Chatsworth by Pravasan Pillay: a book review

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Book title: Chatsworth
Author: Pravasan Pillay
Publisher: Dye Hard Press
ISBN: 9780986998256
Reviewer: Karabo Kgoleng

Set in the highly populated township of Chatsworth in KwaZulu-Natal, this collection of 11 short stories highlights working class life in a residential area that was allocated for South Africans of Indian descent during apartheid. The stories take place in the recent past and bring to life the nuances of life in this community, without leaning into stereotypes. The characters vary in age and ethnolinguistic background, from Tamil to Gujarat to hints of Telugu and Urdu. Pravasan Pillay draws the reader into intimate spaces without violating his (often female) characters, such as in Kamla’s home, where she cares for her clinically obese daughter and puts food on the table by trading small groceries and alcohol illegally from her kitchen. She is otherwise uninvolved in the social life of her community, and her other daughters live far away in Johannesburg. Her brusque acceptance of how the twilight years of her life play out tugs at the heartstrings. In The albino, Cookie, a girl living with albinism, experiences a fragile popularity at school due to curiosity over her pale skin combined with her enchanting personality. On a trip to the museum, her teacher has to watch helplessly as a white security guard harasses the girl, reducing her to tears. This story is a collection of considered thoughts, through the eyes of Cookie’s teacher, regarding the privileges and discriminations that often accompany complexion.

Pillay is from Chatsworth and is currently based in Sweden. One could consider this to be homage to his hometown, but it is more than that. The stories in Chatsworth are about people who are outsiders in their own communities and families. Chops chutney is a veritable Romeo and Juliet style of tale, in which Kavitha, a young woman of Tamil descent, falls in love with Abdul, a Pakistani immigrant who cooks at the restaurant where she works as a cashier. Her father is xenophobic, and things come to an unpleasant head when he has to contend with her romantic choice. The author handles this universal theme with a decidedly local feel, and throughout the collection he uses the Durban Indian-English colloquial language in dialogue. It would not be complete without food as communication as well as nourishment. One evening, Kavitha has presented her father with a gift of samoosas from Abdul (her father does not yet know about Abdul), and when he angrily throws them away, she says, “Pa, don’t be like that how. I bought it for you. Tinned-fish samoosas is your favourite. How can you throw food away? If you not going to eat it, at least save it for Ma or me – we’ll eat it.” Later, when she is talking to Abdul about her father’s prejudice, she says, “It’s not even worth trying with him. I told you before, a Pakistani, a Bangladeshi, a Nigerian – all he don’t like. Your’ll are like dogs for him.” One of the most unique characteristics of English in South Africa is how different communities have adapted it to match the ebb and flow of mother tongue and daily life. Pillay captures the Chatsworth variety of English brilliantly.

A collection of stories about people who have a connection to their cultures would not be complete without a taste of the supernatural. The green ghost provides the shivers and humour in equal doses. Told in the first person, it is a tale about a young man who joins a motley crew of paranormal enthusiasts who are students at the University of Durban-Westville and the University of Natal’s Howard College campus. They chase the ghosts of their deceased ancestors with keen interest, and the outcome is unsettling and poignant at the same time.

Literature opens our world to lives that are different to ours, and at the same time, it shows us that our humanity is universal. It is especially by our reading short stories that writers introduce us to people, places, food and language that may seem foreign at first. With their intelligent brevity, writers bring us to the realisation of how, although we might still live with the effects of racially determined segregation, our collective poverty is the same, our love is the same and our prejudices are harmful because there is always someone weaker upon whom to heap them. Pravasan Pillay doesn’t hold the reader gently; he is gentle with his characters, and in so doing, he does not subject them to our pity or rebuke. For this, he commands our respect. Best enjoyed on a lazy afternoon, in long queues, in Chatsworth (sorry, Lenasia, you have Ahmed Essop!), on the beach, early in the morning before everyone wakes up – best enjoyed anywhere, anytime, like a bunny chow – all at once, or piece by piece!

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