At the edge: The writings of Ronnie Govender by Rajendra Chetty: a review

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At the edge: The writings of Ronnie Govender
Rajendra Chetty
Publisher: Peter Lang Inc.
ISBN: 9781433146411

Ronnie Govender (born 1934 in Cato Manor, Durban) is rightly described as one of South Africa’s “marginalised writers” on the opening page of this excellent study. Rajendra Chetty, in whom Govender has probably found an ideal literary biographer, explains that the book resulted from a strong desire to amend an injustice – referring to the fact that Govender and other “minority writers have still not received the recognition they deserve” (1). Written with commendable passion and scrupulous scholarliness, the text is an enriching contribution to the growing body of fine post-apartheid literary-critical work done by local scholars. Chetty stems (broadly speaking) from the same community in which Govender lived and to which he remains committed, namely South Africans of Indian heritage with shared histories of the degrading and exploitative British colonial indenture system, as well as of the forced removals to which this community was subjected prior to and following the institution of apartheid laws. Chetty is hence ideally placed to pay proper tribute – which does not mean mere praise, as the work is strongly analytical – to Govender’s life work and the communal commitment and inspiration from which it sprang. Despite the obligations of family life, and in between periods of working double professions (as a teacher and a journalist), Govender managed to produce work of enduring literary worth in several genres: plays, short stories, a novel and, eventually, an eloquent autobiography – wryly and amusingly titled In the manure (2008). In Chetty’s book, there is one endearing and small personal reference, deep into the text; Chetty notes there that he himself “wove [his] identity from [his mother’s] fragmented stories and black and white photographs of her youth in the sugar-fields of Natal” (140) – in which poor, indentured, (mainly) Indian workers of that era laboured. Even though Govender later moved to Cape Town (in his late sixties) with his wife, this relocation does not change the predominantly Natal/KwaZulu-Natal regional location of his writing – or the much broader reach of his socio-political and moral concerns.

The text is not conventionally (chronologically) ordered. It opens with a long and lucid contextualising introduction, in which biographical information and pertinent historical information are interwoven. Chetty includes comments providing characterisation and an evaluative overview of Govender’s work in this section, emphasising (for example) that this body of writing is ultimately informed by Govender’s desire to “celebrat[e]” life “in all its energy, myriad forms, colors and voices” (18). He wrote no dour political diatribes, even though he “told the uncomfortable truths about a racist dispensation and the unscrupulous politicians in his own community that collaborated with the oppressor” (25) for personal gain – and he did so in rollicking satires, rather than by means of solemn denunciation, or in his subtle exposure of meanness, greed and cruelty.

Rajendra Chetty (Photo: University of the Western Cape)

The works by Govender that are most fully analysed are an early play, short stories published in the collection At the edge and other Cato Manor stories (1996) and a text in two versions: the play, The lahnee’s pleasure (1976), and the novel (also titled The lahnee’s pleasure), published in 2008. I found the chapter on the early play (discussed only in chapter 4, although it was (it seems) the first text by Govender that put him on the stage as a writer to watch) extremely impressive. It exemplifies detailed literary analysis at its best – enlightening, probing and faithful to textual detail. Interestingly, this play (though the young man and woman who are its protagonists are both South African Indians) focuses on gender relations refracted through (here) opposed cultural-religious commitments. The anxiety and anguish, exacerbated by the sexual-emotional relationship of the two main players, are, in the end, brought to a head – tragically – but (as Chetty explains) without evincing any blindness on the author’s part to the weaknesses and profound flaws of character exposed on both sides by and in the play’s crisis. The play’s title is Beyond Calvary: I did it for my God (it was first staged in Durban in 1964, presumably to segregated audiences), referring to the young woman’s Christian/Roman Catholic commitment as contrasted with the Tamil/Hindu loyalty of the young man. Chetty skilfully shows (referring to the harrowing detail of the plot) how neither of the characters evinces sufficient compassion for the other, and how even-handed Govender is in not favouring either character or either of the cultures to which they (broadly or fanatically) adhere.

All the other Govender texts commented on in Chetty’s study link more closely to historical and political concerns, especially the colonial indenture system and its effects, and the Cato Manor community and its forced removal. About the former dispensation and Govender’s representation of it, Chetty writes with acerbic wit that the author “is performing precise surgery on the English patient [using his] eye for the pomposity, hypocrisy and deadness of colonialism”, since Govender “exposes the material barbarity of English [colonial and settler] ‘civilization’” (139), as Chetty bluntly puts it. There is a brief chapter on At the edge and other Cato Manor stories performing – for a South Africa in the immediate aftermath of apartheid’s fall (as was mentioned, the collection appeared in 1996) – what Chetty identifies as “transactional memory” (37). What Chetty strongly highlights is that the Cato Manor community of Indian South Africans was the first to be “removed”, but that its history is little known among the broader local society, in contrast with District Six and Sophiatown, where the apartheid government’s population clearances became icons of past injustice. He also makes clear that the apartheid government’s cruelty towards this community was (so to speak) prepared for and made possible by the Durban English community’s municipal governance and its unkindness towards and contempt for the “Coolie” community (137), on whose work in relentless, near-slavery conditions its wealthy prosperity and luxurious lifestyle depended. The collection is nevertheless titled for a story that centres on a different topic – an ageing, widowed woman’s profound Hindu spirituality. Despite political indignation – morally based – in this collection, Chetty sees it as rooted in the humane values of “tolerance and compassion” (41), and as inclusive in its acceptance and criticism of South Africans from all communities, embodying an anti-apartheid ethic and aesthetics.

The chapter with the main title, “Over my dead body”, deals with the principled but “passive” resistance stance of an elderly Cato Manor resident, movingly evoking how unbearable he finds the idea of being evicted from the home he so painstakingly built on pittances saved. It depicts how this ageing man eventually (fittingly) dies in his own garden before the brutal removal. Next, the chapter evoking a young “Dalit” girl, “Poobathie” (whose despised “outcaste” family, like many others, have adopted Christianity as protection against local discrimination), deals with the social context of the character, and shows how she both receives shelter and experiences caste discrimination when she seeks solace in the Hindu shrine from her fanatically Christian father’s “discipline”. It is the girl from the downtrodden community who emerges as spiritually greater at the end of the tale. This chapter is followed by one dealing with Govender’s story, “1949” – the date referencing the bloody and dreadful communal “riots” that occurred in that year, a bloody but one-sided “war” on “Indian” inhabitants by mostly Zulu attackers. In Govender’s fierce reading of the deeper causes of the bloodshed, he unequivocally exposes “English” employers and businessmen as the backers and even instigators of many of these horrifying events. Chetty cites the garage owner, Osborne (one of the “lahnees”, or rich whites, portrayed by Govender), inciting his Zulu workers to “tell [their] friends they can have all the paraffin they want free of charge” (103). Thus equipped with fuel, they “burned out” many “Indian” families in their homes or hacked them to death. This, Govender emphasised, demonstrated “the cunning on which empires have been built” (105). Chetty does not ignore Afrikaners’ contribution to the horrors – he quotes the previously uttered, legalised hate speech of DF Malan, the first Nationalist prime minister, in which the chilling term “solution” echoes from the most notorious ethnic-cleansing act of the twentieth century. The words cited are Malan’s reference to “The Indian” as “an alien element” in South Africa, and as creating a problem that could be “solved”, (Malan asserts) only if and when “a very considerable reduction” of this population group were achieved (as Chetty cites from another text; 95).

The next chapter deals poignantly with a degraded man who can only find employment as a “bucket carrier” of what used to be called “night soil” (human excrement). The broader background is, of course, the absence of sewage systems even in “townships”, where municipal rates were on par with those of the “white” areas. Ayandoo (the main character) is so broken down emotionally, and so desperate for respect, that he (pathetically) attempts to earn some from a group of young children by undertaking the foolishly dangerous task of getting combs of honey for shared consumption from a hive in a nearby tree. Of course, the angry swarm attacks him; he falls badly, and has to be taken to hospital for treatment of his various injuries. Chetty sees this tragic account of humiliation as (in a small but significant way) compensating – in a “posthumous” demonstration of at least Govender’s recognition – for the harrowing conditions of lives such as Ayandoo’s. He believes that the story’s author shows us some “smouldering anger [even] in this collapsed figure” (114). Hence, Ayandoo becomes (as Chetty suggests) a man who, in his “meek defiance” (111), somehow demonstrates a “stoic defence” (114) – thus embodying a Gandhian ethos.

It was mentioned above that Govender wrote both an early short story/play script and a later novel that centre on the vulgar insensitivity and bombastic social power misuse of a “lahnee” figure. He is named “Richard So-so” in the play and novel, and he is apparently a “thinly disguised [representation of] the son of Mr Cato, mayor of Durban and eponymous founder of Cato Manor” (126). Chetty cites Govender’s sly wit in the latter’s devastating reference to him as “an Englishman, born and brainwashed” (126). Chetty several times refers to the lower and working-class (British) origins of “English” Natalians, who in the colonies soon became extremely rich, “gentrified” landowners on the broken backs of poor black and Indian labourers – as Cato the elder(!) did. In both the play and the novel, the final words most clearly indicate Govender’s disdain for “the sloth and [unearned and undeserved] privilege of rulers” (134) in this context. Govender’s other target is the dismaying ease with which the “lahnee” figure manages to get the “Indian” worker to comply with persuasive requests to “perform for” or entertain him and his cohort. Hence, Chetty comments: “the enslavement of the will and mind is, again, more worrying than original indenture of the body” (120). Chetty links this with the contemporary “struggle to be recognised intellectually” (120) – a highly topical subject.

The following chapter addresses what Chetty regards as an important and overlooked text, the play Swami, published in Govender’s collection Interplay (2007). Chetty describes the work as “dynamically political” – emphasising that “the Hinduism which Govender defends and the spirituality he brings to life on stage are not a theology of removal from life” (153). Nevertheless, in Govender’s usual finely balanced evaluation, the culturally validated caste system and the sexism felt to be prevalent in this community are roundly criticised. The play’s broader context, writes Chetty, is the colonial-era indenture system, as exemplified and harshly practised in British-ruled Natal. Chetty implicitly castigates “Britain”, which “was touting itself as a moral leader for abolishing slavery in 1833, yet instituted indenture, or semi-slavery, at the same time as abolition” (140). Evidently, the biography strongly endorses Govender’s implicitly conveyed moral-political position, and here again insists on the “other [English] component” of white South African dominance and exploitation. Chetty also comments that “the tragedies of indenture, concentration camps in South Africa, the backlashes of partition and apartheid, all can be placed at the door of colonial appropriation and exploitation. The abuse of millions was engineered to pander to the whims and delights of the few: the lahnees’ pleasure” (148). Still, the main weight of the play’s endeavour works towards conveying “Govender’s appeal for a spiritual healing to carry society forward” (150) – in Chetty’s view, still a “cogent” ideal for all South Africans.

I highly recommend this valuable text, the worth and interest of which I hope the above review has given some indication. I conclude by firstly quoting a remark made by Govender in the interview (here, it forms the penultimate chapter) that Chetty conducted with the author in May 2000 (Chetty 2001): “if the pain of helpless people does not inform your writing, whether you are writing a love story or about an experience in Iceland, you are limiting your canvas” (165). Secondly, Chetty can be given the last word(s). He states in his conclusion that Govender’s “comedic skills integrate his passion for democracy, truth and reality”, and that Govender’s “way is to connect us … as a human community [to] enable us to travel to the space where the subaltern resides” (169).

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