My grandmother’s scrap yard

2010-10-04 00:00

MY great-grandfather, Perumal Reddy, came to South Africa­ from Kasmere, India at the age of 16 years, looking to start a new life. On his arrival he worked as a labourer on a Zululand sugar- cane plantation. A few years later this handsome young man latched on to a trade fixing watches. He pursued this as a business, which entailed much travelling back and forth to the north and south coasts by train.

He was embraced by the communities he visited and was introduced to a beautiful young woman, Poogamar. It was love at first sight and they married and had two daughters and two sons. My grandmother, Lutchmee Padayachee, was born on December 23, 1915. They enjoyed doing business and travelling to the coasts together as one happy family, but this did not last. In 1918 the Spanish flu claimed many lives and Lutchmee’s mother and two siblings succumbed to the deadly illness.

Lutchmee, being only about three years old at that time, was placed in the care of many strangers while her father continued his business, travelling up and down. She was neglected as a young child in spite of her dad paying others to take care of her. Her formal education was disrupted at this point, and at the age of 12 she found herself living with relatives in Pietermaritzburg­.

At 13 years she was a well-built, beautiful young woman. Many suitors made their way to see her. Of course many left disappointed. She finally found the love of her life, Thanga- valoo, who proposed to her and they married soon after. The marriage was only consummated when she turned 18.

They had seven children, five daughters and two sons.

I am the daughter of their fifth daughter. Having now been around for 50-odd years, I look back with great admiration for Lutchmee. My late mother Angeca would tell me stories of how poor they were while growing up. They slept on wheat sacks. They had no shoes to wear. Yet in spite of that they still shared their meals with those less fortunate. She spoke of days when just a jam tin of water is what she used to bath with. But they did not just accept this life; Lutchmee looked beyond and wanted a better life for herself and her family. She taught herself to sew and design garments for her family, becoming confident enough to turn this talent into a business, and she started sewing for the well-to-do. She saved her money and wanted more challenges in life.

She stepped out to buy a scrap- metal dealership in the early fifties at 371 Berg Street, Pietermaritzburg.

Her eldest son, Billy, helped her in this lucrative business. He was the apple of her eye, but he died tragically in 1955 in a motor accident. She was devastated, but she persevered and the business prospered.

As a young girl I would observe the transactions in a day at the scrap yard. Early in the morning people would queue up with their loads of scrap in small handmade carts, which would contain jam tins, fish tins, milk containers, rusted steel pieces and other broken pieces of metal. Each person would patiently wait their turn to weigh their stuff on a scale with weights.

I was always fascinated to see the look on their faces when their metal was exchanged for cash, which meant that they could buy bread and milk for that day.

Ma Padayachee never stopped there. She purchased a machine from Germany to compress all this scrap metal and exported these blocks of metal, which would be used to manufacture other products such as toys.

Her business became an international metal dealership and Ma travelled­ widely to Germany, Sweden­, London, Paris, India, Denmark, Mauritius, France and many other countries.

She had a staff complement of clerks, bookkeepers, technicians, drivers, labourers, housekeepers and cooks to assist her. She also groomed her family to run the business. She no doubt was a hard task master.

She served the community of Pietermaritzburg­ with her multitasking and was generous with her time and money.

She was also very religious and supported the local temples and churches a great deal. She was well versed on any topic from politics to sports and so on.

I can still picture this slim, graceful woman in her beautiful sari and self-designed blouses. She was so meticulous and a perfectionist in whatever she did. That grace still abounds in the rich heritage that she left in our family. In the community if you want to be identified by someone — just say “scrap-yard Padayachee” and your landmark is acknowledged.

At 78 she secured permanent residence at NCVV Home. She wanted to be independent. She died on June 13, 2006 of bronchopneumonia, at the age of 94.


• The Witness is running a weekly series of articles commemorating the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa.

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