An interview with Aman Singh Maharaj, a South African author of Indian origin, who’s making literary debut with ‘A Dalliance with Destiny’
GN Bureau | September 10, 2022
Aman Singh Maharaj, a South African author of Indian origin, is making a literary debut with ‘A Dalliance with Destiny’ (Austin Macauley), which takes us on a mystical journey to India with an unconventional best friend.
The novel also dissects the human condition with extraordinary attention to detail. Spanning a century, and set in South Africa and India, it captures the odyssey of a seemingly brash man in his thirties, who fights to remain lucid in what appears to be an irrational world. While everyone around him is still celebrating the euphoric entry of his country into the rest of the democratic world, he is at odds with it. After a series of distressing experiences, he attempts to extinguish the raison d’etre of his angst by embarking on an increasingly mystical journey to India with an unconventional best friend.
Born in 1973, Aman Singh Maharaj primarily lives in Durban with a large extended family. Also spending a considerable amount of time in India annually, he considers himself a nomad, travelling the world. Taking an avid interest in anthropology, he never ceases to be enthralled with the sheer kaleidoscope of cultures, diversity and architectural marvels that the world has to offer. Having first graduated with an honours degree in structural engineering, he continued with an MBA and then a PhD in Development Studies, working in diverse professions before choosing to become an entrepreneur.
He also writes articles on various subjects for national newspapers, focusing mainly on the Indian diaspora, but he has now also forayed into more culturally generic topics.
On the occasion of the India release of ‘A Dalliance with Destiny’, Maharaj answered a few questions from Governance Now.
While tracing the path from South Africa to India, what similarities and differences do you find in the cultural and social setup – especially for those of Indians and Indians origins?
Whilst I am inclined to want to say that there are strong similarities, even in these parallels, there are some differences, which I attribute to some sort of cultural appropriation across the linguistic groups. We eat the same food, but the curries in South Africa tend to be a lot spicier than in India, for example. The Hindus in South Africa pray to the same deities and observe the same festivals, but mainly focus on Diwali, Ram Navami, Gita Week, Krishna Janmashtami, Pitrapaksh, Navaratri, Raksha Bandhan, etc. But more cultural type of festivals, like Holi, were never celebrated in South Africa until recently, as this is due to the differing seasons in the two countries, with India being in the North and South Africa in the South, so cultivation of crops are at different times. However, of late, it’s become trendy to celebrate Holi, with other races now joining, calling it the festival of colour. In terms of knowing one’s vernacular, considering that Indians came to South Africa from 1860 to 1911, many of us are anything from third to even seventh generation Indians, so the traditional languages have virtually died out amongst us. I am lucky in that my mother forced me to go to Hindi school after normal classes, so I can speak, read and write the Devanagari script. My brother and I try to instil the same values in his daughters. For myself, personally, I come from a very traditional family, so culture plays a very important role. My paternal side, up to my father, were pundits, and on my maternal side, my Naana was one of the founding fathers of the Arya Samaj in South Africa. So tradition is pretty much ingrained into my family. Most of the younger generations identify with South Africa more than India, however, I am much more inclined towards my Motherland. For instance, perhaps it is wrong of me, but I would support India against South Africa in a cricket match, even though there are some Indians in the national South African team now. But I am in no way a reflection of general Indian society in South Africa in terms of my value systems. The great days of temple building in South Africa have probably come to an end, and I cannot see the generation under forty years of age taking a keen interest in cultural events, which is heartbreaking. South African Indians have also generally ‘modernised’ in a sense, for lack of a better term, where more and more couples are moving in together before marriage, which is definitely frowned upon in more conservative India, the latter of which, aligns more with my way of thinking. Even our accents are vastly different, although the South African Indian still has a definitively different speech from the other races here, but with the new generation of kids attending mixed schools after the demise of apartheid, many Indian kids have accents that are almost indistinguishable from White kids of English descent. Finally, I guess I cannot be used as a benchmark for what the average Indian in South Africa is in terms of cultural and social values, as I have been visiting Indian regularly from 1981 as an eight year old kid, so I certainly don’t think I am mainstream in my views.
There is a rising sense of nationalistic views in India. How do those whose forefathers went to SA find themselves fitting into such a change?
It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of paradigm here. Let me respond with an anecdote. My class recently celebrated 30 years out of school in 2021, so we had set up a WhatsApp group for all of us, which grew organically, and it was great to make contact again with long-lost buddies. One of my ex-classmates put up a video that bestowed accolades on Narendra Modi, about how he had put India back on the world map once again. There was absolutely no religious undertone in it. A Muslim friend, who had continued after school, to study at university with me, was highly incensed, and gave his opinion that Narendra Modi was responsible for the deaths of many Muslims in the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Now, I know my history. I don’t state facts willy-nilly; I back my views and opinions up by proper data. I believe that someone of the ilk of Narendra Modi, who does not even draw his full salary, was sorely needed in India after so many centuries of being conquered and bled dry. In fact, I always joke, Narendra Modi comes from the Gujarati community, who are generally known to be pacifist businessmen in South Africa, but he proved his mettle as a more gutsy leader than his predecessor, who was a Sikh, traditionally the ‘armed wing’ in India, so it just seems so contradictory. Anyway, going back to my story, I believe in truth being said, rather than being a radical Hindu, so I said on the WhatsApp group that the Gujarat riots was actually preceded by the Godhra train burning massacre, where 59 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya had been killed by a group of Muslim radicals, which then led to the riots in turn, although this is still contested in some quarters. As they were coming back from the Ram Janmabhoomi site after the mosque that had been taken down by Hindus based on the premise that it was built upon the original temple that was built at the birthplace of Lord Ram, which was recently confirmed in court based on facts, so tensions were high. Ultimately, the true blame for the riots in Gujarat lay with the Moghuls like Aurangzeb who had destroyed so many Hindu temples. I added to this that Narendra Modi was cleared in an Indian court of law of having any responsibility for the riots. My Muslim friend had responded that it was all political, that Mr. Modi was protected as he was a politician. I then tried explaining to him that this case was tried in 2008, and it was Congress Party that was in power, who would never have protected Mr. Modi. Unfortunately, my Muslim friend refused to listen to my argument, and we subsequently do not have a friendship anymore. It was an argument that had escalated, as I had brought up a statistical fact that where Pakistan had once been 30% Hindu after Partition, it now sits at about 5%. And the question is Why? Anyway, I find this ending of my friendship quite sad. India is nearly 20% Muslim, and it is preposterous to think that they can live in any other place but India. If I didn’t believe this paradigm of thinking, then how do I justify Indians living in South Africa? It’s the exact same principle. We all have to live and let live. However, the official view by the South African Hindu Mahasabha, who is the governing body for most Hindu organisations, believe that politics from India should not be debated in South Africa, and they are probably correct, as this would create communal tensions here in South Africa. I think there are a few elements in India and the left wing liberals who take sporadic incidents of communal tension and stitch together a ridiculous argument that India isn’t secular anymore. In a country of over a billion people, there are bound to be communal tensions, but one cannot take this as a statistical representative of the nation’s social fabric. But, by the by, South African Indians, whether Muslim or Hindu or Christian, do not really get embroiled in the politics of India. In fact, I think there’s a lot of tolerance here, and we do frown against radical elements in South Africa. When the gated estate that I live in, in South Africa, had banned fireworks during Diwali, as this apparently upsets pets, I rallied against it, and I had strong support from the Muslim community in my estate. Similarly, in a recent case where a Hindu man had gone to court about the azaan being too loud, I wrote an article in the local newspaper condemning this approach by him, as I wholly believe we must be tolerant of one another’s cultures. But there has been some sort of distancing in terms of communal celebrations, as I believe that my parent’s generation celebrated Moharram with the Muslims, as did they celebrate Diwali with the Hindus. But other than wishing each other well, there’s no across-the-board celebration of each others’ festivals anymore. So, all in all, the nationalistic fervour in India has not really spilled over into South Africa, although, I definitely do support it, as long as the rights of all communities are respected.
There is racism prevalent in SA as also highlighted in your story, but there is also racism that we are so casual about here too. How do you see that lends itself to the story?
I guess, in South Africa and India, there is no legislated racism anymore. It ended in South Africa in 1994, and probably India in 1947. In South Africa, we have affirmative action policies in place, where certain the darker races are given priority at universities and for jobs. One can argue that this is a form of reverse racism, and it doesn’t make sense, as the South African economy has really tanked, so it’s all races in South Africa who are affected negatively when the best of the best are not becoming leaders, regardless of race. There is a peculiar kind of enmity with Zulus and Indians in my own province, where the majority of each grouping are to be found. But this was catalysed by the instigated race riots of 1949, which saw the apartheid government employ divide-and-rule tactics. Strangely, when the Zulus and Indians ‘emigrate’ to Johannesburg, which is in another province, all this enmity dies away. Hence, I always say, my own city, Durban, is pretty much backwater in terms of having a developmental mindset, because we refuse to work in harmony. I am unsure if there is any racism in India, maybe some aspects of communalism across religions and linguistic groups. I know, in South Africa, till about the early Nineties, casteism was still practised, but that died down. At one stage, a Tamil would only marry a Tamil, a Telugu would do the same, as would a Hindi or Gujarati grouping. It’s still there, but is dying out now. It used to also happen amongst the Muslim community, with Suratis marrying only in their community, same with Konkanis, and the Memons. We even see cases of inter-religious marriages happening more often as well. Strangely enough, a blogger who read my book was upset about my use of the term ‘Madrasi Brahmin’. He felt I should’ve said ‘Tamil Brahmin’. However, when the Indians left India, most of South India was called the Madras Presidency, so those are terms that are still sporadically used in South Africa, although not with any malicious intent. In Durban, especially, I think Indians are still pretty much insular. We play amongst our own kind. Whilst I have Muslim, Hindu and Christian friends, my closest, who I hang out with, are of UPite descent. I’m not sure if this is because we are a group of single men in our forties who coincidentally live close to one another, or whether there is some sort of subconscious intent here. But it’s nice to say ‘aloo’ instead of saying ‘potato’ to one another when we go to a restaurant, or ‘thitha’ for pungent, where as a Gujarati would say ‘tikkhu’, and a Tamilian would say ‘kaaro’. You’ll find, as well, that there are also older temples that are visited primarily by each linguistic group still, but I cannot call this racism, as there are specific festivals that are unique to each community that are celebrated at these temples.
How did you think of setting a vast canvas for your story going back and forth in different eras?
Honestly, this is going to seem shocking, but I really didn’t ‘think’ as such. There was no mindmap. I literally banged out each word on my keyboard, and as I finished one, the next word just came along. It was totally organic. I want to say that there was some ‘other force’ that led my hand, but that would sound way too fantastical. Perhaps I know too much about South African and Indian history, hence, it all kind of melded together in my head, and a subconscious plot developed from there. Whatever it all was, it seemed to work out in the end. However, admittedly, in my editing, I did add in chapters. For instance, how would a person in India or anywhere else globally understand the dichotomy of the social landscape in South Africa across the races, if I didn’t include a chapter on the 1949 riots? Yes, an Indian in South Africa over the age of forty might have understood things, even if I left out this chapter, but I had to give context to a global audience. The same can be said for the initial chapter on where ancestors left India, as not many people outside of South Africa have this kind of context. I could’ve very well have left these out, but that would’ve left some questions in the mind of global readers.
What research went into finding the historical context to your story?
Would you believe it if I say ‘not much’ – unless you count the fact that I am an avid reader from a young age, so my maybe that can count as my research. As mentioned earlier, I have also been visiting India since 1981, so I kind of have a good understanding of the subcontinent. Add in Indian cinema, whether mainstream or artsy, the many novels I have read that are set in India, my own experiences; then I guess this provided me with the building-blocks for a plot to work itself through.
What makes India fascinating for writers?
I guess one has to be careful of the cliché about India being a land of mysticism and sadhus. Plonk oneself in modern-day Bombay, and see the amazing skyscrapers, and this whole contrast seems a little delusional. However, India is a vast country, hence it is called a subcontinent. Thus, one cannot compare a spiritually-fixated Rishikesh to the modernity of the metros. Yes, spirituality does pervade the mindsets of most Indians, but in vastly differing degrees. A twenty-something singleton in Bombay will enjoy a night out with his friends, pub-hopping, but he could very well be at the temple the next morning, taking his blessings. Perhaps the fascination lies in all the contradictions that India offers. And it has such a rich history, it’s so vibrant, so full of energy in the cities, yet so laidback in the villages, that one can experience a whole gamut of senses within close geographical proximity. For instance, two hours out of frenetic Bombay, and one is in a hill station like Lonavla, enjoying the serenity. I personally think the English language is given such a rich spin in India, where they still use archaic terms, and English is so much more flowery spoken and written. India has its own peculiar brand of English that has such a quaintness for us writers. I explore the idea in my novel, especially the chapters in Calcutta. Ultimately, one must remember that India is the only ancient civilisation that still survives and thrives till today, despite being pillaged so many times.
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