Against all odds

The title of the memoir by Trevor Noah, Born a Crime, itself is quite intriguing and prompts the reader to plunge into it instantly.

His birth itself was a crime. Noah, a comedian, was born to a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father at a time when such an alliance was an offence in South Africa, with punishment of five years in prison. “Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was a proof of their criminality,” Noah writes in his book.

The book opens with the scene of the author as a nine-year-old being thrown out of a moving car, and as a reader, you begin to wonder if this violent episode is an inevitable part of the apartheid regime the author grows up in.

Noah was born in South Africa just a few years before the pernicious and brutal apartheid system ended and brought along with its decimation untold violence and suffering to the people of that country.

Oftentimes, simple narratives about real lives throw more light into the social, political and emotional fabric of people’s lives. Noah’s Born a Crime lends a view into the brutalities and difficulties of the  apartheid system in South Africa much better than any seriously researched writings on the same subject.

Born half-black, half-white, Noah grew up as a black child with sensibilities and attitudes of black people. Yet, he was aware of advantages that he enjoyed because of his lighter skin. “There were so many perks to being white,” he writes, adding that his family followed the same social justice system that America followed.

“Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them with all the perks,” he writes. He chose to bridge the gap between him and black people by learning the local languages. This factor gave him the chance to be a chamaeleon. His colour did not change, but he could change the perception of his colour.

Born a Crime is an extremely engaging read as Noah uses ‘poker face’ humour to narrate his story of growing up in South Africa, much like his humorous news programme The Daily Show.

There are so many moments in the book when you, as a reader, end up laughing out loud. And yet, he does not belittle the difficulties that people go through in troubled times in South Africa’s history.

He has the ability to bring forth simple facts with his element of wittiness. For example, he says apartheid was powerful but not without its ludicrous logic. The Chinese were considered black, while the Japanese were looked upon as whites. And that’s because the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. But the imaginary conversation that goes on in his mind about a policeman confronting a man he thinks is Chinese but turns out to be Japanese is hilarious. Or, when he decides to spend a few days with his Swiss father — he is on an overdrive to make up for the lost years and decides to do so by interviewing him. After a spate of questions, he realises he is going nowhere and finally discovers that his father is extremely secretive.

Noah grew up in a world “run by women” accidentally, as apartheid kept him away from his father because he was white. In this, his life was similar to other black children in his neighbourhood. Apartheid had taken away their fathers to prisons or faraway mines, or they were exiled.

He rightfully dedicates the book to his mother Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, a key figure in his life who chose a name for him that did not have any links to anything South African or religious, who treated him like an adult unlike other parents, and who spoke English to him.

The many stories that follow throws light on the life of young Noah who goes through all the thrills, excitements, disappointments and disasters of a youth growing up in difficult times. The book provides a realistic insight into life in South Africa during its troubled period — just before the ending of apartheid and the violent years in the aftermath of the end of the racist regime. Life was not easy for young Noah, but he never allows himself to dwell on the difficult moments in a turbulent socio-political scenario. He is able to move away from the past swiftly. Here’s a memoir that’s as entertaining, racy and informative as Noah is on the television screen.

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