A true matriarch

2010-08-30 00:00

SHE came to South Africa from a village near Madras, India, as a 16-year-old girl accompanying her new husband, a 50-year-old grand uncle. She died owning many properties and was the second-highest payer of rates in Pietermaritzburg.

But my grandmother, Annamah Vather, was not so different from many women who came to South Africa from India.

They came either with their husbands, in search of their husbands who had left India for South Africa, or as single women in search of a “brave new world”.

They were severely disadvantaged in many ways, but some of them threw off the shackles of the conservative Indian society that bound them. Many women became the dominant partner and driving force in many marital partnerships or associations.

Annamah, who was born in a village called Pandoor near Madras, could not read or write English but was capable in Tamil. She arrived in South Africa in May of 1893 aboard the SS Pongola with her husband Aroonagiry Moodley. He had served his indenture in South Africa and had returned to India to marry.

Annamah was industrious and very rapidly adapted to her new environment. She started planting vegetables and flowers to sell to the public. Her venture developed rapidly and she became a vegetable hawker of note.

People still remember her rose garden which was on a site adjoining the present Eddels Shoes factory. She was frugal and only the vegetables that could not be sold to the public were used for the family kitchen. Festival days such as Deepavali were good days for business, so she and her family would celebrate on the next day.

Market gardening had become very popular with the Indians who had opted to stay in the country as trading licences were difficult to obtain. Market gardeners and hawkers supplied fresh fruit and vegetables to the local markets and public at competitive prices.

She acquired a wagon and horses and drove the wagon herself to the market. This was unusual for a young Indian woman as most hawkers had little pushcarts.

Later in life she was driven around in a Ford motor car with the registration NP1, which is now the registration of the mayor’s official car.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, banks were reluctant to give Indians loans.

Money lenders or “local bankers” brought some relief. Loans were made against bonds, title deeds and other securities such as jewellery.

It is to be noted that post indenture, there were many unskilled Indians, earning capacity was low and it was almost impossible to obtain trading licences, skilled jobs or indeed employment. There was no shortage of borrowers.

Annamah saw an opportunity and being astute, developed a considerable business being a “local banker”. Most arrangements were verbal and if the loans were not repaid on the date of redemption, the securities were forfeited.

On her death, she was found to have five bags of jewellery in her possession. This could not be distributed to her sons by value so a respectable jeweller, Mr Raghavajee, obtained a scale from the shop and distributed the jewellery by weight.

Post-1905, an economic depression had set in. Many white people experienced severe hardship and they borrowed money from her and some of them bonded their properties to her. Some of the Afrikaners moved to the Transvaal where economic prospects seemed better. She bought their properties for cash and in this way acquired an enormous amount of property and in time became the second-highest ratepayer in the city of Pietermaritzburg.

She dealt with a firm of estate agents called Forsyth and Company. The principal knew the name of every member of her large family. He would inform her of any property that was going on sale. She would inform her lawyers, Cecil Nathan and Company, to proceed with the transfer and she would pay in cash.

She also became a property developer and had several houses built in Mayors Walk near the Botanical Gardens.

In 1905, she struck up a relationship with a Mr Vather who was an Indian sweetmeat maker from Poorbandar, the village that mahatma Gandhi came from. He was from the Gujarati sect and by all accounts a very handsome man.

She was strong-minded and made the controversial decision to separate from her husband. The association was frowned upon by the community. Firstly because she had turfed her husband out who was a respected member of the religious fraternity and, secondly, she was a South Indian Tamil woman who had formed an association with a North Indian Gujarati man.

She seemed unfazed by the controversy and it would appear that the union prospered because they subsequently developed a general-dealer store and a petrol station in Retief Street and she became an enormously wealthy woman.

She was a matriarch in the true sense of the word and expected her family to toe the line. Wealth had given her an arrogance that made her selective about her relationships with people and the wives for her sons. The front door to her house in Retief Street had a stained-glass window with the inscription “Vathers Lodge” on it.

Her youngest son from her first marriage defied her and selected his own wife and she decided to discipline and destroy him.

She had given him a property to start up, a brick-making factory. There was a verbal agreement that he would supply her with bricks for her many developments, to the value of the property, and eventually he would take ownership of the property.

All went well until he married. He had already paid for the property but had not taken transfer of it.

By now, relations between mother and son had deteriorated to such an extent that she sold the property to the Nizamia Muslim Society.

He successfully sued his mother but, unfortunately for him, the judgment in his favour was posthumous.

The son had written his will in 1929 while still a single man and had not changed it after marrying and so it remained in favour of his mother. He suddenly died at the age of 39 in 1943 and by now had five children, the eldest being five years old.

She made a claim against his estate, saying that the will in favour of his widow and children was forged and the will that he made in her favour was valid.

This led to a prolonged legal battle and eventually the court ruled in favour of the widow and minor children. There was partial success on her part as she had financially crippled her son’s estate due to the legal costs involved.

She unfortunately lost favour and the respect of the community, including her daughters, who believed that the action was unwarranted. Both cases form part of references in the archives of the Law Society.

She was a deeply religious person. She built a Hindu temple in the area of the present Liberty Midlands Mall and several Hindu festivals were celebrated there under her patronage. One such festival, the Angalesperi Prayer to honour the Mother Shakti, is still celebrated and sponsored by members of the family annually in the Siva Soobramoniar and Mariamman Temple in Pietermaritzburg, and is well attended by the general public.

After her death, and due to a population shift, the original temple was demolished and the Murthis (symbolic representations of the various gods and goddesses) were housed in the Siva Soobramoniar and Mariamman Temple.

She died in 1950 at the age of 73 and was laid to rest in the family plot that she had purchased at the Mountain Rise Cemetery.

What of the progeny of this remarkable woman, who rose to become a property baroness in a difficult environment and against all odds? Her grandchildren have excelled in a variety of professions, ranging from law to medicine and business.

• Dr T. R. Moodley is a retired chief specialist, obstetrics and gynaecology, for the Pietermaritzburg metropolitan zone.

• Over the next few months, The Witness will be running aseries of articles commemorating the arrival in KwaZulu-Natal of indentured labourers from India.

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