top of page
  • Kaliani Lyle

The topic of memory and recall

Interestingly, all three of us (Kasturi, Sanusha and myself) have talked about how little we and our families know about any of our forebears. This is not unusual. I read an article by the Turkish author Elif Shafak where she suggests that in immigrant families it is the third generation that investigates their history because they are freed from the uncertainties that migration brings with it.

And that makes absolute sense to me. Of course, community groups and academics in South Africa have done considerable work in this area, and they certainly put the larger political and cultural context into perspective. What I think is missing is the personal narrative, the individual stories particularly of women who navigated their way around the oppressive system of indenture, and whose very act of survival

was in itself a rebellion of sorts.

The question then about the credibility of memory and recall in uncovering our stories is an important consideration: my grandmother’s religion being a case in point. Some say that history is an unending dialogue between the present and the past, and we wonder if we are imposing our biases, and current norms, as we look back at the life and times of Rajwantia.

My grandmother’s story is one of transformation, of religious change, and personal bravery.

Rajwantia Somaru who became Janaki Chetty when she married my grandfather, was by all accounts a practising Hhindu. However, her religion as denoted by the Ship’s Passenger List is Muslim. A number of propositions have been put forward to explain this discrepancy.

One narrative is that as a woman on her own she adopted the muslim religion so she could travel safely in the company of muslims from her village. Another explanation is that Rajwantia was embarrassed and tried to hide her Muslim roots’- this may resonate with contemporary themes of religious intolerance. And while there may in fact have been an element of this, perhaps there is more to tell - she was after all a complex woman balancing child care, and the search for a better future.

This leads to a third potential and complementary narrative -Rajwantia tried to escape her situation back home in India, to search for a better life, one of opportunity, and changing religion, was not a big concession - especially growing up in a late 19th century India - a multi-cultural and by all accounts a religiously tolerant society.

The unreliability of memory, and the recasting of events through the lens of the present is a very interesting phenomenon: our understanding of the past shifts, our sense of who we are changes with time, and of what is acceptable and what is not. I think this is at the heart of the debate on memorialisation presenting as it does a partial and selective version of history.

55 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page