Getting older has its privileges, if very few of them. One is the pleasure of meeting an author who has shaped your world view over the course of decades.
Back in the 1990s, Nadine Gordimer had an unexpected effect on the narrow world of Delhi University’s students. She was often cited, her works were passed from hand to hand and discussed in fierce tones, and her politics informed our lives as we dissected apartheid and looked at India’s own unspoken policies of discrimination anew.
Many of us could quote portions of her Nobel speech by heart. She had won the Prize for literature in 1991, and I still remember the electrifying shiver that ran down my spine when I heard the first line: “In the beginning was the Word,” she started her speech, borrowing from the Bible and making those ancient words her very own.
She spoke powerfully of what it was to grow up in the South Africa of the apartheid years: “Only many years later was I to realize that if I had been a child in that category — black — I might not have become a writer at all, since the library that made this possible for me was not open to any black child.” Gordimer’s books were often banned, though unlike her contemporaries—Wole Soyinka, Dennis Brutus and Jaki Seroke among others—she was not sent to jail.
At a private lunch hosted by the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi to celebrate her first visit to India in 14 years, Gordimer is relaxed and open. The lecture she gave in Calcutta was something of a triumph, the event attended by over 700 people; a quiet reading in Delhi will attract over 150 squeezed into a small hall. Her apparent fragility is misleading; at 85, she has the energy and curiosity of a much younger woman. She’s looking forward, she confides, to a trip to Mexico later this year to attend the birthday celebrations of her friend, the writer Carlos Fuentes, and expects to spend her own birthday on a plane.
It gives her great pleasure to know that censorship no longer exists in South Africa; she comments wryly on the excellent taste of the government’s censors. Of her more than 14 novels, the South African government had seen fit to censor four—The Late Bourgeois World, The Conversationist, Burger’s Daughter and July’s People. It’s something of a tribute to her powers as a writer that the last three of these haven’t dated and still remain relevant today.
Over lunch, the discussion ranges across a number of subjects. Gordimer has a sharp, alert birdlike presence; she’s an intent listener, picking up the unspoken nuances in our questions. She finds parallels between South Africa and India, and speaks of how the younger writers in South Africa mine the question of race relations and discrimination from an entirely different perspective. “We were three separate nations for so many years,” she says, “white, black and coloured; we are still getting used to being one country.” Her years of struggle are touched upon lightly; she insists that despite the many bans on her books, she never suffered as much as others did.
Like many writers who have lived through times of suffering and repression, Nadine Gordimer remains intensely attuned to injustice. There is passion in her voice when she speaks of how Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit to South Africa had to be aborted—Rushdie is a personal friend of hers, and over the years, Gordimer has spoken up against the fatwa that kept him in hiding after the Satanic Verses controversy. She had, she says, very much wanted him to come to South Africa, but the visit was cancelled after the Muslim community erupted in protests and made death threats against the writer. Her voice is laced with indignation as she speaks of this, after all these years.
Is she still writing? At 85, many authors would have settled back and rested on their laurels, but Gordimer cannot imagine a life that didn’t involve writing—her most recent collection of short stories, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, came out in 2007. She rarely discusses current work, but confirms that she has something in the pipeline.
I wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to tell her what this casual meeting means to me. For my generation of readers, Nadine Gordimer opened up a much larger world than any of us could have imagined, and I like to think that she also stirred our consciences. There are authors whom you love, and there are authors who change your life. And sometimes, the same person can be both things to you, as Nadine Gordimer has been for so many of us.
(Published in the Business Standard, November 18, 2008)