Grey Street and the Casbah... author rekindles nostalgia for Durban

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Feb 21, 2020

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Durban - “This book doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it is saying something important if you are to listen.”

That was Azad Essa speaking about his father Ebrahim Essa’s new book, EB Koybie, A Memoir of Shenanigans between 1950s Durban and 1960s Bombay.

Described as part memoir, part satire and part social commentary EB Koybie takes the reader down Memory Lane, bringing a sense of nostalgia for all the bustle of Grey Street, Bakers Lemon Creams, black and white Bollywood movies and tatty Beano and Dandy comics.

This week, Ebrahim, 74, sat down with The Independent on Saturday to talk about growing up in Durban and his years in Bombay as a university student, both of which form the basis of his book.

The book took five years to complete and was edited by his son, Azad, a senior reporter for the Middle East Eye, based in New York.

Essa said while it was difficult to choose from a plethora of stories making up his early life, he zoned in on moments which also provided insightful social commentary on the times between the 1950s and 1960s.

EBRAHIM Essa in Pahalgam, Kashmir, in 1967.

Essa was born in 1946, early to apartheid, living first in Mayville before being moved to Grey Street because of the Group Areas Act.

In the book, Essa describes his Mayville home: “The endless empty space around the Mayville house complemented the dense bushes of wild guavas that never seemed to ripen. Father said they were bad for my asthma but I ate them anyway. The mysterious forest with its gushing waterfall, distant Sunday drums and howling afternoon winds, hung over us like a full-time conspiracy. We still loved the place. It was the only place we knew. Everything that ever happened, only happened here. It’s where I learned about tadpoles and leapfrogs. It’s where I collected Creamline milk bottles and multi-coloured grasshoppers.”

It is through his conversation with his brother, Walla, in the book, that the reader can experience Grey Street and the vibrant Casbah in the 1960s.

With the two boys sitting on their tin roof with “a paper packet of oily bhajias, buttered-bread sandwiches (smooth machine slices courtesy of Kapitan’s Vegetarian Lounge), a glass bottle of Coca-Cola and a pair of binoculars”, Grey Street and beyond unfold, including the tall fir trees on Commercial Road and escapades to the Avalon cinema.

At home, Essa was able to access imported comic books such as Tiger, Lion, Beano and Dandy to Dell Comics’ Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker and Mighty Mouse - by ironing his older brother Walla’s clothes.

It was also during these years that Essa fell in love with the old black-and-white Bollywood movies, which titles head up each chapter of his new book.

After matriculation at 17, he boarded the SS Karanja to attend university in Bombay and the 21-day journey was an experience he would never forget.

Room-mates at Bhavan’s College in Bombay, back from left, Abdul Sattar Gani, Ebrahim Essa, Yusuf Saloojee. Narendra ‘Zanzi’ Patel and Sulaiman Kadwa in front.

“I was homesick and seasick, I had never even been on a raft before,” Essa said this week.

“I had to travel third class and the food was terrible,” he said, adding that one evening he had been slapped by a drunk Malay female traveller and, trying to hide from her, he asked to spend the night in the ship’s prison cell. Offering one of his packets of Bakers Lemon Creams (his family had bought a whole box for him to snack on during the voyage), as a bribe, Essa spent “my most comfortable night on the ship” in a cell.

He arrived in Bombay just one month before the India-Pakistan war broke out (1965) and not being admitted for his chosen engineering degree, Essa decided on pursuing a BSc degree.

At first he stayed in a hostel, sharing with other students, had to learn to wash his own clothes, contracted jaundice, had his appendix removed, went through a drought and monsoon and found his way to far-flung family members. But most of all, he loved walking the streets of Bombay, feeling free from the binds of apartheid.

“It was amazing that you could do anything and walk anywhere and no one would ask you anything.”

His father and well-known Durban businessman at that time, Suliman Essa Patel, bought a two-bedroom flat for him in Bombay, and the book title EB Koybie comes from an inside joke between father and son related to the flat.

Walla Ebrahim wondered how many shirts Ebrahim would need to iron before he would be allowed to read the comic book, Mutt and Jeff.

Moving to his roomy flat, Essa did not want to share with a horde of other students as he had been doing, so to deter such a move, he and his father had a brass plate made up and printed with the name “EB Koybie” so other students would think Essa was renting from an owner. In fact EB Koybie, loosely translated from Memon, means “And for that matter, anybody”.

In 1969, Essa returned to South Africa, travelling on a new French liner which was a 12-day voyage - and here the book closes.

To this day, Essa retains a love for India. “I have gone back frequently, I go for the sheer love of walking the streets.”

EB Koybie, A Memoir of Shenanigans between Durban and Bombay is available at Ike’s Books and Adams Books, as well as online at Amazon.com. The cost is R150.

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