Part 18 – The Outsider
6 November 2018
I sit in a quaint coffee shop in London on this mild winter morning. My eyes well up with tears and I contemplate all that I am and where my story really began. My friend alerted me this morning to my rather rushed crammed and preachy Part 17, and I started questioning why I fell short last week. It troubled me not just because I would disappoint readers but because I must have held back from myself. There are many aspects to my story which I have neither told nor explored with sufficient depth. I have to go back to the beginning.
My earliest memories at the age of 1 and a half, oddly enough are in the Western Cape, Worcester, where we had a shop for a brief period and then in Cape Town, where we lived when I was two and my brother Rushdi was born. I recall having a room full of toys including a small piano, a stuffed giraffe and an array of dolls, given to me by various family members. I remember being taken to the shop and I felt surrounded my love. I also recall my grandfather in the background. He featured more strongly for me when I was a bit older and we had moved to Johannesburg. I also remember my room and the bed that was my very own. Why would the bed stick in my mind I wonder? In Cape Town I remember Granny. She was a small package of whirlwind wrapped in a cup of English tea. Old school and proper, she was a force to be reckoned with. Aunty Kiya (short for Rookaya) was a well-known dress-maker in Cape Town, who sewed for the likes of the author Wilbur Smith’s wife, as we were always reminded. She was an avid reader and loved the ballet and opera. As a little girl, we would watch the Nutcracker or Carmen and she would lovingly explain the story to me with such passion that I grew to love those times with her. She taught me to love books. She had a steely resolve and was a disciplinarian. Etiquette was important to her and she painstakingly taught me how to do a proper table setting, and which piece of cutlery was to be used for what, never confusing a salad fork for a dining fork or a steak knife for a fish knife. I failed to retain that information, which didn’t seem important to me at the time.
Written on 7 November 2018 – same café in London
At my Granny’s flat in Loop Street in Cape Town, which looks so much smaller than I remember. My Mom came back from the doctor laughing about how my brother, who was a couple of months old had peed on the doctor’s shirt, her beautiful face animated with mirth. My mother was incredibly beautiful and still is even in her early seventies. Perhaps that’s why she and my Dad always had a rocky relationship. People were always in awe of mother’s beauty, men seemed to be mesmerised by her. I always beamed with pride as a teenager, when people said she looked like my sister. To my chagrin 30 years later I discovered that some teenage boys used to visit me just to see her, which made me cringe a bit. Anyway, I guess teenage crushes on older men and women are not unusual. They have sassy and sometimes unsavoury terms for it these days. My Mom hated Cape Town, as I discovered when I was much older, as her time there was marred by bad memories. I remember her being distressed when her wedding ring fell down the sink hole and was lost forever. I was 3 at the time. My happiest memories were at my Granny’ flat. Our own flat looms in my mind as a dark place. My Dad’s cousin lived on the upper level and I used to play with his daughter who was a couple of years older than me. I remember being in their flat one day and my uncle glared at me and shouted, “Go Home!”. I was terrified and quickly left to go back home. I felt gutted. Rejected and abused. I recall feeling so sad and dejected because I had done nothing wrong and my uncle was being so mean to me. I felt the pain so deeply that I could not tell anyone about it. My deep sensitivity which revealed itself early on, continued to afflict me my entire life. I felt dismissed, unfairly treated and terrorised all in one ball of torment. When I grew older my Dad, who was quite authoritarian when I was little, sometimes accused me of doing things which I hadn’t done, and I felt that same torment. I would typically try to push the memory of my pain aside and inevitably the incident that triggered my pain would play in my head and I’d feel a pain in my heart as if a wheel with dull protrusions would be turning , pressing it its protrusions into me with every turn. The pain would last sometimes a few days, sometimes a week until it eventually faded. My question since I was a tot was Why is the world so Unkind?
Our business in the Western Cape apparently didn’t work out, due to my grandfather I was later told, who either lost the business through gambling or had put pressure on my Dad to help out one of his brother’s children, who always seemed to assume more importance to him than my Dad or any of us for that matter, save for my youngest brother who was undoubtedly his favourite. This was not the first time that would happen. We moved to Johannesburg, where we lived with my Mom’s family in Jeppe. Our house, which had an outside toilet, was basic and modest, and faced a pavement on the street. My younger brother Rushdi and I would sit on the steps watching people go by. There was a Chinese general dealer across the road from us, Mr Ping who ran the shop with his family. They adored Rushdi, who had the Asian slant eyes he inherited from my Father. Mr Ping and his family were convinced that my father was Chinese. I would look from the outside of the metal guard gate that led to the area behind the counter, as they picked Rushdi up and played with him, ignoring me as if I didn’t exist, while I looked on from the outside. That was the earliest memory I had of feeling like an outsider. This was another theme that seemed to influence my experience in the world. No matter where I found myself, I never had a perfect fit. I was either not Indian enough or not Malay enough, or not rich enough or poor enough or smart enough or good enough or just enough… I sometimes wonder if I didn’t impose those exclusions on myself? Or perhaps I just wasn’t comfortable with boxes, because every time I would come close to fitting into one, I’d jump out and claim rejection. I struggled to completely accept a charter that defined any group of people. It’s quite amusing that my introduction to ‘exclusion’ was that I was not ‘Chinese enough’ for what it’s worth.
During our stay in Jeppe, my youngest brother Zunaid was born at Coronation Hospital on my 4thbirthday. While my Mom was in the agonies of child birth I was having a birthday party. The house was full of people, coming there for my birthday. I had on my saffron coloured dress with buttons down the front. One of my Mom’s cousins had a huge camera with a big flashing light and was taking photos of everyone. I’d never seen those photos but felt thrilled that I was going to be in them. My most vivid memory was of several family members coming up to me asking “where is your mummy”, to which I would promptly respond, “My mummy’s in hospital having a baby”. My answer seemed to evoke much amusement, prompting more people to come up and ask me the same question. I wondered why everyone found it so amusing, as I was simply stating a fact. Nonetheless, I adored the attention. It felt so good to be noticed and fussed over. It made me feel loved. My baby brother and I didn’t bond for much of our young lives. When my father was separated from my Mom, when I was about 12, Zunaid left to stay with him for about a year. My brother gave us the most exciting accounts of his stay in Macassar with my Dad, where he learned to ride a horse, and ran freely among the dunes on Macassar with the neighbourhood children, who, when noticing his differences from them initially, explained the differences to other kids as “Sy Ma is a Moor” (His mother is an Indian, ‘Moor’, being a slang term for Indian.).
I was four going on five when we moved to the Indian suburb of Lenasia (Lenz), south of Johannesburg. I recall asking my Mom what had happened to our stuff that we had when we had the shop in the Western Cape, and my Mom gave me some story that it was with my aunt in Cape Town. She indulged me as I ‘wrote’ letters (obviously with four-year old scrawls) asking for my bed and my toys and she said she gave my letters to the postman. I wondered why I never received any response and eventually gave up. The loss obviously didn’t make sense to me. Our birth certificates read Cape Malay/ Indian and we were only allowed into the Indian schools in Lenz because of the addition of the words ‘Indian’ after the slash. My bother Rushdi, who was born in Claremont in Cape Town unfortunately lost out on the “/Indian”, having been endowed only with the Cape Malay classification, which almost cost him a place at Progress Primary school in the Indian township. After some wrangling and negotiating, he was smuggled in as an Indian, despite his birth certificate and the fact that he was the only Chinese looking face in his Grade 1 class.
Written on 11 November OR Tambo International Airport (Delayed flight to CT after a long-haul from London)
We all seemed to feel like outsiders. I absorbed all this with confusion when I had started school. Apartheid defined our narrative in the most destructive way. It forced communities into insular villages, each finding comfort with their own, endorsing the idea that like people needed to stick together and anyone who was different was rejected. Indians in their place, coloureds in theirs and Africans in the remotest townships with the least resources when it came to housing amenities, education and everything else. Whites were the cream receiving the best of everything, with Coloureds next (owing to their part white heritage), Indians came third, but still way ahead of Africans. Whites were supreme and untouchable, like demi-Gods, who were revered by the system and by some “non-whites”, which was the term to denote the state of not being something which one “ought to be”. No-one used the term Non-Indian, Non-coloured, or Non-African. These were obviously undesired sates of being under the Apartheid system. Our house in Lenz had to be put on my mother’s name because my father was classified under Apartheid as Cape Malay. No-one was allowed to live in an area designated for another race group, or travel on the same bus or go to the same toilet. I have an authentic sign from Apartheid years in my garden that reads: “Beach for local coloured servants”, which probably sign-posted a rocky un-swimmable beach in Cape Town. There was not much fuss about inter-marriage between any of the ‘non-white’ groups, but it was illegal for a white person to marry anyone of non-white’ persuasion.
Of course, being of mixed Indian/ Malay heritage I fitted in nowhere. As if the Apartheid system was not bad enough, the Indian culture was particularly discerning and exclusive and anyone who was not “Gaas” (purebred) was looked down upon. Even amongst the purebreds there was a rigid caste system of people who hailed from different villages in India, where intermarriage between different village descendants was not tolerated. Inter-marriage with someone not Indian was taboo. My Mom fell into this category as did both her siblings. Although my Mom’s family was generally more accepting than most, due to many breaches of the inter-marriage rules, there were still occasions when I endured intolerance, not having the necessary DNA or wealth to gain me or my family much acceptance. My father, who always swam against the tide, held his own wherever he was, refusing to accede or diminish his self-respect on account of Apartheid or cultural snobbery. His strength encouraged me, and I refused to try to fit in and gain the patronising acceptance of the Indians. I gravitated towards friends who also had mixed heritage. I sneered at the concept of snobbery and exclusivity. One of my aunts, who was unfortunate to have a coloured mix, spent her entire life perfecting the art of Indian food, until she was revered for her skills and was given silent honorary Indian status. It seemed like too much hard work for too little reward to me, since being recognised as Indian was not a particular goal I aspired to. I was an institutional and social outsider. I asked another question to God. Why was I an outsider? I watched African people being treated like they were sub-human by the Indian folk, exploited, belittled and de-humanised. As a child, this injustice troubled me deeply and I cried, wondering and asking God yet another question, why was the world so unfair?
More next week God-willing
With love, Radia💙