How many colours in the rainbow…. ask the people of South Africa!
At the time of writing, our ‘Boys’ are in South Africa doing what they do best – avoid losing matches. The ICC Champions Trophy is on in the Rainbow nation, and chances are, Dhoni and co. may end up like the zebras fed to lions in the famous park just outside the city limits. I bite my tongue while making this prediction ( for one, I know very little about cricket, for another, I’m certain if nothing else motivates Dhoni, the world’s highest earning cricketer, at least the desire to hang on to his juicy endorsement deals will get him to perform. Oh, even Kirsten’s sex dossier may not get it up for the guys). I was in South Africa last fortnight, and it was my second trip. The first one doesn’t really count, since my husband and I were Vijay Mallya’s guests. Which means, one travels in a bubble minus any meaningful contact outside that pampered space. It is a great way to travel ( it doesn’t get any better!), but for all the luxuries and privileges that Vijay lays on, it is impossible to wander off and connect with the real world. As it turns out, Vijay was absolutely right. You really don’t want to wander off or have any contact with the outside world while in the Rainbow nation. Unless you like the idea of getting your head blown off. He’d insisted on a gun toting body guard accompanying us at all times. Now I understand why. South Africa, where the Father of Ahimsa was born, is now one of the most dangerous destinations on earth. And Gandhi himself, is seen in a totally different light ‘back home’, even by the Indian community. As one scholar explained, “ We gave you M.K. Gandhi….. and you gave the world a Mahatma.” I am not sure whether that was a loaded remark, so I asked around and most people nodded their heads and stated, “For us, Gandhi is a second tier leader… nothing more, nothing less.’’ That was revelation number one . I had imagined Gandhiji was revered and worshipped across South Africa, and was right up there with Nelson Mandela. (Mayawati has obviously not seen Mandela’s monstrously large statue at Mandela Square… or else!) But that is not so. Mandela himself, is a shadow of his former self. He remains incommunicado most of the time, protected by his over zealous minders, who insist he is too frail at 92 to meet visitors. And I promptly think of our M.F. Husain, who jets around the world attending art events and dancing at his birthday party over jalebis and a lot more. Perhaps, South Africa does not want the international community to know just how frail their ‘most recognized brand’ really is ( dedicated boutiques sell the famous Presidential Shirts, marketed by Mandela’s personal designer). For , without Mandela, who or what does that nation have to boast about?? President Zuma may have survived rape charges ( imagine the ignominy of the head of state being accused of rape!!) . But that’s South Africa – a brutally violent society at war against itself.
Yes, it is indeed dangerous to venture out on ones own, at any time of the day or night. Our very polished diplomat, Navdeep Singh, based in Jo’Burg, kept reminding me that this was not Mumbai ! He was spot on. I was staying at a charming guest house no more than half-a-block from his sprawling mansion ( one-and- a half- acres of luxury, with tennis courts and a swimming pool), and yet, strolling over was out of the question. Shri Bhatia, our seasoned high commissioner drove down from Pretoria for a sit down dinner, and was instantly gheraoed by a prominent diamond merchant and other businessmen. Mr.B walks a tight rope. While the TATA name is highly respected ( I spotted their large, gleaming corporate office ), I’m sure it isn’t easy doing business with locals. I’d wondered why most shops and establishments pulled down their shutters by 4.30pm, and remained open for just a few short hours over weekends. “ Because of armed robberies,’’ South Africa’s most famous and controversial cartoonist, Nanda Soobben told me bluntly, as he drove me around in Durban in a gleaming black Mercedes. He had hardly got those words out of his mouth when, at a traffic signal, a drug addict lurched up to the car and thumped on the window aggressively. Nanda remained unfazed as he told the man to go look for some work. He turned to me and grinned, “ People are very jealous of my car here. I tell them I’ve worked very hard to buy it. They can own a Merc too, if they work for it.’’ Two days earlier, at ‘Soi’ a chic Thai restaurant in Jo’Berg, a group of men had walked in through the glass doors, demanding alms from well -heeled diners. An armed bouncer had promptly chased them out, but I can tell you, that was the end of my gourmet meal.
I asked a prominent crime writer I was sharing a panel with in Capetown, what the explanation could be to this ugly phenomenon. She lowered her voice ( there was a predominantly Black and Coloured audience, while she herself was White ). Her response was scarey and troubling. She told me, “ My father is a pediatric surgeon. Most of the surgeries he performs are on little girls – their private parts…. to reconstruct torn vaginas. Open the papers and you will find at least seven or eight reported rapes a day. Most victims are underage kids. Ours is a very, very unstable society. I put the blame squarely on apartheid and what it did to destroy the human spirit. Our people don’t know the meaning of love.’’ Mridul Kumar, India’s Consul in Capetown, mentioned how unthinkable it was for his wife and young daughters to go jogging, even with an armed guard.To make matters worse, aggressive baboons often arrived at their doorstep in search of food. I recalled another conversation with the deputy mayor of Durban ( a person of Indian origin), who made an eloquent speech at a dinner hosted by the dapper Harsh Shringla, India’s Consul General in Durban. The speaker candidly admitted that his grandfather and father were slaves till South Africa became a democracy just fifteen or so years ago. Slaves!!! Ghulams!! That word made my hair stand on end. I couldn’t believe that in this, the 21st century, I was listening to someone calmly referring to his immediate family members as slaves. It was the matter of factness with which he dealt with his past, that was most admirable. But, it was equally disturbing.
After that dinner, I spoke to several other people, including ‘Coloureds’, who seem to be the most bewildered of the lot. They look White, think White, act White. But fall into the Coloured category. Even they can’t explain how they got there. All they know is that they were relocated ( “regrouped’’) to designated areas meant exclusively for them, their lands seized, their homes destroyed…. and that was that. Do they feel bitterness and hate? ‘It’s inevitable’, replied a college professor, who pointed out the ghetto in which he grew up after his family was identified as Coloured by the regime. “Neighbours deposed against neighbours. People like us were ‘outed’ by those who envied our success.” Perhaps the positive fall out of that ‘regrouping’ is the existence of mosques and temples standing cheek by jowl in crowded areas sans any signs of ‘disturbance’.
For all that, South Africa remains a dynamic and ambitious nation. FIFA is round the corner, and the entire country is gearing up for the world event, which is expected to boost tourism in a big way. People are also very proud of the IPL coup, which was handled with great success at short notice. “ If we could pull that off in such a short time, we can definitely score big with FIFA.” The countdown has begun, and there are gigantic electronic boards at strategic places that display the exact number of days still to go before the World Cup. The super fabulous stadium at Durban stands testimony to this grand plan. It resembles a graceful basket that can be wafted off by strong winds. Understandably, South Africa’s latest show piece is a matter of great pride to the locals.
I sorely missed running into any Black Diamonds during my week long stay there. This is a mocking reference to the posh, westernized ladies-who-lunch , flashing the latest fashion labels and wearing pea- sized solitaires. There is a lot of money hidden in South Africa – a lot. But it remains out of sight. Tanya, a beautiful woman ( but not a Black Diamond) repeatedly warned me not to speak on the cell phone while in a car, or open my handbag and flash cash – not even small notes. “ People here kill for less than that.” Sure enough, while driving back from the Cape of Good Hope ( or, more appropriately, the Cape of Storms ), Calvin, my tour operator, did a sharp about turn as we approached what may possibly be an even bigger urban slum than Dharavi on the outskirts of the city. ‘What’s wrong?” I asked. He pointed to a few cars in the distance , “ Look… it’s shoot- out… a hold up. Most vehicles are bullet proof, but these days, burglars pump bullets into the tyres, and then into the occupants.” Phew!! Thanks for the explanation, buddy. And for the presence of mind, I croaked, as we sped off in the opposite direction. Just as we were laughing about our narrow escape, his cell phone rang. It was one of his employees reporting that his brand new mini van had been broken into the previous night and stripped off all removables! His face blanched. As did mine. I was suddenly glad I was taking the flight back to India at dawn.
That said, let me explain the pictures. The group shot should have appeared first, since that was when I was hard at work. The three lovely ladies in the pic include the editor of a woman's magazine, and two feminist writers who have shaken up South Africa with their cheeky novels ( Zuki, the lady with the shaved head has recently published 'Madams'). I thoroughly enjoyed the panel discusion and am hoping we can get the writers across to India for the Jaipur Lit Fest next year.
The more relaxed pic was taken at 'Soi' , a chic Thai restaurant where the food is almost as good as the massage. The lady had just finished working on my tense neck muscles when I looked up and smiled for the flashbulb.
I've had a pretty long day, and want to crash early ( by my mad standards ). But not before watching a movie. Last night, I drooled over John Travolta and 'Saturday Night Fever.' I was watching it after ages.... when boom!! mid-way through it, suddenly the thought hit me that this was no ordinary dance flick. If anything, SNF is a deep, dark and disturbing film, filled with morbid moments and enormous cruelty. It is just that Travolta's moves on the disco floor are so mesmerising, one forgets everything else. Oh,,,, just the innocence in his eyes as he blow dries his hair, is enough to break a million hearts. And that's exactly what happened.... still happens.