Punished for whistleblowing brought out the author in Aman Singh Maharaj

New Delhi:  An attempted whistleblowing gone wrong saw Aman Singh Maharaj spend three months in the doghouse and resulted in a 1,200-word manuscript that took him 16 years to whittle down to 400 pages. The outcome is ‘A Dalliance with Destiny’, a novel that dissects the human condition with extraordinary attention, with the fourth generation South African of Indian descent lamenting that though universal suffrage was achieved in 1994, its remnants still exist in the country’s social structure.

“I have always been an avid reader, as I grew up in a small town, and the only choice of entertainment in the eighties was either sports or reading. I was not good at sports. I knew that there was a book for me; writing has always been a passion, but it doesn’t pay the bills. This has only happened now,” the Durban-based 49-year-old Maharaj, a civil engineer, MBA, PhD in development economics and a businessman, told IANS in an interview.

“In the year 2006 I became a whistleblower of some grave discrepancies at work. In the end, it blew up on my face, and I was charged with gross insubordination. I was suspended for three months and that was when I put pen to paper. I wrote some 1,200 pages in those three months, and thereafter it took 16 years to edit it down to about 400 pages.

“The rounds of self-editing were a painstaking process, and there were times during those 16 years that I really got tired of it. My publishers in the UK, Austin Macauley, liked what I sent them and it’s now out for the world to read. I am a little overwhelmed with all the attention it’s getting and I am loving it. A writer, I believe, never quite finishes a book and just abandons the book into the public realm,” Maharaj added.

Spanning a century, and set in South Africa and India, the novel 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.

The novel touches upon the subject of racism and casteism in South Africa. What is the situation today?

“Legislated racism in South Africa was done away with in 1994. But I honestly believe that there are still remnants of it in the social structure,” Maharaj said, adding that in his city, Durban, the four races – Indian, White, African and Coloured – don’t mix up much in comparison to those in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

“In that sense, Durban is very much a backwater. We have petty incidents of, perhaps, racism, where, during Diwali, when some White people lose their cool during the bursting of fireworks, as they believe it causes harm to their pets, and they may sometimes pass racist remarks.

“Prior to the dismantling of apartheid, when Indians were staying in their own segregated areas, there was no outcry against fireworks during Diwali, as we, as Indians, were tolerant of each other’s cultures. So, it may be more a question of learning to be more accepting of other people’s customs,” Maharaj explained.

In terms of caste, he said, this died in South Africa around the early 1990s.

“Prior to that, it was especially the norm for Brahmins and Kshatriyas to marry within their own communities or between these two communities. I think that emancipation and education have pretty much made people aware that caste is not a birthright, but based on the life that one lives. However, Indians do still generally marry within their own linguistic groups, with people from Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat generally maintaining that.

“Even amongst the Muslims, there is still a tendency for a Memon to marry within his own community, or a Surti Muslim to do the same. However, there are increasing cases of cross-religious and even cross-racial marriages happening. I think you may have a similar situation in the cities in India, but it’s mainly the villages that maintain issues of caste,” Maharaj elaborated.

The book traces the Indian ancestry in South Africa and then a century later sees the protagonist trying to trace his roots back to India. How much of this came from the author’s personal experience?

“Well, from the research of my own ancestry, taking into account the history of Indians that came to SA between 1860 and 1911, my ancestors came from seven different villages of UP and Bihar. The ship records of Indians who came to South Africa are still stored in the archives. And that is where I managed to trace the villages in India of my various ancestors.

“I have visited my paternal and maternal grandfather’s villages. It wasn’t easy finding these villages, as in India in any particular district, there could be up to five villages with the same name, so I had to trace them through the police stations or thanas. Added to this, the British corrupted the spellings of village names, so even that needed to be reaffirmed.

“In my paternal grandfather’s village, I assisted with the maintenance of the village temple, whilst at my maternal grandfather’s village, I am currently working on a project to convert the land where he was born into a library-cum-clinic, powered by solar. But, the book is a work of fiction and therefore doesn’t trace my personal journey but my experience definitely lends itself to visualisation,” Maharaj said.

With a large number of those in South Africa of Indian origin, have the customs and cultures continued or have been influenced by that of South Africans?

“I would say that the customs and rituals have definitely continued. All Hindu and Muslim religious festivals are celebrated, although I think it’s certainly decreased in the last generation. For instance, my parents’ generation could speak Hindi, but my generation largely can’t. I am an exception.

“We eat with our hands, and still enjoy the simple foods that our forefathers brought back from India, including bhindi, karela, lokhi, bhaaji, etc. You don’t find these in restaurants in India, and I get tired of eating paneer at restaurants when I am in India. We have many Hindu and Muslim priests in the community. For instance, my paternal family were pundits, going back many generations and while I can perform the basic Hindu rituals, I don’t see it passing on to the next generation,” Maharaj maintained.

Linked to this, the book also moves into seeking spiritual awakening alongside finding one’s roots. Is this an intentional trend followed by writers when talking about India in their books?

Contending that the idea of “running back to India for spiritual awakening” was a cliche, Maharaj said: “One cannot deny that it’s used by writers to plot novels around. But here is where my book is different as the story does not just look at the religious side of India, but also sets itself in the modern India of new age relationships and sexual preferences. Yes, writers do tend to overplay the whole ‘India is my spiritual saviour’ bit. However, I think it’s also about how you approach it.”

It definitely makes for a que sera sera moment!


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