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  • Kasturi Chetty


Updated: Dec 10, 2021

My friends and I walk regularly on our beautiful Durban promenade and I often gaze at the area where the Congella Umlazi X1 (which departed from Calcutta) would have landed on that day in September 1898. I see Rajwantia and her fellow travellers having survived the treacherous month-long journey on the ‘kala pani’ (dark water), paglaa samundar (mad ocean) and I wonder at her emotional state.

Though she would have forged friendships and perhaps become part of a larger family in the course of the journey, she was only 22 years old, a widow with the responsibility of a 2-year-old child. It must have been a terrifying and overwhelming experience. She had courageously taken the decision to embrace the new, relieved of the personal forces of her life in India. Did she again pull her hair tightly in a bun, gather her few belongings, and with Hanib firmly on her hip, take a deep breath and step resolutely and bravely onto the shores of the-then Port Natal.

She was young, and optimistic that the promises made by the ‘arkati’ and the colonial masters would deliver and she would make a better life for herself and her child than she could have in India. Was this fulfilled or was it to be 5 years of servitude and hardship?

In her book, ‘Children of Sugarcane’, Joanne Joseph writes a poignant and profound fictional story of Shanti, a 16-year old girl who signs up for indenture in order to escape an unwanted arranged marriage. It is clear that many of Shanti’s experiences would have been Rajwantia’s - the hard labour from dawn to dusk, the friendships forged, the irresistible energy and optimism of youth, the need for love and the power of friendship. Joanne also shows the sharp contrast in punishment metered out to the colonial masters and the labourers for sexual and other transgressions.

We know that Rajwantia was assigned to the Natal Government Railways during her 5 years of indenture. We do not as yet know in what capacity she was employed, though my grandfather had told me that she was a nurse and this may have been at a railway hospital.

Rajwantia’s life changed greatly when she met my grandfather RB Chetty, a passenger Indian following indenture. They later set up home, which they named the “Golden Threshold” in 145 First Avenue, Greyville, Durban. They had five sons, the eldest of which was my father, and three daughters. Hanib was adopted by my grandfather and given the name “Somasundrum Chetty”. On one of his many trips to India he returned with 2 sons from a marriage performed on the insistence of his older sister who did not approve of his marriage to Rajwantia. My grandmother took care of these children too.

Our grandfather was an entrepreneur and a philanthropist who accumulated considerable wealth in property, farms and factories. He built and contributed to the building of schools and places of learning in India and South Africa and our grandparents became influential and respected members of society. When I was born in 1942 at the First Avenue home, my grandmother delivered me, naming me after her friend and founder of the Hindu Womens Association (which she was a part of), Mrs Kasturba Gandhi, the wife of Mahatma Gandhi.

As we gain further insights into this fascinating life, I often wonder how Rajwantia viewed her changed circumstances. Prior to her marriage to my grandfather, she had been an independent woman, earning a living and making decisions for herself and her son’s wellbeing.

Now, she found herself in a traditional and patriarchal South Indian household where her dress, language and traditions were transformed from her North Indian background. Perhaps the financial and emotional security that this afforded her and her son outweighed the disadvantage of giving up on her freedom.

Rajwantia had endured much in her life. Her pictures show a serene, dignified and beautiful woman, though in her eyes one sees steely resolve and courage which was the essence of her.

Her granddaughter, Kaliani, great-great granddaughter, Sanusha, and I have so much more to uncover of our remarkable grandmother

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