Little India: Overseas Indian, NRI, Asian Indian, Indian American

A Forgotten Force of South Africa

Suzanne Franco

Johannesburg-based author Suzanne Franco insists that it is the stories she pens that find her. Her current novel is the story of one such courageous woman that she chanced upon, inspiring her to write Soul Force.

The book follows the life of a young woman, Valliamma Munuswamy Mudaliar, who dedicates her short life to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s satyagraha movement against racist oppression in South Africa. “I’m inspired when true-life stories of brave, courageous women find me, and I’m honored to bring their incredible stories to the world,” says Franco.

The 50-year-old writer is on a quest to bring to light the journey and sacrifices made by brave women that have been buried deep in the pages of history. Her own journey as a historical fiction writer was not a bed of roses. “I was blissfully unaware of the prejudice that awaited me,” she recalls. “I was told — in no uncertain terms — that as a white female writer I had no credibility to write the life stories of woman of color.  Publishers shied away.”

But she remained determined, and continued to focus on such stories. It was while she was on this quest to know more about such women that she discovered the unique story of Mudaliar.

“I am completing a series of three historical fiction books of brave South African women who used their oppression to resist unjust, racial laws. They, through their actions and commitment, made an impact on South Africa’s turbulent history. So Mudaliar’s incredible story lay right in front of me,” says Franco.

The cover of the novel Soul Force.

Mudaliar, the protagonist of Soul Force, hailed from a tiny hamlet in the southern part of India. Her parents were indentured laborers in South Africa, and Mudliar was born in Johannesburg. “Dedicating her short life to Gandhi’s satyagraha resistance against racist laws, Mudaliar’s character is way too deep to limit in a few words,” emphasizes Franco.

She discovered her protagonist’s tale and then began a massive hunt for more information on the woman, who had played a significant role in history and yet remained unknown. It took Franco around a decade-long research, as she dug deeper in history’s pages to look for more details about Mudaliar. She researched not only on Mudaliar, but also on Gandhi’s satyagraha movement and the positive effect it had on the scrapping of Anti-Asiatic laws in 1914.

Her research also took her to Tolstoy Farm, where Gandhi lived and implemented his satyagraha ideals in Johannesburg. “I also personally took a tour of the prison where Mudaliar and Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba Gandhi, served their time,” Franco reveals. It was through these experiences that she could include authentic details in the book — whether it was the prison conditions or the hardships endured by Mudaliar and her fellow sisters in the satyagraha movement.

Suzanne Franco took a tour of the prison where Valliamma Munuswamy Mudaliar was imprisoned in South Africa.

Through the course of the research, Franco also met many Indian historians in South Africa, and was a part of many discussions and lectures on satyagraha and Gandhi. “I have attended the satyagraha remembrance at the Apartheid Museum. I also stayed a night at Gandhi’s Satyagraha House where he lived while he was a lawyer in Johannesburg,” she adds.

Mudaliar’s story moved many, including Los Angeles-based French director Fabien Martorell. “Martorel and I were already in touch regarding my first novel, Exile Child, and once I had finished Soul Force he was floored with the sincerity and the inspiring story of Mudaliar’s life,” Franco says. The acclaimed director is now in final negotiations with Indian businessmen in South Africa to adapt the novel into a movie.

“I believe people in today’s world will live in hope by recognizing women who have sacrificed so much to have an impact on history, and therefore, humanity,” Franco says. Her debut novel did not move very far away from what she believes in — recognizing women who have made an impact in the society.

Exile Child, a historical fiction novel, is the story of Sarah Bartmann, who was torn from her South African tribe by Dutch settlers and sold as a slave. “It is a compassionate portrayal of one of South Africa’s most tragic heroines,” says Franco. “This story gives an insight into the hopes and dreams of Bartmann, who through past centuries has come to symbolize both the dispossession of Africans and the reinstatement of women’s dignity.”

Franco’s next book will be  the final in a series of true stories about forgotten South African women who have made substantial impact on eradicating racism and oppressive laws in this country. “My third book follows the lives of three very different young women who were imprisoned in the British concentration camps at the turn of the century during the Anglo Boer war in South Africa,” she discloses.

For now, Franco is determined to spread the word about Mudaliar’s exceptional tale of courage. “I plan to travel to India to make people aware about these courageous women,” she says. “The Indian community should give Mudaliar her due.”