All of us have a sense of the first place. A place in which the world is revealed to us, not as a succession of facts, but of marvels, good and bad. Especially in those formative years, the place where parents try to make a nest for us, in which we may grow up.
A place where we rove freely, hungry for sensation, and where the very first friendships are kindled and capriciously forsaken.
My memory has an address. It is 50 Tarndale Avenue, Asherville, Durban. My mother says they secured the house because the then white city council official gave her preference as a fellow Christian. Her case has some credence, given that there were quite a few Christians spread out in the area.
At number 48 were the Peters, 46 the Vindens and at 52 the Joshuas. Mrs Joshua was “European”.
The Hammonds lived further down. We were friends with the Vindens until one of the Vinden girls peed on my birthday cake. Or so my mother assumed. It was probably me. From an early age, I liked to mark my territory and my mother was quick to protect me.
For me, this road was, for a blissful while, literally the centre of the universe. Half way exactly to the outer reaches of the known world.
It was here that my sister and her friends dressed me up as a girl and had a laugh. It fuelled a lifelong desire to cross-dress. The Joshua boys put me in a box while they played in the front garden. My mother put me in a basket while she cleaned.
At 62 Tarndale Avenue lived my father’s family. My granny had a pantry with huge bottles of pickles and all kinds of other wonders. My father’s eldest brother put his pants under the mattress. It saved on the ironing. They bathed out of a bucket, it saved on the water. The house was packed to the rafters as brothers, sisters and children shared a few rooms.
All dreams have a fervent wish as their fuel. It was this living cheek by jowl that was the propane in the dream of all of my father’s family, to one day have a home of their own.
Sometimes I would get to share the table with my uncles. They were often in their vests, their janois, the holy thread of the Gujarati Brahmins peeping through. We were served hot rotis with a hint of ghee. And then, to top it all, tea with masala. It was served boiling hot. My uncles poured it into the saucer. That first loud slurp could be heard by the neighbours. It frustrated me that I could not get the same throb of tongue and gullet. Like the Xhosas with their clicks, my uncle’s tribe translated this noisy first sip, over a century, until it became part of their language. May it never be lost.
I went to Arya Samaj School. The Samajists are a Hindu sect that believes there should be no rituals. Religion without rituals? The school was in the nearby Springtown area among council houses. Working class. They took me a year early, age five. It defined my school life, being one year ahead, one foot shorter. You can see me in the annual class photo. The smallest boy. The art of the pose and the tiptoe developed from a young age.
Centenary High dominated the skyline at the end of the road.
It was at these high schools that the new Indian professional class was nurtured. There was a favourite ditty at the time:
Centenary High, three button snia’s
Can’t spell butterfly
On the other side of Asherville was another citadel of learning, the Springfield Teacher Training College. It was the place that turned out hundreds of teachers when it was still a valued profession.
At the centre of all this was the swimming pool. The only one for Indians in the whole of Durban, where the working class of Springtown and the aspirant middle class of Asherville met.
On Sunday afternoons, it seemed that the whole of brown Durban came to the pool. I never learnt to swim. Nobody would have guessed. Already a sense of showmanship prevailed, flamboyant dives followed by desperate, underwater clutches for the side of the pool.
Later, when I was a boy-child, I returned to the pool. To watch Alimarge Cavernelis, the great swimmer. She smiled at me. My heart sped up, but I could not muster a smile in return. Still, those times were so simple and beautiful. Or were they?
Below the pool, the soccer grounds. The Springtown team, Westmore Park, had all the glamour of gangsterdom. They had some great footballers too. They won a slew of cups. It helped that the supporters who hugged the touchline reminded the referee exactly when to blow his whistle.
They had a diamond of a player in the mid-1960s, Dickie. He was a waiter at the Royal Hotel and played as if the servility of the week could be run off with the ball at his feet.
These were the very first Indian areas in the aftermath of the Group Areas Act. Their purpose was to siphon the new middle class into individual houses, where they were to live individual lives.
Today, Arya Samaj School, like the Training College, is no more. That clever man, the late Kader Asmal, felt we did not need teacher colleges any more. He was wrong on this, on Outcomes Based Education, on most things. Professors generally make bad ministers.
Looking back, one tends to forget that within this big story with its big wounds, nationwide, lived many little people with little wounds, scarcely wounds at all, just scrapes and stings, as wide as a little boy’s hands in empty pockets, standing beside the splashes, needing kindness from no one. At least that’s what you got to see, until the beautiful young girl swam by.
l Desai is a professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg