Boma : Child of the Location
By the time she was seven, Boma was already pursuing a life of crime. Like any miscreant, she was greedy, cunning, had no respect for authority and no conscience. As long as she could get away with it, whatever it was, she was okay. Her little sister, Baba, two years younger, was a bit of a pest. She had been brainwashed by Mummy and Daddy into believing that it was wrong to steal and tell lies and as the sisters spent most of their time together, Baba's honesty really cramped Boma's style. Whenever Mummy went out, Boma climbed onto the kitchen table so that she could reach the shelves from which pickled lemons, mangoes, and carrots beckoned to her. She couldn't wait to get at them.
Skinny little Baba, standing in the middle of the little kitchen, her large eyes wide with disapproval, always yelled at her. "I'm going to tell Mummy when she comes back."
"I'm just taking a few. You want some?" Boma, on the kitchen table, holding out a soft, brown, lemon segment, grinned like a little devil.
Baba, who was never hungry, couldn't be tempted. "You know you're not supposed to touch them. The pickles aren't ready yet."
"I don't care." Her mouth crammed, Boma simply wrinkled her nose.
Her little sister couldn't understand this disregard for truth and honesty. "I'm
going to tell Mummy."
"I'll kill you if you do."
"Spanky, Spanky, Spanky," Baba knew how much her sister hated to be called that as she had a secret crush on Spanky, a character in the Our Gang film shorts that they saw at the Empire Bioscope.
"Oh shut up, Dragon, Dragon, Dragon." This was Boma's hate name for Baba, also from a film, One Million BC, in which dinosaurs and other monsters fought fierce and terrible fights.
Like any addict, Boma's quest in life was for money to buy junk food.
Whenever she had a penny or two, she was off to the yards where housewives running home businesses produced a variety of take away eats. All kinds of goodies were on offer - samoosas, moorookoo, fried peanuts, koe'siesters, achaar and kerriballs. So Boma always needed money. If Mummy left pennies or tickeys lying around they would disappear, likewise Boma, who would be sneaking off to one of the yards, especially the one on the corner of Grand and Sixth Streets that sold sour figs and kumquat pickles. And she was always searching for dropped coins in the yard or on the streets. Once, when she found a sixpence in the yard and jubilantly showed it off, Mummy immediately claimed it as the exact amount that she had lost. After that, whenever Boma found a coin, she didn't say a word and as soon as she could, was off to buy sour figs or joysticks and cool drinks from Makooloo Hopaan, the Chinese general dealer on Bloed Street, or sweetmeats from Chagan's cafee at the corner of Boom and Cowie Streets.
As Mummy didn't trust Boma, she always gave her the exact amount for whatever she needed when she sent her on shopping errands. Boma usually went to the general dealer on the corner but if she couldn't get what she needed there, she walked down Bloed Street, which had shops or cafees on almost every corner. One day, Mummy gave her two-and-six and sent her off to buy a pound of butter. She went from shop to shop but there was no butter to be had and she thought she would have to go home empty handed. There was just one shop left, the cafee on the corner of Bloed and Tenth Streets. When she got there, she found that it was very busy. As there was only over-the-counter service in those days, she had to wait a while before the shopkeeper turned to her. Then she gave him the half-crown only to find that this shop too was out of butter. Handing back the coin, the shopkeeper asked Boma to wait as he was expecting a delivery at any moment. After a while, he turned to serve her again. With so many customers coming and going, he had forgotten that she was waiting for the butter. She handed him the coin once more but the butter still hadn't come so he gave it back again. When the butter finally arrived, the shopkeeper, wrapping up a pound, smiled, "I know you paid me already." As she took the butter, she looked the picture of innocence. When she got home, she was very proud to have saved her mother a whole half-crown. Mummy didn't say a word. She should have sent her daughter back with the money but she was too ashamed. After all, her husband was an interpreter at the court and they were from Durban.
The Naidoos had come to the Asiatic Bazaar in 1938. Boma's father, originally from Durban, was sent to Ladysmith when he joined the police force. After a year or two, he was promoted to Court Interpreter and transferred to Pretoria where the family took up residence in a tin shanty at 370 Cowie Street. The stand had the typical location barrack structure: blocks of units around a yard with a communal ablution block comprising one toilet and one bathroom for all the families on the stand. The Naidoos occupied one of two units on the Cowie Street side of the stand; the Padayachys rented the other. An old man, Green Door Thatha (Grandfather) lived alone in one of the one-room units on the side.
The Naidoos' unit was a rectangle, divided down the middle on both sides into four smaller rectangles or rooms. The rooms overlooking the street were wider than the ones overlooking the yard. One of these bigger rooms was a bedroom for the parents and the two girls, with Mummy and Daddy's double bed in one corner and the girls' bed in the corner under the window. Seeni, Boma's brother loved to stand outside on the veranda, making snake shadows on the window blind to terrify his sisters. Between the beds there was just enough space for a wardrobe. Another wardrobe next to the foot of the girls' bed permanently blocked a door that led out onto the veranda. When the girls grew bigger, Boma slept on the floor in front of this wardrobe. Since the toilet was in the yard, there was a chamber pot under the big bed for use during the night.
Adjacent to the bedroom on the street side was the living room with a sofa, chairs, a coffee table, a lamp table and a radiogram, all with vases of fresh flowers set on doilies. A connecting doorway led from the living room into the next rectangle, the dining room, and almost next to it, at right angles, another doorway into the kitchen and almost next to that, at right angles, another doorway into the yard. The dining room, which overlooked the yard, was also the boys' bedroom. They slept on goothrees (comforters), one on the table for one bed, another on the floor for the second bed.
The narrow kitchen adjoining the main bedroom had a chimney alcove with its own floor that was about six inches higher than the kitchen floor. The shiny black Dover coal stove stood on this platform. A small window next to the alcove looked out into the yard. The end wall, the short side of the rectangle, was lined with three shelves, neatly covered with newspaper that Mummy cut to form the patterned fringes that hung over the front of the shelves - the very shelves that Boma raided for pickles and biscuits. Adjacent to the shelves was the doorway into the bedroom. The kitchen table stood against the wall under the shelves, with Daddy's chair at the bedroom end and Mummy's chair on the side.
Most units in the location, consisting of two rooms and a kitchen, housed families much larger than the Naidoos. So the Naidoos and their next-door neighbours, the Padayachys, were quite privileged to have three rooms and a kitchen. With only these two families and an old bachelor in a room with a green door, their yard was not crowded. Other yards had four or five, sometimes up to ten families, sharing one toilet, one bathroom and a tap outside. As there was no water in the units, large zinc baths, huge enamel basins and buckets were common utensils in every home. Tin containers, in which cooking oil and paraffin were sold, were used to boil bath water, steam Christmas puddings and make ginger beer. Mummy made the best ginger beer in the world.
GP (Ganes Padayachy), who lived in the unit adjoining the Naidoo's, drove the big blue Hudson Terrapin that was parked outside on the dirt pavement. As he was one of very few people in the location who owned a car, the only one Boma knew, she always thought of GP and his Hudson as a single entity. His mother, a tiny wrinkled old lady with white hair pulled back into a bun at the back of her head, lived in the room adjoining the Naidoo's living room. In a white sari, with a pale green shawl over her shoulders, she often stood in her doorway singing Tamil songs and calling out to passers-by on the street, "Na Morsele vanthè" (I came from Mauritius). As she always fixed outraged eyes on children and swore loudly at them in Tamil, they found her quite scary. Although they were afraid of her, all the children in the neighbourhood loved to tease and enrage her. They would bang on her door, run off and watch from a distance as she rushed out onto the veranda, arms flailing, hurling the vilest curses. They loved it. They were thrilled at their own daring.
GP's orphaned nephew and nieces, Shunmugam (Boy) Pillay, and his sisters, Velliamma and Parvathy, also lived next door. In the evenings or over weekends, Boy, who played the saxophone, came out into the yard to practise. To Boma, his sax was as much a part of him as GP's car was a part of GP. Boy's sister, Velliamma, a very beautiful, dark skinned girl in her late teens, was like a big sister to Boma and Baba. When they played house-house together, she would build a tiny fire, put a little makeshift grate over it and boil peas and rice in tin lids. The girls loved Velliamma but she wasn't with them for long.
She died and Boma was mystified. This was her first experience of death and she had no idea how or where it had come from. Mummy never took the girls to weddings or funerals but this funeral was right in their yard. Having no understanding of death, all that the sisters saw was their friend laid out in the yard, beautifully dressed in an expensive Benares sari and gold jewellery with gold coins over her eyes to keep the lids closed. Boma, who had no idea why the coins were there, was strangely fascinated. This custom, more than anything else, gave her an eerie feeling about death. After that, whenever there was a funeral, she would ask, "Did they put coins on the dead person's eyes?"
GP's brother, Murrthee, lived just opposite, on the other side of Cowie Street, which, despite being one of the three or four tarred roads in the location, was very narrow. With a hop, skip and a jump the children were across it and in each other's homes. Uncle Murrthee, a very short, thin man and his wife, Nagoo, much taller and a big woman, were the Naidoos' best friends. They had two little boys, Visoo, the same age as Baba, and Kathi, a little younger. A third boy, who was born to them some years later, became Baba's little pet.
Like all the children in the location, the Naidoo girls and the Padayachy boys, played in the street. There was such a horde of children in the location that they turned every available space into a playground - the verandas, the yards, the pavements, the streets, the river and even the bioscopes.
The long, narrow veranda at 370 Cowie Street, which was not sectioned off, provided a playing space for less vigorous games like Baby Steps, Giant Steps and Ten Stones. On the dirt pavement below the veranda, children played borretjie (hopscotch). In the yard, they played skipping games or ball games or house-house, for which they put up a makeshift tent with a stick and a sack. There were plenty of sacks back then, as sugar, flour, rice, and vegetables were sold in large gunnysacks. Boma, who loved sleeping in the tent, annoyed the others when she tried to get them all to sleep in it. They preferred to explore the yard, a little game park, with roofs on two sides and the syringa berry tree in the corner, just calling out to be climbed. Using the fence next to the tree, the children made their way up to the lower branches, then onto the roof over Green Door Thatha's unit.
As the climbers clattered over the flat roof of the Padayachys' and Naidoos' units, they would suddenly hear Mummy's terrified voice shouting at her daughter. "Come down at once. You'll break your neck!" But Boma, ignoring her mother, simply continued on with the rest. They were on their way down anyway. At the end of the roof, they would clamber onto the boundary wall next to the kitchen and jump to the ground. When she was naughty like this, Mummy put the poker in the fire. That sent Boma in a mad dash to the bedroom and under the double bed. Crouching in the farthest corner, she watched the red-hot poker thrashing around trying to find her. Knowing Mummy would never hurt her, Boma wasn't really scared so Mummy's attempts to discipline her didn't work and she always did whatever she wanted. But her mother's constant nagging, eventually convinced her that she would break her neck and she gave up the climbing expeditions.
After that the syringa tree became just a tree. But it had other uses. It provided the leaves for treating measles. Mummy spread them with a paste of turmeric and crushed ginger and then applied them to faces and the children, though not confined to bed, stayed home wearing their leaves for the duration of the illness. The tree also invited the peacocks from the Marieamman Temple in Sixth Street into the yard. When the birds came floating down, Baba and Boma held their breaths in delight, waiting for them to display their fantails. Sometimes they were lucky.
But yards weren't the only playing spaces. The street was a much bigger playground, with many more children and a greater variety of games - Lucky Charms, Pannetjies, Marbles, Kennetjie, tops, kites and hide-and-seek. Lucky Charms and Pannetjies required the skill of shooting charms or tin caps into a circle drawn on the ground with a target in the middle. Whoever hit the target won and took all the charms in play. The brightly coloured charms made of clay or plaster of Paris represented all kinds of objects, animals and people; Boma's favourites were the little gnomes. One day, being on a winning streak, she decided to challenge one of the older boys. They played, and before she knew it, she had lost all her lucky charms. She felt she had somehow been diddled, but her brothers just treated her appeals with contempt. What business had she, a little pipsqueak, to challenge one of their friends?
In the evenings, just after the sun went down, the children played hide and seek in the street and the darkness came alive with little shadows flitting about looking for hiding places behind pillars, near the shop and around the Tamil School. While sounds of running, whooping, yelling, shouting, swearing and laughter filled the air, parents sat on their verandas, quietly contemplating their boisterous offspring, and enjoying the coolness of the evening.
As Cowie Street was a main thoroughfare, horse-drawn carts and motor vehicles intruded into the children's playing area during the day but the children knew how to incorporate these vehicles into their play. When they saw a horse and cart in the distance, they waited in quiet anticipation. As soon as it came by, they leapt up, grabbed the backboard and hung on by their hands and feet. Sailing his whip over them, the driver would try to jettison this unwanted cargo but the children, not at all intimidated, rode along to the end of the street before they jumped off.
They played a more dangerous game with passing motor vehicles. Cars and trucks were novelties on the street so when the children saw a motor vehicle approaching, they waited on one side. As soon as it was fairly close, someone gave a shout that sent them dashing to the other side in front of the vehicle. Drivers probably suffered near heart attacks trying to slow down in time.
One day, when Mummy was out, the children saw a truck coming down the road. As usual, they waited and then at the signal, charged. Little Baba, a skinny, sickly child, was left behind. When Boma called to her to hurry, she made a sudden dash into the middle of the road and fell down right there. Fortunately, the truck stopped in time. The driver got out, picked up the terrified little girl, set her down amongst the other children and gave them all a good scolding. That evening, Mummy, very angry with Boma, put the poker in the fire. Boma in her corner under the double bed didn't really need any punishment. She couldn't forgive herself for what had happened. After that, the sisters didn't play the game with motor vehicles anymore.
But that didn't stop their play activities from being of concern to Mummy. Every so often they escaped to the forbidden paradise of the Apies River, about five streets away, where they joined other children whose parents were not as strict. All the children loved the river. In the section that bordered the locations, the bed and banks had been cemented over and only a trickle of water ran through. The children ran down the cement bank on their side of the river, sped across the bed and allowed the momentum to carry them up the opposite bank on to the other side where white people lived. No matter how hard she tried, Boma could never get up the opposite bank. She just wasn't very athletic and her friends always had to pull her up. Once on the other side, the children ran among the white folks' houses to steal keerè (herbs), weeds to white people. When the white children saw the little coolies outside, they swore at them, threw stones and chased after them. The children then scampered back across the river to the safety of their own side from which they returned fire and kept a barrage of stones flying through the air.
The children often went beyond the cement channel to explore the lower reaches of the river. There, hopping over rocks, they looked for frogs and swimming holes. When they reached an enticing pool, the boys jumped in and the girls, who weren't allowed to be in the water, tucked their skirts into their broekies and waded in as far as their courage would take them. Knowing that they were defying their mothers made it a great thrill.
But life wasn't all play; children also had responsibilities.
Every afternoon, after a herd of cattle had passed along Cowie Street towards Marabastad, the children collected the sarni that lay scattered across the road. Boma didn't mind doing this as she loved the feel of the fresh dung and scooped up mound after mound till she had filled her bucket. The sarni was needed to keep down the dust that blew over the verandas and into the houses. One of Boma's chores was to spray sarni over the back yard and the pavement in front. After she had swept the yard and pavement with a little grass hand broom, she broke up the manure in water and mixed it to a liquid consistency. Then holding the bucket in one hand, she splashed the mixture over the ground with the other. If she found any coins during the process, it made the task really worthwhile.
Another daily chore was the cleaning of the stove. Boma and Baba had to empty and clean the ash box that lined the grate, clean the grate, put the ash box back in, fill it with a layer of paper, then wood, and lastly coal so that it was ready to be lit. Boma also chopped the wood that was delivered once or twice a week and dropped in a pile in front of the kitchen. She placed little sections of log on the chopping block, lifted the chopper and brought it down, splitting the wood in one clean stroke. As she loved the feel of that, she often chopped wood just for the fun of it. Then she and Baba carried in armfuls of chopped wood to store under the stove. The off-cuts from furniture factories that they found among the wood made good building blocks and the girls played with them for hours on the kitchen floor.
Being a little mercenary, Boma did one unpleasant task quite eagerly, because it always produced a tip. As Green Door Thatha lived alone, Mummy cooked for him and sent over his plate of food every day. Boma always volunteered to take it. She knocked; he came to the door, took the plate and then closed the door in her face. She wasn't put off; she just parked on his doorstep to wait for the empty plate. He obviously did not appreciate being dogged like this. When he had finished his meal, he stood in the doorway to rinse his mouth, and spat out quite close to where she was sitting. Boma felt disgusted but as he always paid up, that was what really mattered.
One activity that occurred, perhaps once a year, was more of a game than a chore. When the sky inexplicably went dark, everyone ran out with utensils and sticks, anything with which they could make a noise, and stood in the street beating, yelling and shouting to keep the big black cloud from descending - locusts swarming across the sky!
The locusts were as complete a mystery to Boma as was the war that enforced total darkness upon the location at night when blinds had to be pulled down to prevent the tiniest spark of light being seen from the outside. Food was rationed; that too had something to do with the war. She and Baba had to go to Boom Street and queue with other people in front of trucks that brought supplies of groceries - rice, flour and sugar. And the war did not allow people to sift the flour, which was full of husks. As Mummy could not bake with this flour, she sifted at night when she would not be caught and co-conspirator, Boma, helped by turning the handle on the roller that pushed the flour through the fine cloth filter underneath and left the husks behind.
It was only at the bioscope that the children got some understanding of war. As Daddy ran the cafee at the Empire, and later the Royal Bioscope, they watched the newsreels that were shown before the main feature, and saw that the war was about ships and soldiers and bombs. But it was really Charlie Chaplin who put Boma in the know. From him she learned that there was this ridiculous little man called Hitler who was responsible for their nightly blackouts and the queues for rations. But he was funny and she enjoyed his antics so she couldn't really be cross with him. Daddy, who belonged to a book club, had Mein Kampf in the bookcase but Boma never took it out to read even though she loved Charlie Chaplin.
Sundays were special; they were family days and days for social occasions. The whole location settled into a relaxed and festive mood, with sumptuous and lavish meals, followed by outings in the location or in town. The morning began with music blaring from every radiogram in every home, playing the latest film hits featuring singers like Thiagaraj Bhagavathar, Boma's favourite singer, and Subuluxmi.
For the Naidoo family, the day began with a huge breakfast. On weekdays, they had a plate of porridge and a mug of tea. But on Sundays, Mummy served fried muttonchops with fried onions, tomato chutney and bread and butter. Mummy and Daddy sat on chairs at the kitchen table, the boys on benches and the girls on straw mats against the kitchen dresser. Boma loved her blue enamel plate with its bunch of painted flowers running from one rim down to the other. Baba' s plate was green with a scattering of flowers. Boma, as always, ate with gusto, and as Baba had a poor appetite, she magnanimously cleared her plate as well. The family finished the meal with samoosas bought from vendors who always appeared at the right time. They ate so much for breakfast that they needed the long walks that they took in the afternoon.
Some Sundays, the whole family walked to the zoo to see the animals. Near the entrance was the snake tank and further along, the place for elephant rides. The family walked around looking at kangaroos in their fenced-off enclosure and lions and other animals in cages. In an enclosure, with a very shallow pool of water, was a large crocodile that fascinated Boma, who waited patiently just to see it open its mouth wide and show all its teeth. When it did, she ran like the devil.
Then they walked up to the monkey houses. Around the cage of a male and female orang-utan, there was the usual crowd watching their "domestic" fights. People stood around laughing and enjoying the spectacle but Boma didn't find it funny. It disturbed her to see the apes in their cramped cages screaming in frustration, yelling and hurting one another. Although she loved the zoo as a child, mainly because of the swings, when she grew up she saw only the captivity - animals in cages and confined spaces - and came to hate zoos and all kinds of prisons.
The Naidoos didn't go to the zoo every week. Sometimes they walked around town visiting museums, churches and occasionally the Union Buildings. At other times, they planned outings to the Hartebeestpoort Dam or the Wonder Boom.
Sundays spent in the location were for visiting with friends.
Daddy, who loved to play cards, often went to the Reddys' place on Tenth Street where a crowd of men sat at a long table in the shade of a vine-covered wooden canopy playing thunny, the lively, boisterous Indian card game. While Daddy played cards and Mummy congregated with the other mothers, the children hared off for fun and games at the river.
The family often went to Mr Post Master's house. Everyone called Mr Pillay, Post Master. There, all the men sat in the living room or on the front veranda while the women gathered in the backyard where Mrs Postmaster asked Boma to perform. Boma had a regular stand-up comedy routine that she thought was great so she didn't care whether the audience was laughing at her or with her. She had a two-joke repertoire that she performed with great dramatic flourish. One of her jokes went like this:
One day, a man went to visit his friend who lived a long distance away.