A great pity because the South African novelist was not the world’s most self-abnegating person.
She had a remarkable face. Crow’s feet imprinted firmly by her eyes, shallow but clear lines making ‘rivers’ on her forehead and cheeks, she looked like one who had seen and ‘knew’ it all. You could impress Nadine Gordimer, you could awe her and, equally, disgust her, enrage her; you could never fool her. Hers was the voice of the human conscience — not in the confession box but the witness box sense.
Gordimer was present in the court room during the famous Rivonia Trial in 1964 when Nelson Mandela, not yet the icon that he was to become, was first tried for acts of sabotage against the Apartheid regime. She witnessed his sentencing to life imprisonment. By the time, some 15 years later, Gordimer’s epic novel on the home lives of political revolutionaries Burger’s Daughter appeared, Mandela had become a celebrity. A copy of the book found its way to Robben Island prison and Mandela went through it avidly and, presumably, furtively.
No one was therefore surprised when, on being released from prison in 1990, Mandela asked to see Gordimer. And it was no ‘for courtesy’s sake’ meeting. In an amazing piece on Mandela written for The New Yorker, six months before Mandela’s death, Gordimer says: “I suppose I thought, with a writer’s vanity, that the great man wanted to talk about Burger’s Daughter. We were alone in Johannesburg, some few days later. It was not about my book that he spoke but about his discovering, on the first day of his freedom, that Winnie Mandela had a lover. This devastation was not made public until their divorce, six years later.”
She was being a witness all over again.
She said in an interview shortly before her death of Mandela: “Because of him that was the best of times for us, to come out of the racist hierarchy of Apartheid. But now we’ve had many disappointments and the most troubling one is the corruption: The politicians getting greedy and looking after their own comfort, security and luxury, in many cases with public money. I have not only been quite critical about this, I have been deeply disillusioned and disappointed.”
Among the greatest privileges of working in South Africa that I had, in 1996-97, was meeting Gordimer. She was like everyone else excited about the liberation but had no illusions about the road ahead. I could sense a kind of disillusion setting in. But the disillusion came from a deeper insight, which went beyond South Africa. It was about India as well, about the future of Indian pluralism.
Over a decade later, in November 2008, Gordimer was in India and did Kolkata and the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata the honour of an unhurried visit.
It was not, for West Bengal, the best of times. Saurav Ganguly had retired from Test cricket, with a zero-run score, on the first ball in his ‘last’ match at Nagpur, plunging the city and state into gloom. The CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress were at their adversarial worst. And though the city’s annual film festival had just commenced, a very worried chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee presided over it.
Kolkata was grim that November.
But Nadine Gordimer being Nadine Gordimer, she changed the city’s mood, if fleetingly.
Looking her sharp self, quick to see and size things up, quick to make note of them, she gave a public lecture in the city’s Town Hall on ‘Witness: The Inward Testimony’. Answering a question on Barack Obama after the lecture she said, “Obama is important not just as the US’ first Black president but as one who is half-Black and half-White and as such speaks for an inclusive society — a message which not just the US but the whole world needs”.
When we heard her say that, not just Kolkata but the world seemed suddenly less grim.
A dinner was hosted at Raj Bhavan in her honour, to which a good number of the city’s writers and artists came. “Very,” she said when I asked her if she was comfortable in her hotel room. “Guiltily comfortable,” she added. “When I look out of my hotel window, I feel terrible at being so comfortable”.
There were questions put to her over a conversation before the dinner. She answered them very precisely, as a witness would in court. “You are either born to writing or you are not”, she said, “you cannot have a workshop to learn creative writing”. The redoubtable P Lal, creator of Writers’ Workshop, then asked “If there can be a guru for music, or for painting, why can’t there be a guru for writing?”
The laureate did not pause for an answer. “There can’t be. The guru for writing is reading”.
And read Gordimer did. She quoted not so long ago from Gandhi. No big deal in that but she did not quote the clichéd and misattributed “need/greed” one or “be the change you want to be”. She gave a little-known but very exact quote from Gandhi in his Satyagraha In South Africa: “The convenience of the powers that be is the law in the final analysis”.
We see “the convenience of the powers that be” becoming, globally, the final word, the law. The powers that be change but the principle of their convenience becoming law, remains constant, even in great democracies like South Africa and India. But as the numbers of those who are inconvenient to those powers dwindles, it is the world’s writers and artists who provide an exception.
We live in the rule but hope — and create — in the exception.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is former administrator, diplomat and governor. He is currently senior Fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.)