shifts focus to Dara and Shaida’s second son, who becomes his father’s business partner and mainstay. Sam is not, at heart, very different to Jake in his spirited readiness to act against injustice, as he shows early on. In the madressah (Muslim school) which he attends as a child, the precocious, gifted boy respectfully questions their "Masterji", or instructor, regarding a point of doctrine about the way to ensure that a meal of freshly caught fish is halaal. The teacher, a bully and a charlatan (as Hassim openly indicates), becomes increasingly agitated at having his ignorance exposed in answering the innocent boy’s sincere but difficult questions. He tries to shame, mock and intimidate Sam to shut him up, eventually cursing the child and viciously throwing his ruler at him, so that the sharp edge breaks skin at the side of Sam’s head, causing profuse bleeding. The man even tries to save face by telling the boy that he must go through ritual penance for his "sin". At this, Sam retaliates, flinging his slate so that it causes a similar (or worse) injury to the teacher’s forehead, before fleeing the school — forever. Dara, that evening, makes the mistake of blaming Sam but not asking him for his side of the story. And so, as Sam wanders the street in his rather threadbare clothing the next afternoon, not wanting to go home, he runs into his big brother, Jake — a figure of glamour in his eyes. And Sam is won over to participating at a junior level in life on the streets (of course unbeknown to his father) by Jake’s kindness and his offer of evening employment. Not that Jake is corrupting his "lighty bro" — he is utterly scrupulous in that respect, never exposing Sam to the seedier aspects of street life or to danger directed at his young brother. Sam is expected to assist Dara in his shop every afternoon as well as on Saturday mornings, Dara using the opportunity to teach young Sam the principles of good business — scrupulous bookkeeping, paying accounts before further spending, efficient and friendly service to customers and dealing in cash whenever possible. Jake provides an education of a different order when the "cover" is created for Sam’s ostensible early evening employment at the fish shop, at the back of which Jake and his buddies have a sleeping and meeting place. He and his friend Sandy warn the youngster always to be aware of the dangers presented by the streets, where thugs and predators of various kinds roam at night:

The Casbah, Sandy stressed to Sam, was the exclusive turf of the Victorians [the gang which respects him and Jake as members], who had the backing of the infamous Crimson League [a group of businessmen who themselves became a type of Mafia after uniting to protect honest businessmen from extortionists] with its untold resources and many tentacles that spread deep into both the business community as well as into the law courts. (193)

The two older guys warn the boy regarding the perennially competitive presence of several gangs operating in the Casbah and beyond, though insisting that they do have a code of honour at the level of "never interfer[ing] with decent people who keep out of their way" on pain of being ostracised. "It’s a tough world, Sam," Jake adds. "If you want to be part of it, you’ll have to be sharp, use your brains before you act. Think first, keep your eyes open, and learn to use your fists like a pro. That we can teach you. We can’t teach you how to think" (193). They tell him to think carefully before making a decision, but Sam wants in. His first job is simply to keep his ears open concerning a big rival gang’s attempt to persuade a neighbouring gang, the Dutchenes, to join them and others in challenging the Crimson League for territory. Sam is in no danger, as the "spying" is to be conducted among his playmates. But the clever boy delivers the goods and impresses the older men. He also keeps his cool when the frustrated rival gang later on viciously attacks Jake and his friends, providing them with weapons with which they (bloodily) fend off the attack, though he is deeply shocked by the violence. Three years later, the notorious forced removal of respectable Indian families from their beautiful homes and painstakingly developed land gets off the ground. The white "Investigator" (as these officials were named) arrives in his GG vehicle one evening in 1949, disrespectfully addressing the family and (while Dara fetches their home’s title deeds for inspection) daring to fondle Sam’s sister’s breast. His mother prevents him from informing Dara, but when Sam tells Jake about this, he at once decides to avenge the insult and the larger injustice. It is, in fact, a swiftly enacted execution that Sam witnesses, the killing committed with untraceable efficiency because Jake (ostensibly delivering flowers with Sam) speaks to the "GG man" in perfectly mimicked Afrikaans, overheard (as Jake indeed intended) by the man’s wife, baffling those investigating the murder. "That night, as Sam made his way home, he finally made the decision to walk away from the Victorians" (215). As it happens, Dara, the very next night, puts a choice to Sam. In terms of his izzat (his honour), Dara angrily tells Sam, his second son must decide whether he wants to associate himself with Jake’s sphere of operation, or his own — whether he wants to be "Daku or Dukan" (roughly: thug, or man of honour). Sam gives his father his eloquent and dignified assurance of unshakable commitment, to the joyous relief of his mother — for Jake has already been more or less banned from the family by Dara. He soon proves his mettle to his father in the world of honourable business dealings. And, although the family, like many, has lost its home, unexpected relief comes when they learn from the now elderly Pravin that Yahya, so dreadfully murdered along with Nadia and Madhoo’s wife, Kantha, in the 1949 riots, made provision for the family in setting up the funds and giving him instructions to acquire the entire building of which Dara’s shop is a small section. They can now expand and modernise the business, which soon happens under Sam’s expert guidance.

Sam still occasionally sees Sandy, "equally at home in the sordid bars and backrooms as he was in the boardroom" (233). He learns from him about Jake’s continuing "lurking" anger and mentions that their closest friend Nithin, known as Nits, is still unshakably loyal to Jake, though secretive about his and his friend John’s plans. Not long afterwards, Jake turns up out of the blue at Sam’s smart emporium, asking for employment. Sam gives Jake the job of heading security, which he does very well (accepting only standard pay in the form of monthly cheques), but a baffled Sam goes to Sandy to ask him about the sudden change in Jake’s lifestyle. It’s love, Sandy explains. Sam met Hannah, a young political activist, at an ANC rally, and fell deeply in love, overcoming her initial reluctance. They had been inseparable for a year when Hannah (a profoundly principled person) found out that Jake had a background as leader among the Casbah’s gangsters — he had not told her, which Hannah considered duplicitous. Hence the insistence on salary cheques, Jake’s proof that he has "gone respectable". After a period, the strategy succeeds; Hannah comes to see Sam one night, and Sam (without disguising his brother’s flaws) uses the opportunity to vouch for the authenticity of Jake’s "metamorphosis" (260). And, to his surprise, he learns that their mother has already visited Hannah’s Jewish parents, and, like he has done, she exposed Jake’s faults but endorsed his integrity (and Hannah’s parents have met and are fond of Jake). The religious differences, Sam tells Hannah, can in his view be overcome. With Hannah’s permission, he summons Jake to his office, not warning him of Hannah’s presence, and the predictable joyous reunion occurs.

Chapter VII is subtitled "Nithin: 1950" — the date from which this exploration of Nits (Nithin Vania), perhaps Jake’s closest friend (though he, too, is an independent operator), begins. The main influence in Nits’s life is his protective love of his mother. His father he despises, even hates, for declining into selfish apathy and alcoholism, leaving his and his three sisters’ mother to fend for the family, once considered high-class. His move into determined money-making starts when his mother (without the funds to cover the large costs involved) achieves excellent marriage prospects for two of her daughters to two decent chaps, well-off brothers from a neighbouring family. Nits was formerly violently initiated into the brutalities of South African racism when, walking as a youngster late one night in an area zoned "white", he was terribly assaulted as a sort of "blood sport" by young white thugs, youths who yelled, "It’s coolie bashing time!" (294) as they piled into him. But it was later, "in the forties and the early fifties, before Nithin decided to claim the Casbah as his personal fiefdom" (305). His great ally is a youth in similar circumstances, John Farley, who is "coloured" (in the terminology of the time). Nits and John, whose ventures will prosper over time, remain lifelong partners, their alliance sealed in an act of careful theft from a local jeweller’s stash of undeclared, untaxed income, deliberately not so greedy as to be noticeable. With this money, the two move into just about legitimate, informal business as small moneylenders, using the stolen funds, but carefully deploying them so as not to arouse envy from competitors, or dangerous suspicions. Nits is the brains in all their dealings, but John is able, efficient and clever, and so they move ahead astutely without becoming too "flashy". Sandy refuses to join Jake in MK activities, even though his loyalty to and respect for Jake remain rock-solid. Sandy is (appropriately, as it turns out) wary of what they are letting themselves in for and wary of the trustworthiness of their associates in the ANC underground — they are now planning attacks on "white" institutions and office-bearers. Hitherto, he has supported Jake in providing funds and small supplies of weaponry to the liberation movement. Earlier, a different side of Nits is shown. He, a Hindu youngster from an impoverished family, wins the heart of a strong, intellectually gifted girl, the only child in a very wealthy Muslim family. The affair is kept secret, as both know that parental approval is unlikely — not primarily because of the economic gap, but because of the religious differences. The relationship between Nits and Kathy remains unconsummated for years; she qualifies as a doctor, while Nits moves ahead in the business world. But desire is an irresistible force, and eventually they marry secretly in a civil ceremony. It is only when their closest friends learn that Kathy is pregnant, and that their respective families still do not know about their union, that the friends (along with their favourite restaurateur, a fount of worldly but humane wisdom) — Karan Naran (Pravin’s son) and his wife, Devi; Sandy and his wife, Maliga; and Jake (not yet linked at that stage to Hannah) — insist that they break the news to the older people. Both families insist on marriage in terms of their respective religions, but a solution that accommodates both families to an acceptable extent is eventually found. Nits decides — when he and John have achieved a secure level of success — that it is now time for them to move into the "big league" and become funders to Durban’s most prosperous businesspeople. The banks and insurance businesses are, of course, white-owned and white-run, employing only token Indians, or "non-whites", at remuneration far below what they are worth. Yet, he wants to learn the ropes and acquire the necessary skills and appropriate vocabulary, so, without revealing that his is primarily a type of educational or "spying-out" operation and not meant to be long-term, he gains employment with a top firm. Before he announces his departure (which he does in a typically flamboyant manner, royally upsetting a precarious racial apple cart), Nits at last makes clear to everyone his withering contempt for one of the other employees of the firm (a man who shamelessly kowtows to the whites in an attempt to obtain favour), as well as his utter disdain for the white, middle management "seniors" in the firm, who rely on nothing but their race for status and financial advantages. He and the one fair-minded white in the firm, a Mrs Homan, discover their mutual respect in the aftermath, as she shows her appreciation of Nithin’s courageous candour with courage and backbone of her own; she, too, intends leaving the firm. Nits has learned what he came for, and leaves in relief.

Very early in the novel, in the second chapter (11–34), Dara, as the Suleiman family patriarch and the majority (controlling) shareholder in their business, calls them all together. He is by now (the chapter is dated 1986) a venerable but still very strong-minded man. He has, without consulting anyone, not even Sam (who really runs the business now and has done so for a long time), taken a momentous decision: "We must leave this country. Now!" (15). To enforce and facilitate this, Dara tells them, he has given Karan (Pravin’s son) orders to organise the contracts for transferring the family assets to a foreign account. He gives quite a long speech which no one dares to interrupt, explaining how their people’s and their family’s position has become even more precarious in South Africa, as the result of the whites’ brutality and predation, and describing the increasing danger of getting embroiled in what he sees as an unwinnable political struggle against it. Jake attempts to object, but is not permitted to express his objection; he later tells Sam that for Hannah and him, leaving South Africa is an option they cannot accept. Sam attempts to cool his hot-headed brother’s temper by saying that outright refusal will not work with Dara, so he (Sam) intends to attempt to negotiate a less radical plan with Dara, one that should buy them some time. "It’s not for them [the rest of the family] to decide," Dara tells Sam. "But speak for yourself. Are you against it?" Sam knows better than to give his father a blunt answer. "‘Baji,’ Sam answered cautiously, ‘we are an integral part of this country. All of us, including yourself, were born here’" (290). Sam proposes a tentative, less radical plan to Dara that would not so irrevocably burn their bridges, but Dara allows him only a day’s postponement to arrange this. But then, Dara dies quietly in his sleep soon after this, and the opportunity of preventing the sale is lost. Jake and Hannah are in the clutches of the SB (as the Security Police, known for their Mossad-trained efficiency, were referred to in those years): Jake had had a suspicion that he might have been betrayed, but after planting a bomb one night in a post office under the noses of soldiers posted around the building, indicating that they were expecting him, he lay low and thought he had escaped detection. He was arrested in the early hours of the morning, with Hannah detained separately soon afterwards. There is no chance of getting them out to attend Dara’s burial.

Dara’s funeral is huge, attended (to his immediate family’s astonishment) by "crowds" consisting of:

Muslim and Hindu, Christian and Parsee, the Gujerati and the Memon, Tamilian and Hindi. A fair number of African and Coloured, together with a sprinkling of Whites and even several from the Chinese community joined the crowds, both inside and outside the Grey Street mosque. Street sweepers touched shoulders with businessmen, market gardeners walked alongside academics in quiet harmony. Farmers from as far north as Stanger, and every little hamlet in between, came to pay their respects, and many brought their field-hands with them. (389)

His family members learn only here, and in the days following the ceremony, of the enormous range and number of his quiet acts of charity. A sari-clad old lady tells how Dara not only gave her a school uniform for her daughter, but told her to take "two of everything" so that there’d always be a clean change of clothing; when she protested that she was unable to pay, Dara told her he’d be paid when the daughter became a doctor. The daughter did go and thank Dara, having graduated from medical school, and he told her to "go home, to kitchen, where she belong" (390), a joke the daughter has often retold. He would scold Karan for putting any of his poor but honest tenants out of rental flats that he owned if they had apologetically defaulted on the rent. Many more similar anecdotes about this unobtrusively good man continue to move and comfort the bereaved family.

Although Sam is now prepared to let even the family property’s main building go to the buyers, as Dara has instructed Karan, to the latter this cannot be allowed to happen. Without Sam’s knowledge, he approaches Nits and Sandy, and, using their underworld contacts, these two soon discover that the main buyer is actually an Indian living in Johannesburg, a man of a fairly unsavoury reputation. The now very wealthy friends can finance the deal in the interim; the rescue operation (for the building as a family heritage) is achieved without tarnishing the family name, and the buyer is fairly refunded. A bonus of the negotiation with certain thugs to "persuade" the Johannesburg man is that Sandy and Nits decide that it is now time to turn their backs on the underworld, with younger, more ruthless men standing ready to occupy the spaces where they have wielded power. In "going legit", as they say, Nits will bring his partner and ally, John Farley, on board as well; they have the means and connections to continue to prosper at the boardroom level. They will discuss this at the post-funeral gathering of family and close friends to honour Dara. But the narrator warns that another crisis of larger and more dangerous dimensions is impending at this point.

Again by means of remaining "underground" connections, the family has been informed concerning the prison in which Hannah is being detained. They send her a wordless message of support and connection by getting the "contact man", a lowly warder who goes by the name of Mousey, to wear a distinctive yellow jersey of (Sam’s wife) Sally’s which Hannah admires and on which she has embroidered Sally’s initial. Hassim’s wonderful ear for dialogue and the "lingo" of a particular social sphere is again in evidence as Mousey (who is "coloured") replies when Nithin instructs him to "tell Sam about the lady": "Ya, man, ja. You already koosaad [instructed] me about her. Her name’s on the chow [meal] list. Solomon! That’s it!" When Sam tests Mousey by asking him to describe Hannah, he replies as follows: "Lekker thing. Tight little ezie [‘posterior’]. Simmer tunes la di da [ie uses an educated vocabulary]. Thee and thy style. Looks like a bruin bokkie" (285). And when he later tells the family about the exclamation (cleverly disguised as a response to the sight of the meal in order to avoid the wardress’s suspicions) that she uttered, they know that Hannah has understood their signal of support and solidarity. The next "operation" conducted by the Casbah friends is far trickier. No one has even an inkling as to where Jake is being held; to the security forces and the white government, Jake is a top-security capture because of his "Scarlet Pimpernel"-level stature among the anti-apartheid liberation forces, his heroic stature within MK and the ANC having earned him the honorific of Aza Kwela — his identity as Jake Solomon has been a closely kept secret for years. By means of an appallingly vulgar warder — one who has a weakness for sex with black women — at a small, hidden away but top-security prison in Durban, Nits receives a clue concerning Jake’s brief detention in Durban (where he was brought to a hospital for tests); a prostitute the warder frequents has gossiped, and the whisper has passed along the grapevine. Bribed with the offer of a very large sum of money and assured access to "obliging" black women over a period, the warder agrees to risk allowing very brief, tightly scheduled access (to Jake) for Sam and possibly (if reluctantly) one other. With Hannah being in prison — as Jake may have guessed, though she was taken in subsequent to his own capture — Sally demands to be the one who accompanies Sam. She loves Jake very dearly, and both she and Sam think the sight of a likely badly tortured Jake would be too much for his mother, Shaida — however strong in spirit she is known to be — especially as she has been so recently bereaved of her husband, Dara, and is herself now elderly.

The scene in the prison unfolds as follows:

Sam heard Sally gasp, then the sharp intake of her breath as her hand flew to her mouth. He looked closely as the battered figure walked towards the bars. It was the [still swaggering] walk that did it. It was Jake. "Hey, lighty," Jake said. "Howzit." "Jake!" Sally cried. "What have they done to you?" Jake’s face was swollen, two large bumps on his forehead. The whites of both eyes were bloodshot, with dark spots at the edges. When Jake curled his hands around the bars, Sam noticed that his knuckles were encrusted with blood, the one behind the index finger of his right hand a little skewed, off centre and pushed back. "Jake …." Sam said, his voice a little tight. "Just a few dents, my bro," Jake said. "You should have seen me yesterday."

There was a rasping sound emanating from Jake’s chest when he spoke and he seemed to be having trouble with his breathing. Sam also thought he detected a slur in the voice. "Jake, we’re trying …." "Sure, lighty, sure. Hey, take it easy. I’m getting to know these guys. They’re not much." "Jake," Sally said softly, "don’t fight back, please." "Don’t know how to do that, Bhabi [sister-in-law]. Have to get in a few licks now and then, just to keep in touch. Not much else to do around here." Sam thought Jake was grimacing with pain, then realised with a shock that he was actually smiling. And there was something wrong with his peripheral vision; he had turned his whole body when he looked at Sally. (423–4)

Of course, they do not inform Jake that his father has recently died and that his wife, too, is being held in detention. He has enough to bear as things stand. But the visit ends excruciatingly quickly, and they have to leave Jake behind in the hands of the people who have started inflicting their cruel vengeance on him, and who will no doubt do worse as time passes. Vusi, Jake’s oldest MK ally, is also in their clutches, and his whereabouts untraceable despite all Nits’s efforts. At home, placing her hands on Sam’s shoulders, Sally tells her husband: "We’ve got to get them out, and quickly. They’ll kill Jake in there" (426). The conclusion is inescapable, but how would this be achieved?

The details and results of the attempt are deliberately omitted from this account of Hassim’s novel, partly to avoid writing too long an entry, and partly in the hope of inspiring readers unacquainted with the text to tackle the very lengthy but unflaggingly gripping narrative it contains. Jake and Hannah have a teenage son, Zain; like his father, he is a leader among those of his age cohort. A long and moving section of the novel depicts Sam’s struggles with his conscience over whether he — compared with Jake — has been cowardly in not joining in more carefully organised political and even military action to resist the illegitimate government’s many injustices against Indian and broader black communities in South Africa. He experiences feelings of guilt triggered by the sight — almost 40 years later — of the largely still razed or deserted or usurped homes and properties where his and his friends’ families lived prior to the 1949 removals. This event is, among his people, equivalent to the District Six removals of "coloured" families in Cape Town and the clearing of black families from Sophiatown in Johannesburg. He decides to join his nephew, Zain, in attending a rally addressed by a fearlessly outspoken Allan Boesak, but very nearly loses his life when the riot police recklessly shoot at fleeing protestors. But for Sam, there is no turning back to what he now sees as culpable apathy, and he leads Nits, Sandy and Karan in taking political instruction from their children, who are all (as they never suspected) members of an ANC cell and committed revolutionaries. The fathers learn only now about the vicious persecution to which these schoolchildren (like so many thousands of others all over South Africa) have been subjected by the ill-named SB and riot police; they bear the scars of whipping and dog bites on their backs and bodies for leading peaceful demonstrations and school boycotts. The novel ends ambiguously for the fathers, who, unlike Jake, fear the quite possibly fatal consequences for themselves and their families, were they to commit to MK or ANC membership and overt or violent activism. The children, a final paragraph appears to hint, are already crossing the border in both the literal and figurative meanings of this expression.

The impressive and morally valuable account that Hassim has produced should, in my view, be honoured as a classic of anti-apartheid literature. It is a complex work rich in meaning and serves as an act of commemoration, but one which never preaches or flags in its breathtaking pace.

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