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  • Kasturi Chetty

My Grandmother: The Nurturer

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

I have no memory of my grandmother though I have been told that she helped me take my first breath. I was born in October 1942 at our family home in First Avenue, Durban and I arrived before the midwife did. It was my grandmother who delivered me and removed the caul around my face allowing me to test my new lungs. My grandmother would have been the first person I ever saw and she literally gave me my first breath.

The journey of discovery to uncover the story of a remarkable woman, to play some part in telling a story that deserves to be told, has been a profound one. Along with my cousin Kaliani and niece Sanusha, we set out, three unlikely sleuths, to uncover the unknown in the life of Rajwantia – indentured labourer, widow, single mother, intrepid traveller and, in the end, family matriarch.

Our research thus far has been fascinating. Combining second-hand testimony, and family folklore with the information I gathered from my visits to the Kwazulu-Natal Archives and Record Service in Pietermaritzburg and Durban and the Killie Campbell library, has given us the beginnings of her story. We believe but have yet to verify that Rajwantia was born to a sweet making family Ramdularie in Sakekipur, a village in Gazipur, Uttar Pradesh North India , that she married a man whose surname was Aligan, had a child and was widowed shortly after her son was born.

While it is proving difficult to piece Rajwantia’s story together, the one constant to emerge is her courage to act, to defy authority while simultaneously navigating her way through the patriarchal strictures that circumscribed her life. What inspired me to discover more about her was her refusal to be defined by widowhood, or by indenture or simply as someone’s wife. We see this in her determination to leave Sakekipur; again, in her decision to remain in SA at the end of her contract and create a family undermining a system designed around the notion of the indentured as a dehumanised unit of labour, and finally in her transformation to Janaki Chetty the wife of a successful south Indian businessman: all this against the backdrop of white rule.

In our next blogpost “ Leaving Ghazipur” we examine her decision to escape the widespread poverty and destitution that she experienced in Gazipur which at the time was a thriving opium producing centre: a poverty that was borne out of a British colonial rule that forced villagers to give up growing sustainable crops for food so that the land could be used to grow lucrative poppies for the opium-producing factories. We outline the colonial government’s system of indenture their use of ‘arkati‘s ( recruiting agents) to recruit indentured labourers to work in other British colonies . And we conject that life was indeed so difficult that the young widow, with her three-year-old son, risked the ominously named “Kala Pani” (Black Water) to start a new life in faraway South Africa. It was economic hardship, coupled with the widely known mistreatment of widows in India at that time that drove her to leave the land of her birth.

On landing in Port Natal on the 2nd February 1898 Rajwantia Somaru and her son Hanib were assigned for 5 years to the Natal Government Railways, Railways Service. While we currently know little about Rajwantia’s life under indenture, a conversation I had with my grandfather, years later, has given us a clue as to the nature of her work with Natal Railways. I was xxx years old and passionately wanted to become a nurse. I told my grandfather expecting disapproval for a profession that at that time held little prestige. Instead he encouraged me and told me that my grandmother had been a nurse ( or nursing assistant – it is not clear at this stage of our research) at the railway hospital in Somsteu Road Durban. This is yet another reason for me to be ever grateful to her. It has also given me a desire to learn more about my grandmother’s experience of nursing in an environment by all accounts that treated women harshly and which had at its core a system of unremitting control.

With her five years of indenture behind her, Rajwantia began the next stage of her life in South Africa as Janaki Chetty the wife of my grandfather, RB Chetty. The quest we have been on has confirmed what we already knew- that women’s stories have remained largely untold. In contrast there is a fair amount of information on RB Chetty who arrived in SA as a passenger Indian in 1894 at the age of twenty two, became an entrepreneur and amassed a fortune with his business acumen. I remember him as a rather forbidding and elegant man with his ivory topped cane in the family home, that Rajwantia would have once controlled.

The house named “Golden Threshold” was located at 145 First Avenue, Durban. It was large and graceful with a mosaic-tiled verandah and stained glass windows. It had a grandfather clock that chimed on the hour. There was a prayer room in the garden and years later my grandfather would spend an hour there each evening at the end of which he would ring a small bell to summon the family to pray, receive prasad and take his blessing as we touched his feet. It was here that our grandmother, Rajwantia now known as Janaki, presided over her large family of 5 sons, 2 daughters and their families. In 1913 she joined the Hindu Women’s Association of which , Kasturba, the wife of Mahatma Gandhi was the founding member. The story of her transformation; of having survived the gruelling hardship of indenture to be then drawn back into male dominated family life and yet still manage to maintain her dignity, her self respect and agency lies at the heart of Rajwantia’s story.

My grandmother died on Good Friday, 1943 at the age of 66. She is still remembered by some older members of my family who acknowledge her memory by placing a mug of coffee, a drink she enjoyed in the morning, at the lamp every Good Friday. She was much loved and her loss was greatly felt by my grandfather and her sons and daughters.

As we map my grandmother’s journey and speculate on her life we will try to fill in the gaps and the many unanswered questions of our brave and remarkable ancestor - Rajwantia Ramdularie, Rajwantia Aligan, indentured labourer no. 76468, Rajwantia Somaru and finally Janaki Chetty, the woman to whom I owe my breath.

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1 comentário

10 de ago. de 2022

It’s quite a remarkable coincidence how The Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh relates the fictional journey of Deeti from Ghazipur on a boat from Calcutta in somewhat similar circumstances.

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