Giving life to words

2008-07-09 00:00

MEETING Ronnie Govender in the foyer at the Playhouse in Durban, there is a sense of déjà vu. We have been here before. Back in the nineties, when Govender was director of the Playhouse complex, I interviewed him here, and bumped into him regularly at plays and other events.

But this time we were not talking about his job at KwaZulu-Natal’s flagship theatre venue. His In the Manure: Memories and Reflections has just been published, and so, with Govender, who now lives in the Cape, up in Durban for the International Society of the Performing Arts’ Congress, it seemed a good time to catch up with him. In fact, it wasn’t that good. Govender may have been in the manure at many times in his life, even at the Playhouse, but on the opening day of the Congress, he was greatly in demand and our talk was broken off over and over again as someone else came up to him to hug him, greet him and generally get a piece of the Govender action.

But in-between, we managed a short chat. And my first question was why, when he is writing about himself and moments in his life when he has put his foot firmly in the substance of the title, does he write in the third person, referring to himself as “Sathie”. The origin of the name is explained in the book — it was his mother’s first choice for her son, and it was an uncle who insisted on the name “Ronald” — but why use it in the book? “It’s not in the strict sense an autobiography, so I felt I had to step out of it and view it with a bit of distance. And it gave me the opportunity of using my real name,” he says.

One thing that is clear from the book is that Govender will never shy away from a fight, sometimes landing himself firmly in the manure in the process. He is always a friendly figure to meet, so I ask, is he really so combative? “I don’t believe you should run away from a challenge, or when you are confronted with tyranny, injustice or wrong. You must stand up and speak out,” he says. And while he says he believes you should play the ball and not the man, the book does tell of a couple of occasions when he has gone in, boots and all, when angered. “At the time, it gave me pleasure,” he admits. “But I wasn’t happy with myself afterwards.”

Govender has written successful plays, short stories — winning a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the collection At the Edge — and a well-received novel, The Song of the Atman. I ask him which genre gives him the most pleasure. “Crafting the word is the important thing — you can grab a word out of nowhere and give it life,” he says. “I do love the whole process of writing a play, from the script to the directing.” So then I ask which of his works is his personal favourite. “That’s like asking a father which of his children is his favourite,” he says. “It’s difficult. But once, at the Market Theatre, a bunch of intellectual types came backstage after a performance of The Lahnee’s Pleasure, and one said to me: ‘I didn’t know you charoes suffered like that.’” Govender gives a look that would have left the “intellectual”, had he been there, in no doubt of his opinion. “That is a special play for me.”

“Too many people — blacks and whites — have this image of the Indian as a successful businessman — end of story. But my grandfather carried buckets of water to his market garden every day until he died.” Govender’s grandfather, Veerasamy Govender, features in the book, obviously a figure of affection and respect to his grandson, who is now himself a grandfather.

Govender may be retired, but that has not stopped him writing. He has written a film script from The Song of the Atman and while he says he is not prepared to play the kind of games he says are sometimes needed to get a film made — and which he describes in terms that could land us both in the manure if repeated here — he is hopeful that something will happen. And he has just finished a draft of a novel based on The Lahnee’s Pleasure. That should be something close to his heart. Retirement does not mean slowing down for Govender.

• In the Manure by Ronnie Govender is published by David Philip.

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