Durban - Stories of a troubled child’s transformation after a caring teacher discovers he is from an impoverished, parentless home, to the horrors of a necklacing during a xenophobic protest are packaged into retired teacher Raj Isaac’s self-published book, Reflections.
“Most stories are based on personal experiences,” he said when interviewed in his Newlands East home.
“Either my own or some that affected my family. Others I maybe read about in newspapers, or happened to somebody in the community.
“I didn’t want to report horrific things. I wanted to reshape them. I tried to convey the fact that there is hope, but sometimes it was difficult to do that.”
He said he did not presume to give answers. “But I will have achieved something if the reader takes time to contemplate what I am saying.”
His 21 stories, often quirky, cover 181 pages, and are written as flash fiction, a writing style defined as “a medium of brief and enclosed stories”.
One story is an advance on another retirement project Isaac has put together: the history of his family, who came to South Africa as indentured labourers in the sugar cane fields and coal mines of the then-Natal Colony, from rural areas in the state of Kerala and former state of Madras in India.
It’s a tragic love story that also features exploitation of a woman worker by her colonial master on a sugar estate.
“I think fiction is best based on fact,” he said, adding that “there was lots of whispering about relations between white masters and ‘c**lie’ women. I am sure, even now, Indian families would have some kind of connection to these kinds of liaisons.”
He also picked up stories told around a home-made “bowlah” heater where adults would tell stories, possibly after a drink or two, and children were often an unintended audience.
“They ranged from ghost stories to stories about the holy books.”
Over four generations his family – whose real surname is Govender, but who were registered Isaac, possibly a “calling name” given to his grandfather by his bosses – have catapulted from being “illiterate in the Western idiom but learned in Tamil” to become professionals. One of his daughters is an architect, the other an engineer.
Isaac said “Uncle Bill” had sparked his interest in reading.
“Our first set of books in the home was Uncle Bill’s Bedtime Stories, which my father (who had attended school only up to Grade 3) bought from a door-to-door salesman.
“We devoured them.”
Isaac said he didn’t see his parents read because of their limited education.
“But my father had the common sense to make books available.”
A milestone in his family’s life was the 1991 Unisa graduation ceremony in the Durban City Hall when he and two of his seven siblings graduated with qualifications in education together – his brother, Thevendran, with a doctorate, his sister, Mogie, with an Honours degree and himself with a Masters.
Isaac’s thesis centred on silent reading. He is concerned that children often do not absorb what they read.
“I found in my research that teachers teach children to articulate
beautifully in an accent they thought was correct. But after asking them what they had read, their comprehension was poor. If there is no understanding of what you are reading, there’s a problem.
“In life, for the greater part of our reading experiences, we read silently.”
Isaacs is sad about children not reading as much as previous generations did. “It is such a pity because reading opens worlds to us that we might not be able to see in the limited time we have allotted to us. Until socio-
economic standards improve, many people are going to see reading and books as luxuries.”
Reflections by Raj M Isaac can be obtained for R140 by calling Sharmin Isaac on 084 549 5152, or emailing [email protected]
The Independent on Saturday