Jeram and Jaydevi
Seeking the Beloved
When Jaydevi, looking out of the schoolroom window, saw her father coming through the school gate, she grabbed her bag and ignoring her teacher's attempts to restrain her, ran out of the classroom and into her father's arms. She would have to put up with her teacher's scolding the next day, but she didn't care. She would do it again and again because her delight at seeing her father expressed not only her love for him but also her desire to escape from school. It wasn't that she hated school; she loved Gujarati School but English School was boring. The white teachers, who were not as good as the vernacular teachers, worked at a much lower level, especially in maths. Though she was a timid child, Jaydevi loved her father so dearly that she didn't care about breaking school rules.
She was, after all, from feisty stock.
Her grandfather, BR Joshi, had run away from home in India when he was only ten. Being from a Brahmin family, the caste system, which did not allow him to do manual work, required him to go begging for food (bhiksha) from house to house. As he hated the tradition, Grandfather couldn't bring himself to follow it and, with a cousin, ran away from home and stowed away on a boat bound for South Africa. When the boys were discovered on board, they pleaded to be allowed to stay offering to pay their way doing odd jobs on the ship. But they were so young.
"You are under age. We can't let you travel by yourselves."
Grandfather would not be put off. "I know I look small but I'm actually sixteen," he insisted. With his blue eyes and white skin he didn't even look Indian. Even though he could not speak English, only Gujarati, he won over the captain and he and his cousin became dishwashers and cleaners and helped with the cooking in the galley.
When they landed in Lourenço Marques, they had to fend for themselves and somehow made a little money buying and selling goods. Eventually, they worked their way to Pretoria and ended up in the location. Here, Joshi found himself in a nurturing community that wouldn't let a young boy starve. While he continued to pursue his little trades, he taught himself English, which he learned to speak and write so fluently that he later became a teacher of English at the school in Cowie Street. As he had a natural bent for bookkeeping, small businesses began to employ him to do their books. When he began to make money, he started sending something home to India every month. By the time he was twenty, he was earning enough for visits to India. On his second visit, his family arranged a marriage for him but he could not bring his wife back to the Asiatic Bazaar, as he had no home to offer her.
Back in South Africa, driven by the need for substantial and consistent earning in order to provide for a wife and eventually a family, he did two things: he acquired property in Jerusalem and Moghul Streets and started an accounting firm which became a very successful enterprise. Eventually, as B.R. Joshi and Sons, it would provide financial services to many companies trading in Prinsloo Street and the Asiatic Bazaar. Joshi, who was becoming prosperous, built a suitable home in the location, brought his wife and children from India and supported them in fine style. When his sons were old enough, he made them partners in the business and they in turn were also able to provide very comfortably for their families.
His son Baboolal, Jaydevi's father, lived in a big home and owned a car.
And Jaydevi was part of an extended family with a large number of children; one of her uncles had two boys and five girls, another two girls and three boys and her own family consisted of three boys and two girls. They were a gang of over a dozen cousins who played together, went to school together and devised fun activities together.
When they attended Mr Bhika Chiba's religious education classes on Boom Street, despite the seriousness of the subject, they sat there alert waiting for Pankaj, their most forward and forthright cousin, to liven things up. On one occasion, Mr Chiba explaining the Hindu reverence for the cow said, "We worship the cow because it is like a mother to us; it gives us milk."
"Why don't we worship the goat then? It also gives us milk." Pankaj was in his usual form and the other children were delighted. But at the end of the day, they were all disappointed when Pankaj declared that he would not attend any more of these classes as they did not make sense to him.
This huge band of Joshi cousins, who loved the movies, went to see all the latest features at the Royal, the Empire and the Orient: Hollywood musicals, horror films like Werewolf and Dracula and serials, like The Adventures of Zorro. As they loved Indian films best, they saw many more of them and they were the inspiration behind the shows that they put on in a little fenced off area in the "Greenies" - a park like spot along the Apies River. Jaydevi and her sister, who learnt all the Indian songs and dances, used the dry Apies canal for their practice sessions. With one or two of his cousins, Pankaj, who was fascinated by Dracula, depicted his gruesome excesses to the horror and delight of his audience. Children from the neighbourhood, who supported these ventures, paid an entrance fee of sixpence. The money collected was used to subsidise the shows.
On one occasion, Pankaj, whose ambition was to be a doctor, insisted on a doctor's white coat for a role he would play in their next show. When the others asked him to borrow a coat, he refused. Eventually, they reached a compromise when he offered to pay half the cost of a new coat. These concerts, which were great fun, continued for many years. When Jaydevi's family fell upon hard times, they helped to supplement the family income.
That happened when Jaydevi was thirteen and her carefree childhood was brought to an abrupt halt. "Perhaps I would have grown up a spoilt brat and led a frivolous and superficial existence." But she didn't have that chance.
The prosperous Joshis, among the few families in the location with cars, could travel about the country for holidays and often went on trips to one or other of the seaside towns - Durban being their favourite destination. Jaydevi's father, Baboolal, and uncle Praboolal, Pankaj's father, organised these excursions and a convoy of two cars, stuffed with children and adults, would leave the little location to make its way into the big world beyond.
In 1959, they arranged to spend their holidays in Cape Town. Baboolal's nephew, who had been studying in India, was back in the location and was to join them on their trip. This nephew, who had lost his mother when he was a baby and had been brought up in his family, was more like a son to Baboolal. He was a brilliant young man who was on his way to London to take up studies in law. He had stopped off in South Africa for a short break before heading north and was using this little holiday in the location learning to drive. Baboolal, his driving instructor, was very proud of the progress he was making. On the day before they were to set off for Cape Town, they went out for a lesson and were involved in a car crash in which Baboolal was killed.
Jaydevi was devastated. Baboolal, the focal point of her existence, was gone. His sudden death sent her tumbling through a void. "He can't be gone forever. He has to come back." She demanded that religious leaders bring him back. Because of her belief in reincarnation and yogic miracles, she knew it was possible for him to return. She wrote to Swami Sivananda in India begging him to bring her father back. But no one could help her. She grieved for a long, long time and did not notice how drastically things were changing for the family. Harsh reality only struck home the day she went out to fetch the milk and found that it was not in its usual place on the doorstep.
"They've forgotten to deliver the milk!"
"No, they haven't," her mother replied. "They don't deliver milk anymore; there's no money to pay for it."
They were suddenly destitute. One moment they were wealthy and respected with lots of relatives and friends around them; the next they had nothing and nobody. As there was no money to pay the rent either, they had to move. Inexplicably, her father's partnership in the flourishing bookkeeping firm B.R. Joshi and Sons had amounted to nothing. As her marriage under Hindu rites was not legal in South Africa and she did not speak English, her mother could make no claim. The children were too young to question and accepted their dismal circumstances as part of the doom that accompanies death. They were poor now and could no longer take anything for granted.
For a nominal fee, the Gujarati community allowed them the use of a big room with a kitchen at the Seva Samaj on Eleventh Street. So they moved from a big house with plenty of space, to one room with a communal toilet and bathroom in the yard outside. Now they were on par with most of the community in the location. It was a reversal, but like the people around them, this mother with her five children, the youngest a baby, would eventually find joy in the fact that they were together and could share in ways they had never done before.
When she became aware that as the first-born she had responsibilities to the family, Jaydevi gave up her mourning and began to take on the role of the head of the household. Her father came back then, quietly and unobtrusively, to live permanently in her heart. She also found him in her brother, Ravindra, four years her junior but mature beyond his years, who became her help, her support and her guide.
Jaydevi walked around now with eyes wide open, alive to any opportunity that could bring in money. She could not appeal to relatives; the old spirit of not accepting bhiksha inherited from Grandfather, remained in her consciousness. With her sister and brothers, she began making little odds and ends for sale. At Christmas and Easter, they made plumes, which were very popular during the festive season and other holiday times. They were small dowel sticks with coloured crépe paper strips attached to one end. Jaydevi and one or two other siblings stood on street corners selling plumes and little paintings. They expanded their activities to include babysitting and tutoring children in maths, typing and other subjects. They were often paid in kind and came home with a bag of potatoes or other vegetables.
When Jaydevi's mother left for India on family business, the children went around to vegetable hawkers and stall holders in the market asking for samples - a potato here, an onion there - promising to make purchases if their mother approved of the quality. The hawkers understood, cooperated in their little subterfuge and helped them to feed themselves. The children also found jobs in various shops and offices. Jaydevi, Shirish, Ravindra and Niroo, helped out at the bookkeeping offices of B.R. Joshi and Sons, now run by their Uncle Praboolal. At Makooloo Hopaan, the Chinese general dealership, they pumped paraffin into bottles. These small ventures that helped to sustain the family, continued as long as Jaydevi was in school. Her grandfather had obtained a government grant for their schooling but there was no money for books. As there wasn't a library in the location, the children went to bookstores, stood at shelves and read until closing time.
Jaydevi attended the Pretoria Indian Girls' School (PIGS) - the acronym exacerbated her dislike of English school. The principal was Miss Wolf. As in the fairy tale, Jaydevi felt like one of the little pigs trying to make something of his life but being thwarted by the big bad wolf. At that time, the authorities believed that Indian girls did not need higher education as all they wanted out of life was marriage and a family so education for girls went no further than Std 8 (Grade 10). When Jaydevi completed her studies at PIGS, she asked Miss Wolf for a transfer card to the Pretoria Indian Boys' School. But Miss Wolf huffed and puffed and sternly refused to give her the transfer. Though the principal frightened her, Jaydevi, who knew what she wanted, was determined to get it. Without looking where she was going, she made a mad dash over the principal's flowerbeds towards the gate. Propelled by the flurry of angry words from the office window, she charged into the boys' school nearby, burst into the principal's office and blurted out, "Miss Wolf won't give me a transfer card and I want to come to this school so that I can finish my matric." Desperation had made the usually tongue-tied Jaydevi quite reckless. There was, however, no problem. Mr Colinette had already admitted a few girls to the school so he enrolled her and she began attending the boys' school. A group of her friends took courage from her example and also sought and gained admission to the boys' school.
"Education at the girls' school had been a complete waste of time. We were learning nothing there that could not be learned at home. But at the boys' school, we were suddenly being challenged with physics and maths and other subjects. For the first time, I began to enjoy English School."
After she completed her matric in 1964, Jaydevi went to work at Pretoria Distributors - the first Gujarati girl in the location to go to work! Other Gujaratis were outraged. How could her mother allow it? Allow her daughter, a Brahmin girl, to become a ‘prostitute'? But her mother was proud of Jaydevi who had voluntarily stepped into her father's shoes to provide for the family.
With her mother's support, Jaydevi was able to ignore her detractors in the Gujarati community but she couldn't avoid poor whites on Potgieter Street, who harassed her on her way to work. She did not respond to their shouts of "Coolie" and avoided the stones they threw at her. When they chased her, however, she ran for her life. It was a nerve-wracking journey every morning. As she made her way to work, she tried to make herself as insignificant as possible, keeping her focus on herself and her purpose - to work, work, work, to make lots and lots and lots of money.
Following in the family tradition, Jaydevi had become a bookkeeper like her father and grandfather before her. Being a woman, however, this was a break with tradition. But the owners of Pretoria Distributors, the Kalas, had employed her because she was a woman. In addition to bookkeeping, as a woman, she could take on various other functions such as helping in the kitchen or cooking during weekends - all for R10 a month.
One day when she came home from work, she got the shock of her life. Her uncles had come to the house to inform the family that she was to be married. The parents of the young man chosen for her would be coming the next day to make a formal proposal. She was stunned. She had long made up her mind that she would never marry and now, without any warning, she was being married off. But she said not one word. Her uncles had taken charge; she was powerless. It was only in private that she confessed to her sister and brothers that she did not want to get married. When Ravindra urged her to make this known, she did not. She felt too intimidated to say anything. She couldn't understand why this was happening to her. Were they ashamed that she was working? Had they come up with this idea to stop her bringing disgrace upon the family? Her grandfather, who would have been her ally, was on a visit to India. She felt trapped. The next day, the proposal was made, the family accepted on her behalf and she was engaged to be married. What was she going to do? She spent many futile hours weeping and feeling sorry for herself. When her grandfather came back from India and saw what was happening, he diplomatically put a stop to the wedding.
Jaydevi could go on with her life as she had planned it.
After a year at Pretoria Distributors, deciding that she could do better for herself, Jaydevi applied for and obtained a situation at Mod Homes, a Jewish firm where she was offered the princely sum of R30 a month. She felt on top of the world. By comparison with what she had been earning, she was rich. Despite having to put up with certain demeaning conditions like entering by the backdoor and working where customers would not see her, Jaydevi was happy at the firm. Racism wasn't a consideration; she had lived with it all her life. At least no one was throwing stones at her. Her white colleagues, who were friendly, loved the Indian food that she shared with them. But when she discovered that compared to them she was earning a mere pittance for equal if not more work, she felt humiliated.
But she couldn't give up her job; she was putting her siblings through school and college. Her brother, Shirish, was at a teacher training college and Ravindra would be going to Salisbury Island University College (later the University of Durban-Westville), the university in Durban designated for all Indian South Africans. Fortunately, it was only in his first year that Jaydevi had to provide for Ravindra. Thereafter, he won scholarships year after year that paid for the rest of his university education. But in that first year, 1967, she had to pay his fees. It was a struggle but she was determined. She took on extra work and saved as much as she could. When she found that she would not meet the deadline, she tried to raise a loan. She had no luck until she approached her best friend's father, Naren Kala, the uncle of her former employer, who helped her out.
After her father's death, Jaydevi had set her mind on one thing and one thing only - money! In order to restore her family to its former status, she had to get rich. To do that, she had to become a chartered accountant. That meant university. So she began to save. Despite having to pay all household expenses, support her brothers and sister at school, college and university, she managed to put away money for the time when she would be able to study. When Shirish, the oldest of her brothers, obtained his teachers' diploma and took up an appointment, he relieved her of the responsibility of providing for the family. This meant she could at last enrol at university.
A month before the university term began, relatives in India invited her to visit. Though she knew that this was another scheme to get her married, that her maternal grandfather was behind it, probably her mother as well, she agreed to go. In India, after she had been with her relatives for a short while, she impulsively went on a solo tour of the country. Alone in a foreign country, in unfamiliar situations among strangers with no father or grandfather to depend on, she learned to fend for herself. And in finding her way around, she found herself, found her voice and learned to speak her mind. At the end of her stay, when the family approached her about marriage, she flatly refused.
In 1969, after she returned from India, she went with Ravindra to the University College of Salisbury Island and enrolled for a bachelor's degree in Commerce. Ravindra, who was working on an Honours Degree in Mathematics, questioned her motives when he discovered his sister's course of study. But she was quite clear: she wanted to be rich. When she thought of what it had been like when her father was alive, she wanted to live like that again. Though Ravindra scoffed at the subjects she had chosen, regarding them as mundane and practical, he helped her with her work, explaining concepts that she found difficult to understand. Because she was older than most students and had worked for several years, she did not have their carefree attitude. She was serious, took responsibility for herself, understood the consequences of her actions and worked hard. At the end of her first year, she won a scholarship, which was a useful supplement to the R600 she had saved to cover her university expenses.
After two years at Salisbury Island, Jaydevi returned home, went to work in
Johannesburg for a Mr Friedman, who owned Chicktique and Harlequin Fashions, enrolled with the University of South Africa (UNISA) to complete her degree by correspondence and was articled to a chartered accountant. In addition, she was making and selling dresses to people in Laudium. On one of her visits to Mogi Kollapen' s house, she saw musical instruments in the lounge. When she found out that classes were being held there every Sunday morning, she became quite excited. She loved singing and impulsively decided to join. At the beginning of 1971, she became part of Jeram Bhana's Sunday classes in Laudium and began her education in music.
Mr Bhowan Lalla, the tailor, kept to himself and was virtually a stranger to his wife and children. He preferred to spend his time at his tailor shop in Mitchell Street in Pretoria West rather than at home in Ninth Street in the Asiatic Bazaar. He stayed in a little backroom at the shop during the week and only came home weekends. His children wondered why. They found his presence vaguely disturbing. He was like a visitor that overstays his welcome and they were impatient for him to be gone. He didn't talk to his children or prescribe what they should do; still it was irksome having this ‘stranger' around. He himself had no idea why he came home; he had a hazy notion that that was what was expected of a father.
He enjoyed a drink or two and played the harmonium but he didn't try to communicate with anyone, not even his wife. She was a simple woman from a village in India who had never learned to read or write, not even in the vernacular, and she kept to her chief functions of cook and housekeeper. She was as much a stranger to her children as their father. "It didn't matter at all what we did. I can remember sometimes coming home late in the night. We would just jump over the gate and enter the house. There was really no kind of security. Sometimes, we would stay over at some friend's place and only pitch up the following morning. She wouldn't even know that we hadn't been home all night." She and Bhowan knew each other exclusively in the Biblical sense, had produced a family in the biological sense, but in the social sense had little idea what to do with it or with each other. They understood that they had to make material provision for the children, and so they did, but that was where it began and ended. They imposed nothing on their children; their love of India and the Indian culture and their fear of the children becoming too westernised were transmitted unconsciously. The youngsters were basically left free to develop in their own ways.
Fortunately for Mr Lalla and Mrs Lalla, the community in the Asiatic Bazaar was small and cohesive and provided an extended family for their children. Most of the people were poor, but it was a stable, close-knit community in which human weaknesses were motes, not beams, and people struggled together, laughed together, cried together and celebrated together. It was a community of people recently arrived from India with strong cultural ties to the mother country and strong yearnings to return to the land of their birth someday. They thought of themselves as Indians with loyalties to Bharat (India) rather than the country in which they had come to live. In
South Africa, they concentrated on their own individual needs and focused on making enough money to return to Bharat as wealthy citizens; African problems were not their problems. So they kept to and revered Indian values, customs and traditions.
The Bhana children, growing up in this environment with almost no parental supervision, were free to select a lifestyle from the norms of this generally homogeneous community. But they did not choose any formal or organised religion. As their parents had not insisted on any religious path and had not subjected them to prayer