Neil Pillai spent two months in Durban searching for his family roots. His search drew a blank and 53-year-old Pillai, who has returned to his London home, appealed to anyone in Durban who may have known or was related to his father, Kosalan Pillai, who was likely to have grown up in Durban in the 40s or 50s.
Pillai’s mother, Patricia Ryan, was of Irish nationality and Pillai said their family lived in Glasgow when he was young and that his father died in 1973, when he was 6 years old.
“I remember my dad with clarity and I remember sitting on his lap as he showed me how to tie up his shoelaces. I remember how kind, big and dark he was,” said Pillai last week.
He also remembered his father’s Ford Zephyr.
“It was considered a luxury car, and he sat me on his lap and I would hold the steering wheel and he would change gears. We would also watch Westerns together late at night,” he said.
After his father died, the family moved to South London, where Pillai grew up. He said once his father had died, his life became unstable and since reaching adulthood, he had little contact with his mother or access to any of his father’s documents.
“There was one picture of him on an identity document, and even I can see the resemblance between us, he looks identical to me,” said Pillai.
Pillai graduated from the University of London with a biology degree, before pursuing his first love, the performing arts.
“I managed to get a scholarship to the London Studio Centre where I studied in the performing arts and I’ve done acting, singing and dancing,” he said.
While he enjoyed dance, he also trained in martial arts, particularly kickboxing, and spent time in Holland fine-tuning his martial arts.
“I started in martial arts when I was 13 years old because I was getting bullied at school. I prefer the arts to the martial, as I’m a practical pacifist.
“I worked as a chef during the day and would go to the gym at night. My only vice was coffee,” he said with a smile.
He travelled extensively from Australia and New Zealand to the Ukraine, and has spent the last 13 years in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh.
Deciding to pursue a Master’s degree, in his online search he came across the University of KwaZulu- Natal.
“I thought Durban, that’s where my dad is from,” he said. After getting together a budget to spend a couple of months in South Africa, he arrived in Durban.
While his search for his family had not yet yielded anything positive, Pillai said he would continue, and that he had enjoyed being in his father’s town.
“People here are genuinely friendly and there’s a kindness. I’ve been to a heritage centre and the records office, but haven’t found anything yet. I also don’t have a car here, so getting to the suburbs out of central Durban was difficult.
“It was lovely to have been in Durban, it’s been an eye-opener to see the place and I feel a connection here,” he said.