‘Sugar In My Blood’ is a poignant story based on the life of the late, Muniamma Naidoo & the Khan family of Verulam by South African author, Naufal Khan.
BOOKS: It was the 1800’s where Indian’s officially landed on the shores of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coast. The brown skinned humans left a caste-driven societal India aboard ships destined to a new land of prosperity.
KwaZulu-Natal is a tropical destination that lies along the coast of South Africa’s Indian Ocean. A preferred tourist destination for many, KwaZulu Natal is popularly known for a rich historical background; being home is to Zulu royalty of King Goodwill Zwelithini but the one important aspect of KZN was the presence of the Indian native on African soil. There are many amazing wonderments that define this South African province, which is a melting pot of culture and magical lore of both Africans and Indians.
Muniamma Naidoo’s journals open up old wounds for many South African Indians, a heart-wrenching tale that she documented about her own colorful life where sights, sounds and smells of the people around her documented along with amazing stories of a colonial period of British occupation & later apartheid South Africa. The journals date back to the early 1900’s giving us a glimpse of the Indian way of life in a foreign land where most of her life story was unearthed only after her untimely death in 2006. Apartheid and colonialism is a crime that robbed many South African Indian, African and Colored families of a prosperous future.
It was during those birthing moments of South African history that our ancestors found pockets of joy to survive life as indentured labourers.
A humble journey of love, pain and deep-set religiosity during the avatar periods of Shirdi Sai and Sathya Sai.
The Tugela valley was where Muniamma Naidoo spent many years working the lush sugar cane fields and later moved on as house slave to a British family. She also had a burning passion to learn and share joy through her actions. Throughout her life she learnt as much as she could absorb from her parents about the homeland known as India, where magical stories were revealed around the hearth of coal & wood that kept the family warm at night.
These tattered journals and pearls of wisdom on scraps of paper, bring to life the early days of the indentured Indian in the heart of the Tugela Valley.
The piece of earth, this soil we know to be KwaZulu Natal whispers the war cry of more than a thousand African soldiers who stood their ground against the English and later the Afrikaner Boer. The blood that has spilled over the centuries and the bones of these soldiers, women, children – rustle in the wind these days. Rumor has it, if you remain perfectly still you can have those spirits talk to you where you would hear their tales of triumph and loss. Some of these spirits are vengeful, some would drive you insane while others would want to possess you & sometimes they actually did.
After all, this is the Kingdom of the Zulu where battles were fought on the blessings of the magical African priests – known as sangomas – that have guided Zulu royalty into victorious battles.
Welcome to Verulam
After her marriage to a dashingly handsome boy from the city, she moved to Verulam where her life as a proud South African Indian woman began. Muniamma Naidoo’s story from this moment became journey of a feminist Indian woman that dedicated her life to the well being of her family and those around her.
Being the forever home to over 1 million people of Indian-origin, today KwaZulu Natal primarily Ethekwini (Durban) has been described as a mini capital of India, being the largest concentration of Indians outside of India. My ancestors, like many of you South African Indians can relate – that it was our Indian ancestors who gave birth to lush green fields of sugarcane, this is my story of how my lineages of Khan and Naidoo became the ‘Sugar In My Blood.’
Now the story of two mystically inclined families bond together through ritual, love and faith in a higher power.
When I reflect on the childhood memories of my mother’s parents, the Naidoo’s, I am assaulted by a vintage flashback of being at home with them.
Today whenever I need to connect with my grandparents, I just need to close my eyes – like I am doing right now – as I write this piece. I can still recollect the smell of distinctive bold notes of camphor and then the sharp spice of clove crackling away as it fills my nostrils. This was the permanent scent from the backyard where our temple was located and also where Raja – our beloved English Bulldog – stood guard. The other overwhelming fragrance that I and my siblings were accustomed to was warm piles of cow shit in buckets. Yes, you read right, that green and grassy muddy looking pile of poop, fresh out the ass of a few cows.Remember this for later it’s an important part of this story.
I considered my grandmother to be a very woke woman, whom without any formal education remained the sharpest crayola in the box. For my Amma there was never a job that she considered beneath her capabilities, she was so hungry to learn whatever she could.
Her working career was an impressive resume, her early days started as a carefree Indian girl child living along the banks of the Tugela river, deep north of Durban. Around 13 years of age, Muniamma was ready to join the family trade of being a sugar cane labourer. It was in these lush forests of sweet sugar cane that her vocals gave birth to her musical journey. As she sliced through harvests of sugar cane, my Amma was filling the deep valleys of the Tugela with melodious tunes of bhajans and folk songs in Telugu and Tamil. Her father swore testament to his daughter Muniamma’s gift of voice as the lucky charm that gave the Smith sugarcane plantation such bountiful harvests of cane.
Now please stay with me in this drunken reality for a few more moments.
Take a few minutes to visualise this young Indian girl, at the ripe age of just thirteen, among all those other indentured-labourers who were also catching a super tan. It didn’t take too long for the rest of the sugar plantation workforce to find out that the new girl – Muniamma – was the reason for the new melody that sweetened their days on the fields. Along with her sisters as chorus for most of her performances, Muniamma became the Lotus FM – taking requests – on the canefields. Most of what she knew to sing was taught orally to her by her Amma and Appa and now she was was belting out tunes from the Indian homeland as she and her fellow coolies conquered the sugar harvest with cane knives.
The blazing rays of the sun – whom I was taught to revere as Suryabhagavan – was turning them a galvanized black and blue hue as they toiled the fields day in and out, Already blackened so blue, come to think of it, all that was missing was a garland of skulls, a tiger skirt you’d swear Mother Kali was slashing sugarcane with her children.
Now Amma would share this vintage story of her debut moments – where she was regarded as a star singer- and she would laugh so heartily giving me a glimpse of what true joy was meant to be. She would tell me this story a million times and it would never get old, I still yearn to hear it a million times more whenever I glance at her portraits around the house, she is gone now but never forgotten.
It didn’t take too long for the master of the plantation field – Mr Smith – to learn of a certain employee who was considered a lucky charm for his bountiful harvests. Rumor had it that the workers would start working the harvest season only after my beloved Amma would complete a performance of devotional songs. This was done to appease the higher powers for a successful harvest for the Smith plantation.
Master Smith had eventually heard her sing once while on patrolling on horseback. Master Smith saw use for this talented canecutter elsewhere or was it that he felt that this coolie was a source of Indian f*ckery of superstition that was swarming his plantation. He then moved her to the sugarmill factory, where she learnt the art of using a needle to patch up tattered sugar sacks along with other Black and Indian girls and women. Business was booming for the British sugar merchant Mr. Smith after Muniamma joined the workforce, he began to believe the superstition that Muniamma was the lucky charm for his successful sugar plantation. He could not allow this luck to run out and the fear of a bad sugar season was one thing he did not want happening. Master Smith had found another use for Muniamma – believing in this rumor of prosperity – he needed to keep her close. She listened to orders, was diligent in her duties and didn’t mind a bit of hard labor. Smith reassigned my grandmother work at his residence as a maid for him and his family that were enroute via ship to South Africa from Britain.
Muniamma took on the task with the other girls preparing the household according to Master Smith’s instructions before the lady of the house, There was much to be done from the basic chores, laundry, gardening and also to prepare the welcome for Mrs Smith. Adding a touch of everything Indian to the celebration, Muniamma and the other household staff prepared a celebration like no other for the madam. Mrs Smith and the two children arrived with much fanfare, pomp and celebration as if Queen Elizabeth had just planted her royal toes on the lush valleys of the Tugela Valley. My Amma was gearing up for a special journey with the Smiths, a whole chapter has been dedicated to them who till this day remain an integral part of my life. Now that Mrs Smith was around, it was time to get organised, the blonde blue-eyed family in my Amma’s eyes were very special to her. They represented all things successful, a usurper nation, these goras were the source of income to many Indian and Black families during that era of South Africa’s history.
Now that my Amma was employed at the master’s house, this meant another stream of income for the Naidoo’s. Amma declared to herself secretly that she had to do her very best at her job and in the early days of interacting with the cautious Mrs Smith. It took her a few days to settle in and eventually the ‘madam’ realised that Muniamma was the perfect coolie that got along with her children. She then appointed Muniamma as their child-minder as well as her bedchamber maid. Another promotion so soon and another few more shillings that can be added to the family treasury, which was under her Appa’s bed.
Later in her married life she was employed as a maid to the famed pickling merchants of Verulam, the Pakco family and then later on she was designated as a nanny to another special family of the Nair’s. Along Muniamma’s journey through life she was weighed down with many painful secrets but there were happy moments too.
“Muniamma Naidoo, a daughter of the Tugela Valley, a witness to the Cato Manor 1949 riots, a songstress but most of all she was my Goddess.”Naufal Khan
Here are two extracts from the book, the first extract deals with the Khan family and the second with the Naidoo’s.
Pakistan: The Muslim side of my family
You see situation I found myself in was that I lived with my orthodox Sunni Muslim family from my father’s side. My parents lived in Phoenix township and due to my schooling I was left at my grandparents’ home as a matter of convenience. It was decided I need to live with them and not with my mother’s parents (who lived a few doors away from them), as they were Hindu.
My father wanted my upbringing to entail a Muslim background rather than that of my Hindu ancestry. My parents made ends meet with just my father working at Rainbow Chickens as a bookkeeper & my mom was a housewife. My father did his absolute best to ensure we had the essentials for an education; he worked hard, very hard. A rigorous schedule of school and then madrassah left me with little time after that but I would sneak a visit to Amma after lessons and then on weekends I would head over to Amma and stay over. I felt like I was a victim of a partition, Pakistan where I lived on one side where smokey perfumed scents of lobaan would engulf me and India – that was a few doors away – where sambrani was burning.
Life was taxing at my age, I had to attend school at Mounthaven Primary which I loved. My teacher was literally a god to me, Miss P. Bagalu was the reason I woke up and rushed to get to school everyday. I loved her spirit and that energy she exuded as she taught us daily; she was the true definition of a guru, a teacher. After school I had to rush straight into Islamic studies at Madrassah Ashrafia, I despised going to Madrassah – I honestly hated it. Other Muslim jids and some of the teachers treated my sisters & I differently since we had a Hindu mother and then the irony of it all was that my Muslim grandfather was a well-known Islamic scholar. Islam seemed to be a frightening religion that I silently rebelled against in my head. I loved my ‘Apa Gulbenaaz’ who taught us everything she had to; she was a beautiful woman in her traditional hijab without a single strand of hair visible always tucked away beneath her scarf. Whenever she was in a good mood she used to dance a little and always loved sharing jokes with us. I missed her on the days she was ill where the supplementary teacher or Hafiz would step in. So back to disliking Islamic studies, everything that was indoctrinated to us children from that tender age was riddled with disturbing visuals of ‘Jahannam’ or Hell as we all know it. I was told that when I die, I would have to tread on a single thread of gut that belonged to a sheep and if I faltered in my balance I would drop into the decrepit pits of fiery Hell where I would burn for eternity. But wait there’s more! In order to ensure you have a strong thread to walk upon, it is a Muslims duty to have sheep slaughtered at Eid in my name to ensure I have a thread that can take me across safely. We never slaughtered sheep annually – in my name or anyone for that matter – we just couldn’t do it with the state of finances. My father worked days and nights to keep me in school and my 2 siblings with one more popping out a few years later. Financially, we struggled but it was enough, just enough for us to live happily.
During the hours spend at madressah, I would pretend to be studying the Islamic texts but I actually let would be travel to the weekend cooking shenanigans with my South Indian grandmother in India. Then, I would drift to kitchen moments in Pakistan, where my aunty Fathima affectionately known as poopy and my Naseema chachi – aunt in Urdu – would use cooking time as educational treats. As we cleaned the vegetables, I would be taught the Urdu word for each of them, which made it easy for me to understand when Dhadhi Selima – father’s mom – would speak. She never spoke much English or Afrikaans, it was always Urdu.
I would always wonder if all those delicious lamb meals prepared by master chef Dhadhi Selima, would count towards a stronger gut line in the afterlife. I was traumatized and fixated on whether I would land in the pits of fiery Jahannam – hell or cross the line to land of milk and honey and to my forty promised virgins. So most of my childhood, I had this vision of my thread of gut being thin as a strand of hair and that I would definitely fall into the pit of Shaitaan or Lucifer. I was f*cked according to this fantastical doctrine of Islam, it terrified me but there was nothing I could do about it.
Five obligatory Kalimahs or prayers were some of the initial teachings I needed to memorize daily, as well as learning to read, write, and speak Urdu. Then, let us not forget the Holy Quran – which is in Arabic – that I had to study and learn how to read with perfection. Muslims pray five times a day and this was obligatory and there are a series of prayers or surahs that one needs to master. Another stack of verses from before indulge in a mealto one for you before you enter the toilet to take a dump. There were so many things to remember, my head felt like it was going to explode!
Dhadhi Selima & Dhadha Ebrahim Khan
My grandfather was not just any normal Muslim; he was in my eyes, a saint. I loved my Dhadha, Mr. E.A Khan immensely; he is my hero and my source of inspiration for so many things. Dhadha was a Hafiz and the founder of the Madrassah Ashrafia which I attended, apart from that he dedicated his life to Islam.
He spent many a nights writing books that eventually became the syllabus of our Islamic studies across the continent. His work was impeccable and I was witness to some of the finest pieces of literature being crafted in front of me 0from ‘Deenyath’ to ‘Islamic History’ – these were some of the books that I still remember and was so proud to have in my knapsack.
Students from the Madrassah were a strange lot to me, even at that age there would be a sense of cliques. The uppity type of boys who were fair-skinned had a sense of entitlement about their color; I would never mix with them. They reeked of trouble everyday either smoking or beating up someone. They would hover around and when I would be spotted I knew there would be some fresh insult ready. I would walk past with my head down ignoring them most of the time but eventually I mustered up the courage or was it the anger that drove me to clap back?
There was this one day, I had enough of their teasing and lost my cool, something that I rarely did. I turned around and howled out ‘Madarchod haraamzada cuzbin kutta!’ coupling that Urdu pearl of vulgarity with a tight smack to the boy closest to me. I can still remember him losing his balance holding his fair-skinned cheek in absolute shock as it turned a few shades red. I then shoved it to the lot of them that it was MY grandfather ‘Khan Sahib’ who authored books we used during classes and that their intelligence would never match up to anything close. That shut those privileged ones up good and solid.
Needless to say I was never picked on again. F*ck yes!
“Haraamzada cuzbin kutta” was one of the nasty words I picked up when Dhadhi would be in a foul mood. She would have her blood pressure go up when she would listen to the news on the radio during the 80’s and each time President FW De Klerk or some National Party member was mentioned, she would start abusing them as if they would hear her. It was absolutely hilarious for me to listen to her curse, but it was a lesson on useful Urdu phrases that I should keep handy.
My Dhadha’s words were pearls of wisdom that every child had to study from in Madrassah. I didn’t know the full extent of his craft of words until much later in life but I knew he was very knowledgeable in Arabic and Urdu. I knew I had a burden on my shoulders being the eldest grandson of Khan-sahib and so did my other two siblings. We did our very best at Madrassah even though he had passed on by then when I was about 7 years old. We kept the flag flying high, y siblings & I always ranked as the top 3 in the region in terma of performance.
But there was one problem with this – mixed heritage Hindu Muslims – in the eyes of J.K Rowling fans the three of us were Mud bloods. My mother, being of Hindu descent and then my father a pukka Sunni Muslim. This was a problem for society but my Dhadha and Dhadhi never discriminated or held that opinion. I had to endure the first cross, that being of mixed religions, I honestly never knew there was such a big thing about it – but it was. The more of Madrassah that I had to attend each slow and painful year, I began to question the concept of Islam and whether it really was a peaceful religion.
There would be days I could not remember what I learnt from the day before or how to execute salaah properly, My back hurt with the number of positions I had to assume during Namaaz, there were days I I was craving a hot camphor oil back rub from Amma most times. I felt completely useless at being a good Muslim especially with the fact that I am a half-blood, child of a ‘ghercomb’. Yes, that was what my mother was called, a derogatory term applied to someone who is from another religion. Was all of this effort to attend Madrassah really worth the time? I felt a total contrast of opinion when my grandparents & family members tutored me at home.
My Dhadha and Dhadhi were deeply religious and super orthodox and Islam at home was loving and peaceful – totally different from the scary Islamic concepts I was taught at Madrassah Ashrafia. I can still recollect the heavy scent of lobaan wafting through our humble 3-bedroom council home in Mountview, Verulam. We had daily routines of reading with our tasbeeh’s (prayer beads), which would ensure our passage to Jannat. I wasn’t too sure if I prayed enough being a ‘mud blood’ and whether I had extra prayers to do due to my mixed heritages. I never asked anyone about that, I was embarrassed by that fact as society made me feel this way.
I looked forward to going home everyday and spending time with Dhadhi while she read namaaz, I would sit on the bed and watch her from behind and listen to her hushed tone of reciting the prayers for salaah. After she would complete Salaah she would speak up in a high tone voice and announce, “Qul Fateha.”
That would signal me to stop my homework, pop on my ‘topi’ and hold my palms together as she read ‘fateha’ which is a prayer to give thanks. Then we would sit together after Fateha at the end of namaaz, she would NEVER miss out on times for salaah. ‘Qazah’ namaaz was taboo for her and she would avoid skipping prayer times. I can still recall the disappointment in her face, as her eyes would well up with sparkling tears if she had missed her namaaz times. I would wipe away her tears when she sat there depressed at her ‘failure’ of keeping to the times of namaaz. I felt her pain, we weren’t much different from each other as we both fought demons in our head.
Both of us were actually mental nutters with our conversations. We spoke Urdu at home and everything was a practical lesson to enhance our Urdu speaking-ability, I loved being a Muslim at home, it was Makkah for me, Islam was beautiful there.
Dhadha worked at the International Propagation Centre for Islam (IPCI) in Durban town central, I’d wait anxiously for him to return home. He would sometimes come bearing sweets or some fresh sheets of paper that he would use on the typewriter. I loved the smell of paper, I had a love for writing and reading, little did I know it would lead me here to the world of words one day. That’s a story for another book *insert smiley face here*.
Dhadha was a tall giant, I would recognize his lanky figure as he walked from the distant hilltop off the main road down Jacaranda avenue. He used public transport to make his way home every day then walked 2 km’s from the main road to get home. I would hover on the pavement in front of our home at around 5.30PM looking for him to appear in the distance. As soon as he appeared, I would bolt to his side and would see this smile crack on his face. I would wrap my arms around him and this smell of traditional Muslim scent of ‘Attar’ would engulf my nostrils, with my eyes closed, I would forget all the taunts from the bullies at Madrassah.
He would ask about his wife, “What’s my Selima doing?” I would argue with him, “No Dhadha, that’s my Dhadhi not your Selima!” We would walk a tad bit slower now as I gave him the rundown of my day and what Dhadhi is busy preparing for supper. I loved my grandparents dearly, I love them so much but I never felt good enough for them – I was a mud blood, a ghercomb according to people.
No matter how many times I would hear the words, ‘ghercomb’ or ‘mandraji’ and many other interesting descriptions about my mixed bloodlines. I eventually grew a thick skin and nothing affected me the way it used to in the beginning. There was something special about being half and half – I could feel it in my bones. I could feel something fantastically magical around me and inside me that I would only realize later in life.
Dhadhi used to say there’s magic at home and when the time is right I would see, hear and feel it. I used to press her for more information, beg her to show me. What did she mean by it? She would laugh with a squeaky bit with this broad smile showing off a gap tooth, her milky white skin would crack around her lips, with blue-grey eyes staring deeply into my hungry soul that wanted to know – what is this magic?
She said, “You have to be patient, have sabar, Dhadha will tell you more when he is not busy.”
Magic! Was my Dhadha a Dumbledore? Was Dhadhi a sorceress? Did we have magic wands somewhere at home? I had to know more.I just had to be patient.
I was 9 years old when I would hear stories about my grandparents home that used to be spoken of in hushed tones. There was talk or should I say gossip of magical beings that visited at night and communed with some Dhadhi and Dhadha on divine affairs. During our gardening sessions, I recall the day Dhadhi telling me about the couple that lived in our yard, I asked her innocently where are they as I never saw anyone else.
We didn’t have a cottage or a tin shack in the yard, the only thing close to another housing structure was the kennel that our beloved dog ‘Buster’ lived in. She then pointed to the lush green leaves the Bombay mango trees that heaved with weight of the sweetest ripening fruit.
“That’s where they are, they live there up on the branches”, she said with that smile again. I just cracked up laughing about that revelation, she just looked at me smiling. She could notice the innocence in my giggle but her eyes just told me that she was being serious. As she carefully gave life to the dhania (coriander) and pudhina (mint) plants by grounding them, I turned back and looked at the massive mango tree. The shiny, green leaves shimmered and the splinters of sunlight singed my skin. The thoughts of these people living in a tree was stupid, the only things that hung around there was those damn monkeys. Magical beings living in a mango tree in our yard,, boy was I confused at this revelation.
Then, as we finished up the gardening, Dhadhi explained that these beings were Djinns who looked after the family and have been with her and Dhadha for a very long time. I longed to see these Djinns; these magical beings that she spoke of they had special gifts that they would use to help us when we needed it. I was afraid somewhat as everything I learnt at Madrassah was scary and destructive, I couldn’t begin imagine how terrible these two were. She held my hand and took me back inside; it was Magrib namaaz time. There was always a curfew for us children to return to the house at Magrib for all intents and purposes we were told that Magrib was a bad time as the devil was about to cause mischief. And it was Dhadhi’s prayer time.
Never missing her prayer appointment with Allah, I was so sure that Dhadhi was in conversation with these special beings or doing something spiritual. Her breathing was almost deathly silent, I looked on wondering if my Dhadhi has died in Sajdah position, which is the seated pose for namaaz. I was shit-scared, in that moment I realised I haven’t mastered Surah Yaseen – the Arabic verses known as the heart of the Holy Quran – which is also read when a person dies. Slowly her body rocked gently back and forth again on the ‘musallah’ (prayer mat), thank Allah for that sign. I had enough time to learn Yaseen.
“Dhadhi”, I called out to her as she stared into space while in deep meditation, mumbling verses as she rubbed each tasbeeh bead bringing her back to the conversation.
“Jee beta?” she responded with a slight jump of fright as sometimes I was sure Dhadhi fell asleep during tasbeeh time.
“Dhadhi, when can I meet them, those things in the mango trees – the Djinns?”
I looked at her in hope I could meet them and they could answer some of the questions. I also wanted to ask them to give me something to help me remember everything in Madrassah. She smiled again and placed her hand on my shoulder and said that when the time is right they will come visit me. I have to be patient. I eventually let her drift back into that space she elevated herself to, when she sat with her prayer beads. The synchronicity of her fingers on the prayer beads, the movement of her body rocking to and fro combined with hushed muttering of Islamic verses was making me sleepy.
I was so sure one day Dhadhi would keel over and fall asleep on the prayer mat as she maintained that perfect drone like a tanpura muttering mystical verses. She was a clown sometimes well actually most of the time. I then took a walk outside to the mango tree and looked up to hopefully see these magical beings, I stared into the branches hoping that my chance to meet them was now. I then wondered if I should be looking up because if I do and if the lady Djinn was wearing a hijab I would be looking right up there, I hope she had pants on, it would be rude of her to sit like that.
A sudden heavy gust of wind shook the tree, it was Magrib, and I rushed inside. It was never a good time to be outside, bad things happen; well that’s what I was told.
India: The Naidoo’s
I would hurry down the concrete stairs to set my sights of my beloved Amma and hug her, I felt overwhelming love at the very instant the door opened and she would beam with a huge smile at my arrival.
That heavy, thick scent of Amla or coconut oil which she applied to her hair would waft into my nostrils was comforting. She was always elated to have her grandchildren around the house, she would have loved to have me stay with her too but alas my father had that strict rule imposed.
The love I felt at Amma’s home eased away my worries of Madrassah which seemed pointless to me. I would rush into the house and throw my stuff on the couch and prepare to help Amma with the balance of chores that she had to get done for the day. I loved those precious few hours I spent at her home before it got too late. I would only return to Pakistan after 6pm on most days as I wanted to always be the one to light the prayer lamp for Amma.
As the years passed, I took religious instruction from my ‘Amma’ on learning the Hindu religion and the medley of Gods that we had. This was my third educational activity after Madrassah. I loved Hinduism and each single day I learnt a little more from Amma, we would sit in the lounge and read through sacred texts and she would explain to me every detail of each God.
Unlike the teachings of Islam which was a monotheistic godhead of Allah, Hinduism had a million activities related to each God and Goddess that which was never an effort for me to remember. I mastered every lesson with Amma and procedures of every ritual and prayer with such enthusiasm. I felt the tranquility and peace that I could not find when being called a variety of terms from the bullies at Madrassah. Amma’s home was simple yet full of rich history, we had towering libraries of books around the house. Each pile of books represented some task of learning more that I looked forward to. The storytelling was never boring, Amma would animate the characters of the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata so well as her thick, fat fingers would draw images in the air to explain more and then bring a collection of pictures and religious idols adding a dash of fun into her stories.
Amma’s backyard was transformed into a quaint narrow garden, on the far end of the yard was the ‘Hanuman corner’ where, the monkey god who stood in proud splendor and the ‘jhunda’ towering into the sky. I always wondered how a monkey could not be afraid of being so high up, I had to ask Thatha about that – he was a monkey himself sometimes. Amma used to call him a baboon as he was a cranky man most of the time.
Next to Lord Hanumanji’s abode, was the Amman stone and directly opposite was the outside mandir that housed our lamp and all required items for my grandfather to invoke his Arul of Hanuman or Muruga. The far end of the yard was Lord Shiva, the lingam sat in silence and seclusion from the others watching over our little abode of the many gods that kept me busy. I would make sure I would clean up every corner of the yard and ensure that fresh ‘chomboo’s’ of water was placed at each deity, flowers and incense was lit for Hanumanji, the Amman stone and our outside temple doors were opened to air out. Mahadev in his secluded corner was adorned with his three stripes with Nandeeshwara staring at his beloved Lord Shiva as he sat in deep meditation.
The weekends were so much fun, I would hurry over on a Saturday morning or stay over on Friday nights with my grandparents as Thatha would be home most of the time too. His routine was a noisy one, of going to the famous Verulam market on Saturday mornings to get every vegetable under the sun for Amma to cook. He was a loud character that was tall and heavy set built coupled with a mean temper that we were accustomed to, but I never got used to him slapping Amma sometimes. And normally on Saturdays, when he returns from his market run, he would make sure he comes home with minimum two buckets of fresh cow dung from Uncle Suren’s farm.
The cow is considered to equate to the Goddess Mother for her life giving abilities, she provides us with milk that is used to create butter ghee and the cow’s excrement is also regarded as pure. This was the fun part for us grandkids, with the sun at its peak and pelting down sweltering summer heat, we would haul the fresh cow dung and splatter the foul smelling shit around and then proceed to massage this into the concrete floor making sure we cover every bit of the yard in it with our hands. This was so much fun apart from the funky smell that permeated around it was comforting to know that the Gods would be pleased to watch us sanctify the yard with shit. I really wondered if they appreciated the foul smelling shit of an animal. The harsh sun would do the rest of the work for us as it dried as fast as we worked on rubbing it in. Thatha would stand over us or sometimes pitch in so we can get the yard ready for afternoon prayers. The smell of cow shit was actually so normal for me it was a comforting smell of achievement for me doing a good job of the backyard being cleansed with shit. The irony.
While all this happened in the backyard, Amma would be busy preparing a series of dishes from Italian to traditional South Indian foods for us to enjoy at the end of the day. Each meal that was laid out went hand in hand with a story of the Gods or of the days gone by in their days that would accompany our meal.
I was always reminded day in & out by my father or my Dhadhi to not consume non-halal food especially when I visited ‘India.’ But this was my grandparents & Amma’s food was just too tasty to ignore! So I had to make up a pact with Amma & Thatha to never admit that the food she prepared wasn’t halaal sometimes. I didn’t mind lying, I never felt guilt of the lie as this was my Amma’s food made with love and more prayers than that of just being Halaal.
When A Monkey Steals My Thatha In The Backyard
“Boya, you know how Thatha looks like a monkey when he get Hanuman trance, Amma would ask me.
I would nod yes while munching on freshly fried bhajia’s prepared from leaves off the tree in the garden, darting my attention to her and then to the television occasionally with the radio tuned into Lotus FM blaring in the background. I knew Lord Hanuman was a special entity being considered the avatar of Lord Shiva the force was strong with him. Lord Hanuman was nothing like the monkeys in Verulam.
F*ck it! I hated those monkey, they pissed all over, stole the golden-red mangoes from our trees and also some of the best paw paws from Amma’s garden. I would sit with a sling and a pile of stones ready to sting them if they got close to it. I would never be able to win with these blue-balled b*stards as soon as I released the shot from my sling, I would have one of them already striking back with a mango or sometime screeching and threats to attack me. And whenever they reached Lord Hanuman’s corner in the backyard, they knew that was their immunity idol. I would have to leave them alone as they feasted on the daily offering of bananas and other fresh fruit that Amma would make me leave in the sanctum. I did not want to upset Hanumanji by striking his stupid cousins who gave me more work. It seemed a sense of calm would overcome these monkeys when they reach Hanuman’s corner and they would quietly sit and enjoy the offerings and then scatter once everything has been devoured.
When Amma captured my attention with that question again, she went on to explain the significance of the Hanuman Chalisa and why it was important to memorize the sacred verses.
“There is magic in the chalisa of Hanuman, he will protect you always, Boya”, said Amma.
MAGIC! Amma had just captured my attention one hundred and ten percent now. I switched off the television and jumped back on the couch.
“Amma tell me more about the magic,” I exclaimed. I was now fully invested in her conversation whilst forgetting the fiery burn of the chillies that she added generously to the bhajias.
Amma smiled again explaining to me that Hanuman’s chalisa has immense power to protect those who recite the Chalisa with love. It took me months to learn the Chalisa but it was worth it, Amma helped me every step of the way, ensuring that I enunciated the Sanskriti perfectly, rounding off here and sharp tones of peaks here and there.
Jai Bajrang Bali!
Those were some of the screams that would arise from the packed crowd of visitors in the backyard. Thatha was fierce and his chest heaved with a deep growl, his mouth would fill up with air and he looked just like the monkeygod Hanumanj.
I was never afraid of Thatha and his trance; I stood right next to Amma waiting for blessings and also to help her. Amma would be ready for him, the growing sounds of the bhajan group behind me rhythmically noisy, sounded very far away for me as Thatha’s ferocious screams filled the air with echoes into the valley of Mount View, Verulam. He crouched very low as his face brushed close to the fiery smoke of the camphor from the clay pot. This is the exact moment when Thatha left his body and the arul (spirit) of Sri Hanumanji took over. As he roared and bellowed, I could feel the vibration in my chest, Thatha’s eyes are fixated on the Lingam of Mahadev across the yard and as he stood up, he pivots around to face the clay statue of Sri Hanumanji adorned beautifully.
Offerings of prasadam fit for a king would be spread out at the Hanuman corner with everything prepared by Amma. I would giggle inside thinking of the fact that just yesterday I was smearing generous amounts of cow shit all over here and now there’s this amazing spread of prasadam all over the same floor. I found it so strange but never questioned it as elders know best. The ‘roht’ was particularly special and one of my very favorite treats; I can almost savor the taste right now as I type this. It was a very important preparation for this prayer, Amma would tie her mouth with a cloth and we would have to leave her alone in silence as she prepared this special offering. It was made with love for the monkey god; well everything Amma did was prepared with love.
People from all over Verulam and other townships would converge at our humble residence in Jacaranda Avenue for this day when Thatha gives himself over to Lord Hanuman. I started to wonder if I recited the Chalisa excessively – as I read Durood Shareef each night – would it be sufficient blessing to give me the strength to climb the jhunda (bamboo pole) like Thatha did when he entered a state of trance. No point wondering, like the shoe brand Nike I had to just do it.
But nevermind, I have to memorize magical verses… Jai Hanuman gyan gun sagar, Jai Kapis tihun lok ujagar, Ram doot atulit bal dhama, Anjani-putra Pavan sut nama….
“Victory to Hanuman who is the ocean of Wisdom and Virtues, Victory to the king of Monkeys who is illuminating three worlds “You are the messenger of Rama (to Sita), You are the abode of incomparable power. You are also called by the names of ‘Anjani Putra’ (Son of Anjana) and ‘Pavana suta’ (son of wind god)”
As the bhajan group continued to sing with fervor deafening the chirping birds, my mind wandered again. I proudly reminisced of my time cleaning Hanuman Corner, I would imagine flying like Hanuman, growing a tail that could set cities on fire, my mind would wander sometimes creating fantastical stories. I loved creating pictures in my head; it was an escape from my dark worries.
Like good secrets I had bad ones too – but Lord Hanuman, Muruga, Shiva, Vinayagar & Allah would help me, I know they would. All I had to do was pray..
About the author: Naufal Khan is the founding editor of IndianSpice, a passion for digital first publishing. he keeps the thread of identity South African first, Indian by descent alive by sharing the best of South African Indian trending news & diaspora content.
This will be his second published literary work. ‘Sugar In My Blood‘ will be available soon in print edition. Connect with Naufal Khan here
Terms used in this forthcoming book
Hogwarts: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, commonly shortened to Hogwarts, is a fictional British school of magic for students aged eleven to eighteen, and is the primary setting for the first six books in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Stay at home if you feel unwell. If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical attention and call in advance. Follow the directions of your local health authority during the coronavirus crisis.
Connect with the Coronavirus Whatsapp services below
- Coronavirus India Whatsapp tap here
- Coronavirus South Africa Whatsapp tap here
- SA Hotline Number: 0800 029 999
For more related coronavirus (COVID-19) latest news and stories click here