Postponed once for the Dassehra and Bakr-Id holidays, this novel was long awaited. Its simple narrative style and endearing local colour make it an easy read.
KumKum, Zakia, Gopa, Matthew, Sunil
Tragedy is in keeping with the quiet tenor of the novel, for Alan Paton was writing about a tragic country and its tragic people. A deep vein of humanity runs through the novel. The Umfundisi is a character who grows on the reader; when you are done, you wish to imitate his speech rhythms.
The parallels with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address are brought out. How can a country survive with freedom only for one-fifth of its people?
Here are the readers at the end of the reading.
Matthew, Talitha, Zakia, Thommo, Gopa, KumKum, Sunil
For a full account click below.
Full account and record of session on Oct 29, 2012
Present: Matthew, Talitha, Zakia, Thommo, Gopa, KumKum, Joe, Sunil
Absent: Priya (busy with daughter’s visit), Sivaram (other work), Kavita (other work), Bobby (reason unknown).
The next two reading dates were finalised as Nov 14 (Wednesday) for Poetry, and Dec 7 (Friday) for The Blind Assassin.
A readers exercise is provided down below, just before the Readings.
KumKum gave a long introduction to her piece. Stephen Kumalo, pastor of the small church in the village of Ndotsheni, was all set to leave for Johannesburg. It would be a long arduous journey by a narrow gauge toy train. He was going alone, leaving his wife at home.
His agenda for the trip was as follows:
- To find Gertrude, his ailing sister, and her son
- To find his son Absalom Kumalo, who left home for Joburg to seek his fortune. Of late he did not write home to keep in touch with his old parents.
- To meet his estranged brother John Kumalo who came to Johannesburg years back pursuing his passions.
- To get news of his neighbour Sibeko's daughter who worked for a white man uSmith in Ixopo, a nearby town of Joburg. Sibeko has not heard from his daughter for a while.
After attending to the first three items on his list, Stephen Kumalo embarked on the last item. He comes to a place called Spring in search of a Barbara Smith, who, Stephen Kumalo learnt, was the employer of Sibeko's. He could not get news of Sibeko's daughter from Barbara, but at her residence, Kumalo accidentally met Sr. Jarvis, the father of the slain lawyer Jarvis. It was a profound encounter. Two fathers grieving their loss; yet, one is the father of the victim and the other the father of the assassin. Chapter 8 had the essence of this simple yet beautifully told story, Cry, The Beloved Country.
KumKum then read a few passages, and remarked on the friendship that continues between the two men. Not friendship, said Gopa, but a kind of empathy, a mutual commiseration. The senior Jarvis did not understand his son’s radical departure and rethinking of the white man’s position in S Africa. Sunil said it was a change from the old to the new. The traditional society was broken. The amazing thing is that the victim’s father was instrumental in getting a lawyer hired to save Stephen Kumalo’s son, Absalom.
Matthew mentioned that this novel was prescribed for the Indian School Certificate for Elective English.
Kumalo & Jarvis on top of the mountain
Richard Harris, James Earl Jones 1995 movie
The passage is from the lament for S Africa in Chapter 12. The ominous opening of the chapter reads: “Have no doubt it is fear in the land. For what can men do when so many have grown lawless?” The whole book is about an underlying fear. The Boer wars were over by the turn of the century between the British, and the Boers who declared free states of their own. In that war many crimes were committed by Britain including the first use of concentration camps, to corral the families of the Boers and feed them half-rations.
Matthew cited the white man’s justification of his rule, namely that S Africa had vast mineral resources, but they were of no use to the black man who led a pastoral life; those minerals were of use to the white man who had a technically advanced society that could exploit the minerals. That was a nice try at a rationalisation: gold, platinum, diamonds – was there any technological need for vast quantities of gold and diamonds; normal avarice and covetousness, perhaps?
Matters have not changed today. The resources of the nation are still in the hands of the few who are wealthy, and they share little with those who do not have the wealth. It’s the same in India. Look at the Reddy brothers from Andhra who run a borderless illegal iron ore mining operation between Andhra and Karnataka, exporting millions of tons of ore via Mangalore port, abetted by politicians and administrators who are all paid off. YSR’s son has got involved too, said Matthew. Gopa referred to the exploitation and said colonial rulers often are replaced by local rulers who are little better, though they come to power with great promises. When they take on high-sounding titles like ‘social entrepreneur’ (Mr Gadkari of BJP), or mock the plebs by calling them ‘mango men’ (Mr Vadra), their hypocrisy is exposed.
The passage she chose was from Chapter 4, Book Two in which senior Jarvis reads his slain son’s private diary. The reference in that diary to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in March 1865 (nearing the end of the Civil War which was about preserving the Union against the secessionist South) caused Gopa to go and read it on the Internet. It is clear there that Lincoln did not enter the war to eradicate slavery in the South, for as he says:
”These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”
For Lincoln, preservation of the Union was the uppermost concern. As he remarked in a well-known speech seven years earlier: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.”
The whites in S Africa, especially the white supremacist Boers (Winston Churchill too caught the supremacy virus while serving there), believed that God had given them the lands in S Africa and the right to rule over the inferior blacks, who were meant to toil for them at low wages. Talitha said this was the back-story of the novel, though we don’t come across any of these virulent white attitudes which constituted the reality for blacks. Why is that reality wholly missing?
Gopa noted from the short Second Inaugural Address the main themes: Divine Providence; the offence of slavery that existed right to the border of Washington DC on the farms of Washington and Jefferson in northern Virginia. “He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”
Talitha offered a different view, whose tenor was lost in the discussion. Perhaps, she can add a comment to the blog to explain. Sunil took a view of this from the vantage of the laws of Evolution. What in the world is ‘equal’ he asked? Don’t we live in a world where only the fit survive? Isn’t the lion the king of the jungle? This contrarian view can only be met by arguing that the essence of fascism is ‘might is right’. The progress we have made in history is to replace biological fitness to rule over others, by the proposition that nations and peoples have a right to govern themselves according to their lights, while themselves respecting every person’s innate desire for a certain freedom of action and expression within the realm. Admittedly the progress is halting, considering that the new century began with an illegal war by the only super-power on a puny state that in no way menaced it!
Economist cover, Oct 20, 2012;
34 miners were shot and killed at Marikana platinum mines on August 16, 2012
34 miners were shot and killed at Marikana platinum mines on August 16, 2012
Here's a story told by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “When the missionaries came to South Africa, we had the land, they had the Bible. Then they told us, 'Let's close our eyes and pray.' When we opened our eyes we saw that we have the Bible, they have the land.”
The language of the novel could be described as what you may find in a children’s Bible; it is simple, all strong language and violent reactions by people have been expurgated. Paton’s art is to spin a children’s fable with morality at the core, and filled with proper deference to authority and punctuated by polite speech: “Yes, umnumzana” and “Good-bye, inkosana.” Though it situates the story in pre-war S Africa the apartheid society it depicts is mainly a benevolent caring of the black man by the white; in that sense it is a fully fictional tale which dared not take on the brutal treatment of blacks that led to a world-wide boycott of S Africa in the sixties. Even for a liberal and just man as Alan Paton, the full impact of white rule in brutalising the black man’s soul and killing the proud Zulu spirit, was not apparent.
In a strange inversion of roles, the only bad characters depicted in the novel are black: a prostitute as the sister of the parson (who is called by the lovely word ‘Umfundisi’), a homicide as his son, a manipulative rabble rouser as his brother, and Joburg, a town dangerous not because of the murderous rule of the police state that presided over S Africa’s mineral wealth, but because the blacks living in poverty in shanty-towns had no morals.
One gets tired of the blessed Umfundisi’s pious responses, and his uncle-Tom bowing and scraping. Perhaps, Paton was successful after all in depicting the conditioning that forces the subjects of a colony to defer to the very imperial rulers who take away their lands, loot the national resources, practice every form of discrimination, and then sanitise their rapacity by calling it apartheid, i.e. ‘separate development.’
The passage is from John Kumalo’s oration to the miners, exhorting them to stop work at the mines, if the wages paid left them in poverty while the profits enriched the mine-owners.
Matthew noted the John Kumalo’s speech is a recitation of the classic Marxist labour theory of value, which seeks to derive the value of the product from the labour component of it. It is not only in accord with theories of Adam Smith and Ricardo, but is also consistent with Christian teachings about paying workers a living wage.
In response to Joe’s citing of the famous quotation from Desmond Tutu, Thommo recalled the song of Miriam Makeba, the iconic South African singer who was hounded out of S Africa, and later met hostility from the US government too (fleeing to Guinea). It’s called A Piece of Ground. The last stanza goes:
White man don't sleep long and don't sleep too deep
Or your life and your possessions how long will you keep?
For I've heard a rumour that's running around
That the black man's demanding his own piece of ground
His own piece of ground
His own piece of ground
Thommo treated the readers to these lines of the song. You can hear Makeba herself singing A Piece of Ground at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIydfYRereE
In the passage Matthew chose, the agricultural demonstrator, Napoleon Letsitsi, is exchanging views with Stephen Kumalo about his work. Although it’s paid for by Mr Jarvis, Napoleon is really doing it for the people and when the valley blossoms there will be no need to depend on the white man’s milk.
A discussion arose about the idea of individual freedom, and when and where did it arise in human civilisation. Talitha propounded the traditional view of Western thinkers that the idea of individual freedom, freedom of thought and expression and so on arose in Greece, which for Western thinkers is the fount and source of all ideas about freedom and democracy. A murmur arose from others (Gopa, Joe, etc) that this was the view of those who drew inspiration from one fount of ancient thinking and scanted others they were not familiar with. Wasn’t it Thomas Babington Macaulay whose liberality was so grand as to concede that all of Indian thought on every subject of intellectual inquiry could be accommodated on half a bookshelf?
Talitha noted that societies in the East were focused on the well-being of the community; individual thinking, iconoclastic thinking, and deviation from community norms were put down or sacrificed, for the sake of community cohesion. Gopa argued that there was evidence in books such as The Wonder That Was India by Basham (a gift from Joe to KumKum before they were married!), and other sources, to indicate that a fair degree of intellectual freedom of thought was not only tolerated in ancient India, but the very coexistence and flowering of Jainism, Buddhism and other schools of thought (including atheism, read The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen ) alongside Vedic thought, testifies to diversity, and an atmosphere in which people could live by different beliefs harmoniously.
Since this is a fertile subject for further inquiry, I propose an exercise for the diligent reader: Trace the ancient sources of ideas about individual freedom of thought, expression and belief (200 words or less). Contributions will be posted on the blog.
The passage takes up the writings of Jarvis junior. The ideas of a thinking and liberal man are embodied there, but it smacks of the white man’s burden, and is a bit condescending in outlook, for it makes out that the white man, overcome by his Christian conscience, will arrange a better order to replace the tribal system that has been broken. As matters turned out, Christianity had little to do with the outcome, for freedom in the end was grasped by black S Africans who demanded it, and suffered long and hard for it at the hands of the thugs who ruled the police state of S Africa. Immense international pressure and the state of pariah-dom foisted on S Africa (when a reluctant US joined) finally compelled de Klerk to release Neslon Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment.
Vanellus melanopterus, the titihoya
There is no more charming passage in this novel than the opening lines: “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. …” A faint suspicion arises upon the choice of Chapter 1 by anybody for a reading that perhaps the novel has not been read beyond that; but not so this time. Talitha was reduced to this choice by others pre-empting passages she had chosen. Dotted with depictions of the flora in the Umzimkulu valley, the reader’s mind is delighted. A bird that is symbolic of the countryside is mentioned, the titihoya, an onomatopoeic name given a plover. Bird lovers can hear its cry immediately.
Thommo put up his hands to confess that he had been so busy writing (his travelogue of the Tata Nano tour of India) that he had scarce time to read a passage sent on by KumKum via Joe. It is again a scenic passage describing the countryside, through which the toy train passes as the Umfundisi sets out to find his son, his sister, and other people who had emigrated to make a living in Johannesburg. Thommo found himself recollecting the toy train from Mettupalayam to Ooty; you can indeed get off the train and walk along and get on again, so slow it is on the steep gradient, climbing by the cog in the middle of the track.
Thommo said his book when published will be released at a function in David Hall, Fort Kochi. We shall all be there.
Matthew, Talitha, Zakia, Thommo, Gopa, KumKum, Joe
While Jarvis was reading there was a knock at the kitchen door, and he went out to find a native parson standing on the paved stone at the foot of the three stone steps that led up to the kitchen. The parson was old, and his black clothes were green with age, and his collar was brown with age or dirt. He took off his hat, showing the whiteness of his head, and he looked startled and afraid and he was trembling.
-- good morning, umfundisi, said Jarvis in Zulu, of which he was a master.
The parson answered in a trembling voice, Umnumzana, which means sir, and to Jarvis's surprise, he sat down on the lowest step, as though he were ill or starving. Jarvis knew this was not rudeness, for the old man was humble and well-mannered, so he came down the steps, saying, Are you ill, umfundisi ? But the old man did not answer. He continued to tremble, and he looked down on the ground, so that Jarvis could not see his face, and could not have seen it unless he had lifted the chin with his hand, which he did not do, for such a thing is not lightly done.
-- Are you ill, umfundisi ?
--I shall recover, umnumzana.
-- Do you wish water? or is it food ? Are you hungry?
-- No, umnumzana, I shall recover.
Then he lifted his face also and looked at Jarvis, and Jarvis saw that his face was full of suffering that was of neither illness nor hunger. And Jarvis stooped, and picked up the hat and stick, and he held the hat carefully for it was old and dirty, and he restored them to the parson.
-- I thank you, umnumzana.
-- Are you sure you are not ill, umfundisi?
-- I am recovered, umnumzana.
The suffering in the old man's face smote him, so that he said, Sit down, umfundisi. Then the old man would be able to look at the ground, and he would not need to look at Jarvis, and Jarvis would not need to look at him, for it was uncomfortable to look at him. There is something between you and me, but I do not know what it is.
-- You are in fear of me, but I do not know what it is. You need not be in fear of me.
-- It is true, umnumzana. You do not know what it is.
-- I do not know but I desire to know.
--I doubt if I could tell it, umnumzana.
--You must tell it, umfundisi. Is it heavy?
-- It is very heavy, umnuzana. It is the heaviest thing of all my years.
He lifted his face, and there was in it suffering that Jarvis had not seen before. Tell me, he said, it will lighten you.
-- I am afraid, umnumzana.
-- I see you are afraid, umfundisi. It is that which I do not understand. But I tell you, you need not be afraid. I shall not be angry. There will be no anger in me against you.
--Then, said the old man, this thing that is the heaviest thing of all my years, is the heaviest thing of all your years also.
Jarvis looked at him, at first bewildered, but then something came to him. You can mean only one thing, he said, you can mean only one thing. But I still do not understand.
-- It was my son that killed your son, said the old man.
So they were silent. Jarvis left him and walked out into the trees of the garden. He stood at the wall and looked out over the veld, out to the great white dumps of the mines, like hills under the sun. When he turned to come back, he saw that the old man had risen, his hat in one hand, his stick in the other, his head bowed, his eyes on the ground. He went back to him.
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. Or fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
Chapter 4, Book Two in which senior Jarvis reads his slain son’s private diary:
After breakfast Jarvis returned to his host’s study, and began to read his son’s manuscript. … He picked up the page again, but for his son, not for the words or the ideas. He looked at the words.”
The passage is taken from Chapeter 9 of Book Two.
“Is it wrong to ask for more money … more and more faintly.”
“All we ask is justice …it is better to cease to work than to work for such wages.”
“I shall not keep you any longer … But let us not sell our labour cheap to keep any industry alive.”
Book Three Chapter 6: “There was another Napoleon, said Kumalo, … But it is not the way it should be done, that is all.”
Book Two Chapter 3:
The other papers were in his son’s handwriting. They were obviously part of some larger whole … the last line was a sentence unfinished…. It was permissible to allow the destruction of a tribal system. … But it was not permissible to watch its destruction and replace it by nothing. … We set aside one-tenth of the land for four-fifths of the people. … We are caught in the toils of our own selfishness. … we shall never, because we are a Christian people, be able to evade the moral issues. It is time …
Book One Chapter 1:
There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.
The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.
Where you stand the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded, or cared for, it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men. The titihoya does not cry here any more.
The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys women scratch the soil that is left, and the maize hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them any more.
The small toy train climbs up on its narrow gauge from the Umzimkulu valley into the hills. It climbs up to Carisbrooke and when it stops there, you may get out for a moment and look down on the great valley from which you have come. It is not likely the train will leave you, for there are few people here and everyone knows who you are. And even if it did leave you it would not much matter; for unless you are a cripple or very old you could run after it and catch it for yourself.
If there is a mist here you will see nothing of the great valley. The mist will swirl about below you, and the train and the people make a small world of their own, Some people do not like it, and find it cold and gloomy. But others like it and find in it mystery and fascination, and prelude to adventure, and intimation of the unknown. The train passes through a world of fancy, and you can look through the misty panes at green shadowy banks of grass and bracken. Here in the season grows the blue agapanthus, and the wild watsonia, and the red-hot poker, and now and then it happens one may glimpse arum in a dell. And always behind them the dim wall of wattles, like ghosts in the mist.
It is interesting to wait for the train at Carisbrooke, while it climbs up out of the great valley. Those who know can tell you with each whistle where it is, at what road, what farm, what river. But though Stephen Kumalo has been there a full hour before he need, he does not listen to these things. This is a long way to go and a lot of money to pay. And who knows how sick his sister may be, and what money that may cost? And if he has to bring her back what will that cost too? And Johannesburg is a great city, with so many streets that a man may spend his days going up one and down another, and never the same one twice. One must catch buses too, but not as here, where the only bus that comes is the right bus. For there is a multitude of buses and only one bus in ten, one bus in twenty maybe, is the right bus. If you take the wrong bus you may travel to quite some other place. And they say it is a danger to cross the street., yet one must needs cross it. For there the wife of Mpanza of Ndostheni, who had gone there when Mpanza was dying, saw her son Michael killed in the street. Twelve years and moved by excitement he stepped out into danger, but she was hesitant stayed at the kerb. And under her eyes the great lorry crushed the life out of her son.
And the great fear too – the greatest fear since it was so seldom spoken. Where was their son? Why did he not write any more?