A brave and adventurous man

2010-09-27 00:00

IN 1908 a 23-year-old man, handsome, energetic and tired, walked the streets of South India in search of employment. Not being lucky he decided to visit the shipping docks in Madras.

Here he came across the Umhloti 3, which was shortly to set sail back to South Africa. After making some inquiries, he was informed that this ship was taking labourers­ back to South Africa. He was further informed that employment was in abundance there and one could get very rich in a short time.

Without hesitation he immediately enrolled as an indentured labourer and boarded the ship. This he did without the consent of his mother and siblings.

This brave and adventurous man was my dad, Perumal Pillay, born on July 27, 1885 in the village of Melvanakkambadi South Arcot, Tiruvannamala, South India.

The Umhloti 3 docked at Durban harbour in January 1909. Perumal and the crew were taken to Ravensworth, Dalton­, Natal and employed by the timber company Clan Syndicate.

My father was able to calculate and measure accurately and was given the job as a sadar (foreman). For the next five years he served his indenture in the timber­ industry.

February 1914 was crunch time for him. He completed his term of indenture and had to make a very important decision. “Do I stay here or go back to South India”? An old man on the farm, a Mr Perakoodee­, made him a lucrative offer. He could stay in his house, take over his job, take care of his family and marry his only daughter.

After weighing this offer very carefully, my dad decided to stay. This became the turning point in his life. He now had a family, my mother Pechiammal, my grandmother Papathee and my granddad Perakoodee.

Although my Dad was released from his indentured status in February 1914, he only obtained his certificate­ of discharge” on September­ 12, 1924.

My father could speak, read and write Tamil and because of this, he was held in high esteem by the Tamil community. He was regarded as a priest. He married many young Indian couples according to Hindu rites.

For the next 13 years Perumal and Perakoodee­ worked and saved enough money to buy their own property. On May 17, 1927 they bought a seven-acre property­ in New Hanover for £360.

When they relocated to New Hanover, both men were out of a job. They now turned to their land for survival. Horses and oxen were used to plough the land. New Hanover was very cold during winter and one could only grow crops during the summer months.

Chillies were the prime crop that were grown on five acres of the farm. Chilli seedlings were only planted during the rainy season and the crop was not watered­ as rain was plentiful in those days. Perumal and his family weeded and harvested the crop. Chillies were left on the roof of the farmhouse to dry. Once dry they were put into bags and sold to a company called Packo.

Perumal’s family consisted of 10 children, seven boys and three girls.

Dad depended on the sale of his chillies and other garden crops to support his family. We grew up under very difficult conditions. Our main diet consisted of mealie meal. My mum prepared this in different forms — porridge, pap and cake that was baked in a coal stove. Bread was a luxury.

We went to school without shoes and warm clothes and we had no pocket money. Despite all this, we were all fed, clothed and educated.

We slept on the floor, on a mattress made of old grain bags that were stuffed with hay or coir. Old army overcoats were used as blankets. Our clothes were three sizes too big. My grandmother provided us with fresh fish that she caught in the river that flowed through the farm. Her fishing rod was a stick with hooks made from wire.

My grandmother ground the chillies on a grinding stone by hand and prepared the most divine fish curry. On rare occasions we had fresh chicken that we slaughtered from chickens that were grazing in the yard. My grandmother died in 1953 and my grandfather in 1958.

In May 1969, the evil force of the Group Areas Act brought our poor, but content farm life to an end. We were now forced to sell the farm and everybody relocated to Northdale in Pietermaritzburg.

The saddest moments for me were when my dad died in August 1977 and my mum in July 1997.

My life with my dad has taught me to be positive in life, set goals and achieve them. Also honour your parents, your culture and never forget your roots.


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