As a South African Catholic Indian with a white grandfather and children who consider themselves entirely English, Heslington writer Agnes Sam is a rainbow nation all by herself. Her new novel is a powerful account of politics, segregation and love across the racial divide. Stephen Lewis reports:

Agnes Sam grew up in South Africa. Yet it wasn’t until she went to university that she got to really know any black Africans.

Apartheid and racial segregation was at its height. The various racial classifications still trip off her tongue. “There were English-speaking whites; Afrikaans-speaking whites; Indians, who spoke English; coloureds, who were mixed race, European and African; Africans, who spoke an African language and English; and Chinese, who spoke both Chinese and English,” she says.

Marriage across the colour line was forbidden, and each race had its own living zone.

Little wonder the young Agnes scarcely met any black Africans.

In many ways, her family was quite privileged, she admits. “I only knew Africans as people who worked as servants for us.”

That changed when she went to university. Universities, like everything else in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, were segregated. “You had to go to the university of your racial group,” Agnes says. She matriculated from school in 1959. “And the university for Indians hadn’t been built.”

Unusually, her family was Catholic, so she was offered a place at the Catholic university in Lesotho.

The four years she spent there changed her life, she says. It was another country.

The strict apartheid laws of South Africa didn’t apply and most of her fellow students were black Africans. She even dated a few. She met her husband there, too, another South African Indian. When they graduated, they went to teach in Zambia, where they had three children.

Then, in 1973, her husband applied to come to the Centre for South African Studies at the University of York, and the whole family moved here.

She divorced a few years later, but her children – Jason, Rohan and Lance – grew up in York and are thoroughly English, Agnes says.

That was brought home to her in 1984, when York Minster caught fire. “They were only little, but they were standing here with the TV on,” she says. “And as the Rose Window burned they were crying.”

Despite living in Heslington for much of the last 38 years – apart from seven years when she returned to South Africa for the elections that saw Nelson Mandela become president – Agnes herself still feels African.

Hers is a difficult legacy. The Indians are in many ways the invisible race in South Africa, she says.

Indians were first brought to the country in the 1800s to work on the sugar cane plantations. Her own great-grandfather was among them. He was shanghaied (effectively kidnapped, she believes) from India as a child and arrived by ship in Durban in 1860. He spent 53 years as an indentured labourer.

Gandhi famously came to South Africa at the turn of the 19th century to fight for Indian rights. And not without reason. “Indians were not allowed to walk on pavements, and had to carry passes,” Agnes says.

Within this marginalised group, her own family was particularly unusual: Indians who were Catholics – the legacy, perhaps, of a white grandfather. Small wonder Agnes never quite felt she fitted in.

All that confusion – of race, colour and identity – has now been poured into a powerful novel.

The Pragashini-Smuts Affair tells the story of a young South African Indian girl, her friendship with a black African boy – and the effect their relationship had on their lives.

The book opens in 1985. Pragashini Dev is 14, and obviously a beauty: there is a lovely description of her standing in her bedroom, “brushing her hair from the nape of her neck to the long ends of hair that reached almost to the floor.”

She’s preparing to go on a date. But unbeknown to her, the men of her family are meeting, outraged at discovering her secret diary in which she confides her friendship with boys. And one boy in particular: Smuts, the young black man of the title.

Appalled, her family decide to marry her off quickly, to her brother-in-law, whose wife has just died.

She is taken to India for the marriage, then to England. But there, she escapes her husband, goes to college … and ultimately returns to South Africa for the 1994 elections which promise a new start for her country.

It’s a very political book, Agnes admits, but also a personal one. As the back cover blurb puts it, it tells of “one girl’s battle to lead a life less ordinary…”

A life could hardly be less ordinary than Agnes’s own.

© The Press, 2011