October 16, 2011

Walking the Freedom Trail

The October-November 2011 issue of Conde Nast Traveller is an "India Special". Nevertheless, it carries an essay I wrote after a visit to South Africa last May, perhaps because it includes some musing I did on connections to India in Cape Town's beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

I haven't figured out if the article is online, so the text is below. They called it "Walking the Freedom Trail", different from the title I gave it.

And yes, your comments welcome.


Trail to Somewhere

It's a grainy black-and-white photograph, one that practically screams "1960s". No really identifiable face in it, just human forms. Most are in a large crowd, a few off to the side by themselves. In my imagination, one of those figures by himself has his arm up, hand in a fist, shouting something stirring and passionate that, these years later, isn't really identifiable either.

It's in Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum, the photograph. The caption says it was taken at a Cape Town rally, tens of thousands strong. Dating from March 1960, this was one of the early demonstrations against apartheid's perverse pass laws, the mood also fanned that morning by the infamous Sharpeville massacre of a few days before. It was led by Philip Kgosana, then a young student-activist with the Pan African Congress, who lived in a teeming shantytown outside Cape Town. After some hard-nosed negotiation, the police told him that the "Justice" Minister, FC Erasmus, had agreed to meet a small delegation.

"This was an exciting moment," Kgosana would write years later. "Never in the history of South Africa had an 'agitator' forced a racist minister to succumb to an undesirable appointment." Of course, when Kgosana and his colleagues arrived to meet Erasmus, he didn't show up. So much for "justice". Instead, the police arrested them and put them on trial for incitement to public violence.

Days after I saw the photograph, I waited in a convenience store in Pretoria, idly wondering if this was the first time I would meet a figure from a museum exhibit. Kgosana walked in right on time, a stocky man with gentle eyes. Nobody paid him any attention. "Hey guys," I wanted to shout at the shoppers desultorily examining biltong and wafer packets, "this man is in your Apartheid Museum! He's one reason you're here today!"

I held my tongue.

It must be a sign of how far South Africa has come that Kgosana lives today not in a shantytown, but in a comfortable bungalow in a once-whites-only suburb of the city that, more than every other in the country, personified white domination over black. But it's also a sign of that long journey that this figure from the resistance to white rule is now just another 70-something year-old, anonymous in this place. And if people warn you about violent crime in South Africa in these post-apartheid times, the reality also is that this is the continent's most dynamic economy, a vibrant nation with a host of attractions for every kind of tourist.

How far removed from protests against apartheid.

As Kgosana drove me home, I thought: a country subsides into a long night of oppression and brutality. It takes decades of struggle to emerge from that darkness. The guides on the way are heroes large and not-so-large: the Mandelas, but the Kgosanas too. There's an eruption of euphoria in 1994, at journey's end. But inevitably the ordinariness of daily life returns. Which is as it should be.

And that's how Kgosana saw his country. "Sure there's crime in South Africa," he said as we spoke in his comfortable living room, echoing other conversations in other living rooms. "Of course it bothers me. But where did we come from? You can't forget that."

True. After convulsions like South Africa has seen, there will necessarily be a time of uncertainty and unrest. You don't emerge from darkness directly into utopia. Yet if some heroes return to obscurity, as Kgosana has, perhaps that is itself a sign of some normalcy.

Speaking of normalcy and utopias, we visited the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

I'll say this: give me one botanical garden, you've given me them all. Oh sure, this expanse of verdant vegetation outside Cape Town is picture-perfect gorgeous. There are elegant bird of paradise flowers (Strelitzia) in dazzling colours, enormous trees, an aroma garden with plant smells familiar and otherwise, and plenty more to gladden a horticulturist's heart. All very impressive, but not quite the place I might have visited on my own.

Then again, that's because I did not know, ahead of time, about the Braille Trail.

Across from the aroma garden, marked by ropes, the Braille Trail meanders into the trees and out again. Just another walk, unless you get into the spirit and use it as it was designed to be used. The name is, of course, the giveaway. This is a self-guided tour designed specifically for the blind. They hold the rope and walk, stopping at regular boards in Braille and English (for those who can't handle Braille). This way, they learn about the trees among which they stroll, the arboreal scents and surfaces that surround them. They get some idea of what fellow-tourists, the sighted ones, experience.

My 11 year-old and I decided to give it a shot.

We grabbed the rope, shut our eyes tight and started walking. For the first few minutes, it was surprisingly hard to keep my eyes closed, to actually trust that I'd be fine without sight, with just the rope to guide me. So I kept opening then, though just slits, unable to shake the silly thought that somebody was watching to see if I cheated. But when I settled into the experience, the eyes stayed closed, it wasn't silly, and I was astonished by just how sensory and fulfilling it was. The 11 year-old, just as charmed.

Without sight, my ears tuned in even faint sounds. My skin registered the gentle breeze. My nose, a series of forest smells. My fingers, the curving strands of rope, the roughness of tree trunks. Twice, I felt my way to a bench for a sit-down, then back to the trail. Simple things when I look back, but they left me refreshed and curiously humbled by this small taste of what it is to be blind.

But more than that, too. All through, words that Nelson Mandela made famous coursed, maybe incongruously, through my mind. Mine was no long walk, but something about this trail had me musing, maybe incongruously, about the one he wrote about:

"I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter … I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended."

Mandela: always thought-provoking. At trail's end, I paid silent tribute to whoever designed this walk, amazed by their singular thoughtfulness. Did they realize it would be so meaningful for the sighted too? After all, walking it with my eyes shut had me contemplating themes and metaphors like darkness and light, new ways of seeing, concern for your fellow human, going bravely into the great unknown. All in about 45 minutes. Long walk, for sure.

And for an Indian, such themes resonate. For they must have meant something, over a century ago, to an Indian whose insight and fibre were forged here. Here, in apartheid South Africa, decades before it woke to freedom and hope.

They remember Gandhi in this country too.

Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, now home to the country's highest court, used to be the site of a notorious prison. The cell where Gandhi was once detained is now a memorial to the man. A serene place to remember him, it has photographs, accounts of his arrests and meetings with various leaders, his writings and even a BBC interview from some months before he died, playing over the buzz of construction next door. This must be one of the few places in the world where you can actually hear Gandhi's thin voice.

From here, Gandhi crossed the ocean to a land yearning for freedom. With a unique cocktail of courage, morality, political savvy and empathy, and with a unprecedented cast of giants among men, he guided India to a new dawn in 1947. Darkness to light, you might say. Our own Braille Trail.

"I can't promise you sunlight and roses," I imagine Philip Kgosana saying that day to the gathered thousands in Cape Town, perhaps to his country itself. "But walk the trail with me. Stay the course. I can promise you hope."

For new dawns, on either side of an ocean, perhaps hope is all you need.


Latha Kadalayil said...

Great piece Dilip. I do read your articles, not all of them, most of them. I spotted a mistake though, 'an' instead of an 'a' in front of unprecedented cast, at least that is how I would write.

Would be nice to meet you in Bombay/England and discuss Arundhathi Roy & Kashmir, amongst other things and visit Vibha's library.

Thunderdog said...

your analogies always manage to prickle up the goosebumps along with a feeling of "I-should've-seen-that". always stimulating to see things from your perspective

Dilip D'Souza said...

Latha, of course it should be "an", I can't believe I missed that! I just checked, and CN corrected it in the print version. Glad you liked the article. Please let's indeed meet when you're next in Bom: I'm not likely to get to England any time soon (ten years since I was last there).

Thunderdog, thanks too. appreciate the kind words.

Nikhil said...

Dear Chandru
Dilip has already done that. Please read the passage carefully and not some words 'safeguards' 'Hindu- dominated' etc. It almost translates into what you wrote


Anonymous said...

CK: You are out of your Canadian mind, young man! Watch out or your daughters will marry Moslems. I know you just repeat what your immigrant parents tell you. When will you get your own mind?

Chandru K said...

Why Anon, haven't I merely said what Pakistan has been saying all along, that the great movement that resulted in the state of Pakistan, was a magnificent freedom struggle by the Moslems of the subcontinent, against the evil, alien, colonial, occupying Hindus? So what exactly is your problem?

Anonymous said...

CK, you actually wanna know "what exactly is my problem"?

You, who appears to live his whole life under the weight of apparenty Muslim oppression and Hindu victimhood, and will bring this into unrelated discussion - you wanna know what someone elses' problem is??

I have no problem, CK. I am happy to make my own way in the world w/o blaming everyoneelse. Someday you might be able to understand that. Tho I have my doubts.

Anonymous said...

Nonsense CK. Whatever your foolishness accusations, I dont want it any "other way around". I simply think I can live my life without feeling constantly victimised. I feel nothing but pity for headcases like you who can only exist in a state of feeling victimised. Nothing more to say.

Chandru K said...

"Nonsense CK. Whatever your foolishness accusations, I dont want it any "other way around". I simply think I can live my life without feeling constantly victimise"

Oh, come off it, Anon. Don't try to act so enlightened, when you and your country are not. Pakistan blotted out the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth games, because it showcased the 5000 year history of India. Pakistan's creation was the result of just this crude, vulgar 'victimisation' sentiment, that you are falsely and dishonestly denouncing. But keep up the great, enlightened, mature act.

Anonymous said...

as far as can see, chandru, Anon above has only ridiculed you and your whining rants.

but of course you mutate that into "you are an awfully spirited defender of the Pakistani and Moslem mindset on the subcontinent" and "self-hatred."

in my views, a man who goes on and on about a country which he consciously chooses to run away from is a prime example of self-hatred.

you qualify. remind me to take what you say seriously when you have the courage to live your beliefs rather than run from them.

Chandru K said...

This is an article about remembering the South African struggle for freedom. So I suggested that D'Souza write a similar piece about how the Moslems of the subcontinent waged a similarly uplifting struggle for freedom from the wicked, colonial, occupying, illegally present Hindus of NWFP, West Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and East Bengal. D'Souza would be eminently qualified and appropriate to write such an article, since he is very supportive of the Moslems. He sees them as the tiny, helpless, Abrahamic underdog waging a just struggle against the big, overpowering pagan Hindu majority. The people of South Africa waged a similar struggle against the erstwhile apartheid regime.

To repeat, what exactly then is the problem?

Chandru K said...

This is not about NRI, PIO( my category), not even about RNI's-resident non-Indians. It's about acknowledging great struggles for freedom. Pakistan's struggle against the wicked, overwhelmingly large, occupying Hindus, was one of them.

Anonymous said...

CK: this is Anon: October 27, 2011 8:05 AM

The others were different Anons. However they wielded the cudgel well, you young Canadian curmudgeon. I salute them. They must be all Pakistani you say? Ha ha! Yes Mr. One-track. All Pakistanis. You are surrounded. Get a therapist soon.