Review: Vivien Horler
A Home on Vorster Street – a memoir, by Razina Theba (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
Everyone loved Salim best. He was the “favourite-favourite”, or as Razina Theba puts it, the chocolate wrapped in purple cellophane in a box of Quality Street.
He was Theba’s mum’s adored nephew, sullen, miserable, ungenerous. “He was a little SHIT!” she would beam.
All the grandchildren were treated the same, except Salim. Every Friday, when the grandchildren converged in the flat on Vorster Street in Joburg’s Fordsburg, their grandfather, Bajee, would call to Salim, holding out a brown paper bag full of Nutt Puffs, Wilson’s boiled sweets and Chappies.
Only Salim got the sweets. The other grandchildren would gather round and plead: “Just one, Salim, please.”
But Salim was obdurate. He would tell his cousins that had Bajee wanted them all to have sweets, he would have given them all sweets. But they were welcome to watch him eat.
Theba writes: “A game of Ludo or pick-up-sticks would pause while he unwrapped a Chappies and popped it into his mouth. The smell of pink Chappies rubbed his position as the favourite-favourite into their noses.”
Theba’s grandparents lived in a groundfloor flat just down Vorster Street from the Newtown Mosque. Facing on to the street were red-polished stoeps, at the back was a yard containing the communal loos where people parked and played. It was common for residents of the upper floors to trail through Bajee and Ma’s front door, greet politely, emerge from the kitchen into the yard and then go upstairs to their own homes.
Theba, her sister and their parents didn’t live at Vorster Street, but they went there all the time. All the cousins did, and there were a lot of cousins. Bajee and Ma had had nine children, two boys and seven girls, and they all did their duty in creating grandchildren.
In the 1970s Fordsburg the people living in the flats in Vorster Street included Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Farsis. What was stronger than their differences was the fact they were all of Indian immigrant descent, and at the major festivals – Diwali, Eid or Christmas – would send plates of food around to their neighbours.
The families were mostly poor – Bajee was a street vendor selling brown paper bags and candles; Theba’s parents had a curio shop in the Oriental Plaza in what had once been known as Fietas.
A common meal was kari-kitchri, made from bimri rice – never the more expensive basmati – and flavoured wth sour milk. Salads and mutton biryani were a treat for special occasions, like when Bajee’s most rebellious daughter, Khatija, divorced her husband, bringing disgrace on the family, and then came home as a doctor with a practice in Fietas.
So there was the street vendor with his doctor daughter – and another doctor son. How was this achieved? By the fact every working sibling contributed to the education of the others by dropping a regular contribution into the old Mazawattee Tea tin on the top of the fridge.
It wasn’t all fun and games by any means. There was real sadness, like when Fietas became a white Group Area, fear when favourite-favourite Salim started attracting the attention of the security police.
But the overwhelming spirit in this wonderful collection of stories about a family and their neighbours is of food and community and love. Oh, and it’s frequently hilarious.
- This is one of Exclusive Books’ top 25 books for September, part of the book chain’s 70th anniversary celebrations.