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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 : 2008-08-2)

Sugar Cane Boy is the story of Soya Sivaraman and his best friend Boniwe Mkhize who rise from humble beginnings to positions of high importance. It is written by Rubendra Govender who draws on his upbringing in a pioneer Indian sugar cane farming family. He has dedicated the publication to the memory of his grandfathers.

Ruben Govender was born in Durban. He achieved degrees from what was then the University of Durban Westville and UNISA, then 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.

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 South Africa’s interesting times. While firmly asserting that Sugar Cane Boy is not a political book, the writer shows how the policy of apartheid affected everyday life in those years.

Set in 1972, the story is set on a sugar cane farm in Inanda on the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal. It is written in a deliberately simple style to mirror the simplicity of the farming lifestyle and the challenges that face its hero and his best friend as they grow up in apartheid South Africa. It aims to celebrate the lives of scores of poor, rural folk who have overcome extraordinary odds to make significant contributions to present-day South Africa.

Sugar Cane Boy is a slim volume with an eye-catching glossy cover depicting two youngsters – backs towards us –arms around each other in a comradely fashion with a stick of sugar cane in their hands. The photograph extends across the back cover and into the back fold-in flap, showing a dry stony road in a sugar cane field.

The friendship between the two boys has an inauspicious beginning when Boniwe lands a powerful punch on Soya which knocks him out during one of the secret fighting matches the youngsters all attended on Fridays. They grow up to appreciate and respect one another’s culture while dealing with prejudice within their own respective communities as well as the overall iron grip of apartheid.

The text is peppered with dialogue written in the distinctive and amusing Indian vernacular, using words and phrases that are dying out with each generation as the Indian community becomes more Western in its use of English and youngsters are influenced by American television.

As well as offering a good dramatic story, Sugar Cane Boy provides an invaluable insight into a particular community and should be accessible to both Indian and non-Indian readers. It tells of a way of life about which many people know very little. It would also make a good setwork for schools because of its valuable historic input and insight into times now changed forever

Sugar Cane Boy is available at bookshops throughout KZN. ISBN 1-920135-87-1. – Caroline Smart




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