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Amitava Kumar’s Excellent Adventure


Every once in a while I make it a point to stop by for a visit at Amitava Kumar’s virtual home (http://amitavakumar.blogsome.com/). There’s always something witty, something wonderful: an introduction to a new book, or a new photographer, or something about one of his classes. Amitava is an artist who thinks about art and about those who make art around him. When I first met him in another age he was a poet, a photographer and an aspiring literary critic. His first book of poems (“No Tears for the NRI”) was published by the respected Writers Workshop in Calcutta (P. Lal who runs the imprint ensures that the best sari borders are used for the handmade covers). In it you will find a gem of a poem, “Primary Lessons in Political Economy,”

“For every ten bushels of paddy she harvests/The landless laborer takes home one.

This woman, whose name is Hiria, would have to starve/for three days to buy a liter of milk.

If she were to check her hunger and not eat/for a month she could buy a book of poems.

And if Hiria, who works endlessly, could starve. endlessly, in ten years she could buy that piece Of land on which during short winter evenings/the landlord’s son plays badminton.”

Amitava has so far produced three lyrical books of criticism and auto-ethnography, each of them careful to take literary works seriously, but also to inject the author as a character, and his poems, his memories, and his travels (I suggest that you begin with “Husband of a Fanatic,” published by the New Press in 2005).

In 1998, Amitava, along with filmmaker Sanjeev Chatterjee, released a documentary entitled “Pure Chutney.” If Naipaul’s ancestors left Bihar for Trinidad, and if Naipaul then made his own “return” journey to India, “an area of darkness” (1964), in this film Amitava returns the compliment. As the promotion materials for “Pure Chutney” put it, “Bihar is the birthplace of contradiction” and Amitava “is only one of them.” So from that location, Amitava travels to Naipaul’s homeland to see what it means to be an “Indian”in that island. Thousands of Indians came as indentured laborers in the mid-1800s, and most of them remained after their contracts expired. They formed a vibrant community, with a rich cultural heritage that grew alongside and in-between the cultural world of the Afro-Trinidadians.

Naipaul’s early stories (in “Miguel Street”) capture the richness of this cultural world, and the poverty of its people (despite the oil that lives under them). Amitava went to Trinidad in the 1990s, when a major political gap had opened up between the Afro-Trinidadians and the Indo-Trinidadians, and when some among the latter had begun to take refuge in noxious cultural-political trends emanating from the subcontinent (this same set of trends, Hindutva, would soften Naipaul’s earlier reaction, and make him tend favorably to this upsurge of what he called a “creative force” to undo the “mortal wound” of Islam’s presence in the subcontinent).

Amitava’s Trinidad is not eclipsed by Naipaul’s exuberant turn to an imagined tradition. Instead, he meets a wide array of interesting women and men, most of whom revel in the contradictions of their island. Amitava flourishes with them, dressing up for Carnival, gathering at a cremation site, going for namaz at a mosque, and sitting in the home of an urbane family who are the leading edge of noxiousness in the island. They are the resident representatives of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), whose reputation in India is far less mixed than in Trinidad. Here the tragic recent history of Afro-Indo clashes are refracted into a search for cultural purity and distance in the twin directions of Afrocentricity and of Hindutva, of a yearning for cultural distance from each other as the political, economic and social climate of Trinidad molds. The conviviality of ordinary Trinidadians sparkles and it is to this that Amitava pins his hopes. “Pure Chutney” is a set of snapshots of this conviviality, disrupted by the cultural purists. Where it fails is that it does not take us into the world of missed opportunities, of how the accumulation of the oil wealth has distorted the great possibilities of historical connection and everyday interaction that mark Trinidad and Tobago’s history. But for a 42-minute film, it does its job.

“Dirty Laundry: An Indian in South Africa” (2005) is the second installment in the ongoing “Other Indias” collaboration between filmmaker Chatterjee and writer Amitava Kumar (incidentally, Amitava has a new novel out in India, “Home Products,” whose U. S. release is perhaps next year). This film traces the lives of people of Indian origin in South Africa, with the hook being the struggles of Indians to create the new South Africa. Of course the most prominent India in the long struggle for liberation was M. K. Gandhi, who went to the country as an obscure lawyer in 1893 (at age 24) and left for India as a hero in 1914 (at age 45), where he took charge of the Indian freedom struggle and became the great soul (Mahatma). “Dirty Laundry” tackles Gandhi with reverence, and then uses him as a springboard to document the unheralded struggles of the South Africans of Indian origin in the latter stages of the freedom struggle. We hear of the important role played by ANC member Mac Maharaj (who was with Mandela on Robben Island, and then his Minister of Transportation, 1994-1999; there is an important new book about him called “Shades of Difference”). We meet Laloo Chiba, a member of the African National Congress, of the South African Communist Party and of the Transvaal Indian Congress. Chiba spent eighteen years on Robben Island after he was arrested as a member of Umkonto we Sizwe during an operation to sabotage a railway line. In the film, we meet an older Chiba, a wonderfully warm man who takes Amitava through the contradictions of South African Indian life. The most moving parts of the documentary show this gracious man escort Amitava to Robben Island and walk him around the prison.

He came to this maximum-security island in his thirties and left in his fifties, “left my youth behind me,” he says.

Chiba stands in for the South African Indians who fought hard against apartheid. Amitava neglects to tell us that he is a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Another person who is often forgotten is Fatima Seedat, who joined the SACP in Cape Town in the late 1930s. With her husband, Dawood Seedat, she moved to Durban, got involved with the Natal Indian Congress and went to jail in 1946 (she was only 24, with a four month old baby). The next year, Fatima Seedat joined the ANC, and was an active participant in the Defiance Campaign of 1952 (she was jailed once again). On August 9, 1956, Fatima Seedat was a leader of the Women’s March to Pretoria’s Union Building (where the slogan was Wathint’ Abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, strike the woman, strike the rock). Seedat was not alone: with her were Rahima Ally, Zeinub Asvat, Zohra Bhayat, Amina Cachalia, Dr. Kesavaloo Goonam, Cissy Gool and so many others. These women are absent from the story, as are the women of Chatworth and other urban slums whose efforts lead the struggles against neo-liberalism in today’s South Africa.

The film, less interested in culture than in politics and its impact on society, takes us gently into the world of Jameel Chand. Amitava opens the documentary telling us that he knew little of the lives of South African Indians or of South Africa as a child, and even as a teenager. He knew that the cricket team could not play international matches (because of an anti-apartheid boycott), but the place and its politics had not registered for him. For me, things were different. The anti-apartheid campaign in the 1980s was a central part of my political education. Names like Mandela, Maharaj, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and others marked my consciousness. But while we organized in the divestment movement and through the Jackson 1988 campaign to push South Africa to the front, three South African Indians entered the struggle in a deeper way.

These are my contemporaries, whose struggle was much, much more serious.

Jameel Chand, Yusuf Akhalwaya and Prakash Napier formed the first and only Indian guerrilla cell in Johannesburg. Between 1987 and 1989, the three of them conducted thirty-five bombing operations as the Ahmed Timol Unit (named after a South African Indian school teacher killed by the State in 1971).

Their unit was first called the Mahatma Gandhi Unit, but they quite correctly renamed it. In December 1989, the unit was on the way to conduct another operation, when their bomb (a Soviet made limpet mine) went off and killed Napier and Akhalwaya, a Hindu and a Muslim South African. Chand survived. The ANC office in Lusaka released a statement after this accident, “Although they came from different religions, the love they had for each other was the highest form of brotherly love.” The interview with Chand is tender. Amitava is not his usual self. More serious. Chand and his wife Firhana recount the story. Firhana was married to Yusuf at the time of his death, and only later did Jameel and Firhana take comfort with each other, and fall in love. Their bravery fills the screen.

Jameel Chand now works for Johannesburg Water, where he is on the frontlines defending neo-liberal policies in the water wars. Amitava does not go into this aspect of his life. He remains with the events around 1989. Earlier in the film, Laloo Chiba and his friend, another ANC member of parliament, Ismail Vadi of Gauteng, sit down with Amitava. They talk about the dangers of apathy among South African Indians in general and South African Gujaratis in particular. Vadi tells us that the South African Indian vote has been going toward the opposition parties. “We have not fully understood why,” he says, but perhaps this has to do with the youth. The community has “not produced a new generation of younger, critical activists?acting to make common cause with the liberation movement.” If this core does not emerge, then the community will commit “political suicide.” One of these leaders could have been Jameel Chand, or might be activist-journalist Ashwin Desai (whose presence graces the opening of the film, and whose book “We are the Poors” is available from Monthly Review Press). But they don’t count. Jameel Chand perhaps because of his position as a bureaucrat in the new South African dispensation, and Ashwin Desai from the outside, as someone who has lost faith in the new South Africa. That’s the limit of the film. Vadi and Chiba give us an astute sense of the gap, but we don’t hear from either Chand or Desai for their response, or their analysis of this lack of participation. From Chand we get the powerful story of 1989, and how he has been able to pick up a personal life from the debris. From Desai we get the rage. But we don’t quite grasp why neither of them are the leaders that Chiba and Vadi would like to see emerge.

“Dirty Laundry” is a terrific film, a more mature investigation than “Pure Chutney,” but easily as enjoyable. Chatterjee’s camera lingers lovingly over the South African landscape, the coastline, the veldt, the habitations. Mimi Banerjee’s drawings complement Amitava’s poem “There Are Monkeys” on Gujarat, and Partho Das’ art is a clever way to rehearse Gandhi’s South Africa struggle.

I asked Amitava if we could now look forward to more such movies from “Other India.” Perhaps a film about England or Germany, Fiji or Malaysia, or even one about the diasporas within South Asia, within India. “Well, I had always wanted to make a film about a place where there was only one Indian, a frigid place in Finland, an Indian running a small restaurant,” he said.

“But after 9/11, I’ve thought that in many places in this country, despite our increasing numbers, a man is alone behind a cash register, and what comes walking through the door is pure evil.” Personally, I want to see him walk around the Mall-State of Dubai, and send us a dispatch from the world of the Al Maktoum oil dynasty, of Mumbai’s displaced gangsters, and of South Asian contract laborers.

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