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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51.3 (2005) 536-560

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From South Asia to South Africa:

Locating Other Postcolonial Diasporas

Indians are Africans Too

In January 2003, the Indian government sponsored a gathering of expatriates from the Indian diaspora. Sixty-three different countries were represented. Attendees included the Prime Ministers of Mauritius and Fiji, Nobel laureates V. S. Naipaul and Amartya Sen, as well as diasporics of Indian origin from Malaysia, the UK, the USA, the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius, and South Africa. In a speech to the conference, antiapartheid activist and writer Fatima Meer rejected the designate of Indian diasporic, particularly as a prefix to a South African national identity, arguing that South Africans of Indian origin had fought for acceptance too long and too hard to so easily abandon the label of South African as the primary signifier of cultural identity (qtd. in Waldman). For Meer, taking on the appellation of Indian diasporic would necessarily privilege the Indian first and consequently erase this community's long struggle for acceptance within South Africa. Meer thus identified a problem, that of longing for belonging, which surfaces with regularity in the global South Asian diaspora but resonates with particular force in the polarized racial climate of South Africa. 1 [End Page 536]

This essay explores how Indians use the apparatus of fiction to constitute their political presence in South Africa. Despite the proliferation of diaspora studies in the last two decades, its preoccupation has been largely confined to tracing migration from ex-colony to metropolis. I will pursue another paradigm of diasporic contact here: the movement of subcontinentals to South Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; their impact on the collective psyche of a land torn asunder by racial and cultural conflict; and in turn the influence of the South African political landscape on the construction of an identity that occupies a third space in the black and white map of South African race relations. Through an analysis of important fiction produced in the culturally hybrid South African climate—Ahmed Essop's Hajji Musa and the Hindu Fire-Walker (1978, 1988), Farida Karodia's Daughters of the Twilight (1986), Agnes Sam's Jesus is Indian (1989), Achmat Dangor's Kafka's Curse (1997), and Imraan Coovadia's The Wedding (2001)—I will trace the specificity of the Indian presence in South Africa. 2 In discovering from this fiction an epistemology with which to describe diasporic contact that goes beyond the standard stories of migration from the Third World to the First, I hope to join a new conversation in diaspora studies: one that recognizes the theoretical limitations of the South-North/East-West model and instead develops a critical paradigm within which to situate East-South encounters. 3

Essays like this one will also help fill the lacunae in critical study on South African Indian fiction. To the best of my knowledge, there is very little literary scholarship available on Indians in South Africa. 4 This may be because there has been a surge in fiction published internationally by South African Indians only in the last two decades following the imminent and actual demise of apartheid. However, it also must be remembered that literary publication has little to do with literary proliferation. South African Indians have been narrating their stories since the time they were transported from India as indentured labor in the middle of the nineteenth century. The invisibility of this vibrant genre of writing in scholarly discourse functions, perhaps, as a metaphor for its relative erasure within the national spectrum.

To understand the force of the social commentary that forms the edifice of this fiction, it is important to examine the presence of subcontinentals in South Africa. In her survey of the history of Indians in Africa, Arlene Elder explains that the earliest group of indentured Indians transported to the British province of Natal in 1860 was primarily of the Hindu faith. These laborers elected to remain in South Africa after the period of indenture had lapsed and acquired land, "becoming," as Robert Gregory...


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