Walking with Abajaan (Sunday Times)

Abajaan is 93 years old. He came from India to South Africa in 1936 aboard the SS Takliwa. Everyday he catches a taxi into Durban’s central business district and walks. He’s been doing it for over 60 years. I wrote an article for the Sunday Times about my experience walking with my grandfather as he tells me stories about the changing city.

Walking with Abajaan
Abajaan’s hands are where this story begins; weatherworn and wrinkled, they’re a map rich with the history of time. These are the hands that held the railings of the gangplank as he boarded the SS Takliwa in 1936 to make his way across the Indian Ocean to South Africa, it is these hands that held the wet body of his first child born on African soil and is these hands that he used to thrust in the air as he told stories of courage and morality to his grandchildren gathered around him.
Today it is these hands that finger his tasbeeh lightly as we make our way in a taxi to town. For more than half a century, my 93-year-old grandfather has been navigating the streets of Durban’s CBD, first as a young newly wed, then as a widower and now as a great-grandfather.
‘I used to take a bus before; the green mamba,’ Abajaansays to my friend and I, who are sitting squashed next to him.  ‘Now I take the taxi – it’s faster but the music is very loud,’ he says, just before the driver motions to him and he climbs into the front seat in a fluid movement that most young people would struggle with. It costs R7 to go to town from the suburb of Asherville and all the while my grandfather keeps his fingers on his tasbeeh repeating God’s attributes as the speakers blare some rap song about babes and honey.
Almost 60 years ago he was a young traveling salesman carrying a briefcase filled with samples of lace and ribbon making his way through these same streets persuading shopkeepers to order his wares. He wore a red fez, a blue blazer with a fountain pen tucked in the top pocket and he walked with the confident gait of one who had just completed his first Dale Carnegie course.
‘Town was different then,’ says Abajaan. ‘They had iron trams – they were only for white people but there were three seats for non-whites and sometimes if we squeezed together, about 8 or 9 of us could fit,’ he says as we leave the suburbs and enter the outskirts of the CBD. Already I can see paint beginning to fade on buildings, graffiti creeps onto walls and brightly coloured clothes flap out of windows. The gradual decline of the central business district in many cities is a common tale but today I get to hear it first-hand.
We jump out at West Street, now known as Dr Pixley Kaseme Street and Abajaan gets down to business, manoeuvring himself through crowds and vendors fanning themselves behind piles of blackening bananas. ‘There were only white people here before. They had all the big shops, especially in West Street. Black people had to have a permit to be in town or they were sent back.’ When I ask him how it’s changed, he says it’s the complete opposite now. ‘There are no white people here anymore. They all moved to Umhlanga and those places. Now there are a lot of foreigners. And the shops have changed too. More cellphone shops,’ he says pointing to Pakistani stalls, ‘And more hairdressers,’ he says pointing to tents on the pavements with drawings of latest hairstyles. ‘That’s the big thing right now,’ he says, as I wave away someone thrusting a pamphlet to bring back my lost lover.
Our first stop is a bookstore, his favourite place, he says. It’s the local bookstore, Adams and I realise that as a store that’s just celebrated 150 years as a bookseller, it’s probably a stable sanctuary for Abajaanin this rapidly evolving concrete jungle. He walks around the shelves with a certain affection and I understand that my love for the written word is born from him.
Abajaan’s shelves at home are piled high with books and he has a particular appreciation for personal development. Stop Thinking Start Living, Psycho Cybernetics, and The New Way to Relax are some of the titles on his bedside shelf, well worn and underlined with all sorts of notes written in English and Gujurati between sentences and in the margins. He keeps a dictionary at his bedside to help decipher the more difficult English words he encounters during these reads.
‘I like books on psychology,’ he says as we wander through the aisles. He also reads the Quran, books on spirituality and children’s stories. I have fond memories of perusing his shelves for Enid Blyton titles or Casper comics.
Despite his small built Abajaan cuts a striking figure in his short white kurta, snow-white beard and skullcap. As we walk through the streets, people call out, greet and wave. It is a testament to how well he is known, that when my friend asks a hawker on the side of the road selling stitching how she can contact him if she wants to place an order, he nods to Abajaanand says, ‘I don’t have a phone, but ask that baba, he will know where to find me.’
Abajaan’s friends are the children and grandchildren of his friends who have passed on and they offer us tea, hot chips and small anecdotes about him. He introduces me with a certain pride and I wonder who is feeling more honoured to be next to the other. I meet distant family members who berate the loss of family bonds and explain family trees in detail. While walking in madressaarcade, the narrow bazaar lane of the Indian quarter that’s filled with trinkets, tailors and apparently the best dried monkey heads (that I never find), we enter the small shop of a watchmaker. My grandfather laughs in a berating way, ‘This man has fixed my watch so many times, but he won’t take any money!’ he says. The man talks about my uncle, a doctor who passed away more than ten years ago from cancer. ‘We still remember him,’ he tells me. ‘He was a generous man who treated most of his patients for free. Recently I fixed his son’s watch and I thought at least I could do something for him. He left a legacy behind. The same as your grandfather will. No one forgets such people.’
When I ask Abajaan why he keeps returning to town, he smiles. I like to walk, he says simply. ‘It keeps my mind busy and it keeps me occupied.’ This reminds me of what Haruki Murakami says in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, that, ‘Being active everyday makes it easier to hear that inner voice.’ In fact whenever Abajaan feels unsettled he will inevitably begin to pace outside the house to clear his mind. ‘Also,’ he adds, ‘I like walking because it gives me purpose – I can buy things for the house myself.’ This is typical of my grandfather who has remained discreetly independent. He has always been a quiet, unassuming man and he seemed genuinely shocked when I asked him if I could join him on this trip as if he didn’t expect to be important enough to be noticed. He never complains or asks for anything, except occasionally a helping hand with the shaving machine when it’s time to cut his hair every few months.
‘Your father used to work there before,’ he says pointing to the building down the street as we stand outside Bombay House. ‘He and your uncle started the Islamic Tape Library in 1973 and then when he became an architect he moved his office there. Now everyone is gone,’ he tells me as we walk past the regal Grey Street mosque. ‘They prefer to be near home in safer areas,’ he says.
When I ask him what’s his secret to good health, I assume he will attribute it to constant walking or reading or having faith, but he merely smiles and says, ‘I prayed to God not to make me mohtaj (burden) on anyone, and I think He answered this prayer of mine.’
As we prepare to depart I think of what the man in madressaarcade said about the legacy we leave behind when we die. I think about the people who continue our lives through the memory of us. The people walking the streets or behind shop counters in little alleys who remember us with love, who fix our children’s watches in honour of us, despite the time passed, or the changing landscape or the shifting powers. I think about Abajaan and how his wrinkled hands gesturing in the air as he told us stories every evening will go on in my memory forever. And I realise then that Abajaan will continue to move through town long after he is gone when those who care for him remember him; when they stop to recall and reminisce about the young man selling ribbon who became the old man in white who walked confidently through the streets.

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Posted in Abbajaan, Cbd, Durban, history, Indians, Memory, Shubnum Khan, South Africans, sunday times, the sunday times, walking.

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