From India to Africa: Deena Padayachee Talks of Apartheid and Redemption
Today I was surprised yet again
When a patient told me
That he liked the way I treated him.
So I mused,
How can it make me happy
If I am rude or rough with you?
How can it make me happy
If I make your life difficult?
Would it help my digestion or my self image
If I shout at you, or if I am curt?
Would it make me feel superior or better than you?
Would it make my daughter, Seishnie, smile?
Or make my son, Sagren, proud?
Would it make the melanin in my skin dissapear?
Deena Padayachee’s muscular and lucid writing is what you might expect from a medical doctor who writes fiction and poetry.
Author of the poetry collection, A Voice from the Cauldron, and the short story collection, What’s Love Got to do With It, Padayachee is the only South African medical doctor to win the prestigious Olive Schreiner Prize and the Nadine Gordimer Prize.
Padayachee, a fourth generation South African of Indian descent, was nineteen hours from home by jetliner one afternoon at Louisiana State University’s Hill Memorial Library in Baton Rouge. Light fell on shrubs and grass outside tall windows as Padayachee lectured and read to an audience that was largely white, undergraduate and there for extra credit.
Extra credit or no, Padayachee shared a history of apartheid unfamiliar to most of the students. “My family came to Durban on South Africa’s eastern coast around 1860, part of a wave of indentured laborers sent out of India to Africa by British colonialists,” he said.
“They were paid 10 shillings a month and got food and shelter for five years. When the indentured laborers’ five years were up, they could go back to India or stay in South Africa.”
Although descendants of the indentured laborers would play a part in the uprising against apartheid, in the pecking order of South Africans the Indian immigrants ranked below indigent Africans.
“Black South Africans had tribes and chiefs. Indians had no schools at first or places to worship,” said Padayachee. “They were thought to be more malleable than the conquered blacks.”
Though Padayachee’s family would lose everything in what he calls, “The Resistance,” his father and uncles started as sugarcane farmers, but later built a lumber mill that doubled as a furniture factory. By local standards, the family was considered well off. Padayachee, 55, and two brothers became medical doctors.
For years, Padayachee’s short stories couldn’t be published in South Africa because they were inspired by blacks’ and “non-whites'” resistance to apartheid. In 1988, Sylvia Tankel, an editor at Short Story International in New York, published some of Padayachee’s stories. His collection of short stories, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, was published in 1992.
Padayachee also spoke about the disenfranchisement of South African Indians, non-whites in the labeling of apartheid.
“Non-white,” he said. “You don’t even call a mosquito a non-cockroach.”
“There are about one million people of Indian ancestry in South Africa,” Padayachee said. “There are about 47 million people in South Africa, 42 million black, 1 million people of Indian ancestry, and the rest white and mixed race.”
“Though apartheid is gone,” he added, “South Africa has a lot of poverty, people in shack settlements, crime; AIDS, of course, and racism. What white people have to get straight is everyone’s racist. Much of South Africa’s crime is black against black, black South Africans targeting black immigrant workers.”
To Padayachee we must all be vigilant to our own prejudice, something he sees daily in his work as a physician.
What does it matter
If I have a string of University degrees and
If I have read Ganong or Harrison or Grant
And Gandhi and Einstein and Mandela
If I still make children cry and women weep
And men shake their heads in sadness?…
When you are in pain,
And tears trickle from your eyes
Like blood from your Soul,
What kind of person would be
Simple-mindedly obsessed with himself?
I see people who can make biryani and roti
And bathe a baby
People who sew and clean
And teach children to read
People who lay bricks and fix cars
And beautify our country.
I see people, who have kissed
And sung and danced and loved,
I see people who love
And who need love…
Ed Cullen is a feature writer and columnist on The (Baton Rouge) Advocate in Louisiana’s capital city and author of Letter in a Woodpile, a collection of essays. His commentaries appear on NPR’s All Things Considered.