“I come from a long line
High and low and in between,
same as you
Hills of golden, hails of poison
Time’s thrown me though”
—from ‘High, Low and In-between’ by South African songwriter and musician Townes van Zandt
Modern South Africa, with its entrenched population of people of Indian origin, is probably not as easily understood here as it was during its apartheid days. Back then, black was black and white was white, quite literally—and there were none of the shades of grey contributed by the easy migration of Ethiopians, Pakistanis, Senegalese…and of Chinese commodities. The rainbow nation that the founding fathers of post-apartheid South Africa had wanted has indeed materialized. So have displacement, doubt and despair.
Not surprisingly, the resultant social churning that has disturbed, even destroyed, the status quo for the privileged classes is ripe for the picking in contemporary fiction from South Africa. So it is with Imraan Coovadia’s third novel, High Low In-between. Set in KwaZulu-Natal, it has already won The Sunday Times (South Africa) fiction award and is in the running for several more prizes.
The turmoil is evident as soon as the canvas is daubed with the first touches of disturbing paint of storytelling. The old, settled way of life is over as the new dispensation in the country targets all those who may have made more money than they should have under the old regime. In this maelstrom, Nafisa, a dermatologist trained in Mumbai and practising in Durban, returns home from the airport with her photographer son Shakeer, aka Sharky, to discover that her husband Arif has committed suicide. Or has he?
In part a whodunnit, Coovadia’s accomplished, assured plot soon uncovers a mind-numbing network of organized crime involving illegal organ transplants, against the backdrop of HIV and AIDS, quacks, bribes and rapid ethnic restructuring. The story is fascinating in its own right, juxtaposing Nafisa’s family and social circle against this background. Who did kill Arif, a staunch opposer of the pro-apartheid regime who had been almost forced into retirement from his academic career by a trumped-up defamation suit?
High Low In-between: HarperCollins India, 268 pages, 299.
It is difficult to double-guess what “high, low, in-between”—the different planes of daily existence in South Africa today?—may bring to readers in that country. From the distance of India, where the reference points are not only the protagonists with Indian genes but also the familiar gestalt of corruption, illegal business and class violence, the novel is a compulsive journey through an urban landscape both recognizable and alien.
Ultimately, it is as a political novel that this work may well be read. The spectres of AIDS and violence here are all presented and absorbed as side effects of the pursuit of political ambitions that quickly dispense with ethics and honour.
Coovadia creates an almost hypnotic pastiche of characters, tribes, rituals and behaviour—on every page there is something to be learnt about modern-day South Africa, standing now at the confluence of the post-apartheid, post-colonial regime and the embracing of a new kind of laissez-faire pluralism. But to allow the knowledge to overwhelm the literature would be incorrect, for, like the country itself, this is an exciting, variegated and, ultimately, somewhat enigmatic work.
Arunava Sinha translates Bengali fiction into English. His forthcoming translations include Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s By the Tungabhadra
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