Réshard Gool takes on the challenge of a retrospective look (written in 1990) at the advent of apartheid in Cape Town Coolie, the story of an Indian lawyer living in the Cape who finds himself caught up in a political frenzy he barely anticipates and his own personal life gone haywire. Our protagonist is Henry Naidoo. For the most part, we learn his story told from his Afrikaans best friend, Adrian, but as the keeper of Henry's letters and diaries, we are treated to excerpts which unfold the story.
We have a premonition, since it is Adrian telling the story, that things do not bode well for Henry, but his outcome is unclear till the final pages. That we are reading a tragedy is not immediately obvious, but it is grey-toned, despite the beautiful Cape sunshine and surrounding wine lands. In the first paragraph, Adrian introduces the CID men sent to check him out, his comic “with gangster hats belonging to a dated Hollywood movie” does not prepare us for tragedy within tragedy; but this is all one can expect from a pawn in a doomed social construct.
The year is 1948 and the wheels of apartheid can be heard coming down the track. But Cape Town is the most enlightened of the provinces and least onerous on its non-white inhabitants. In Naidoo’s own words, describing his feelings upon first arriving in the Cape from Durban:
Traditional liberalism still made it possible for an outsider like me, an Indian, a Hindu moreover in a predominantly Cape Coloured and Malay community, to retain some human dignity, even if the right to sit anywhere in a bus, or to elect a fellow “Non-White” to a Municipal Council was not more than a privilege reluctantly granted and daily threatened. The liberty of the Cape bemused me. I recognized my kinship in spirit with other under-trodden South Africans, in fact, with the under-trodden throughout the world.
The backdrop of the story involves the presaged takeover of District Six. Before the actual removal of 60,000 residents of colour to clear prime real estate for exclusive white living, there were businessmen wheeling and dealing, devising ways to profit from another’s misfortune. After a call from Shaik-Moosa (one of these infamous business people) Naidoo ruminates: it registered an industrial wasteland of impersonal machines and neurotic tycoons and faceless toiling millions in whom life had grown as precise as a clock and as bereft of depth as an advertising slogan.
While Naidoo, a diligent lawyer in straightened circumstances, finds himself sucked into working for men he cannot respect, he develops a love-interest that clouds his thinking and waxes the slippery slope. With the inevitability of a Greek tragedy we watch something happen that “could so easily have been avoided” but will not be. As though Fates station themselves throughout the book, the system which feeds on breaking relationships grinds on. While describing community among the coloureds, Gool in fact high-lights the ways in which they are torn out from it by the very outside pressures which made them pull in together initially.
This book is not for everyone: replete with political dialogue, it is a valiant attempt to verbalize and give audience to the schools of thought to counter nationalism: communism, marxism, and liberalism. Writing in hindsight, Gool is able to know which of his characters had flawed ideas and predictions, but still manages to give them plausibility. Gool also reaches earthy depths in the relationships of his characters: they live desperately in desperate situations. Normal expectations and constraints are sidelined for the urgency of crises. (This is a book for the robust reader.)
The blending of personal lives against a historic backdrop of change is a popular technique which works well in Cape Town Coolie. We are intrigued by the plot even as we learn more about the machinations behind the District Six evictions. It is very gratifying now (in 2014) to see a vast weedy emptiness in the heart of Cape Town: the very place where so many lives were uprooted and cast aside is a desolate reminder of the selfish potential in each heart.
Beyond the politics, Henry Naidoo learns about liberty and love. “A little liberty is insufficient, what I hankered after was a freedom of a more positive kind, one coupled with equality and responsibility . . .” And as we know in looking back, that kind of liberty was not to be had for another half century. He developed that further with the understanding that: “there is only one kind of true love, and that is responsible compassion.” So responsibility resonates in Naidoo's mind and when he learns the truth about his own father's depth of responsibility, it almost overwhelms him. (Another facet of personal tragedy in multi-layers of pain.)
He wanted justice. That is why he became a lawyer. But, as noted by the lawyer in André Brink’s Dry White Season, justice and law were not on speaking terms in South Africa in those years. So Henry lost faith in the pacifist answers inherited from his Hindu mother and Gandhian tradition.
Though this story does not pull us in--even the narrator seems emotionally detached--it is capable of evoking the sense of futility and helplessness the wider spectrum of humanity must have felt as apartheid gained momentum and found its way into the laws and underpinnings of the whole nation. So while the Tenants’ Association attempted to stem the tide which would lead them to losing their homes and neighborhood, the clever business people turned into sharks in a feeding frenzy.
Once again, this is a story about brokenness. Broken hearts. Broken relationships. Broken laws. Broken morals. Broken people. All in context of a broken society.