On this day in 1976, about 20,000 school students in Johannesburg’s Soweto township marched in protest against the oppressive education policies imposed by the apartheid government. Long before the era of the internet and smartphones, the rally took months of clandestine planning. Lives and allegiances were tested, the police raided gatherings of black people, opening fire on them as they demanded the repeal of Afrikaans-only school curricula, and people disappeared without a trace.
In her powerful debut novel, When Morning Comes, Arushi Raina brings alive the social, political and interpersonal turmoil of the Soweto Uprising. Published a couple of years ago in the US, the book comes to India courtesy Duckbill as part of its Not Our War series. Following Rukhsana Khan’s Wanting Mor, set in war-torn Afghanistan, and Carolyn Marsden’s The White Zone, set in contemporary Iraq, When Morning Comes is a rich addition.
Told through the voices of four characters—a white South African boy (Jack), a black girl (Zanele), a tsotsi or thug (Thabo) and an Indian girl (Meena)—Raina’s story combines historical fidelity with social realism. The momentum keeps the reader on tenterhooks, the arc of the plot shifting with almost every page. But somewhere along the breathless sequence of conspiracies, intrigues, betrayals and vendetta, one begins to decipher the gentler nuances of an improbable affection between Jack and Zanele.
The contrast between Jack’s life of unthinking privilege and the daily struggle of Zanele’s family to subsist (her mother is a maid working for Jack’s parents and her father has gone missing mysteriously) is etched out in piercing episodes. Initially depicted as callow, Jack’s transformation into an outcast is achieved in delicate stages. Zanele, fiery and reckless, leaves her mark in her moments of vulnerability.
Writing largely for a young-adult readership, Raina maintains a fine balance between fact and fiction. If the four-way splicing of her narrative keeps the reader on their toes, the emotional core of the story—the insecurities, jealousies, anger and frustrations of a generation—demand a deeper moral investment. Raina paints her characters, especially Zanele, with fine strokes. Her authorial insights are offered lightly, usually in a throwaway remark or a sideways reference. In her ability to pace the story like a thriller, yet add psychological depth, Raina proves herself to be a writer of distinctive promise.