Text Messages | Eleven short trips to Chatsworth

Pravasan Pillay has an unerring ear, and has written his way into the South Africa literary canon.

Readers of Pravasan Pillay’s Chatsworth who know the place and its people say: “That’s the way they talk” or “I recognise that”. Having read the 11 short stories in this Dye Hard Press collection, I feel tempted to claim that now I know it too. Of course, I don’t really; rather, what I do is recognise it.

But for this debut collection of short fiction to achieve that is considerable. Recognition brings with it all sorts of good things: awareness, discovery, identification and remembrance. Aristotle, in Poetics, writes: “Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune.”

In the very first story, ‘Mr Essop’, Pillay confronts his characters – and the reader – with ignorance and knowledge, and good and bad fortune. The title character is a 72-year-old retiree who rents a granny cottage from the young narrator’s father. One day the boy (like his mother and father, unnamed in the story) takes to throwing a tennis ball against the cottage wall, pretending that he is a Test cricketer taking match-winning catches.

Essop warns him about throwing the ball near the window. The boy adjusts his mark, but, inevitably: “I’m not sure how it happened. I remember making an effort to keep the ball away from the glass, and then there was a hole right in the middle of it.” This sort of recollection, unvarnished and naive, runs through the stories, evidence of the author’s insight into young minds and their sense and sensibilities.

The window shattered, the voice of experience vindicated, knowledge must now be imposed. “You must learn to listen when big people tell you to do something,” says Essop. The boy is force-fed green chillies. After this act their fortunes diverge.

An unerring ear

Youthful narrators or young characters trying to make their way in the world is a thread that runs through the stories. There is the affecting tale of Idris, struggling to learn how to drive, his licence test looming ever nearer. There is the boredom of 12-year-old Pinky Pillay, insecure, restless, chain-smoking, sneaking downstairs to raid the kitchen, and wrestling with 35 lines of composition homework.

Most moving, perhaps, is ‘The Albino’, in which Cookie Govender comes to Montford Secondary as part of the new standard 6 intake. From a family with a history of albinism, Cookie “was willowy, her complexion pale and her long blonde hair was shaped into a loose fishtail plait. It was impossible not to stare at her – a tall, white girl amid a long line of dark, brown faces.”

There is  a terrible discovery at the end of ‘The Albino’ involving identification and remembrance, as well as suppressed awareness. The teasing ambiguities and open-ended possibilities that Pillay suggests leave the reader here almost as co-author, a device used to exquisite effect also in ‘The Bends’.

In this story, a man – possibly middle-aged, but certainly younger than the pensioners around him – joins the queue at the rent office. Before that, he has a long conversation with a young boy selling samoosas outside. This chat follows one the previous month, also about the same odd – and strangely disturbing – subject: the sand samoosa, a delicacy the man insists the boy has in his basket.

The boy has potato, chicken and tinned-fish samoosas only. His mother never makes sand samoosas, he says. The man does not let up: “I think she made it but she forgot to tell you about it. Big people always forget to tell you about it.” (Again, you note that the dialogue is acutely calibrated to the age of the hearer. Pillay’s ear for the kinds of talk that happens between older and younger characters is almost unerring.) 

The boy joins the man inside after an unspecified incident. The man comforts him and an arrangement is made: the man will give the boy a “horsey-back ride” outside once he has finished at the rent office. Is this sinister or poignant, suspect or sentient? Whichever, it is not prescriptive, and that is another hallmark of these stories. Pillay shows and does not tell or judge.

Even where he might justifiably support a character or characters, Pillay holds back. This is most evident in the final story, ‘Chops Chutney’, where a violent xenophobic act and its aftermath are handled coolly and clearly.

Given that South Africa is so averse to “strangers”, seemingly so threatened by them and clearly so aggressive towards them, this story ought to be put into school syllabuses and future anthologies of South African short stories. There would be a problem, though, because several of the other tales in Chatsworth demand the same sort of recognition.

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