They say everyone has a story to tell. Sometimes that story is funny; in other instances, tragic. But the joy of hearing that story comes not from the emotions it evokes. Rather, when we can connect with the storyteller and go on their journey with them, we see our world from a vibrant new perspective. A perspective that challenges us, confronts us, and forces us to grow.
It’s this perspective that Bala Mudaly’s memoir A Colour-Coated Identity lets readers adopt and learn from, and why it makes for great reading.
Mudaly’s memoir begins in 1930s-era South Africa and takes us through his storied life. From teaching English in Zambia to becoming an anti-apartheid activist and migrating to Australia to pursue psychology, he provides clear and incisive insights into the various worlds he’s inhabited. Tackling a wide range of personal, political, and social issues pertinent to the last 80 years of world history, there is ample opportunity for readers of all backgrounds to find something special in his work.
Of particular note in this regard are two factors: Mudaly’s constant contextualisation, and fearless self-reflection. The former is something Mudaly performs quite regularly, setting the political, economic, and cultural scene of all the locations in his memoir before detailing his experiences in them. Whether it is his apt description of South Africa’s changing apartheid policies or sharp recollection of the apprehension towards psychology in the 1960s – when the field was still relatively new to general hospitals – the regular sprinkling of background information helps us understand the challenges Mudaly had to grapple with.
Additionally, he is equally successful in making us see his personal life through a critical lens. Clearly someone whose humility precedes him, Mudaly never shies away from admitting when he made a mistake or expressing his regret over not doing something. This type of response usually follows a description of a friend who he has lost contact with, or for a photo or letter gone missing. In fairness to him, he could be less harsh on himself in those instances – after 7 decades, some things are bound to be lost to time.
The real crux of this work, however, has to be its discussion of race. A Colour-Coated Identity markets itself as a search for ‘belonging and a sense of self beyond the toxic constraints of race, colour, and class’. Thankfully, this discussion is fruitful. Mudaly’s Indian heritage, combined with his lived experiences in Durban, Europe, and Australia, have granted him a unique understanding of racial discrimination. Recounts of police brutality, internalised colourism, and the kindness of strangers paint a nuanced portrait of his numerous surroundings. It is in these unflinching representations of life in white society where his memoir shines. The cathartic effects these recounts must have had on Mudaly are palpable to us as readers, and help to humanise this remarkable individual’s life. Notwithstanding the length of some descriptions – namely that of his time backpacking across Europe in the 1960s, which is sure to excite the travel bug within us at the expense of the memoir’s core thematic values – Mudaly’s story of racial struggle is sure to touch anyone who engages with it.
Ultimately, Bala Mudaly has lived a storied life. The best part of that life, though, is that he’s developed the ability to tell it well. Focussed on his world and peers more than on himself, A Colour-Coated Identity provides a critical and unabashed exploration of one man’s never-ending journey in a constantly changing time. The ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and tumultuous nature of life jump out from each page, and thanks to the author’s skill and passion, leave us with the altered worldview all good writing hopes to achieve.