Born a Crime: Searing, original, witty

Trevor Noah’s memoir never runs short of terrible and terribly amusing things. Born to a black mother and a white father at a time when such a union was a crime, Trevor’s birth broke laws in a way that was only too obvious – he was brown. He talks of his early childhood and his entry into adulthood, marked by apartheid in the outside world, abuse at home, incessant hustling, racism that is petty and cruel and everywhere, religious fervour and miracles.

It is also the story of a woman who was determined to equip her child with the mind to succeed in a world that is always changing, that is eager to step on you when you were down, that didn’t give the disenfranchised any breaks. Trevor isn’t looking for pity, even though you may be quick to sympathize with him. He is honest, insightful and frequently funny – some of the incidents he narrates make us laugh out loud, partly due to their absurdity.

Trevor and his dog Fufi seem to be curiously alike. Fufi would start every day like it was a slate wiped clean, free from the tragedies of the past, going back to the stepfather that hit her frequently, smiling and eager to play. Trevor, it appears, comes at life with the same enthusiasm, with the remarkable ability to forget pain. He is the person for whom the tired line about lemons and lemonade was made. He caught every lemon thrown at him and made that damn lemonade every single day.

While reading Born a Crime, I got to thinking about how familiar the milieu is. The chaos that governs lives, the rules that don’t make any sense but are thought to keep society together, the loopholes in the system that are exploited by everyone, our colonial hangovers, the distrust we share of each other, the patriarchy we propagate, the belief that some human beings are superior to others simply by the fact of their birth. It is often said that the fight of the Dalits in India is comparable to African-Americans’ fight for equality. It isn’t very different from the resistance of black people in South Africa either, fighting to live with dignity.

I have not read an engaging book about apartheid until now, my reference points are all from dull history books. A fact here about Nelson Mandela, and another there about the language Afrikaans. It is a much more different experience reading someone’s personal and very intimate story. It becomes a history lesson you cannot forget.

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