Author: Deena Padyachee
Publ: USM Publishing
Reviewed: Meesbah Jiwaji
When I saw this book, the popular musical refrain by Tina Turner popped into my head. Then I saw that the book had won the Olive Shriner prize and I thought to myself, ‘I must read this book’. Having picked it up, I could not put it down.
Many books by South African authors focus on the country's history, or are autobiographies that walk through a person’s life, and as such few look like light, interesting, historical reading. This book however turns the stereotype on its head. It is a collection of short stories; each a few pages long. It hides in plain sight as light reading but offers so much more.
Deena Padayachee portrays life as an Indian in apartheid South Africa with exquisite poignancy, yet manages to avoid being bitter. In his stories, there is humour, sadness, self-mockery and wit. And gut-wrenching honesty. His stories talk of Indians struggling to find their identity in a country where colour determines status. In some stories (such as The Finishing Touch), individuals adopt the characteristics of those in higher strata to give themselves status. In others, they wear their Indian identity with pride (A Pestilence in the Land). Each story follows its threads and weaves its magic to a beautifully crafted conclusion. Padayachee is a master of his art, and as eloquently expressed in the Introduction to the collection by Professor Stephen Gray, South African writer and critic, Padayachee ‘has had that great fortune for a writer to find (or rather, to create) a milieu all his own, familiar … and yet uniquely his.’
In the final short story, after which the collection is named, Padayachee narrates a debate between non-white medical students on whether women ought to have a role in the profession, while standing up to the authorities who are trying to separate the education of Indian and Black medical students, and the possibilities of inter-racial friendship and love. These different themes twist and turn together in the story to a finale: a wedding, a coming together of two people in love with their friends around them despite the challenges that they face.
Every story addresses a painful and difficult topic, and yet its upbeat end highlights the positivity of Padayachee's sentiments. Through his writing, Padayachee communicates a strong sense of community and culture, entrepreneurship and a desire to succeed no matter the odds.
Read now, post-apartheid, one can look back at what was in South Africa and be grateful for the changes that have taken place, and that Padayachee's stories are simply stories. At the same time, his strong messages continue to play a role to every society: a cautionary tale of the kinds of social injustices that must be avoided at all costs.