By Aziz Hassim
Review by Jessica Blignaut
Hassim’s latest book tells the tale of Valliamma, a child revolutionary respected by Gandhi and viewed as one of the greatest satyagrahis in colonial South Africa. Her struggle against the discriminatory authorities and the indomitable courage she displayed in the fact of oppression mobilized many communities, and her mantra ‘shatham prati satyam’ or ‘truth against a rogue’ became a rallying cry for protestors. A neglected historical figure, Hassim’s portrayal of Valliamma highlights her contribution to the Passive Resistance Movement, and has rescued her from obscurity.
In the book’s foreword Hassim acknowledges his deceased mentor Soobrie Pillay as the motivating force behind the work, and indeed, the character Soobrie Pillay is fittingly used as the narrator through which the tale of Valliamma is told. The Agony of Valliamma should be read not as a third novel by Hassim, but as part of his political project, which he hinted at in his description of his novel The Lotus People as his personal TRC. This fictionalised account of historical events takes up the political themes of oppression and the need for resistance, which indeed also form a subtext to his second novel The Revenge of Kali, which recounts the sufferings of indentured Indian labour in the late 19th century Natal canelands.
The action alternates between Valliamma’s story and the West End Hotel in the year 1974, where the barman, Soobrie, recounts her tale to a group of young Indian men, in the process educating them about the struggle against apartheid, and galvanising them into action. The story of Valliamma which Soobrie recounts ranges from her first political awakenings through to her arrest, imprisonment and early death a mere 11 days after her release.
The book concludes with several tributes to Valliamma by E.S. Reddy, Sri Gopalkrishna Gandhi (India’s High Commissioner in South Africa), Sathia Pillay, and M.V. Rajah, as well as several photographs of Valliamma, her grave, and the village in India which was renamed Valliamma Nagar in her memory.
In its recognition of a long-neglected historical figure, The Agony of Valliamma serves an important purpose, and could prove useful at school level as a set work recounting a still resonant form of political activism, the Passive Resistance Movement, and in its bringing to life Valliamma’s historical milieu.