Brothers drown in PMB

2009-01-12 00:00

Shan Pillay recalls the drowning of three brothers in the early sixties. His recollection inspired by last week’s story on how the first swimming pool for blacks was built in the city.

One of the worst tragedies to hit Pietermaritzburg in the sixties was the drowning of three children, all brothers, aged between five and 11. They were the children of Morris and Baby Pillay of Retief Street.

The tragedy not only left residents stunned but also saw different race groups come together to search for the boys for two days before they were found early on a Monday, in a trench near the Dorpspruit River, barely 300 metres from their home.

The two older boys, Dadaboy (13) and Yuganand (11), were pupils at St Anthony’s School on the corner of Retief and Pietermaritz streets where a shopping complex now stands, while Yugan (5) was the baby of the family.

At the time I was working at the Eddels Shoe factory. It was a hot Friday afternoon during the school holidays when the brothers disappeared just before lunch. Nobody could figure out what had happened to them. Had they been kidnapped? Were they lost? Nobody thought about them drowning.

Search parties were formed, if my memory serves me correctly, by members of the Magnus Scout group which was led by Puckree Gooriah. After work that Friday I joined one of the parties and walked all the way up a section of Hathorn’s Hill calling for the boys. I eventually ended up on the other side of the hill in dense bush among the plantations of Otto’s Bluff. The search had to be abandoned until the next day because of bad light.

We continued the following day and on Sunday, thinking that the children must have lost their way and found themselves on a farm in the vicinity. But they were not found.

Early on the Monday morning, while making my way to work, I saw a large crowd on the banks of the Dorpspruit River, behind the Sandals Shoe factory. I rushed to see what was going on and to my horror I was told what had happened. One of the children, the youngest, had surfaced from a trench in the river bed. Divers later recovered the other two brothers who had become wedged in the trench.

This section of the Dorpspruit River had recently been canalised, making it wider and shallow to accommodate an oil pipeline that was to run between Durban and Johannesburg. Sometimes, a helicopter landed on the Brookside soccer fields to allow people to inspect the pipeline. The boys, excited at the prospect of seeing the helicopter and knowing that it would land on the grounds, raced from their home to try to see it.

In their attempt to cross the river to get to the other side they didn’t anticipate the deep trench that had been made in the river bed to lay the oil pipeline. As a result they fell into the trench.

I remember that the funeral was one of the biggest in Pietermaritzburg, as three small white coffins lay side by side at the family home. Many people, who were unknown to the family, wept openly.

The staff from Eddels, numbering more than 1 500, queued in their lunch period to catch a glimpse of the brothers in their coffins.

Recently, I tracked down the only surviving Pillay child, Sadasivan “Ouda” Pillay, who turned 51 yesterday. He was seven at the time of the tragedy.

“It’s a horrible feeling when my birthday comes around. I want to pass it off as just another day in my life,” he told me as we stood on the banks of the Dorpspruit River near where the tragedy occurred. It was the first time that he had visited the spot.

“I did not know where the tragedy had occurred [until now],” he said. “It is a horrible feeling when it comes to this time of the year because had I been at home on that fateful day I would definitely have accompanied my brothers.

“As children we were fascinated by the helicopter that landed and took off from the Brookside grounds.” Pillay was a pupil at the Shri Vishnu Primary School in

Langalibalele (Longmarket) Street. When the tragedy happened his parents were making arrangements to celebrate his birthday.

“Both my parents were occupied in the tea room that they owned and never really found time during the year to get the family and friends together.

“My birthday afforded them the opportunity to take all my relatives and friends to the beach in Durban.

“On that fateful day I went with my mother to Northdale to invite people to join us. When we got back home late that evening my aunt broke the news that my brothers were missing. My mother immediately summonsed my father. By this time my mother was totally distraught. My father arrived and alerted family and friends, and immediately search parties were launched.

“The search groups, scoured dense bush, hospitals and the mortuary, but there was no sign of the missing boys. Early on Monday morning the youngest child was found floating in the Dorpspruit River. Police divers then located the other two who had become wedged in the trench.

“My parents were devastated,” said Pillay, who is still traumatised at the memory of the tragedy.

“My father was a religious man and he kept asking himself: ‘Why did God have to punish us like this?’ The stress and worry of the tragedy eventually took its toll and he died. Later, my mother followed.”

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