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She preferred justice to truth

It’s a strange time to be writing about Nadine Gordimer when baby killers have just launched a ground offensive to kill some more in Gaza. “A child understands fear, and the hurt and hate it brings,” she’d said some years back, and must be muttering the same now in her grave. After all, she’d made no bones comparing South Africa’s apartheid with the Israeli occupation of Palestine — a stance that seems all the more remarkable given the near capitulation of global intelligentsia to Zionist machinations today. She had argued unsuccessfully with her friend Susan Sontag, urging her to turn down the Jerusalem Prize in 2001. She had done so herself, declaring that she didn’t wish to travel to one apartheid society from another. She preferred “justice” to “truth” — politics over literature. Yet when she did visit Israel, against the advice of her friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “to see with my own eyes”, she told her interviewer that the violent treatment in the occupied territories reminded her of what had occurred in South Africa, with Palestinians treated exactly the way blacks were treated under white rule.

Author Kunal Basu at Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg

Curiously, we had discussed Palestine when we met in South Africa in 2008 at a literary festival. Tucked away among notable locals and international literati at the home of the Indian consul- general in Johannesburg, I had felt her eye on me, rather on my Indian kurta. She’d like to buy one for herself during her upcoming trip to India, she’d announced over the din. “Why wait that long?” — I’d threatened to take it off right there and hand it over to Nadine. That small bit of mischief made us friends. Politics couldn’t be far from Calcutta, and mention of my hometown had led to great intensity. She wasn’t unfamiliar with the armed insurrection in Bengal in the Seventies, even though the results had fallen far short of expectations. “You can’t change a regime on the basis of compassion, there’s got to be something harder,” — she’d scandalised eavesdroppers, raised a few diplomatic eyebrows. A two-state solution for Palestine was the only way to escape yet another genocide, the self-proclaimed atheist born of Jewish parents and raised in a secular household had agreed with her friends (Noam) Chomsky and (Edward) Said. Rest assured it wasn’t a case of hollow bravado: her home had been recently broken into by criminals leaving her brutally traumatised. But never in her dreams had she considered leaving South Africa, “like some other famous people”. Was that a jibe at fellow laureate (J.M.) Coetzee, who “fled” to Australia after a similar assault? I wondered.

Nadine and our own Nayantara Sahgal had turned out to be the stars of the literary show, regaling everyone with stories of their “secret affairs”. They made us laugh out tears — two octogenarians acting like giggling teenagers and reminding everyone that true happiness came packaged in pure mischief.

“Come, I want you to meet someone,” she had dragged me to the cocktail lounge after my session, to meet a very impressive looking man. “You might know who he is.” Of course, I did! That was Nadine’s friend, Harry Belafonte. Matilda!

Nadine Gordimer with Nayantara Sahgal at a literary festival in South Africa in 2008

The only time we got close to discussing books was when someone mentioned The Japanese Wife collection to her. “Ooh, I love stories!” Short story is the literary form for our age — I had read her saying somewhere. Then, like a flaming seductress, she’d whispered into my ear, “if you give it to me, I’ll give you one of mine”.

“Why India?” I remember asking her during one of our chats. I had expected to hear what everyone says in South Africa — about Gandhi and Mandela; Cape coolies who’d come over from India; grand speeches at the UN delivered by Indian leaders decrying apartheid; or how our oppressors had made us more similar than what we were. She had spoken in her small but firm voice, “because Indians have felt the pain of South Africa”.

Yes, Nadine. And we feel the pain of Gaza.


She (Nadine) wasn’t unfamiliar with the armed insurrection in Bengal in the Seventies, even though the results had fallen far short of expectations. ‘You can’t change a regime on the basis of compassion, there’s got to be something harder,’ — she’d scandalised eavesdroppers, raised a few diplomatic eyebrows