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Tales of the Metric System

By Imraan Coovadia

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According to the Durban by-laws, the best beaches along the Golden Mile were restricted to Europeans. Next to the discount hotels, not far from Natal Command, was the fenced-in Indian and coloured section. Logan had taken the trouble to read the municipal ordinances and discovered that the sand was open. The segregation rule applied to the ocean and not to the land. You could step on the sand, be you Indian or African, Chinese or Mexican, without a policeman being able to ticket you. Only if you put a foot into the swirling green water, sliding sideways along the beach and then disappearing into the undertow, could you be apprehended and taken to the charge office. This was the letter of the law.

It would be stupid to rely on a technicality. But if you were as clever as Logan, you might use the top of the Indian beach, across from the inexpensive counter at Tong Lok restaurant, to meet people it wasn’t safe to see under your own roof. Logan, after all, was the kind of person who gave Indians a reputation for being intelligent.

The beach had different dangers to the city and different possibilities. Yash couldn’t persuade Kastoori to set foot on it because it would ruin her complexion. His head continued to ring, from time to time, where Colin had hit him. Yash didn’t have a chance to hit him back. Nobody was going to hit Yash on the beach. The worst was you might get stung.

It was a bad day for jellyfish. They were buried everywhere in the sand. You could be stung by a bluebottle and have to be taken to the first-aid table that had been set up on the embankment. Under an awning the nurses in their boat hats and uniforms dispensed purple stripes of calamine lotion and no-nonsense cortisone shots to the reddened arms and legs of the afflicted. In seaside suffering, for once, there was no preference paid to colour. Black, white, and brown stood in the same line for treatment, commiserating in their stung hands and legs amid the fierce salt wash of the wind.

Yash got a stick and pointed out the ready black stinger connected to the transparent bladder by a line of ink like a Bic pen. He warned Sanjay to watch where he put his big feet, something that the boy would never do, and rolled up his trousers for him. He watched Sanjay run down to the water and back in search of Logan, along the wall which met the esplanade and past the lifeguard on his wicker throne until he reached the line of fishermen, who placed their catch in a common cooler box.

Yash worried that Sanjay would suddenly jump up at a bluebottle’s touch and have to stand in line for the nurse’s tent. He couldn’t afford to get the boy stung on top of what had already happened today. He wouldn’t have the strength to go back and explain a crying child to Kastoori. His head had already been stung. He imagined that the people around him on the beach and in the water could see the outlines of the man’s fingers on his face. If they looked closely, they would also find the shadow of Kastoori’s fingers.

He went down to look for Logan where two men had brought a rope net full of sardines from the water and were selling them fresh, five fish for a rand, on the edge of the tide. The fish had gleaming silver scales and green eyes and continued to flap their tails, their gills shuddering in and out, until their heads were sliced into a bucket. On the flat blue ocean were the white-decked passenger ships and oil tankers, yachts tacking back to the harbour under straining sails, and flurries of seagulls which rose here and there and disappeared, only to reform on new points in the water.

Yash looked forward to seeing his cousin. Out of the whole family, Logan, a bodybuilder who shaved and oiled his chest and worked as a maths teacher at Riverside Secondary, was the one who could lift the weight off your shoulders rather than put it back on. Day-to-day difficulties meant next to nothing to Logan, who put his faith in the future. It was the present he distrusted. He saw the injustices, the unfairness of the courts, the immunity from prosecution under the Internal Security Act, which allowed the police to detain and murder Ahmed Timol at John Vorster Square, Dr Hoosen Haffejee in Brighton Beach police station, and Steve Biko in the back of a van. Logan was certain it would be different in the future.

Yash knew the rumours that the Special Branch had started a file on his cousin since the start of the school boycotts. They had already kept him in detention for six months, releasing him only because of the publicity around Neil Hunter’s murder and Logan’s connection to the case. They would be ready to pick him up again if they knew who he was in the habit of meeting at the beach and what the titles were of the books he gave and received under the auspices of the weightlifting society in Sea Cow Lake. Logan was strong overall. He could pick up a table with one hand, holding his spectacles on with the other or folding the ends of his brown-black sergeant-major’s moustache, and had arms as hard as a dumbbell. He was a small man of steel.

However, Yash knew that somebody like Logan, idolised at home by his mother and four sisters, with whom he played endless rounds of tunny, a hero to his secondary school students, might not come out of the jail in the same good shape on the second occasion. When you went into detention the newspapers were forbidden to print the news. When you were lucky enough to come out, whether or not you had talked, sometimes you didn’t want to say anything else. Many people didn’t recover. Logan’s sisters and mother were unusual in the latitude they allowed their hero. Among the rest of the Naidoos and Naickers, it was generally believed that you got what you deserved if you meddled in politics. Even a white man, like the respected Professor Hunter, could be shot to death in his house. There was no space for an Indian to misbehave.

Being put in detention, however, was the one thing Logan didn’t want to talk about. It was as if he wanted to look over Brighton Beach and John Vorster Square to the new future, just around the corner, when there would be no unemployment and no police, no inflation, and no reason to go to the beachfront to talk politics. His cousin was only careful, Yash thought, because he would be dismissed if he was suspected of instigating a boycott. He enjoyed the admiration of the matric students too much to be parted from them.

The one thing you could criticise was that, beyond the Beatles, Logan had no real interest in music. If there was a radio playing, that was enough. In the company of his card-playing sisters Logan would even listen to Hindi movie music without complaining. He had ordered records from overseas on the recommendation of others, but he ended up leaving them with Yash. Logan would never concede that music was better than politics. In the ideal world, according to Yash, everybody would play music. In an ideal world, who would play politics?

On the beach Logan called to him. He was sitting on the wall next to the promenade, a holy man of the sun almost naked on his towel except for a pair of rubber sandals and the black Speedo he favoured and the thin gold chain that hung around his neck. His short tough brown arms glistened. You were immediately aware of the existence of his body. Later you saw that Logan was as distant from his physical body as you were, somehow removed from the armour of his own muscles, and the suggestion of fenugreek Yash associated with his cousin.

Next to him on the wall, Logan had a friend who stood up and introduced himself. He had a cloud of curly black hair on his head.

—I am Satyadev. Logan has been telling me about you, Yash, man, for years now. He says you are a heavy thinker. Delighted to make your acquaintance.

—Now which Satya are you? Who’s your family? Are you from the Chatsworth Moodleys by any chance? There was one Moodley there who should run a shop for secondhand records on Brickfield Road. There was a Satyadev in that family if I remember correctly. You can’t be his brother?

—We can keep to first names. Is this your boy? Come over here, my young brother. Is he stubborn?

Yash considered the question. He watched his son through the new and unaccustomed eyes of Satya Moodley, whose brother had sold a jumble of good and bad records. The boy, his boy, was slender, clever, with his helmet of pitch-black hair. Sanjay had found another boy with a plastic bucket and spade and was making his sandcastle with no awareness of the grownups. Pleasure started in Yash’s heart, some strange pleasure at the five metres of separation between him and his son.

Nobody, however, could see his inner workings. He didn’t want to explain the fight today either. Not even Logan could understand his situation as a musician. To think that, far in the future, when records would be out of date, Sanjay might find his father’s profile on the plastic shell of an eight-track cassette, meant that his prospects were better than Logan’s. The Yash Band would play music as secret as King Crimson and Captain Beefheart, to be circulated from hand to hand behind closed doors like the pamphlets for which Logan was risking his life.

—No, I don’t think he’s particularly stubborn. He wants to keep building his sandcastle.

—Let him build, man. So long you and me and Logan can talk. In fact Logan says you and I are both heavy thinkers and so is he. The three of us should have something in common then.

Was he a heavy thinker? Who would suppose it? Across the ocean, life had moved far beyond politics into new music, new unbounded seas of thought, amid free and beautiful women. It made their conversation on the beach painful to Yash’s ears. Even his cousin sounded off-kilter. They were competing to prove something to Yash.

—According to Satya over here we shouldn’t use the excuse of being Indians, Yash. He believes that we are truly African. He says we mustn’t distinguish between comrades. We can’t even call ourselves Indians.

—Your cousin is so clever he is dangerous. I knew Biko when he was in medical school here. Even when he was working for the Black People’s Convention, some years ago, we kept in touch. And I can tell you that the only man who compares to Biko, in terms of pure intellect, is your cousin here. The truth is the truth.

—You don’t need to flatter me, Satya.

—The last thing I will do is to flatter you, Logan, my brother. It is not a matter of the colour of your skin. The European can also be an African while the African can fall victim to the European of his own volition. If a black individual can use hair straighteners and make his hair to fall out, if a black woman can buy these skin-lightening creams, which the whites are all too happy to sell us, and destroy her own skin, then how African can she be? Why is it you won’t see a single Indian woman on the beach here unless she is covering her whole body? They send their children for English tuition, only for English tuition, and forget their own languages. Where do you still hear Gujarati and Tamil and Hindi? Why do they dress like an imitation of a European gentleman? They keep their own food and music and give up everything else.

—You can’t say ahead of time which music is going to catch you.

—I grant you that, my friend. But let’s make no mention of how we treat the blacks in our homes. That is the one time we speak in Tamil or Urdu, to put them down in front of them. How many names do we have to call an African? We pretend they cannot understand as if there is someone who is too stupid to hear when he is being called a name. Then we go running to the European, pretending not to hear the names that he has for us. Why must they accept us now when we hate ourselves? Biko teaches us that the real revolution comes in consciousness. First, we free our minds. For that we can use the best of thinking from around the world. Second, we must know the history. Then we have the possibility of freeing the country.

Satya spoke as if he were highlighting each word with a pen. Yash knew before from Logan that his friend Satyadev was considered to be as dangerous as a communist by the provincial authorities, not to say the Special Branch. In Biko’s absence Satya had become the leading speaker for Black Consciousness at the age of twenty-nine. He had been detained, had shots fired at his house, and continued to produce numerous pamphlets and opinion pieces on a printing press loaned by an Anglican minister.

Yash sat down on the wall next to Logan, and admired his cousin’s bare legs and muscles more than anything his friend had to say. Nothing ran in families. He wasn’t properly Indian. He would never be truly African. There was a length of sadness, exacerbated by the greenness of the ocean and the blueness of the water and the sky, between himself and his cousin. They were close and yet this distance stood between them. Happiness had all the languages on its side while unhappiness would be restless to take any fixed form of words.

Satya continued to talk.

—Before he died, Biko went with me to visit Neil Hunter. You heard of the late Professor Hunter? Ah, I should like him very much. At the same time he should always tell us how well we were doing even when we weren’t doing well. He made a point of bowing down in front of us, which I could not understand. If blacks are not disposed to imitate white people, he said, that is a sign of their good taste. He believed in objective truth. I would tell him that it matters out of whose mouth the sentence is coming. That if a true sentence comes out of the wrong mouth, it cannot help but be false. It’s the inevitable result of a society like this one, this world we have come into where whites have the history, the culture, the technology. For them, a sense of superiority is only logical. It took someone as dedicated as Professor Hunter to try to escape from that prison and still he didn’t succeed.

—You don’t think so?

—In the end he wasn’t dedicated enough. I could never understand why he left his wife in the middle of his saga. People must learn that their personal desires don’t always come first.

—I agree.

—And do you truly think, Yash, they will ever find his killers when the same people who are looking for the culprits are also the guilty parties?

He didn’t. But Yash didn’t understand men who divorced. There was something flagrant about it. He couldn’t bear to part with any other person consciously, not even Kastoori. He could hardly tolerate having to leave Colin behind. Only he didn’t like to offer his judgements in company, especially around Logan’s crowd. He couldn’t trust his very names for good and bad. His records, his fear of separations, his fight outside the restaurant paled beside their matters of life and death, their philosophy and their love of black skin.

Satya had pulled out a bottle of cold drink and poured from it into three plastic cups. His hair, in the bulk of its majesty, was unsteady around his head. It trembled like Kastoori’s type of jelly.

—You need to speak for yourself. Otherwise people will speak for you. That was my only objection to this same Free University before the police closed it down. Biko would say it’s an institutional disease for white people in this country. They want to speak on behalf of others. Even when they are with you, they want to speak in your place. The moment we start to speak for ourselves, this government will be over. That’s what I have been telling your cousin Logan here.

—You don’t need to lecture, Satya. You are also at the mercy of your own voice, chief. Let Yash here learn for himself, man.

To Yash it didn’t sound like a real quarrel. The two men seemed to be good friends, on good terms, so this might be something of a performance for his benefit more than a discussion when people’s opinions could move.

For a minute he resented them, even Logan, for using him as an audience. Then they went on, ignoring him and also Sanjay, who was running around the beach. They talked about politics, using the first names of people Yash didn’t know. They spoke to each other as if they were both involved in the same game, an exciting one, but also a game which was much more real than the people on the beach around them, the concrete piers that stood on their grey legs leading into the ocean, and the buses that nudged the pavement, the drivers standing outside, talking to each other and nursing the burning lengths of their bidis while their passengers fumed inside.

Satya turned back to Yash after a while.

—Your cousin will tell you that I am no longer part of the working class since I went to University College, which was designed just for Indians. Do you know that they used to have it on Salisbury Island in the Durban harbour in order to keep the Indians away from the proper university? But I have learned something there to bring back. What we are looking for has to be a new form of life, a new way of thinking altogether, otherwise, at the very best, blacks and whites will only change places. Today’s oppressed will be tomorrow’s oppressor. To have blacks as the oppressor … what a change that would be! Yash, Logan here has been very active recently. We want you to do something also. We want you to carry messages for us, because nobody will suspect a musician.

Yash thought for a while before answering. Someone like Logan wanted the government to listen to reason and wasn’t prepared to listen to reason himself. It was all in what you listened to. The Shadows could never lead you astray. He wasn’t sure he was supposed to have an opinion. Logan, Satya Moodley, even Neil Hunter, who had become a legend since his assassination, were not so very much older than he was, but they had the energy and width of grand figures. They had a sense that the spotlight of something—of history, of force, of people in their millions—lay upon them, whereas he wanted to avoid the attention. He wanted to perform but he didn’t want to be in the spotlight. It was better to live in the crevices.

Yash couldn’t reply to Satya. He was tongue-tied.

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