Mr Devraj Appalraju (Ex-Principal: Foresthaven Secondary)


What follows is no conventional review or critical appreciation, but rather a mix of my observations, thoughts and feelings about your wonderfully inspiring work, When the Chalk is Down. I shall take the liberty to write in the second person and address it to you, BP.

The story of your journey needed to be told because it is unique in several ways. To be challenged at such a young age and to face the poignant realities of two significant threads in your life – your struggles with civic authorities and your grapples with career issues – makes for a painfully true story which had to be written down. Many of us in those positions would have given up the struggle.

Your book, BP, is full of energy, and sometimes frighteningly forceful, but always vibrant. It reflects who you are and how your pursuit after justice honed your leadership skills. Your enthusiasm is infectious and yet I doubt if many of your colleagues or supporters would have dared to push the boundaries with such fierce determination and urgency as you did. It takes special courage.

At the same time, to be honest, I sometimes get the impression as I travel on this journey with you, that you come across too strongly, sometimes bullying, at other times impatient, even impetuous and threatening. Then all too soon I am brought back to reality when I see the resolutions to those relentless pursuits. Your focus immediately becomes clearer to me. I am reminded here of what I advised my Senior English students many years ago when we were doing critical appraisals of characters in fiction: don’t be so judgmental as to declare outright that a character is right or wrong, but try rather to UNDERSTAND why he does what he does. It is in this context that I find your struggles filled with relevance and meaning; that your perseverance is what you call a “sustained commitment” to see justice done.

Here is another important point I wish to make. You have been brutally frank on more than one occasion to admit a change a view after reflection. Such a redeeming quality reinforces your strength of character. I will try to substantiate some of these observations in the course of my appraisal.

For convenience, allow me to look at your career battles first, and then the struggle of ownership, not because one is more important than the other. In fact, they are intrinsically linked as you so skillfully demonstrate in the book. I am biased here, but I must admit that some of the more touching moments are those incidents affecting Mum and Dad and Tulip Avenue. And so it should be. Your cover reflects this priority, and the first line in Acknowledgements confirms this.

Stylistically, I think, you were spot on. Your use of direct speech is well-timed and conveys effectively the sense of urgency and tension when confronting intransigent officials. Strong dialogue is often your best weapon to demonstrate to the reader that you do not suffer fools gladly. Whether it be the Raj, a Principal, Department official or civic leader, your courage in debating a thorny issue is admirable.
Another effective stylistic device is the use of the flashback technique. A notable example is found in the opening chapter when your mind is transported from the present to almost twenty years previously in a not- so- gentle repartee with Rajbansi. Also, your Mum’s anxiety and humiliation is often described in flashbacks which remind us constantly of her hardships.

Historical accuracies with dates help to place events in their contexts, particularly the TTB battles and your appointments to the various schools and Regional offices.
Also engaging are the descriptive, geographical settings of Buffelsdale, Newcastle, Foresthaven, Ndwedwe and views of the bay from Truro House. In their contexts, even seemingly humdrum references to Roy’s mini Cooper, Rabia’s Escort, NJ 8516, “three tins”, “thunee” , “bread ou” and “Namaste” give authenticity to your story and help us to identify with them. Some light-hearted moments breaking the tension in the story are illustrated by Krish’s infatuation and the “free” telephone calls from Newcastle; and how can we forget the unannounced “black mamba” visiting during a meeting in Ndwedwe . Your recollections of these seemingly commonplace matters is admirable. Our link with this reality is palpable.

Your use of photos in illustrating the focal points of your experiences brings a realism that is nostalgic. Whether it be “Golden Voice” playing his harmonium or you staring at the “potholes” on the way to Mzingezwi Secondary, these become firm impressions on the sands of time.

Because you started early in life to stand up for what is right, BP, it was natural to expect you to carry over your activist stirrings to the educational arena. So that by the time you reach Newcastle and the SOI for your first appointment, we become acutely aware that you will fight relentlessly for a transfer back to Tongaat. Support from the staff in your battles with the Principal give you courage. The “conscientising process” has already begun and the other politically conscious comrades on staff contribute to your development. It is not surprising to hear later that you shove protocol aside to approach the Director about a transfer from Newcastle. When this is accomplished almost two years later you promise ”never to antagonize school management ever again” (p.27). This is not an idle statement said in a moment of weakness. To me it reflects your innermost desire not to be confrontational or revengeful per se. Your own assessment somewhere in the book is that you are a nice guy. And why not? You socialize extremely well with staff and you accommodate different cultural practices easily in Mzingezwe Secondary. At the same time you will not shy away from making unpleasant interventions when the cause is right. An example that comes to mind is the heated dispute with colleagues on the Time Table committee.

When you reach Foresthaven some two years later, you are confronted with new challenges such as larger classes and the intransigence of some Principals with their divide –and-rule strategies. Your dress code for Rajbansi’s official opening is one of the first manifestations of a “rebellious” attitude which masks your personal frustration. When we understand that this “belligerence” is fuelled largely by your impatience in the home ownership issue, we recognize and acknowledge the situation. And until we understand that these two issues are intrinsically linked , we cannot see the whole picture. So when you take up a matter on behalf of a displaced colleague, you do it for the greater good and not for personal reasons. When you educate others about meeting procedures, you yourself may not have comprehended at the time how much you empowered staff to seek the truth in all matters. You are even prepared to take on the TRC head on. You, Elvis, Govi and others illustrated what it means to say that school leaders should earn rather than demand respect.

Alas, BP, this was before my time. In retrospect, I now realize how fortunate I was over those memorable thirteen months to have had all of the teaching and administrative staff work together. It was not just acquiescence on our part, but an acknowledgement that our goals and priorities were based on principle and the truth. Hooray for all who worked at Foresthaven in the aftermath of the “bird lice” drama. Your observation that the rotational Chairperson involving Level One educators is a progressive trend is a very kind thought. If it received the blessing of the whole staff, it showed how much good can emanate from working in a harmonious educational environment. We like to believe it promoted realism in decision-making and honed everyone’s leadership skills. The benefits of introducing isiZulu First Language and your efforts in promoting English Second Language have had far-reaching effects. One of them, I think, was your better understanding of the poor resources at Mzingezwe and the challenges you had to face there later in your professional career. “My spirits sank” are your actual words. In the midst of all this, the one fearful, almost hysterical journey by NJ8516 becomes hilarious in its description and breaks the tension.

Learner and parent issues are more serious and you tackle these with circumspection. Later, your courage returns when at a public forum you question Minister Bhengu and insist on an immediate response about the lack of resources and infrastructure in Ndwedwe. Almost unbelievably, you were rewarded with a visit by President-elect Mbeki , and favourable changes followed for the benefit of the community.

At a school later on, your humanity is well illustrated in the matter about Satish declining promotion. Your initial view that the educator was irrational is changed to an acceptance that Satish ‘s stance was a “principled “ one . The resolution satisfies you when you come to understand that he was promoted closer to his home. Your charity in accepting Satish’s initial view is a redeeming quality.

In your battles with Regional Office staff such as Dr Edley, you show extreme courage. Even when you win, you never hesitate to remind us that the “transfer of the house is more complicated.” Your handling of the matter with the sub-examiners at the Exam Centre in Harding must be celebrated . Very few examples can be so complicated when the racial tag is used against you in the New South Africa. It is most ironic considering your struggle history.

In the matter with Rishi’s daughter’s Matric certificate, my initial response was that you adopted a “bullying” stance, knowing that the school was adopting a financial policy applicable to all. But when you argue that this is a flawed approach and is against Department regulations, we readers concede. And when you tell us that this matter is dragging on for two years and affecting your niece’s future and showing up your brother’s helplessness, you act decisively. After lecturing the Principal about his taking advantage of people trapped by the cycle of poverty, you still manfully admit that you may have treated his staff somewhat badly. After listening to the Principal’s own challenges in his school , you accept that he may have a problem. This is a magnanimous gesture on your part. A similar case scenario occurs in the matter of your daughter Sayuri’s delay in admission to school. Thankfully all ends well. In my view, it makes your story believable, honest and truthful. Your experiences are richly extended, and so are ours. –page 3-

Your awareness of a sense of injustice in your life begins early – when you joined the “103 protestors” as a sixteen year old. Your bottled up anger intensifies when you witness your Mother shamelessly reprimanded by Parthab Kumar Singh for asking :“ Bhai, when my house becoming ownership?” His callous response that “those who could not afford to pay rent should not be concerned about owning houses” strikes a lifelong chord of distrust for tardy officials in civic positions. You yourself say that it makes you vindictive and revengeful in some of the extreme cases. The reader is constantly made aware of your role as social activist imbibed with a “community spirit”. We identify with your refusal to wait for more than twenty years before legal processes are put in place. To give the poor and disenfranchised homes they can call their own is your only priority.
I thought your approach with the mosque authorities was very reasonable and your acceptance of religious sensibilities was laudable. Your accommodating nature came to the fore.

Your ingenuity and boldness in planning the route to Zohra’s place would have shocked even Rajbansi had he known the details. An affirmation of your commitment became clear when you accepted to represent a community you never abandoned, although by now you had relocated to Verulam with your young family. The support of your immediate family is never lost in all your struggles, with references to your wife and the births of your daughters confirming they were “the centre of your world.”

The constantly shifting political scenario meant associating with the VRA, CCAV, NTMSC and other agencies – not easy , when stalling tactics were putting additional pressure on your aged parents.

Life does not throw at you a perfectly ordered world. This you realize when one of the most dramatic scenes in the book unfold. Your Dad’s last gasp just before you leave for London is cruel timing and tragic. But like fatalists the family accept the situation. Mum’s own strength of character and your wise decision to proceed on your trip is a testimony to the memory of your Dad who must have been smiling with pride at that point.
But a little later Mum returns to reality when she expresses her concern about will happen to Rishi now. Her despondency is palpable when she cries, “Your father died without getting the house” (p. 165). Your feeling at this point is worth examining. Although you have been making great strides in the professional and academic world, you are hurt that it is now 2004 and you are still struggling to access information from the eThekwini Metro Housing section. We are not surprised when you tackle Rambaran with such gusto. You have no alternative. It must be done.

But the time you come to meet your attorney, the structure of the novel comes to a neat linking with the first chapter. And I get the sense that even the lawyer, happy as he was, is detached from the emotional content of your life at this point in time. It is heartbreaking for you, as protagonist, to have to break the news of Mum’s stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. But you could not expressed it more poignantly: “She’s dead to this world.”

What I shall take from your journey is how you succinctly painted in words the experiences which shaped your life. It will not be easy for many an educator, for example, to recall the staffroom dramas so clearly and with such diarised detail as you have done, covering so many years. Ultimately, to have come to the stage of final putting down your thoughts to paper is a tribute to your creativity, resilience and industry. What better ending than to read .. “ I felt relief..”; became “aware of the silence around me”…

Congratulations. Thank you for reminding all of us that life is in the struggle. That despite the potholes we can complete the journey.

We are thankful to be afforded the opportunity to travel with you in your quest for the truth – and to see your world, our world – whether distressing or sad, happy or triumphant- but certainly touching and affecting!