Honouring a street sweeper

2010-08-23 00:00

THE ship’s list of Indian immigrants who arrived aboard the SS Umzinto in October 1904 includes one­

Paliah Reddy (23) from Kotha Polur in the Nellore district of southern India. He was accompanied by his wife, Latchmi (18). The Witness of June 1975 reports the death in Northdale Hospital of a Polliah Reddy.

Paliah Reddy and Polliah Reddy are one and the same person. According to his son Kista (74), his family are not certain of his father’s date of birth or other background information because he had no birth certificate. All they have is oral memory and the copy of the SS Umzinto’s passenger list.

Reddy lived in the city for over 60 years and spent about 40 of those as a street sweeper indentured to the city corporation. His family does not know what happened to his first wife, Latchmi, who arrived from India with him. They do know, however, that he married a South African-born woman, Nagamah Lutchman. After she died, he married her younger sister, Atchimmah, mother of Kista and his siblings. Polliah and Atchimmah had 13 children, eight of whom survived, and six of whom still live in the city.

“My parents first lived in corporation accommodation located where Eastwood Prison now stands. Then they moved to a house in Loop Street and stayed there until it was demolished to build a school. Finally, they moved to Bombay Road in Northdale,” said Kista.

Despite living here for so long, Reddy senior spoke little English, preferring to stick to his native Telegu, or Zulu, which he spoke fluently. He never learned to read or write either. The report in The Witness notes that he “swept the streets of central Pietermaritzburg for … decades, starting in those dusty pioneer days of horse-drawn carriages and unpaved streets wide enough to turn a span of oxen.” He retired in 1968 and continued to live with his extended family in Northdale until he was well into his nineties. If the information on the ship’s list is correct, he died at the age of 95.

“My father never saw a doctor or went into hospital until a week before he died when he became seriously ill after a bad fall. The only treatment he ever had for illnesses such as colds or ’flu were traditional herbal medicines made from Indian recipes. He used to enjoy a drink of cane spirits and he loved meat,” said Kista.

Reddy senior faithfully sent money home to his family in India every month, accompanied by a letter written for him by a community member. He never went back to visit his homeland, but his descendants have. Kista and his nephew, Swami, who contacted The Witness about his grandfather, have both been to India to trace their family roots. Sadly, they were able to find neither records nor relatives.

Swami said he first met his grandfather when he was about five years old. “He lived in Bombay Road then and to me he was old. He was a humble, quiet man who used to tell us stories about working for the corporation, sweeping gutters at night sometimes. He earned so little and life was hard. He was active in the community and used to lead prayers regularly.”

Two of Polliah’s daughters, Kista’s sisters Kanagee (76) and Lutchmee (64), still live in the family home in Bombay Road. Lutchmee remembers that her father loved gardening and birds.

“He used to tell us that we should put out food scraps for the birds so that when we passed on, they would carry our souls to the next life.”

• Over the next few months, The Witness will be running a weekly series of articles commemorating the 150th arrival of indentured labourers from India.

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