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Modjaji Books

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Book Lounge launch interview with Ishara Maharaj

Ishara Maharaj’s debut novel, Namaste Life, tells the story of a pair of Hindu twins who leave their home in Durban to study in Grahamstown, only to encounter the kind of tragedy that makes parents want to keep their daughters close. The novel launched at the Book Lounge in Cape Town on 20 July 2016 with a discussion that tapped into the novel’s many facets, such as the dark themes of rape, victim-blaming, and the clash between contemporary life and religious belief. Ishara also shared her thoughts about portraying the Durban Hindu community, the role of Hindu mysticism, and the balance of tragedy and celebration that the story maintains. For those who missed the launch, she has written up her responses to the discussion questions.

Namaste Life Book Lounge launch

Image by Leanne Brady

Part of the novel is set in Durban, where you’re originally from, and the twins go to university at Grahamstown, where you studied. Can you tell us a bit about how those influences emerge in the novel?

One of the initial sparks for writing this novel was reading fiction by other local authors. Rayda Jacobs’ Confessions of a Gambler tackled deeply held beliefs within the Cape Muslim community and got me thinking about how very little has been written about the Durban Hindu community in modern-day terms. While the Hindu community remains strong in terms of its Indian roots, many young people like myself left Durban for better employment prospects, and our lives have changed. I wanted to write about those everyday struggles that young people from this community face, and to express that, as South Africans, we all experience similar struggles irrespective of our cultural or religious backgrounds.

Are you at all similar to your protagonists?

The twin girls in Namaste Life represent different aspects of my personality in some sense. Surya is the rebellious party girl; Anjani is gentle, studious and generally curious about the world. Both are confident in their own ways. Surya has the spontaneity most people wish they had, and Anjani grapples with her connection to the universe while living her life on this planet. I like to think of myself as spontaneous at times, but deeply curious about our subconscious and dreams, as well as the mysteries of the universe! Both Surya and Anjani display resilience and authenticity, two traits I certainly value in myself and in others.

Surya is the quintessential party girl: she’s obsessed with her appearance, wears lots of sexy clothing, has quite a reputation for partying and drinking, flirts with lots of guys, etc. Anjani, is the complete opposite: she’s studious, dresses modestly, has no interest in partying, and is quite devout. As a result it almost seems like Surya’s being set up for victim-blaming when she gets raped. She’s the ‘bad girl’ some people picture when they assume that women must somehow be asking for it. In fact, that’s the exact reaction her mother and grandmother have – they believe the rape is Surya’s fault because she was ‘misbehaving’ as usual. How does the novel tackle this issue? How would you like readers to approach it?

When I wrote these scenes in the novel, it was never my intention to set Surya up for victim-blaming. As we know, the notion that the way a woman dresses makes her more prone to be raped is a complete myth, and a ridiculous one at that, given the fact that all kinds of women are raped under varied circumstances. My intention for including a rape in this novel was to get readers to talk about the subject from a healing perspective i.e. what happens to women and their families after a rape? How do we heal? And if a rape occurred in our family circles, how would we deal with it? The reactions from Surya’s mother and grandmother are extremes to create emotional turmoil in readers’ minds. But if Namaste Life can be discussed among just one group of women in South Africa, I would be happy. More specifically, if our young girls in high schools can talk to their mothers and families about rape and sexual assault and how it affects our lives, my aim would have been achieved.

The dialogue captures the nuances of the Durban Indian dialect; if you’re familiar with it, you can really hear the voices as you read. Was it quite a challenge to capture that dialect on the page, or does writing it come naturally to you?

I think my years growing up in Durban has ingrained that dialect in my head, so I definitely heard it as I wrote, but my studies in linguistics and the mechanics of language really helped me to understand it in terms of social register and spelling. It gave me new appreciation for the slang as well. And there was no way to avoid using the dialect – it just makes for a more believable setting and more authentic characters.

In the Durban Hindu community, the women’s lives are characterised by intense scrutiny: the neighbours are always watching and gossiping. Initially there’s an element of humour to it, but after Surya is raped, her mother and grandmother’s reactions are defined, not only by their religious beliefs, but by their concerns about what the neighbours are going to say if they find out that Surya lost her virginity. Much of the tension in the story comes from this problem. Can you tell us about articulating that difficult mother–daughter relationship? Nirmala wants very much to protect her daughters, but her care ends up manifesting as cruelty.

This kind of scrutiny among women is not endemic to the Indian community. We have all heard the phrase ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’. In this case, it’s keeping up with the Harsinghs! Saving face in the community is a traditional facet that is particularly important for the older generations. It comes from a sense of pride in what has been achieved by families, and some women take it to the extreme when they show off about their husbands’ or children’s achievements. The twins’ mother Nirmala is proud of her family’s status within the community and she wants to uphold that at all costs – even to the point of being cruel to her own daughter. We see the complete insignificance of that community status in Surya and Anjani’s lives and belief systems and this produced the tension to stir the emotional pot between mother and daughters.

It’s interesting to compare Nirmala and the grandmother, Nanima, to the twins’ father, Ashok. He’s unfailingly kind and supportive, which makes his character so much more likeable, but it’s worth noting that, as a man in this community, he doesn’t have to worry about the neighbours and the gossip. In fact he only talks about it in relation to how it affects his wife’s health. Would you say he’s the better parent, or does he just have the freedom to be more loving?

I wouldn’t say he’s a better parent, but he certainly has a different parenting style. It goes back to the way mothers are with their sons and the special bonds between fathers and their daughters. In the Indian community, mothers tend to be harder on their daughters to prepare them for the world outside their childhood homes. But fathers want to shield their daughters at all costs and so they tend to be more loving. Ashok represents a slightly different take in this case, as he allows his daughters to go away to Grahamstown for university. This isn’t usually an option in more traditional Indian homes where sons are typically given more freedom than daughters.

Ashok’s a wealthy, successful businessman, but he’s also quite inept as an adult; his wife and mother-in-law do all the work of looking after him at home. There’s a funny scene where he’s packing for a trip, but he and Nirmala aren’t talking to each other, so he can’t ask her where his underwear is kept and has to look through all the drawers until he finds it. Is that typical of the gender dynamics in the community? 

Surprisingly, it is the case within the Indian community and it goes back to the way mothers traditionally raise their sons and daughters. Sons are taken care of to the point where some of them have never cleared the table or washed a plate in their youth. They get married and their wives – those daughters raised to care for the men-folk – take over from their mothers as caregivers rather than partners. Of course, this has changed over the years with modern family dynamic and more women having full-time careers, but I personally know of men in my own generation who have their wives packing and even buying their clothes!

The Hindu gods Ganesh and Parvati are in the background watching the whole story play out and tweaking things here and there, helping the characters out with symbolic dreams. Can you tell us a bit more about the role of Hinduism and the gods in the story?

I did not want the novel to be too preachy, but I wanted readers to get a feel for some Hindu concepts, particularly the connection to dreams as well as the concepts of karma and the cyclical nature of life. I have personally been fascinated by dreams, the subconscious and the connection to higher powers that dreams provide. For example, there is a certain time on the Hindu calendar dedicated to the worship of ancestors, and many Hindus find themselves dreaming of loved ones who have passed on, even without them knowing that it is the time for ancestral remembrance. I also really do feel that life is cyclical in nature – we simply cannot appreciate the good things and good times in our lives without going through some struggles. We also have the power to influence our futures by the actions we take in this time. Karma is not all set in stone! Hinduism and all its mysticism is an inherent part of the Hindu community so I had to refer to it in Namaste Life for a more authentic read. Dreams and the connection to ancestors are part of other cultures in South Africa as well, so this is a great point of conversation between different cultures.

Although the story deals with rape, victim-blaming and religion, it also has a light side with a Bollywood-style romance for Anjani. Why did you choose to juxtapose those two plots?

I suppose I felt that this novel needed to balance out with a great romance. Life is seasonal and we can never suffer forever. Anjani is seen as the supportive sister throughout the novel, but she needed to have her own story. Her romance with Himal and the wedding isn’t actually all Bollywood! Hindu weddings in South Africa do have ceremonies that span three days (I think it can span five days in India!). And the traditional Indian dress is bright with amazing fabrics and costume jewellery, so if you ever attend a wedding in Durban or Joburg, you may feel that you are in a Bollywood movie, but the dress and the celebrations are very much standard practice!

Interview by book blogger and editor Lauren Smith.

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