Minorities and justice

2009-01-14 00:00

IT took a serious illness to set former city man Vijay Maharaj on the road to becoming an author. In 2003 he was diagnosed with Wegener’s Disease which attacks the vascular system.

“It has no mercy,” says Maharaj, talking about his illness and its treatment. But his pharmacist wife and family rallied around, and, as the doctors began to get his symptoms under control, they tackled other issues. “They left paper and pens all around the house, and told me to write,” he says. He began with a diary, but then moved on to research something he knew little about — the life of his grandfather.

Ramsaroop Maharaj died in 1904 in Greytown. Doing research was difficult from Canada where Maharaj has lived for 31 years, but he made contact with Rosemary Dickson-Smith of Durban whom he describes as “one of the most brilliant archivists”, and slowly a picture began to emerge.

First, they had to find out what the family name had been — many Indians coming to South Africa adopted new names on the boat from India. “The boat was a melting pot of castes, and people could move up,” he explains. But eventually Dickson-Smith identified the first names of Maharaj’s grandparents — Ramsaroop and Sarupia, with the surname of Bharose — and discovered that both were indentured to Slater Brothers in Greytown. It was the starting point.

For Maharaj, the seed of his book, Injustice, had been sown. As he tracked his grandfather’s correspondence with the government, he began to see how badly Indian immigrants were treated. Ramsaroop Maharaj had struggled for permission to rent land and to own a firearm — he applied for one on the basis that he needed one to protect himself, and the government response was that, as he lived among “Europeans”, he had no need of one. As Maharaj says, they were missing the point — it was the people he lived among who were the threat.

Eventually, he paid off his indenture and he and Sarupia went to work for another farmer. But when Ramsaroop tried to buy land, the farmer tried to claim “ownership” of the couple’s first child, claiming the baby was born while the parents were indentured.

Ramsaroop eventually managed to prove he was what was known as a “status Indian”. He was a successful man, and when he died, flags were flown at half-mast in the Greytown, New Hanover and Sevenoaks area. But he had had to struggle for everything.

For Maharaj, his grandfather’s life is a microcosm of the way Indians are treated throughout the world.

“If you look at the contribution Indians have made, the world is standing on our shoulders,” he says. Now a Canadian citizen, he says he could never have achieved the level of success — he is in the transportation industry and has served on government focus groups — he has reached had he stayed in the land of his birth. Here, he was a teacher at Woodlands High School where he had been a pupil and later at the M. L. Sultan Technikon in Durban. The seventh in a family of 12, the majority of his siblings have left the country, although he still has a sister in Pietermaritzburg.

And, taking family history as his starting point, he has written a book that deals with the persecution of minorities, the need for accountability of governments, and the fact that the price of freedom must always be responsibility, a view his grandfather would surely have shared.

• Injustice by Vijay Maharaj is available at Bookworld at Cascades in Pietermaritzburg, and at Adams in Durban, or on the Internet at www.booksurge.com

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