It was the day for one of the fortnightly meetings of the league of writing gentlemen who met every second Thursday at Britannia Hotel. He waited for the ‘lightie’ to pick him up. Hassim was self-sufficent and drove his car daily, but this was a fortnightly treat, because his beloved Zohra sometimes needed the use of the family car too. So ‘lightie’ drove him there and his childhood friend Sam Naidoo or retired editor Dennis Pather would take him back home.
It was around 11.30 am and a police car with two officers pulled up on the pavement across the road from him, outside a Consulate. A black (African) cop alighted while an Indian officer remained in the car. He noticed the elderly man pounding the pavement and walked across the busy road to him. The black cop shouted harshly to Hassim: “Hey, what are you doing hanging around here? Who are you waiting for?”
In typical Hassim form Aziz retorted: “Your sister”. There was nothing lascivious in the reply, but it was an instinctive one. The black cop shouted at him: “Don’t act clever. Just move it okay?”. The author was by now consumed with anger, but fortunately Hassim’s sharp eye caught a gesture the Indian cop in the car made to him. The officer put his finger to his lips, indicating that the author should not verbally retaliate. He then called the black cop over and away from Hassim.
As the offending officer went down to the Consulate, the Indian cop approached the fuming Hassim and apologised. He said thanks for not retaliating as the offending officer had a history of racial provocation and it could have turned out rather ugly.
By the time, I, the ‘lightie’ arrived, Aziz was seething. He related the entire incident to me and naturally I could commiserate with his anger. “But lightie, I was on my property. I worked my butt out to live in a quiet decent area. What right does anyone have to question that? It’s my land.”
He went on that he appreciated my punctuality, but for just that one time he wished I had been earlier as the cop would have seen him being picked up and know he was not loitering. I placated him by saying he had no reason to justify being where he was. Throughout that afternoon I noticed he was seriously shaken by the incident. A few days later he was admitted to hospital and a week later he died after suffering respiratory and related problems. I believe it was also a broken heart!
Durban’s never going to be the same without Hassim. A retired accountant, he longed to write a book and when he was seventy he produced The Lotus People. Very few authors can say they wrote their Magnum Opus with their first outing, but it remains arguably his finest work. Awards testify to that. Two more books followed and a fourth was completed at the time of his demise. He was busy tweaking it and it goes by the working title of The Song of Shoba. It is the third part of the Lotus trilogy – The Revenge of Kali being the second part. Be assured the book will see the light of day.
No-one knew the Casbah area as well as Hassim did, having gained his rite of passage to adulthood there. My knowledge of that Grey Street area which I wrote extensively about in my newspaper columns was gained through research. Hassim had the Casbah in his blood, he felt it and tasted it. As a result, whenever I was contacted by overseas and local television producers to discuss Durban, I put them on to Hassim. Leave it to the expert I felt.
He suffered no fools, but was rude to no-one. He could walk down the street regally with kings or straggle along with a beggar if it made the person more comfortable. He spent time speaking to waiters enquiring after their families and their health and they loved him.
His memory for names, years and incidents was prodigious. Hassim could keep you enthralled for hours with his stories of Durban and the Casbah. Names like Goolam Boxer, Sunny Morgan, Mohan Govender tripped off his tongue as he made their stories “tasty” – an expression he enjoyed using.
On different occasions he would repeat some stories, but you never told him so, because he related them in such a way that you wanted to hear them again.
We met about ten years ago at the annual Time of the Writer Festival. I was introduced to a tall, noble looking man and the first thing he did was to hug me. He did not know me previously, but such was his warmth. He enveloped me in that warm embrace till his end.
He was my mentor in the writing my books. I often teased him that he was my tormentor too as he continually nagged me to bring out the next book just as one rolled off the press.
I saw deterioration in his health in the past two years. However, he never turned down aspirant writers who asked him to look at their writing. Often he set aside his busy schedule to engage with them and nurture their talent.
He leaves behind a devoted wife, Zohra, four children and grandchildren. He was at his happiest when all of them visited at once and took over his home. “What to do lightie?” he would tell me when I phoned, “they’re family”.
He hated injustice and recently vented much about the sad goings on in our politics. The Gupta farce was a disappointment to him. The incident with the racist cop is an indication of brimming tension in this country.
I believe as I said, among other complications, Aziz Hassim died of a broken heart. His country, his city, failed him. Reverse racism exacerbated the death of a prolific writer, an intellectual, a thorough gentleman.
It’s been a difficult year for this ‘lightie’. I lost my dad and also my mentor in the first six months, but I am proud to say as did 12th Century author John of Salisbury: “I can see further, not because of good sight, but because I have sat on the shoulders of giants.”