Behind every great man is a woman. Similarly, behind every great lawyer, doctor or accountant is a teacher that has played an important role in shaping his or her life. But how many of us really know the life story behind said teacher when the chalk is down? Former educator, BP Singh’s debut novel is an autobiographical retelling of his life’s story filled with instances of sacrifice, struggle and defiance in the face of adversity.
Singh weaves two plotlines: his quest to attain property ownership for his parent’s home in Buffelsdale, Tongaat while simultaneously focusing on his journey, experiences and his maturation as a teacher.
Family is at the heart of the novel. On the matter of the lost land Singh writes: “Having a house in your name is a basic human right, yet in this instance it seemed that the process was going to be a painful one. To lose part of your property, especially when poor, is like losing a part of your body, a part of your soul. The toil of tending your land makes you a part of it, and the land becomes a fundamental part of you.” Singh’s mother features prominently on the gorgeously designed cover with faded white rose blossoms; a reference to the garden his father tragically lost when their property (also pictured) was rezoned. The title is written in a bold, white font that cleverly imitates chalk-written words on a blackboard.
The book also acts as an important edition to the field of Living Education Theory. Singh leaves the reader with insight into the struggles experienced by teachers, the conflicts that arise when a principal and his/her staff are unable to work in unity and the day-to-day experiences with his students. He makes some sharp observations in the way that schools are often hindered by nepotism in terms of employment of members of staff and the roles of unions during a period of transformation. The novel highlights the precarious position liberal teachers were put in. On one hand they were critical of the Apartheid government’s stance but were unable to voice their concern’s without jeopardizing their jobs. The challenges Singh faces as a teacher are not exclusive to the period in which the novel is written making it must-read for those in the field of education.
And that intriguing title? When The Chalk is Down is rich in meaning. On a base level, it references the sit-ins and chalk downs that are used by teachers as a means of defying authority. However, it also refers to the events that transpired when the school day was over and Singh had to return to fighting for the property ownership and raising his family in often difficult circumstances.
Singh’s book is a slice of history within the broader political context of the time he writes but it is no less important. It is a story that public servants will identify with. It is a story for students, teachers and parents. But as a story of sacrifice and the overcoming of tough obstacles, it is a story that all South Africans who share a common history of struggle will be able to identify with.
As a character study we are treated to a protagonist with a deep disdain for arrogance and the corruption of people that abuse their positions of power. The novel tracks his progress from a somewhat impulsive young man to a mature individual who had the courage to raise important issues in spite of the general passivity he was surrounded by.
The style is a reflection of the writer: humble and simple, often bold and witty, each episode is written with sincerity and the language is colored with local expressions and colloquialisms that add a sense of authenticity to his work. Singh weaves his storylines masterfully with a keen sense for pacing; in the unlikely instance a certain event does not resonate, the next adventure is a page away, ready to sweep away the reader.
On a final note the book acts as more than a personal exploration into the experiences of his personal life. For Singh, the book is cathartic, allowing him to achieve a sense of peace and tranquility and conclude the many struggles he has undertaken and overcome during his odyssey. Launched during 150th anniversary of the arrival of indentured Indian immigrants to South Africa, When The Chalk Is Down was longlisted for the Alan Paton Prize for Non-Fiction Literature in 2011.