Forged In The Furnace, We Become Steel: My Dad, My Hero. By Shakira Shaik.

When I was a little girl, my dad was my hero. He was an interested parent when we were young, and needed that, always eager to engage in activities that interested us. It seemed almost like he was reliving his childhood, now that he had a young family. While he was having his fun, our childhood was filled with insurmountable adventures. We called him Abba, as was the custom.

We took trips to Carridene beach, where he would bait the rods with little hooks, so that my brother and I could reel in the Black Tails and Karanteen, and some others, which I forget, now. We enjoyed taking the fish home to be gutted and scaled, and pan-fried, the very same night for dinner. Whenever he would catch a Toby, we would still get very excited, as we watched it bloat on the sand, but my dad would get an expression on his face, where deep lines in his cheeks would draw his lips downward, and he would cut the tackle off the lines, saying, “Those Toby’s are bad luck fish, we will not catch any fish if those are coming out.” We were not allowed to touch the Tobys and he would kick them back into the sea. Some of them survived and swam away.

My mom would have dhal and rice prepared, and the fish would be massaged with spices and salt or dipped in a batter to which my moms’ spices were added. The larger fish would be scored with a knife so that spices would penetrate and flavour the meat. My dad insisted that mom fry the fish whole, and only slice the ones that were too big for the pan. He loved to pick the meat off the head and the area just behind it saying, “That’s the tastiest part of the fish.” My mom always rolled her eyes when he said that, but she never contradicted him.

During the shad season, , the fishermen would stand shoulder to shoulder, with many rods baited and cast into the sea. We would sit a distance away having a picnic with my mom. Abba would not allow us to reel in any shad he caught, because some of the men who were fishing would get quite upset and exchange angry words if their lines got tangled. They also did not like anyone crossing their lines, as it meant bad luck, and they believed they would not catch any fish after that. However, there was so much fish to be had, during the sardine run, especially, that no one was angry for to long. Most men would take enough fish for their families and the rest would go to family and neighbours.

Abba just loved being on the beach with us, and having some fresh fish to eat when we went home. When he saw the White fishermen chop off the heads of the shad before they put them into their buckets, he would shake his head and say, “These Gora’s. They don’t know what they are missing, that’s the tastiest part of the fish!” My mom rolled her eyes again.

Abba made the sinkers for his tackle himself. He would melt the lead, until it shone brilliantly. He would fill an old milo tin with sand, and press the back of a teaspoon and tablespoon to make impressions in the wet sand. He would then pour the liquid lead into the depressed sand mould. And quickly before the lead solidified, he would place a stick into the one side, which would be where the fishing line would be threaded and tied. He also used a sharp narrow knife to make an upside down pyramid shape into the wet sand, and would pour the lead in and add a piece of metal which would stick out at the top. We were amazed when he would withdraw a beautiful pyramid shaped lead sinker with a metal eye at one end, from the mould he made himself. It was like watching a magician, and we marvelled at his wisdom and skill. We would take the new sinkers to our mom to show her how great our Abba was, but mostly she was busy with her own unheralded skills which left the house magically clean with miraculous appearance of delicious food on the table, all on a ridiculous budget. So she always acknowledged our Ubba’s greatness and quietly got on with her chores.

Then there were the trips to the grounds, to watch Abba’s favourite teams. He took us to Curries fountain, Shallcross and Overport grounds. I was too young to know what soccer was all about. My mom seldom came with us, using the time to relax and take some alone time, which she probably needed, so it was dads time to entertain the children.

At the grounds, Abba would buy us, fried nuts rolled in newspaper cones, hot as if someone had just cooked them, before he sold them. The shiny beetle brown colour, had a distinctive aroma that you noticed before you saw the vendor. The oil permeated the wrapping in places, while the salt clung to the nuts to create a burst of sensations that I will always remember. Other times we ate hot samosas, or veddas, from men who carried these treats in flat wicker baskets that were rounded on either side of their handles. They were as tasty as home made, but larger to encourage the customers to buy , and would be covered with fabric to protect them from insects. After eating the salted nuts, or veddas, we would pretend to be thirsty and Abba would have to buy us cold drinks. He would complain that we were a nuisance, and that he would not bring us again. We were soon sipping our own little glass bottle of cold drink, out of straws. We always saved the straws to take home, but my mom always tossed them into the thrash after a few days.

We attended a match with Abba once, where the men who were drinking alcohol, began to swear at the players of the opposite team. The supporters of the team they were swearing at, got into an argument and soon a few punches were thrown. When my mom heard that, she decreed that we were not allowed to go with my dad anymore. Abba refused to go alone, even though he loved it, and would set up his radio and listen to the match at home. We still remembered our happy excursions to the grounds, and would often shout out “Abdul, I will kiss your feet!” when Abba was listening to a game, because we had heard a exuberant fan say this once, when his hero Abdul Haq had scored a goal in a crucial match.   It made our Abba laugh, when we said it.

Abba also loved to take a bet on the horses. He would buy these race cards and study the horses. He knew about the jockeys who rode them, and was even familiar with the trainers and owners.

I remember the colour pictures in the race cards he would buy during the July handicap. Sometimes, he would let us choose the numbers or let us choose our favourites from the race card, and would promise to put some money on them, for a place, or a win or a trifecta, but this would only earn him the ire of my mom who disapproved of him teaching the children to gamble.. A few times, he took us to the course at Greyville or Clairwood, and parked his van so that we would be able to stand at the back and watch the horses as they raced past.

It was with great interest that he would notice if his horse was starting at the one or other side, on the rails or in the middle, being on the inside or outside of the track was always noted and written down. Wet weather conditions the weight the jockeys carried, the stable from which the horses were from, while different distances and the horses performance was also noted. The age of the horse, whether it was a filly, all was seriously considered before a bet was contemplated and made. Furthermore, this was discussed with great eagerness amongst his friends and relatives, before the races and afterwards. They even shared their anecdotes about whether or not to bet at the Tattersall or the course.

We loved when my dad would win, for it would mean a trip to the beach front at night, and a chance to go on the rides. If he managed to do well on a weekday, he would arrive home with a roasted chicken, fresh naan, and sev and nuts, even though he knew my mom would already have cooked. My mom would seize the opportunity to get us jerseys, vests or any other essentials she had been putting off. Mom never seemed to need any essentials for herself, I don’t know why?

Abba loved card games, but my mom only played 13 hands Rummy, and Patience. He taught us to play Brag, and he used matchsticks instead of money so that we could place our bets, because mom had a problem with us betting. Even so, my mom never allowed any card games during Ramadaan.

Later Abba taught us to play Thunnee; we learnt not only the rules but also the subtle nuances of sending wordless signals to your partner. He regaled us with stories of how his friends would try unsuccessfully to send signals and get caught. Now we understood the rules we all laughed at his stories, with real understanding.

Most evenings we all gathered in my parents room, and would listen to the radio as a family. Mom would often make popcorn. A big bowl would be placed on the bed, and we would all reach in until only the un-popped seeds and excess salt remained. Other times, mom would slice, apples, or oranges, sprinkle them with salt, for us to eat while we listened to Inspector Carr investigates, or Father, Dear Father, and Men from the ministry amongst others. Afterwards we would go to our room, which was right next-door, and only a curtain separated us. If my brother or I felt scared at night, we were snuggled into the queen sized bed which my parents shared with my sister, but had to get in at the leg side. Both my brother and me would leave our bed, so we would be five in the bed, safe, and warm but not too comfortable.

Sometimes, people would bring my father their vehicles, and he would do sign writing for them, for extra cash. He did the signs for many buses, and vans or on boards which they would display in their shops. Often he would not be paid, but he loved to do it, and enjoyed seeing his handiwork on display.

He was most skilled in cabinet making, and did shop fitting and built in cupboards and kitchens for a time. During this time he had a workshop at someone’s smallholding on the outskirts of Shallcross, because the rent was reasonable. Since he had a generator, he did not pay for electricity as well. On weekends, and holidays, he would take us with him, and we would play with the children on the farm. It was paradise for us from Mobeni Heights, growing up in someone else’s basement. On the farm we could eat mangoes , guavas, even china guavas off the trees which we climbed as if we were monkeys, always going home very tired and dirty. We envied the children who had this life all the time.

Rarely, my mom visited with us, and the lady on the farm, would host us to dinner. She would choose a chicken for her son to catch. We would all join in the capture, initially running like crazed bloodthirsty beasts, with no hope of outsmarting the wily chicken that scrambled and squawked, and flew up into the air to escape. After a while, we would stop, battling for breath amidst the swirling dust in the yard. Someone would appeal for a calm and offer a plan of action for a more organised ambush. Then the strategy would be enacted to trap the chicken in a corner, making it easy for the farm kids to grab, and carry off to their mother.

Abba would be asked to make the slaughter halaal, so we could partake of the meal. We would all watch as he held the wings back, poured water over the mouth so that the chicken got a last drink, before he severed the arteries off the neck, (always careful not to decapitate) and allowed the blood to drain out completely. He held the chicken for a while to ensure it would not move more, before he released the chicken. We heard that sometimes people would release a chicken, too early and it would run around without is head, but dad said this was not acceptable. Later I would hear teachers and adults, ask their unruly charges, “What you jumping like a headless chicken for??” and I would remember what my Abba had said and smile.

The ladies removed all the internal organs, then de-feathered the chicken, after soaking it in boiling water, before it was de-jointed, swiftly and expertly. The feet and head were cleaned, and every part of the chicken including the heart and gizzards, and partly formed eggs was used in the curry. Long before it was served up, we would smell the aroma, and knew it would be carro. I could imagine the potatoes that would surrender to the spices and steam and soften to contribute to the rich gravy we would soon feast on.


When we finally sat down to eat, the two tables were placed together and a host of mismatched chairs were assembled. Clean newspaper was placed on the tables. Glass crockery and tumblers for the adults, and tin plates for us kids. My dad bought a litre of Coke and Fanta, and amazingly, the two litres sufficed for two families, who were gathered together. After we each had a share, no one complained about refills of plain water.

The steam still rose from the rice after it was dished onto my plate, which was nose level to me, and I had to blow on my food before I could eat, desperately hungry after running wild on the farm. The salad had pieces of green chillies, and onions, and radishes and carrots. I picked all the radishes, onions and chillies off my helping of salad, which I abandoned beside my plate on the newspaper. Our hostess found that amusing, and commented on it, but my mom did not share in her amusement, and apologised for my behaviour. My moms’ apology was brushed aside, and this encouraged my brother to do the same.

The mango pickle looked delicious, but was covered in home made pickle masala, which I imagined to be even hotter than the curry. To preserve what was left of my tongue and palate, I begged my mom, to wash it for me, and enjoyed it while everyone still sat at the table and conversed for a long time afterward, still with their soiled hands.

No cutlery was offered or demanded, before the meal, and everyone washed their hands before sitting down and ate with their hands. When tea was offered, everyone did wake up to wash their hands, and waited patiently, while each adult took turns at the kitchen sink, the guests going first. The children, did not wait patiently and reached up from the sides and once a little water had splashed onto their hands, they opened and closed their fists under water, dried it on the white kitchen cloths which were provided, leaving stains on its stark cleanliness, before we rushed outside, to the now cooler night air.

We were called in, to collect enamel bowls of sojee, with grated coconut shards on top. We sat on the kitchen steps, with the dogs pretending to be asleep nearby saving the coconut for last. Then ran off to play tag until my parents called us to say goodbye. After hugging each member of the family with true gratitude, we reluctantly made our way to the van. My mom, Abba and sister got in the cab in front, and my brother and I, jumped in the back.

When were finally drove home, it was on the dirt road, illuminated only by the light of the stars and the vans headlamps. We were scared, reminded that my Abba always said that if the battery died, he would be left in pure darkness out there, alone; and we began to whimper, and banged on the window to complain to my mom. When we got on the tar road soon afterwards, Abba shouted, “Hey, we made it, what were you’ll getting all excited for, Huh? Mom with her head turned to us, rolled her eyes, but Abba, if he knew carried on driving, “ This Toyota,” he said loudly, “has never let me down! It does not get you respect on the road, but it can pull up any hill in second gear if I need to.” I was just happy when we reached home.

I tried to act as if I was sleeping, so I would be carried into the house, like my sister. They would have none of it, and I had to drag myself to our home. Mom insisted we take a bath, before we dirtied her white cotton sheets. Abba switched on the radio, while mom stuck the element into the metal buckets to heat up the water. After a hot bath, I lay my head on my moms pillow, telling my Dad that I wanted to go back to the farm with him, every weekend. I lay there staring at the ceiling, thinking I had the best Abba in the world.

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6 thoughts on “Forged In The Furnace, We Become Steel: My Dad, My Hero. By Shakira Shaik.

  1. beautiful, your Abba was right the taste of a fish is in the head. In my words your upbringing is what will help you to face the challenges of the future.


  2. A beautiful story Shakira. So well written, it encourages the reader to think of their own stories.
    All the best.


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