DURBAN: ZULEIKHA Mayat was the spearhead of a group of forward-thinking women, who gathered regularly to keep up with the latest happenings.
She and a dozen other women formed the Women’s Cultural Group in 1954, and, 63 years later, Mayat is central to the group’s existence and still empowering and presenting hope to the poor and needy.
Back then they would meet regularly at members’ homes, where talks would be arranged on issues to empower the women of this era.
The topics of discussion usually centered around arts, culture and religion.
But gatherings would be incomplete without the women tucking into the sumptuous meals and snacks that the host provided.
It was during those food feasts that Mayat cooked up the idea of compiling a recipe book with the array of treats and meals they enjoyed at various homes.
She got her friends to rally around and the first edition of Indian Delights was produced in 1961. Mayat was the book’s editor and she used the writing skills she had garnered while working for a newspaper.
It was a struggle to Mayat and her team to raise the cash for the first edition of the book, so they approached a publisher, a Mr Ramsamy, who agreed that they could pay him over six months, but after three months they had cleared their debt.
The book was no flop and flew off bookshelves like hot samosas at a buffet. Through the enterprise of Mayat and her team, 14 subsequent editions of Indian Delights were produced, with the latest due to be released this year Mayat believed the book’s flavour only appealed to South Africans but it voyaged to many parts of the world, much like Mayat.
She had traveled widely, especially with her husband to medical conferences.
What’s remarkable about the almost 350 000 copies printed over the years is that they never carried advertising and the product was able to go the distance on its own steam.
Mayat said proceeds from the book went to the charitable work they did – providing bursaries for needy students.
“It was our way of empowering society,” she said.
Mayat attributed her caring nature to her father, Mohamed, a prominent businessman in Potchefstroom.
Mohamed’s father, Hassim Bismilla, was drawn to South Africa by the gold rush in 1879 and settled in the old Transvaal.
Hassim opened a small shop in the “Asiatic Location”. Mohamed was born in India and his father brought him to Potchefstroom when he was 5, and returned to India when he was 18, to marry Amina in 1910, Amina eventually joined Mohamed in South Africa, three years later.
But when she arrived and worked in the general dealer store that Mohamed operated in Potchefstroom, she became popular with the way she did business, even though Afrikaans was the dominant language.
Soon the shop got named “Mina’s se winkel”.
“My mother believed that if you kept working, you would never go hungry,” said Mayat.
While the shop was popular and always had a steady stream of customers, there were many who lived below the breadline and relied on Mohamed’s generosity to feed their families.
“Customers would come to my dad in desperate need of goods, often short of cash and already with a big bill. But dad never refused anyone.
“Each night when he counted the day’s takings he would take out a percentage for charity.”
For Mayat and her siblings, life revolved around the shop.
After completing her primary level of education, she wanted to go further, but there was no facility available in the area that could accommodate her – there was a convent school, but it only catered for white pupils.
Her brothers encouraged her to study via correspondence and she managed to complete matric in that way.
She continued to work in the shop post-matric, but her lot in life changed when she met her husband, Mohamed, who was a friend and fellow student of her brother, Nasim.
Mohamed and Nasim were students at Wits Medical School.
Nasim would invite Mohamed and other friends to Mayat’s Potchefstroom home during the holidays.
“Males and females ate separately in those days but Mohamed got to talk to me in the shop and we eventually decided to marry in 1947,” she said.
The couple moved to Durban the same year and lived with Mohamed’s parents in their Mansfield Road home, but that family unit was broken by the Group Areas Act of the 1960s.
Mayat and her husband bought a home in Clare Estate and were neighbours of the celebrated photographer Ranjith Kally, who died last week.
Mayat, the housewife, did housekeeping duties and managed her husband’s books.
Mohamed, a gynecologist, teamed up with two other doctors and opened the Shifa Hospital, a 70-bed facility, in 1968.
Mayat and her husband were progressive and open-minded people, and counted Ismail and Fatima Meer as good friends.
They often interacted with, and housed, anti-apartheid activists on the run from the authorities.
One such guest at the Mayat household was Nelson Mandela.
Mayat remembers her husband getting a call from Ismail Meer saying petrol was cheap at a particular garage. But that was a coded message directing Mohamed to a particular garage to fetch Mandela, who was dressed as a petrol attendant.
“The authorities knew what we were up to and ransacked our house a few times,” Mayat said.
While Mohamed had the goodness to extend his medical knowledge to all those in need, he was denied the same courtesy when he was involved in a car crash in 1978.
“We were travelling to Potchefstroom when our car got rammed. There were four of us in the vehicle, including my sister. My sister and
“I got thrown from the vehicle and ended up with broken legs, but Mohamed was pinned behind the steering wheel. He looked fine and smiled at me when I asked if he needed help.
“But I only knew the extent of his injuries at the hospital. We were taken to the Leratong Hospital, but he was denied treatment due to his race.
“By the time we got to the next hospital, it was too late.”
After Mohamed’s passing, Mayat looked to carve her own path in life and has gone on and brought joy to many lives with her philanthropic efforts over the years.
While producing Indian Delights was a defining moment in her life, Mayat prefers to be acknowledged for her other books, which related her worldwide travels and religion.
Authors Golam Vahed and Thembisa Waetjen produced the book, Dear Ahmed Bhai Dear Zuleikha Behn, which related to the exchange of letters between anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, while he was a prisoner on Robben Island, and Mayat.
“I always remembered Ahmed as a youngster after meeting him in Transvaal. I was shocked to see he was a grown man after he was released,” said Mayat.