Boris PasternakRussian poet, novelist and literary translator, defined literature as “The art of discovering something extraordinary in ordinary people and of saying something extraordinary in ordinary words”. In 2018, nearly six decades after Pasternak’s death in 1960, the iconic definition of the Russian poet’s literature was brought to life by author Pravasan Pillay in Chatsworth, Pillay’s first collection of short stories. Chatsworth, the namesake of the former “Indian-only” township where Pillay grew up, uncovers stories of ordinary characters with a level of rich immersive imagery only available to someone with lived experience. Pillay portrays human emotion and suffering in a way that has been described as “staging of melancholy”. In Chatsworth, Pillay reinforces the idea that South Africa is teeming with vibrant cultures born out of the desolate soil of its history. This article first appeared on Perspectives from FirstRand. – Misha Samuels
By Arja Salafranca
Chatsworth, Township, connects the stories in this slim but powerful debut collection of short stories from Durban region native Pravasan Pillay. This volume brings together 11 short stories that highlight a range of characters from all age groups. Here is a kaleidoscope view of people who live, love, are punished, grow, grow old, and evolve through the experiences we all have.
And this is achieved thanks to Pillay’s deceptively simple writing style: revealing entire lives in just a few pages, in stories that are deeply rooted in the midst of Chatsworth. The first is “Mr. Essop”. The young narrator recounts how, three years after moving to Chatsworth, his father built a grandmother’s house to supplement the family income. It is in the details that Pillay’s stories come to life, from the dialogue that so closely and precisely mimics the way his characters speak to his careful observations of manners and habits. The ad is carefully crafted and then read proudly: “On the morning the ad appeared, my father was reading it over and over again, as if it was an article about him and not five telegraph lines in the classifieds of the local fake. -publication date. Later, when I scanned the newspaper to try to find it, I found that it had been carefully cut out.
When there are no suitable tenants, one finds a tenant in the form of Mr. Essop, aged and demanding, who quietly and happily takes care of the house and garden and is, apparently, an ideal tenant. But one feels that the stasis quo, or apparent peace, is about to be shattered by the helplessness of the young boy. Pillay’s prose alludes to this in his brushstroke of the unfolding events.
‘Green Apples,’ another portrait from a young age, features a wonderful, nuanced image of a disgruntled teenage girl, Pinky, bored with life and bored with the school and composition she’s tasked with writing. We meet her defiantly smoking through the bedroom window, phoning a friend, teasing her younger brother, and being catapulted straight into her anguished adolescent world.
A later story, “Girls”, returns to this teenage world when two girls attempt to use bleach to lighten the “mustache”. This urge to beautify the face is aroused by the arrival of a sweet love letter from a boy to school. A charming and evocative portrait of a particular period in life, rendered with sympathy.
“Crooks” is a highlight of the collection – a chilling story in its depiction of an adult daughter’s dependence on her mother, and how her mother helps and encourages this extreme addiction. Details slowly emerge through Pillay’s painstaking layering.
It opens with Kamla, the mother in her sixties, in the bathroom, squeezing a scoop of toothpaste onto her finger to brush her teeth that way, as she always has. She kept the house and house together after her husband’s untimely death, raising three daughters while running a tuck shop from her home. One by one, the girls left home to get married and start a life and a family, with the exception of Ambi, her 28-year-old obese daughter, who now patiently waits for her mother to help her take her bath. , outgrown to do it on her own. The reasons for Ambi’s extreme helplessness emerge as the story unfolds, the past and present blending together. And the day goes on – with Kamla running the shop and the customers while Ambi loungs, watches TV, eats a packet of Marie cookies, two at a time, discussing what to do for dinner. And then the evening ritual of applying ointment to her daughter’s thick thighs. Pillay’s rendering of the daily speech is perfectly precise: “Paining? ” she asked.
“A little,” Ambi replied. “Pray to Swami that it does not get worse tonight,” Kamla said. This is just one of many examples of Pillay’s masterful rendering of the nuances and tones of South African Indian English.
The story’s ending gives you a pinch in the teeth: raising questions of addiction that go beyond mere need and into something far more sinister and even, perhaps, deadly. Kamla doesn’t question his actions or complicity in her daughter’s helplessness, and that adds even more of a sinister undertone to this excellent story.
There is another portrayal of failure, lives that fall short of expectations or hope in ‘Idris’. The young narrator takes driving lessons with Mo. He witnesses the incompetence of another Mo student, a young man named Idris, who appears to have no driving skills and no self-confidence, having been by other driving schools. On the day of the ordeal, which the narrator and Idris must go through together, we witness the stopping of lives and dreams due to a lack of willpower. A deeply insightful story.
Other stories such as “The Bends” highlight the experience of waiting for documents in a rental office and the somewhat ambiguous friendship between a man and a young samoosa seller, while “The Albinos” examines the reactions of others to a young albino schoolboy in a South Africa still torn apart by apartheid.
You can taste the spicy chops in ‘Chops Chutney’, another gem of a story, rich in detail and pathetic. It opens with Kavitha’s dad throwing a bag of samoosas. She’s been working at Karim T’s take-out for six months – but her father, while allowing her to work there, won’t let her eat there or the leftovers she brings home. The reason: “I don’t want you to work with Pakistanis… You can’t trust these people. They won’t pay you on time, see.
Not only did they pay her, but she got a raise and became nice to one of the Pakistani men who worked there – Abdul. Flirting turns into a milkshake at Milky Lane. You can almost tell which way the story is moving, especially when Abdul brings a gift of chop chutney to his potential stepdad. This detailed story reveals a strength of Kavitha, a strength and a sense of agency sometimes represented in the other characters – in whom life and its disappointments push them to hide. And the story here is as much about what is said as it is about what will happen in these young lives in the future. The tragedy of a father’s xenophobic prejudices hinges on his narrow-mindedness: but in the end, there is hope, a future.
Because there is a future for the writer Pravasan Pillay, as evidenced by his beautiful first collection. Follow him on Facebook to read his impactful and witty comments on living as an Indian and now living in Sweden with a young son and Swedish wife. Pillay has a skilful hand, a mastery of the brevity necessary in a short story, a keen ear for dialogue that brings the world he evokes to life. A confident and welcome start.
*Image Credit: Courtesy of the Johannesburg Review of Books website (https://johannesburgreviewofbooks.com/2018/08/06/a-place-where-paradox-lives-and-breathes-francine-simon-reviews-chatsworth-pravasan-pillays-debut-short-story-collection/)
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