Book review: Children of Sugarcane

Children of Sugarcane

Joanne Joseph

Jonathan Ball Publishers

Review: Karen Watkins

If you’ve ever wondered how and why Indians came to South Africa this is the book to read.

In this story of love, loss, family and friendship, this skilful plot begins in the small Indian village of Vakkur-Uti.

Shanti, 14, isn’t like other girls. She wants to learn to read and write. Thanks to Saras, the wife of a priest at the village temple, she learns to write Hindi, Tamil and English. Her family plan for Shanti to marry a cousin she’s never met. She finds the idea of an arranged marriage, especially to her cousin, abhorrent. In the middle of the night she flees making a long, gruelling journey to Madras.

There she is one of many people packed into a ship bound for the British colony of Natal. Taken to a sugarcane farm in Tongaat she escapes one cruel fate only to be caught up in another, a life akin to slavery.

Her days are filled with hard labour in sugarcane fields interspersed with gems of friendship, love, compassion and betrayal.

If that is not enough, the owner brutally assaults her, continuously. Shanti may be small but this fierce, powerful heroine is determined to be the mistress of her own fate. But at what cost.

Joseph braids history with fiction in this informative, educational, little-known historical indentured labour where a person is contracted to work without salary for a specific number of years.

It’s a haunting story that had me in tears at one point. The plot was well-paced with several twists and as it progressed I could not put it down.

The story lingered long after closing the final page. Whether it’s Shanti or the sugarcane farm owner, they escaped drought and a serious unemployment problem to arrive in Natal for what they believed would be a better life. Many have stayed – white, black, brown South Africans learning about other religions, customs, spices and different ways of cooking.

They built businesses, fought against apartheid, used the land to grow food, joined the country’s first Parliament and contributed to nation-building.

Memory is an important part of healing and this story provides us with a better understanding of our past. Who is telling the story and who is not allowed to tell it?