The South African Nobel Laureate and social activist, who was in Mumbai on Sunday, spoke strongly of her likes and dislikes among Indian authors. She rattled of a list of those she admires: “Rabindranath Tagore, Nayantara Sahgal, R K Narayanan, Shashi Tharoor, and of course, the great Salman Rushdie,” she said.
“I also read Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger. It is brilliantly written, but he’s stressed the more shocking aspects of society too much. He tends to rub it in a bit,” she smiled.
She heaped praise on Sahgal’s Mistaken Identity. In today’s world, on account of terrorism’s threat, “we all have become suspects...like prisoners we go through security checks,” she said.
But Gordimer was not too charitable about Indian-born Nobel winner writer V S Naipaul. Naipaul, she said, was a great writer, but “his novel on Africa is too racist”.
The outspoken author also expressed her strong political views. She criticised the present political situation in her country. “The African National Congress has split and I’m torn,” said Gordimer, who had joined the ANC when it was still banned. “On the one hand I feel loyal to my old party. But I find the man who has caused the rift, Jacob Zuma, to be morally dubious. He’s populist and promises everything and he’s not afraid of advocating violence.”
She was speaking at a special book-reading session and interaction at the Durbar Hall of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. She had been invited by the Sahitya Akademi of India and the Asiatic Society of Mumbai; the interaction was arranged by the Ministry of External Affairs.
Even the choice of story to read from reflected her strong feelings. She had picked the right story to read in these times of turmoil, she told her audience.
“I was going to read something from my last book, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories,” she said, “but I decided that with the terrible happenings in the world - children starving in an endless cycle of violence and immigration - it would be more appropriate to read The Ultimate Safari, a story about a little girl and her family fleeing to South Africa from civil war in Mozambique.”
Telling the story from the point of view of a little girl came easily to her. “The BBC was shooting a documentary in the refugee camps and I’d accompanied them. When I saw the children, I had the urge to put myself in their shoes. I realised that what I’d just heard about — the trek these people make through the Kruger National Park — is the ultimate safari and that’s how the story came to be written.”
She was critical of the modern habit of relying more on images and relegating reading to a secondary position. “The written word is becoming less and less relied upon for its ability to impart information,” she said.
Gordimer has won international acclaim for The Lying Days, July’s People and The Conservationist. Her impressive body of work, peppered with political activism, won her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
She was active in the fight against apartheid in her home country. Her outspokenness on race issues led to two of her books, Burger’s Daughter and The Late Bourgeois World, being banned by the apartheid government.
Recently, she’s campaigned against the South African government’s stance on HIV/AIDS; in 2004, she organised 20 major writers to contribute short fiction for Telling Tales, a fundraising book for South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, which lobbies for government funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and cure.
(With PTI inputs)