There’s a Gurkha in town

2010-11-08 00:00

THERE’S a Gurkha in town complete with his kookari (Gurkha knife). Not that I plan to establish my warrior status or use my kookari, which is a treasured family heirloom.

I decided to tell my family’s story because there is a common perception that indentured labourers came from South India.

My grandparents came from the village Ramnaguri in Katmandu in Nepal. How they came to know about the indentured labour system way up in the north of India and why they decided to come to South Africa are facts buried in the mist of time. Both my grandparents died in the thirties and my grandfather was 101 years old when he died. I have the funeral notice­, published in The Witness, that says this.

I was born in the forties long after their deaths, but what intrigued me all along were early family photos showing the children in Nepalese dress. There was also the precious heirloom, the kookari, which we all were in awe of. As children we were never allowed to touch this perfectly curved knife with its interesting knicks and sharpened blade.

My grandfather, Gokoolsing, whose name later evolved to Gokul Singh (colonial number 12913) came with the second batch of indentured labourers in 1866. He was 35 years old and was accompanied by a young wife, Jaimanee (18).

They had two sons, Rambuli and Rambaran (my father) Singh. Both were born while they were indentured on the Waterloo Sugar Estate in the Verulam district north of Durban. I learnt from my parents that my grandfather was a Gurkha soldier protecting the northern boundaries of India and that he was an expert in hand-to-hand combat.

When his indentured contract was over in Verulam, the family moved to rented accommodation in Zeederberg Street (off Boom Street) in Pietermaritzburg.

My grandfather bought half a hectare of ground in Pentrich when the Pietermaritzburg city council offered land for sale in the area to Indians. He paid £5 for the property and divided it into four plots. He built a wood-and-iron, three-bedroomed house on the one plot and did market gardening on the other plots. On his death, my father inherited the property and did improvements, rebuilding the wood-and-iron structure with bricks and mortar. He also built a store which was known as Singhs Café and General Dealer, situated on the corner of Camps Drift and Topham roads.

Both Gokoolsing’s sons ended up going to the white Boys’ Model Primary School in Loop Street. I understand that the reason they were allowed to attend was because they were fair-skinned. They went up to Standard 4 and both excelled in sport. My father later became the opening batsman for Royals Cricket Club. He went on to work for a jewellery and watchmaking firm known as Schwarky Brothers. He qualified as a jeweller and a watchmaker. I still have some of his tools. When he retired he ran his general­ dealer store in Pentrich. His first wife had three children. After she died, he remarried and he and his second wife had five daughters (my sisters) and me as their only son.

His brother, Rambuli, worked for a firm of attorneys and was a specialist at writing wills by hand. He had the most beautiful handwriting and would say that it was all in the wrist. He also only used a Watermans gold-tip fine-point fountain pen. His hobby was photography. When he retired he lent money to people who wanted to build houses. He was a larger-than-life character who built a seven-bedroom house in Pentrich and lived like a Victorian man. The furniture in his house was antique. He had a South Korean handcrafted camphorwood cupboard that was priceless. He also had the finest collection of Zulu spears and British swords. The items were so valuable that insurance companies refused to insure them. He also bucked convention by marrying a Tamil-speaking wife. They had no children and I remember that a treasured item in the house was a delicate German doll. They had given a plate of food to a German prisoner at the prisoner of war camp in Townhill and he in turn gave my aunt the doll.

My uncle was a founder member of the Shri Vishnu Temple and the Vedic Vidya Pracharak Sabha in Pentrich. He donated half a hectare of ground to build a Hindi school, where he taught Hindi. This later changed to an English-medium­ school.

I lost my father when I was in Standard 9 and my mother in my first year of teaching. I was married by then and my grandfather took all of us under his wing. He died in 1964. The horrid and inhuman Group Areas Act was the cause of his deteriorating health. Like other families in the area we lost everything when the act came about and we were forced to sell our properties to the Department of Separate Development for peanuts. The Group Areas Act was barbaric. It tore families apart, people lost their foundations — the properties they had nurtured and developed over the years with hard labour and their meagre savings. As a result many old people literally died from the stress and heartbreak of having to give up their homes. Our family moved to Mountain Rise.


* I am a third-generation Gokoolsing whose name by the slip of hand or the bad spelling of a colonial official became Gokul Singh. My full name is Madanjeeth Ramburan Singh.

I am 70 years old and a retired teacher, who was actively involved as a coach, organiser and administrator of primary schools and community sport. Besides leaving behind the kookari as a legacy, my grandparents have also left descendants who have done South Africa proud.

My late son Dr O. P. M “Tookie” Singh was a dedicated medical doctor and my second son is a chemical engineer. Of my two daughters, one is an HR manager and the other is a teacher. I have 10 grandchildren and a great-grandson.


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

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