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The 'I' of BRICS in me

On a slow, solar-powered internet connection at Bulungula Lodge, on the Wild Coast, I manage to get a message through to a cousin of my late maternal grandfather, who lives between Durban and London. We are headed up to KwaZulu-Natal after and I want to make sure she is around.

She is, but only on Thursday evening. We had arrived in paradise at the Bulungula River mouth a day earlier a couple of weeks ago, so leaving slightly prematurely to split the journey to Durban would be fine.

Down the dirt roads out of Nqaleni Village we set off for Kokstad for the night and then Durban the next morning. The N2 is a breeze and the city a stark contrast to the serene site of the rolling hills of rural Eastern Cape.

Hours later, sitting at the Durban dinner table of Angie, an Indian cousin of my late grandfather Morgan Pillaye, I begin navigating the contours of our shared family history, intertwined with a history between South Africa and India, long preceding their roles in the Brics formation.

After all, it is Heritage Month.

It goes back to April 1882 when 30-year-old Angamma Pillay arrived on the Coldstream I from Madras with her seven-year-old daughter, Muinniamma, in tow. Details on their ship list, found by my mother in archives in Pietermaritzburg and that adorn a section of the Talana Museum in Dundee as I find out days later, state that they had the same employer, one Thomas Milner who owned a sugar estate.

Eighteen months later on the Castleton I the young child’s future husband Virasami would arrive at the age of 18, also from Madras and employed by one William Watson. They were among thousands of so-called indentured Indians who were brought to South Africa between 1860 and 1911 to develop the sugar industry.

The contempt shown for these immigrants, who were meant to be considered free once they had paid off the debt of the trip across the Indian Ocean and other costs incurred by the employer, is evident in the lackadaisical way in which their details were noted upon arrival. I have seen at least three spellings of relatives names on ship lists, birth, marriage and death certificates later sent to me by my mother.

Anjilay (Angie), a nurse, and her sister Jayshree, an anaesthetist, are both settled in London. They are the daughters of Virasami and Muinniamma’s second son, Dorasamy and confirm that Rangiya (my great-grandfather) or peripapa, as they affectionately called him, was older and Arjun, younger. Rangiya, also spelt Rungian, had been married before he met my great-grandmother and fathered two children: Shunmugan and Sarogni. He later moved to the Cape where he met his second wife, Sophia (my great-grandmother), and they had a son, Morgan Rungian (my grandfather).

Now both Muinniamma and Virasami had the popular south Indian surname, Pillay. It is also sometimes spelt P-i-l-l-a-i, but never with an ‘e’ at the end as in the case of my family. Growing up I had always heard the story that Rangiya couldn’t get credit down in Cape Town (as Indians apparently couldn’t be trusted) and that is why he had changed it, but according to Angie and Jayshree, he simply wanted to be labelled coloured and not Indian. It seems odd given the apparent elevated status Indians had over coloureds before and during apartheid.

Anyway, central to my discussion over dinner with Angie is Sunrise Farm outside Ladysmith, which Rangiya had owned. Angie explains that she was born on the property and that his ashes were scattered there. She also divulges being registered a twin to conceal the birth of an illegitimate child her uncle Arjun had fathered.

The landline rings frequently throughout the evening with updates on the health of a brother in Durban and another in neighbouring Estcourt. It displays a feeling of family connectedness, but also a memory of when the landline was indeed central to telecommunications. How many homes still have landlines today?

Estcourt is en route to Dundee where we are heading next, so one of the calls is to arrange for us to stop over and meet their brother Komarasen, who despite being ill, would meet us at his muthi shop the next day.

A visit to Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement is on the cards before then. The display here emphatically details the impact his early days as a young lawyer in South Africa had on the rest of his career and his personal philosophy of satyagraha, or truth through non-violence. His original home in the settlement had to be reconstructed after it was razed to the ground through apartheid violence in August 1985.

Gandhi's home at the Phoenix Settlement in Durban.

Gandhi arrived in South Africa exactly ten years after my first Indian ancestor did, but the lobbying he did for the plight of Indians in South Africa left a lasting legacy.

It is perhaps why my great-grandfather Rangiya was able to own the farm he did. This question lingers in my mind as we leave Durban and head to Estcourt.

My grandfather’s cousin, Komarasen, cuts a small figure when he enters the muthi shop he has owned for the last 46 years, but his personality is larger than life when he greets us. He has not been well and comes in specially to show us around. The store is abuzz with customers, both sangomas and ordinary Zulus looking for a cure to troubles large and small. He helps them in fluent Zulu and I sit mesmerised by the ease with which these extremely different cultures come together.

Me with my grandfather's cousin Komarasen Pillaye and my two sons Guy (left) and Max (right) in his muthi shop in Estcourt.

We probe his family memory as well and he gives us vague directions to Sunrise Farm, supposedly located on the road to Ladysmith. A few days later, after we visit the Blood River, Isandlwana and Rourke’s Drift battlefields around neighbouring Dundee we set off on a hunt for Sunrise Farm with his directions in hand.

Unfortunately, despite circling the region for several hours and asking farmers around the area, we find Sunrise Farm, but one that had been given this name after its sale in 1998. It had been called Habanero Farm previously.

No matter, without finding the physical place where my ancestors lay, this journey through time and my diverse family history really awoke me to the wealth of my rich South African heritage.

This post was also published on Eyewitness News ahead of Heritage Day on 24 September 2016.

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