- The Meat Must Float
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Invite as many people as you want. That's what I tell Neela, my mother-in-law. But she sucks her teeth and says, "I have no thick or thin friends." Translated, this means she is not going to invite anyone to my baby's christening. I know better. The one thing I have learned for sure during the relatively short time I have come to know my mother-in-law and, by extension, Indians in South Africa, is to always ask three times. [End Page 133]
We spend all Sundays at my mother-in-law's house. She and my father-in-law, "George Police," live in Park Rynie, a small coastal town on the Indian Ocean side of South Africa. To get to Park Rynie, where the Indians live, you drive through Scottburgh, where the whites live, and to get to Scottburgh, you must drive past Umgababa, where the Zulus live.
There's no grass and hardly any trees to speak of where the Zulus live—mostly bald-headed land, scattered rondavels and cinder-block houses in various states of construction or repair, and rocky shores leading down to the ocean. The Zulu kingdom's founder, Shaka, once claimed the undulating hills of Umgababa and, for that matter, the entire region known today as KwaZulu-Natal. But Shaka failed to grasp the intentions of the aliens who washed up on his shores with a written language, paper, pens, and guns.
The shortsighted Zulu king granted a stretch of land to a couple of British adventurers, who soon after planted a Union Jack and established an ivory-trading settlement. More and more Brits followed, and, well, eventually Shaka lost everything: Umgababa, all the land the Zulu ruler could and could not see, control of his people, and ultimately his life—to envious half-brother assassins perhaps not too happy with his concessions to the British colonialists.
In Scottburgh, the whites live in two-and three-story houses with perfectly manicured lawns and wild banana trees, cycads, bougainvillea, and other sweet, pretty blooming things. Usually they own at least one, maybe two, or even three rottweilers, Rhodesian ridgebacks, Alsatians or some other big, ferocious dog to guard those pretty things from "the blacks."
The idea of a township called "Scottburg" and later "Scottburgh" was first floated in 1861. A newspaper editor touring the area on horseback wrote, "As a place of residence Scottburg, so named after the Lieutenant Governor, would be a favorable resort. Imaginatively one already realizes the day when … the enervated sugar planters of the coast shall fly to Scottburg in pursuit of pleasure and health, just as our countrymen go to Brighton, to Scarborough, or to Leith."
Today, Scottburgh is more like a dusty old painting you might find at a secondhand thrift store. You can tell it was once bright and beautiful, tucked there in the mouth of the Mpambanyoni River (in Zulu, mpambanyoni translates to confuser of birds). But Scottburgh's edges are beginning to chip and crack and its color to fade. Not even the high [End Page 134] stone walls and gates guarding the residences stand as straight as they did before legions of white residents bailed out of the country in anticipation of the start of black rule in 1994.
Park Rynie, the predominantly Indian area where my in-laws live, is a mix. You'll find a rich man's house, spectacularly expansive and painted snow white, with a remote-controlled sliding gate, right next to a crackerbox house crammed with three or more generations of the same family.
The Indians of South Africa began arriving in the British-ruled colony of Natal in i860. A newspaper headline heralded their landing: "The Coolies Are Here." Over the course of fifty years, more than 150,000 mostly Tamil and Telugu Indians ("temporary investments" in the minds of the British—that is until 1904, when the Indians outnumbered the whites) were brought to work in the sugarcane fields of Natal. Among those subjected to the hard, near slave-like conditions of working those fields were...