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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

SUGAR CANE BOY (article first published : 2008-06-17)

Growing up on a sugar cane farm on KwaZulu-Natal’s north coast in the 70’s, a small boy carefully stored away memories of the people he met at home, on the farm and at school and the details of a way of life that has now changed forever.

Some 40 years later, that small boy has, with an author’s imagination, combined these memories with other stories he heard as he grew up and from them he has created Sugar Cane Boy - a book recently launched in Durban.

“It’s not an autobiography” explains Rubendra Govender of Reservoir Hills. “Soya, the hero of the book, is an invented character although some of his story has been suggested by things that happened to me, to my family, to my friends and to others in the communities in which I was growing up in Inanda - where my paternal grandfather was a pioneer sugar cane farmer and businessman. The story follows Soya from his days as a schoolboy on the farm, through his university days, where his gradual involvement in student affairs leads to a career in law and eventually to politics.

Sugar Cane Bo”, he adds emphatically, “is not a book that is intended only for Indian readers. “It tells of a way of life about which many people in our province know very little and I hope they will find it interesting - and entertaining! I have incorporated stories I heard about people on other farms in the area, from the simple adventures of children to some highly dramatic events and all seen against a background of everyday life in those days.”

These stories range from a light-hearted all-day fishing trip with the men from the farm to the tragedy of a small African boy being shot and killed by a callous policeman after stealing a loaf of bread; the interaction between the Indians and the African workers on the farm and, especially, the hero’s friendship with another “sugar cane boy”, Boniwe Mkhize; visits to the local temple for important ceremonies; a “Dingaan’s Day” visit to the beachfront funfair in Durban; the annual burning of the cane of the farm; his surprise at the kindnesses shown to him by an Afrikaans author and a white lawyer who helped shape his outlook as he grew up; and the way in which prejudices among his own community affected him.

Ruben, who studied at what was then the University of Durban Westville and with UNISA, followed a career as a biology teacher in Zululand and later in Phoenix. After taking a break to finish the book, he has now returned to teaching at Sastri College. He is married to Roghini Pillai and they have one son, Seyuran.

The idea of writing a book about the lifestyle of his childhood years had been in his mind for some time and about 10 years ago he began consciously shaping anecdotes into a story of a boy growing up through some of the country’s most interesting times. “It is not a political book” he says, “but it does show how the policy of apartheid affected everyday life in those years.”

Sugar Cane Boy is available at bookshops throughout KZN. (Watch this space for the review)




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