The story of five generations of Indian labourers

2008-01-10 00:00

Ronnie Govender’s highly successful novel, Song of the Atman, has become the first South African novel to be published for wide distribution in India and has recently been released in major book stores all over that country under the HarperCollins imprint.

Maggie Davey, commissioning editor for Jacana Media, told India’s Daily News, “We are thrilled at this remarkable achievement. This is not only a first for Ronnie Govender, but yet another achievement for Jacana, which prides itself on uncovering South African literary talent.”

The book was taken by Jacana to the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, where it caught the eye of Saugata Mukerjhee, the commissioning editor for HarperCollins in India.

In India, the title is Black Chin, White Chin — which Govender has admitted he thought sounded somewhat corny. But Mukherjee said he felt the word “Atman” was overused in India, and might give the impression that the book was a religious work. Song of the Atman is based on the life story of Chin Govender, Govender’s maternal uncle, who returns home after nearly 20 years to his estranged family in Cato Manor in the forties, having been a penniless wine steward in East London and later becoming the first black owner of a hotel in District Six. It is the story of five generations of former indentured Indian labourers.

“We tossed a few ideas around,” says Govender, talking about the title change. “But Mukerjee was strong on Black Chin, White Chin and Bridget Impey of Jacana felt it was wise to go with this title. I eventually relented.”

Sugata has told Govender that the book is selling well, but would benefit hugely from book signings and readings. Jacana is looking at the possibility of sending Govender to India for a book tour, and another suggestion is that he should take one of his plays based on his Cato Manor stories, such as At the Edge or 1949, to India. “When we toured India at the invitation of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in 1999, we received standing ovations at all the one-night performances in Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Bhopal, Calcutta and Ahmedabad,” says Govender.

Born in Durban, and a former director of the Playhouse, Govender now lives in Cape Town.

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