A Boy Named Courage
I wasn’t expected to survive.
Born two months premature, so tiny I could fit in the palms of my father’s hands, I was nestled into a shoe box lined with cotton while my parents kept vigil, occasionally dipping their fingers in brandy and letting me suck the warm liquid from them. That I lived and eventually started to grow apparently came as a bit of a shock, and my mother always said it was because of the brandy. The other Indian ladies who came to visit when I was young would cluck and coo whenever they saw me, each time reminding me about the cotton-filled shoe box and how little and fragile I had been. “Eat,” they always urged me, for I was such a scrawny kid that they were probably still half-convinced that I’d wither and collapse at any moment.
By the time of my early arrival in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 22, 1942, my parents already had three other sons. Amrit, named after a mythological Indian nectar that bestows immortality, was eight years my senior and the only one who had been born in India. Next was Bhanudey, known simply as Bhanu, a Hindi word for “sun,” who was more than three years older than me. After that came Dhiraj—his name means “calm” or “patience”—who was born a little more than a year before me.
I have no idea why my parents decided to name me Himmet. Perhaps it was a hopeful gesture, given that they weren’t sure I’d live beyond my first month. Even when I did begin to thrive, I was plagued throughout my youth with the curse of low expectations. I don’t know if my family and our friends in the Indian community thought I was slow-witted, exactly, but they certainly didn’t think I’d ever amount to much, a point that was made abundantly clear to me on a daily basis. I was the runt of the family, the unremarkable kid who was so skinny and insubstantial that others took to taunting me with the insulting nickname “Slangetjie,” which in Afrikaans means “snake.”
I tried to ignore such slights, and in my darkest moments, I would remind myself that my real name carried far more significance and, I hoped, was a harbinger of the future I began to envision for myself. Himmet, in my parents’ native Gujarati language, means “courage.”
I was a lowly Indian boy, the fourth and largely discounted son of an immigrant family, and a nonwhite living among a ruling class that considered my kind worse than the dirt beneath its shoes.
But I was the boy named Courage, and I never forgot it.
My parents were probably no older than five or six when they became engaged.
My father, Govind Dajee, was born in 1913 to a low-caste family of cobblers in the tiny village of Tejlav in the Surat district of Gujarat, a rural state in western India that was also the birthplace of the great leader Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi. Our people weren’t the lowest of the low, but their work with the finished hides of cows, which are considered sacred among Hindus, put my ancestors fairly near the bottom of the strict social hierarchy in India. My dad, like his father, and his father before him, had traveled to and from South Africa, part of the diaspora of native Indians, who were then under British control, that reached to the far ends of the Empire in search of economic betterment. My mother, Eicha Dajee—Kanta to her family and friends—was born in 1915 and was promised to my father in the traditional way when they were both young children. Neither of my parents ever received a formal education.
When he was thirteen, my father was sent off to South Africa to work in the family’s shoe repair shop in Cape Town, returning to India seven years later to wed. My brother Amrit was born in Tejlav in 1934, after which my father moved his small family back to Cape Town to run the shoe business there.
There was nothing unusual about their story. Indians had been in South Africa since the earliest days of European settlement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when European colonists and traders brought them there first as slaves and later as indentured servants. After those practices ended, the steady stream of Indians emigrating from the mother country to South Africa continued. Indeed, Gandhi began his activism in South Africa in the early twentieth century as an immigrant lawyer who led a campaign of civil disobedience against laws that discriminated against Indians.
Despite its discriminatory policies, South Africa was still a place where low-caste, uneducated Indians like my parents could make a decent living as small merchants. The little Indian community in and around Cape Town in which I was raised was made up of a few hundred families just like our own—modest shoe merchants with roots in Gujarat, members of the lowly Mochi caste who stuck together and clung to the old, traditional ways even as the world around them underwent cataclysmic change.
When I was born in Cape Town in 1942, the world was at war, and the conflict could be felt even in a place as remote as the southern tip of the African continent. South Africa, a British territory for two hundred years, was officially on the side of the Allies and even sent some troops to fight against the Germans. But the country was deeply divided, for the Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch and German settlers, loathed the British and sympathized with the Nazis. During the war, my father and all our friends and relatives lived in constant fear that German aircraft would swoop in and bomb the city. At night, they would close their curtains and dim their lights to reduce their chances of being targeted. Rumors circulated of German submarines off the coast of nearby Namibia, which was friendly to the Axis powers.
In 1947, two years after World War II ended, the Indian Independence Bill was passed, ending Britain’s long reign and carving out the separate, independent nations of India and Pakistan. My father decided that it was time for us to make the trek back to India for a two-year stay. It was common practice among our friends and relatives to return to India to visit family members who were still there and to stay for many months, even years, as the trip was long and arduous. My dad left his shop in the care of friends and took his growing family—my sister Padma had been born in 1945—on a journey. We slept on the deck of a ship with other Indian families as we traveled up the east coast of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to Bombay. There we stayed for a short time in a relative’s apartment, from which we could look out a window to the crowded, filthy street teeming with rats the size of small rabbits.
From Bombay, we traveled by train to Surat and then on to Tejlav. I have no clear memories of the trip, just the vague impressions and mental snapshots on which a young child tends to focus: ducks swimming in the river, the smoky aroma of dried salted fish, vendors selling tea and jackfruit. Our little village had no paved roads. We stayed in a modest, one-story house where my father’s parents and two sisters lived, bookended by the houses of two uncles. Nearby were corn and rice fields, sugarcane plantations, and a mango orchard where we’d use long poles with hooks to pick the fruit. We took water from a communal well, where my brother Dhiraj got smacked once for touching the water jugs before the higher-caste people had filled theirs.
Certain scents and images have stayed with me over the years—the distinctive minty fragrance of eucalyptus trees, the brilliant blue and purple jacaranda blooms, and the sight of women hunched over open fires as they prepared our meals. When the monsoon rains came, it was quite the event. It wasn’t cold, so we children would run outside and revel in the mud, paying no mind to the swarms of stinging red ants. We were warned to stay away from snakes, some of which were poisonous, and we were properly terrified, so much so that when a cricket ball got stuck in a tree, no one had the guts to climb up to retrieve it for fear of being bitten.
During the colorful Holi holiday, we painted our faces, dressed in costumes, and danced, and all the stomping feet destroyed our porch made of dung and clay. But there was plenty of clay to be found for repairs. Amrit would collect the reddish stuff from around a nearby dam and use it to sculpt little cow and buffalo figures.
My father, despite his traditional ways, was considered a bit of a progressive in our backwater. He would brag about his physical prowess and challenge the other men to wrestling matches and swimming races in the river, which he always won. When he bought a horse and carriage, it was the talk of the village, and he also purchased a used car so he could travel around the country. Though he had no formal education himself, he insisted that we all attend school, and he bought a radio so he and all the other villagers could gather around and listen to music and the news of the day.
He revered Gandhi. He talked about him constantly, quoting him, lecturing on and on about Gandhi’s philosophy of passive resistance, telling us that he was a symbol of nonviolence and change in India and South Africa and, indeed, all the world. When we grew up, he told us, we must strive to live as Gandhi did and always be compassionate and understanding.
We were in Tejlav in January 1948 when the news came of Gandhi’s assassination. People from the village gathered in front of our house to hear the reports on my father’s radio. I remember the shock and anger, and the disbelief that it had been a Hindu man who had killed the Mahatma, the “great-souled one” of our people. A few weeks later, my father, distraught with grief, took my mother and Amrit to Delhi to visit Gandhi’s cremation site to pay their respects. My other siblings and I were told we were too young to go with them, so we stayed behind with relatives, understanding little of the forces that were shaping the world in which we lived.
During our long stay in India, our family grew again with the birth of my youngest sister, Hansa, in 1948. The following year, we embarked on the long voyage back to South Africa. Shortly after our return, we got the news that my grandfather had died back in India. The Cape Town business was now in the sole hands of my father.