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REVIEW | Across the Kala Pani: A rich and unusual story of indentured labourers

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Across the Kala Pani by Shelvyn Mottai. (Penguin)
Across the Kala Pani by Shelvyn Mottai. (Penguin)

BOOK: Across the Kala Pani by Shelvyn Mottai (Penguin)

This is a rich and unusual story about, as the front cover has it, "four indentured women cross the Black Water to the Colony of Natal." It deals with how they relate to the men in their family lives, and their own agency and freedom, as limited as that was at the start of the 20th century. Mottai shows the reader a detailed view of the circumstances of these Indian indentured workers in the sugar and tea plantations of what is now KwaZulu-Natal. This is an area of South African life seldom dealt with, so this is a welcome addition to our historical fiction.

We start with the four women still in India, where we learn what made them leave their homes and venture out on the mostly false promises of the colonial recruiters. Six hundred people, men, women and children, were assembled in a camp near the docks of Madras, where they had to undergo health checks. The ship, the Umzinto, sailed in 1909 and took many weeks to get across the Kala Pani (the Indian Ocean) and down the east coast of Africa to Durban.

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