Canefields Versus Casbah. And The Winner Is……… Zainub Priya Dala.

Supper time at the Dala household, and a full-on war is afoot!

The bones of contention this time are not the ones in the proverbial Wednesday night gravy and potatoes. Larger issues are at stake here. And the standard head on a plate is: Identity. Large pickings for a toddler, a seven year old and an overgrown teenager called husband. But before I even go there, let me explain:

You don’t know me, but I suppose from the fruit salad that is my name, you might have surmised some oddities. I hail from Hindu indentured labourer stock, fourth generation of farmers whose flight tales from a village to a ship crossing the Kala Pani still bears the elder’s storytelling of the cow’s name that caused this flight -fight. Infact I think the cow’s name was Kala. I’m barely removed from pure-bred farmers on a sugar cane farm near Tongaat, where some of my peers still make their living out of dhania sales.

My husband on the other hand is of just second generation Surti Muslim Trader lineage. His grandfather arrived here in Portus Natalus with money in his pockets and I am strangely aware that inside the shiphold, my ancestor probably didn’t even have pockets. Or trousers. A lungi perhaps.

Now this particular mix-up elicits strange reactions from all interested parties, notwithstanding that should we have married in the sixties, we might have escaped the Immorality Act, but we would certainly have been victims of a secular act of some sort that might have seen us flee to some non-denominational island of all acceptance. We were lucky. Compromises were made. But the battle for identity has begun closing ranks. And this identity search belongs to the offspring.

The husband advances his attack by regaling me with stories upon stories about his growing up days in Town. I have to admit, I am entranced. Town! Now, that’s a word that flutters my heart. I listen in rapt attention when he talks about running away from Anjuman Islamic School and sneaking into the Shiraz or Avalon cinemas to watch angry young Amitabh battle his Gabbars. Cricket playing in the lane next to Afzal Building and the choice words of Gori Bibi whose precious chrysanthemums get knocked off their perch. Skulking around the dangers of the frustrating labyrinth of alleys that some call the Casbah, while others just go Bah Humbug to the name!

I picture a gang of naughty boys of various colours, some in fez’s, some in fedoras, standing outside sari shops looking for the garachs.

Well, here come the garachs. Stiff and starchy in our crinoline lace dresses, fresh from the farm, our once yearly foray into the glitzy Town have us panting up a storm. Fringes too thick for comfort, and clunky shoes, we are paraded by our Patronas into Studio Sydney for our annual family photograph.

Town, to us farmers, is tantamount to Hollywood. Handsome men and starlets on every corner. The reality being far removed, it was and still is a dangerous place. And also on every corner, handsome men selling us garachs fake watches and “real leather belts.” We buy them. They give us a taste of this nectar. Town.

A frustrated father waits patiently outside Shrimati’s and gives into the swagger of the coiffed pomaded hair of the Fountain Lane raconteur who sells him a transistor radio. Our starchy petticoats in the world of Mary Quant have us bristling, perhaps the coconut oil dripping too close to home. Our egos are soothed with a spicy lunch at the Khyber Restaurant. We plaster our faces against the window at Garlicks and receive a rap of a stick from a man who is whiter than anyone we have ever really seen on the farm. The whitest person we know is a ruddy Sugar Baron named Colin. But the Grey Street, Victoria Street Boys know enough to laugh at the white face loudly and swagger away. Or perhaps they are laughing at us. How relieved we feel when we buy our laces from Eve’s Elegance, pack our saris, and “Town purchases” (plus fake transistor radio) into the old Valiant and make our long, long way back to the farm. Town is scary. Those alleyways, those hangers-on, those sights and sounds of cinemas and ice-cream houses are not for us. We know. We still want it anyway.

But, lest a Town boy stray his way into our home ground one day, how we relish in the turn of a table. He arrives in his Moustache Suit, his high-heeled, gold tipped footwear trips on cane roots and we know. He won’t last a day. The threat of mambas that never come, chicken curry from a fresh running kill, and his first view of a sky full of stars, and the next day the young lad is back on the bus. To Town. Back to his Casbah, or whatever it is appropriate to call it now.

But, I digress…..

I bring you back now to the war between the indentured labourer’s child and the Trader’s child, both of whom want dominion over their combined progeny. Me, ever the researcher suggests that we put this to the test. Who are these children really? Will they accept a lineage of the burned brown backs of bony men planting sugarcane, or will they lean towards the soft hands of women hidden behind lattice, writing letters to relatives in Universities in Dublin, before going downstairs to sell silky fabrics to garachs? I have to know. I will not rest. I suppose it doesn’t escape me that while my ancestor was still trying to work out how to use a sickle without lopping his head off, my husband’s ancestor was learning the subtleties of elachie in the perfect Biryani. Strange dichotomy that.

So, the experiment began with Saturday finding this mix-up of a familia striding down Grey Street, into Victoria Street, snaking into Madressah Arcade and Kismet Arcade, dodging a million bodies at Victoria Street Market and peeping into the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere. Brave people, us. I certainly did not see glitz and glamour. I did see a few old stalwarts in tiny shops fixing clocks and selling bespoke buttons though. My husband used the time to stand and mutter with misty eyes about Jhavery’s shoe shop and Shiraz who worked in Shiraz arcade. Goofy’s name came up a few times. That got the children smiling. A cat burglar was mentioned, some googlies that Amra bowled in Victor Lane, and the swinging hips of Saadiya as she sauntered into the Avalon. I had to pry him off the pavement, and bribe him with a hotdog from Tasty Eats to stop him from sobbing.

Well, looking at my hot and bothered children as they watched the circus that is now Town, I high-fived the air. Surely, the Canefields would win now.

I was wrong. Sunday saw us dragging the tykes on an hour’s drive into the sugar cane fields, rivers and dongas of my youth. They were not impressed when I had my misty-eyed moments, describing the way we would net shrimps in the river, and run barefoot through a cane fire. Showing them the first school I attended elicited guffaws. I told my husband to stop laughing. It had a huge water tank, and three classrooms. I was losing the war. My seven year old asked if this place had Wi-Fi and I found myself cursing yet another type of Pad in my lifetime. My descriptive demonstrations of the coal stoves, the lanterns, the boreholes and the stinky dam were in vain. I felt at peace. My husband hunted for garachs. My kids screamed their exit.

On the homeward journey from the sugar cane farm to suburbia, which is a place neither of us have grown up in, I realised that all this history will never really matter to these children. Unless we constantly push them to see these places, to read our stories, to meet the old men and women who still hold these places dear in their hearts, all will be lost to a Stadium that began life as a basket but transmogrified into a swinging Circ du Soleil.

Suketu Mehta, in his magnificent novel, Maximum City, describes the Bombay of his birth through the eyes of his child who was born and grew up in New York. He returns to New Mumbai, and laments that his son will never know the pleasures of walking into a neighbour’s flat unannounced for a hefty dinner, and a cuddle from everyone’s grandma. In a linguistic moment of nostalgia, he stands on Manhattan Streets and actually yearns to scream out a colloquial Hindi swear word. I feel his pain.

Yes, tis true indeed. It is Town, or perhaps you have a penchant for calling it Casbah. And yes, those were dirty, filthy cane fields by all standards. People suffered deeply in both places. What matters is that our children will one day look at the ghosts of these places. We will no longer be there to tell them the stories. Who cares if my children are a confused bundle of cane-cutter, shop owner, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy? I just care that they know that these worlds existed and I will tell them about it. Everyday.


3 thoughts on “Canefields Versus Casbah. And The Winner Is……… Zainub Priya Dala.

  1. so many unique stories to tell… we are not a homogeneous group. I grew up in Pietermaritzburg and spent most of my childhood being ‘othered’ by the cool cats of Durban


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