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Urdu poet pens South African angst

Rookeya Saloojee composes lyrics dedicated to South Africa's anti-apartheid movement and its heroes.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2006 11:11 IST
Indo-Asian News Service
Indo-Asian News Service

It is a passion for Urdu that propels India-born poetess Rookeya Saloojee here to compose lyrics dedicated to South Africa's anti-apartheid movement and its heroes like Nelson Mandela and Yusuf Dadoo.

The soft-spoken Saloojee, who looks every inch the doting grandmother she is, says her Urdu poems were recited at meetings during the apartheid era but escaped being banned as few understood them.

"Although I came to South Africa from India as a young Gujarati bride in 1949, I came into a family that was passionate about the Urdu language and politics. That was the perfect grounding for me to develop my skill at writing poetry," said Saloojee.

She wrote 'naaths' (poems in praise of the Prophet Mohammad), ghazals that were traditional love poems and protest anthems.

Saloojee's daughter Shireen says: "My mother's poems are a record of every milestone in the freedom struggle, from the Defiance Campaign of the 1950s to the youth uprising in Soweto in 1976 and Mandela's arrest."

She related how, during the 70s and early 80s, her mother wrote poems to discourage Indian voters from participating in the elections for a three-tier parliamentary system.

The parliamentary system then included the house of delegates for the Indian community and equivalent houses for whites and mixed-race South Africans, but nothing for the majority blacks.

"Although my father was always the one getting into trouble with the authorities, my mother and her poetry were not taken seriously. Perhaps because they never even realised the strong messages she was sending out via verse.

"Ahmed Timol, a schoolteacher, was killed at John Vorster Square in Johannesburg in the 70s after being arrested on political charges. Mother immediately wrote a poem after my brother, who attended the funeral, described his feelings to her."

The Indian community in South Africa that was fuming over the arrest of many community leaders by the apartheid government, gave the poem a standing ovation at a poetry reading in Durban.

Saloojee's ode to 'Madiba', the name by which former president Mandela is affectionately known to many, is a contemporary hit. She wrote it when he was freed in 1992 after spending 27 years in a Robben Island prison.

"Mother went to Robben Island to see the cell where Mandela was incarcerated and that inspired her to write the poem," says Shireen.

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