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Ahmed Essop Biography

sufi johannesburg gool fordsburg

Has also written as Ahmed Yousuf. Nationality: Indian. Born: Dabhel, Surat, 1931. Education: The University of South Africa, Pretoria, B.A. 1956, B.A. (honours) in English 1964. Career: Teacher at a secondary school, Eldorado Park, Johannesburg, 1980-85. Awards: English Academy of Southern Africa Schreiner award, 1979.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Visitation. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1980.

The Emperor. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1984.

Short Stories

The Hajji and Other Stories. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1978; asHajji Musa and the Hindu Fire-Walker, Columbia, Louisiana, Readers International, 1988.

Noorjehan and Other Stories. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1990.

Poetry

The Dark Goddess (as Ahmed Yousuf). London, Mitre Press, 1959.

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Manuscript Collection:

National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa.

Critical Studies:

"Mr. Sufi Climbs the Stairs: The Quest and the Ideal in Ahmed Essop's The Visitation " by Eugenie Freed, in Theoria (Pietermaritzburg, Natal), May 1988; "Straightforward Politics and Ironic Playfulness: The Aesthetic Possibilities of Ahmed Essop's The Emperor " by Antje Hagena, in English in Africa (Grahamstown, Cape Province), October 1990.

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Ahmed Essop's fiction displays a marvelously realized sense of place and the ability to regard human nature, even at its most absurdly self-centered or viciously craven, as still worthy of some pity. Fordsburg, within metropolitan Johannesburg, is in Essop's writing what Malgudi is in R.K. Narayan's. Both are Indian places; their inhabitants have Indian names, often speak with similar accents, and would not feel entirely lost culturally if translated to each others' towns. In Fordsburg the women wear saris and there are "the raucous voices of vendors … the spicy odors of Oriental foods, the bonhomie of communal life." Older Fordsburgians usually speak Gujarati or Urdu and try to preserve traditional customs like arranged marriages. Hindu and Muslim religious observances exist side by side, with both rivalry and some merging at the edges (as in the Caribbean) rather than as potential sources of communal violence. As in Trinidad and Guyana, the Indian proletariat and the educated alike speak a regional variety of English, illustrated by this passage of invective from "Hajji Musa and the Hindu Fire-Walker":

"You liar! You come and tell me dat good-fornutting Dendar boy, dat he good, dat he ejucated, dat he good prospect. My foot and boot he ejucated! He sleep most time wit bitches, he drink and beat my daughter. When you go Haj? You nutting but liar. You baster! You baster!"

The Afrikaans word "baster" (bastard) here signals the South African provenance of Essop's fiction about the largest population of Indian origin outside the sub-continent. Indeed Hindu and Muslim can taunt each other safely, in the knowledge that historically they have more in common than with members of other South African communities.

With its extension Newtown, Fordsburg seems to be based upon realities of Essop's childhood and youth before and during the 1950s campaign of passive resistance to apartheid, when there was a stronger sense of "Indianness," despite socializing and sexual encounters across racial boundaries. More secular and less traditional is Lenasia, beyond the Johannesburg perimeter, where The Emperor is set, a government-built township for the decanting of Fordsburg Indians, thus allowing white suburbs around Fordsburg to expand conveniently and cheaply.

It is in The Hajji and Other Stories that the life of Fordsburg/Newtown is most engagingly and unpretentiously set forth. Nearly half the stories are satirizations of human beings falling short of the high standards of personal and social behavior that they profess: Dr. Kamal's political cowardice in "The Betrayal"; Yogi Khrishnasiva's covert fornication in his pursuit of spiritual liberation in "The Yogi," the holy men forced to seek refuge in the cinema and watch a film on "The Prophet" so as to escape the public violence they have stirred up as a protest against the screening of that film, the irrepressible Hajii Musa, in hospital with badly burned feet, dismissing Hindu fire-walking as "showmanship" after his own unsuccessful attempt. At his best, Essop strips pretense, hypocrisy, untruth, and deviousness from his characters and shows the naked humanity beneath, but with an imaginative and delicate understanding of the humiliation that people suffer when thus exposed, as in "The Hajii," where obdurate refusal to condone a brother's past apostasy results only in self-inflicted hurt and spiritual aridity, or the 70-year-old father's pathetic defeat when his new young second wife divorces him, Muslim-fashion, in preference for his own son. Some of the stories are competent psychological studies, as of the victim-figure in "The Target," or of the self-important (unto insanity) high school headmaster in "Gladiators," of the ambivalently dedicated political characters eventually left utterly isolated in "Ten Years" and "In Two Worlds." A frequent theme is the loss of human dignity, whether of the genuine or the merely outward kind. Occasionally Essop unnecessarily resorts to melodrama and sensationalism, as in "Labyrinth" and "Mr. Moonreddy."

The novel, The Visitation, sparkles with lively ideas and flashes of invention that on the whole don't quite coalesce. Mr. Sufi, a wealthy, complacent property owner, married but with a satisfying concubine discreetly housed in each of his apartment buildings, conducts his life quietly and respectably, even turning his monthly payment of protection money to the racketeer Gool into a polite little social ceremony. By the simple expedient of delivering large quantities of obviously stolen electric lamps to Sufi's home, Gool gains the blackmailer's firm hold upon a timid victim. Ironically, the lamps usher Sufi into an existence of darkness, fear, panic, and hallucination. As Gool and his thugs take over Sufi's very life, including his rent-collecting, like a supernatural visitation, he gradually realizes that they are doing crudely and violently what he has always done urbanely but equally ruthlessly. Even his love-life is reduced, when he witnesses Gool's sexual contortions with one of his former concubines. Clearly Gool is a doppelgänger, revealing to Sufi his own true nature—selfish, sensual, and sadistic—which he'd tried to cloak respectably. The weakness is that Gool becomes a mere caricature of criminality. The narrative might have been even more persuasive had Gool's wilder actions been incorporated in Sufi's hallucinations.

Caricature as a substitute for characterization is a legitimate satirist's tool, though probably more successful within the narrower compass of a short story than in the fuller extent and more subtle shadings of a novel. The Lenasia headmaster, Mr. Dharama Ashoka, the central character in The Emperor, is a "stooge" Indian, a creature of the apartheid state with an unassuageable appetite for power. The ludicrous story of his rise and downfall is also the tragedy of his wrong-headedness. The author's ingenious schema isn't really credible—an analysis, in one persona, of both arrogance and its necessary pettinesses in exercising power, with Ashoka as a possible figuring of the apartheid state and his opponents as the resistance. But Essop's ultimate interest in human individuality undercuts such a reading, making Ashoka at the end (like Sufi in The Visitation), a man to be pitied in the hour of his humiliating self-knowledge.

—Arthur Ravenscroft

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