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Mahabharata goes to Mayville

Childhood has never been so intensely joyful as it is in Eb Koybie: A Memoir of Shenanigans between Durban & Bombay. The author, Ebrahim Essa, grew up in the 1950s in an Indian township, Mayville, on the outskirts of Durban in South Africa. He continues to live in Durban and is an aficionado of comic-books and Hindi films. He taught high school Physical Science for 30 years before retiring in 2016.

Ebrahim Essa’s grandfather and namesake travelled to South Africa from Gujarat about a century ago. Essa was a child of the late 40s and early 50s, when apartheid raged in South Africa. While Essa’s satirical memoir mentions apartheid, it never takes itself too seriously. History happens, is laughed at, and remembered with fondness.

The boy Essa bunks school to watch Hindi films, irons his brothers’ clothes to get access to banned comic books, and tries to outrun gangsters. Later, he is bundled off to India to study. There he battles jaundice, long-drop toilets, and electricity cuts in the days of the 1965 India-Pakistan war.

The Indian South African community to which Essa belongs, speaks Memon, which is thought to be a dialect of the Sindhi language. ‘Eb koybie’, loosely translated from Memon as ‘For that matter, anybody’, is a phrase coined by Essa, which becomes somewhat of an inside joke in the family.

His memoir is funny, engaging and irreverent, as this extract from the section ‘Ramayan’ shows:

Hindi-speaking Hindus immigrated to this country from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other north Indian provinces. They made the trip from Calcutta to become indentured labour on the sugarcane fields and so became known as “Calcuthias”.

Peasant Muslims, also from different eastern and northern areas of India, came to South Africa via Hyderabad. They became known as “Hyderabadis”. They also resented the term.

If the relatively richer Gujarati Hindus looked down upon the “Calcuthias” as lower caste, the Gujarati Muslims were also guilty of treating the “Hyderabadis” as inferior Muslims.

Next to our house at Mayville, there lived a large joint family of Hindi-speaking Hindus. Their surname was Chedy and their property was well below road level. They held a quadrangle of many single-storey buildings; some of brick and tile, others of brick and tin. Some housed sub-families, others were outside toilets.

Yet others were used as stables, kennels and fowl runs. This large family was a real collection of father, mother, sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, cows, dogs, fowls, and some grandchildren.

Red flags with Aum and trident symbols fluttered from very tall bamboo poles near the entrance. A makeshift driveway cut into the ground for cars, trucks, livestock and human traffic. An impressive temple on the one side of the quadrangle housed idols of Ram, Sita, Krishna and Hanuman. Milk was regularly left in a bowl to feed a reputed snake god said to live in the temple.

Quite regularly we heard screaming and shouting in what we understood to be Bhojpuri Hindi. Their complex was always surrounded by a cacophony of sounds. There were even fistfights, between husband and wife, and sister-in-law and mother-in-law.

Sometimes a drunk Thiluk could be heard telling his mother, “Ma, I will kill myself in the waterfall, then you will be sorry!”

Mrs Chedy would snap back: “And take that wretched wife of yours with you!”

On occasions, their entire complex would be wrapped in coloured lights and marigold flowers. A large marquee would be set up in the space between their complex and our retaining wall, and a stage set for some entertainment. It could have been a wedding, a religious ceremony accompanying the birth of a new child, or Diwali; any excuse to have some fun.

The entire neighbourhood was automatically invited, without frills or formality. There were no Muslims, Hindus or Christians here. There was no identity crisis or confusion. We were all simply Indians. Dogs were locked out of sight, fowls safely put away in their coops and cows locked away in their stables.

Ladies sat on wooden chairs, or squatted on the cold ground, wrapped in blankets when it was chilly. An invisible barrier separated the women from the men, who would be dangerously drunk by eleven o’clock.

Devotional poetry or bhajans would initiate the proceedings, followed by lighter forms of prayer and sometimes brief sermons by the pious.

Most of the people in our area were very poor. These simple celebrations brought people together to share their woes and joys while offering some hope to continue living.

Some very impressive dramas involving the saga of the sages through the ages, recounted the legends around the Mahabharata. A favourite told of the ordeal of Sita. She survived being abducted by the evil demon Ravana, was rescued by her husband Ram, then had to undergo a further humiliation; to prove her chastity.

These popular plays were the main course on the menu. Ladies would swoon over the actor personifying Ram. Men would drool at the sight of Sita dressed in a chaste-white chiffon sari, plastered with makeup. Bright red lipstick, white talcum powder, red rouge, orange-coloured sindoor in the centre-path of her pitch black hair, and a perfectly made dark-red sindoor at the centre of her forehead. As she made her way to centre stage, the chimes from the bells on her ankles could barely be heard above the din of the amorous catcalls from the gallery.

Few in their frenzy and lustful, drunken stupor, stopped to have a good look at her, or they would have realised that it was not a woman, but a man dressed for the part. They had forgotten that it was forbidden for women play themselves on stage.

There were some absurd comedies as well. My favourite, Champa, was about a newlywed bride who went against tradition and continued practising her Indian dancing when her husband and in-laws were away.

This tall, handsome male with thickly-lined kohl, false eyelashes, donning a black wig with thick pigtails (imported from India via Singapore) makes a sudden appearance from the left side of the wooden stage. She performs the Bharatanatyam to live music played by half a dozen musicians armed with a harmonium, tabla, dholak, and a bulbul tarang.

Champa is wearing a sari with gold sequins that reflect the coloured lights around the stage. As the music changes from classical to a faster, modern tune adapted from the popular movie Rattan, she abandons the Bharatanatyam and switches to swaying her hips. The younger men in the crowd salivate.

A burly male figure appears out of nowhere, and, using a club made of cardboard, strikes her down and places his heavy sandalwood jackboot on her face. The music stops just before he screams, “How many times have I told you that dancing is not allowed in this family?”

Champa sticks her tongue out, winks wickedly at the audience from under the boot and replies in Hindi, “Sirf sau baar” (Just 100 times).

This elicits wild laughter and approval, especially from the ladies. The unamused husband pulls out his wooden sandal and knocks it against poor Champa’s head. The ladies do not appreciate this scene and protest by booing, jeering and waving their fists. Some young girls and boys throw small onions and tomatoes at the cruel husband. The men in the audience protest against the unruly behaviour of the ladies in the crowd. All this adds to the chaotic entertainment of the endless evening. I too, find all of this funny. Except the violence against Champa. I know it is make believe, but I have seen this scene enacted before, closer to home.

Extracted from Eb Koybie: A Memoir of Shenanigans between Durban & Bombay by Ebrahim Essa (Social Bandit Media).

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 3:12:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/mahabharata-goes-to-mayville/article33633240.ece

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