Pebbles, prickly pears and pomegranates

2008-12-05 00:00

I STARED at the photo in the album in front of me. I was filled with nostalgia as a deluge of memories came flooding back to me. I recall those days of my childhood as the happy old days. This trip down memory lane was reminiscent of one of many journeys undertaken during my childhood and my teenage years.

The countryside used to glide past as we headed north to the small town of Wasbank. The tranquillity of the countryside was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the city.

My parents, siblings — Karam, Anitha and Shirley — and I were heading to holiday at my maternal grandmother’s house. In the early days we would undertake these trips by train from our home in Edendale, where most Indian families resided, and years later, from our Northdale home.

Much preparation went into these trips. Karam would wash and polish our brown Chev, and we girls assisted in the baking and preparing of food. Music in the car emanated from an eight-track tape deck. Having prayed and packed, we would set out on another, much-anticipated journey.

The breathtaking scenery en route always held me in awe. The first highlight was a glimpse of the water cascading over Midmar Dam in a silvery haze. At Wagendrift Dam near Estcourt the crystal spray of water sparkled in the sunlight. I loved the majestic mountains that loomed in the distance. In the foreground lay dams of shimmering blue amid the greenery. Here and there a stream cascading over rocks made me yearn to frolic in its refreshing waters.

Ladysmith was heralded by hills, which loomed close to the roadside, covered by rocks interspersed with colourful aloe plants. From Ladysmith we resumed our journey onward. In the early days the national tar road met a dirt road which led to the town of Wasbank. As the car would go over the bridge of the Busi River, my heart would leap with joy. We had finally arrived.

Our arrival would be announced by a cloud of dust and the sound of the car on the dirt road. Since word of our impending arrival would have been received by letter weeks earlier, my grandmother, aunt and cousin, Meela, would be waiting to welcome us.

Three generations of women lived together. My aunt (Mum’s sister) had returned to her mother’s home, after a failed marriage, with her then one-year-old daughter Meela. Later when Meela had grown into a young woman and my granny had died, my aunt supported family members in their time of need. To this end, she was affectionately known by all as Maya (meaning mother). Leaving the home in Meela’s care, Maya would assist at births, deaths, weddings and during illness. She would sometimes be away from her home for months on end. I spent six months with her as a toddler, during which she “fattened” me up. My family’s gratitude to her knows no bounds. She was a pillar of strength through all our trying times.

The welcome was an emotional one. As a young girl, I never understood why my mother cried when she met her mother. As a mother now, I understand. After the meeting and greeting, we would go inside the house, which nestled under huge gum trees, metres away from the wide banks of the Busi River. The house was made of mud, cement and tin, and had wooden window frames. The ceiling consisted of material, ranging from cardboard to masonite and plastic to prevent the rain from coming in. It was a humble home, with no electricity, but for us children it could very well have been a palace. This two-bedroomed house with a lounge, huge kitchen and a veranda with a veranda room contained a lifetime of memories. In the early days, my mum’s brother, Paul, who was a bachelor at the time, lived in the veranda room. After he married he moved to a house across the river, where he farmed. His farm was referred to as “the land”.

After unpacking we would cross the shallow waters of the river, treading carefully on stepping stones. We made our way up the steep bank, on a path through the long grass, carrying a parcel of Kara Nicha’s sev and boondhi (an Indian snack) and some bottles of Crerars Bull’s Eye Pop for Uncle Paul. A man with a suntanned face and chiselled features, he was somewhat eccentric and only married when he was 60. Beware anybody who didn’t greet him in the vernacular and beware any woman wearing pants. You would be subjected to an endless lecture on the ills of modernisation.

Nevertheless, we loved Uncle Paul, but more especially the fruit from his land. The branches of his pomegranate trees would hang low, laden with the brightly coloured fruit. he would scoop out the juicy seeds, which we would crunch with sugar. however, cutting prickly pears was a thorny issue! While cautioning us, he would carefully cut the fruit from the fleshy plant that grew on the bank of the river. Armed with a fork and a knife, he would retrieve the delicious red inner and he delighted in seeing us enjoy it. We also indulged in the mealies he braaied on the open fire. A tour of the land, besides plucking peaches and plums and a range of vegetables, would include drinking water from the borehole.

We also toured much of the town. We trailed Meela everywhere, to the post office, the butchery and to town, which was just a cluster of a few shops. Meela would purchase Sparletta Pinenut, her absolute favourite, and we would purchase sweets from Uncle Lalie’s sweet factory for Mum’s home tuck shop. We accompanied her to friends’ and relatives’ homes where we were warmly welcomed. Also welcomed in the small town was the merry-go-round which caused as much of a stir as out-of-town visitors did. At the “merries” my teenage sister, Anitha, received admiring glances from the young men. While we were out, Mum spent time with her sister. Dad would potter around the yard, teasing Maya about her collection of unused iron and other stuff. As a keen photographer, he took many pictures. Sometimes he would sit on the veranda and chat to relatives who would drop by.

On weekends we visited family in the nearby towns of Glencoe and Dundee. During these trips Maya would hand out sweets and dried fruit.

Time was spent frolicking in the shallow waters of the river and picking up stones and pebbles. I always thought my pebbles were precious since they contained flecks of glittering gold. Many relaxing hours were spent under a huge tree, the trunk and huge curved root of which formed a comfy seat. The tree, which bore grape-like bunches of berries, was a haven for any book lover. I enjoyed just sitting there enjoying the open fields. Shirley loved to pick dandelions to blow away the fluffy seeds. Sometimes fields of swaying white, pink and lilac cosmos reminded me of undulating waves. At times the silence was interrupted by the mooing of Maya’s brown cow, brought back from grazing in the distant camps.

It was Meela’s task to milk the cow. We would follow Meela, who would be armed with her three-legged stool, vaseline and a bucket. As Meela would pull at the udder, the white spray filled the bucket. Karam constantly nagged to milk the cow. However, he never nagged again after the day the cow’s tail came swooshing across his face. It thrilled Shirley to bottle-feed the calf. I recall Uncle Paul’s one cow being named Bhontshisi (beans in Zulu). Fresh cow dung, mixed with water, was smeared across the yard. Dried cow dung was gathered to be burnt in the coal stove. Meela chopped the wood and shovelled the coal in a bucket for the coal stove.

On cold evenings when the crispy chill set in, everybody gathered around the coal stove. Earlier on the paraffin lamps were prepared and lit. Shirley and I sat on brightly coloured, wooden, handmade little stools. Over mugs of gingermilk, the adults would reminisce about the good old days. Sometimes we enjoyed curd that Maya cooked from the milk of a cow which had given birth. Another treat was scraping the scorched milk from the milk pot, which we called the sari pot. We also indulged in Maya’s range of curries (including guinea fowl), homemade pickles and stewed peaches with cream. My favourite was phutu with home-made maas.

Speaking of home, the exciting and adventure-filled days would soon draw to a close. Refreshed and rejuvenated, we would return home with as much fruit, vegetables and milk as a Chev truck could hold.

My eyes filled with tears as I looked at the photo. “Oh, Maya, you were a woman of small stature, who left great memories. You were my mum when she was gone.” As I closed the album, I said a silent prayer. “Rest in peace, Maya.”

Indra Sewgoolam

InDRA Sewgoolam is an Afrikaans teacher at Raisethorpe Secondary School. She loves the countryside and has always been inspired by beautiful scenery. She wrote this story as a tribute, as well as for her daughter so that she could have a glimpse into her mother’s childhood, when happiness was found in the simplest of things.

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