The First Birthday in Chatsworth
On Julie Lingah’s fourth birthday, she thought her mother was being murdered. Outside, the sky hissed, popped and boomed with Diwali fireworks. Inside, her mother’s screams filled the house, tethered to an unfolding drama behind a door at the top of the stairs of the family’s new matchbox home in Chatsworth. It was 9 November 1966 and Julie’s family was among the 7 000-odd Indians who had recently been driven out of the infamous Magazine Barracks near the beachfront on Argyle Road in Durban. After the city centre was zoned off as ‘white’ under the Group Areas Act, they were moved to the Indian township 20-odd kilometres away as the crow flies.
She did not understand what was happening, why she had been banished from the main bedroom. But it sounded as though someone was hurting her mum. ‘I wanted to know what they were doing. There were a lot of people upstairs and I wanted to go and help.’ So she snuck upstairs under the pretext of fetching something in a cupboard in the room, only to be grabbed by the ear and frogmarched back downstairs with a ‘You shouldn’t be here!’ That is it, the sum of her recall of the first birthday she celebrated in Chatsworth, in the two-bedroom semi where the family still lives, nearly half a century later: confusion, her mother’s wailing, Diwali thunder. An aural conflagration accompanying the birth of her youngest sibling, Marlene.
Forty-four Years Later
Now the 48-year-old occupational therapist props herself up against the armrest of the couch in her flatlet, built at the back by her father to ensure that she did not flee from beneath the clucking parental wings as she outgrew her adolescence and became financially independent. Since those early years, Julie went on to become the first woman on her street to finish high school, the first to get a university degree, the first to buy a car.
In a world where women generally wind up in the kitchen, and their value is measured in their fertility, that made her something of a curiosity. ‘This one auntie asked a friend of mine, “Hey, she bought a brand new car, can she afford it?”’ A singing inflection lilts through her pantomime. ‘Women weren’t supposed to work. Most of them were housewives.’
Above her, a fleshy, decorated Ganesh smiles down with coyly lashed eyes from a wall calendar. The lower corners of the almanac fan away from the wall when the swivelling fins of the air conditioner overhead stir the liquid Durban air into reluctant motion. Then the poster page settles again, allowing the Hindu lord of success, prosperity and protection to preside benevolently over the room once more. ‘Sarva Dharma Ashram,’ its royal blue print proclaims. ‘The home of love, compassion and sacrifice.’
The wall above Ganesh is a shrine to her family, past: her late parents, John and Meenachee Edward; her two pictures of in-laws; a black dachshund, its eyes milking over with age. Each framed picture is dressed with a garland of plum-coloured beads and moulded, white plastic flowers. And then there, at Julie’s right elbow, is her Wesley, the man whose heart gave out three years earlier on a bus trip to Jo’burg, when they were travelling to join a protest against the ill-treatment of the Tamils in their ancestral homeland of southern India.
Her family, present, is in the house, waiting for the chicken biryani (‘Bryani is the anglicisation,’ she says with a smile) to finish puffing out in the oven: her younger brother Leslie has taken over the original home with his wife Jennifer (Vasagie), 16 year old daughter Shanni and son DJ (shortened for Dhesigan John), 14. Marlene, Julie and Leslie’s sister, has since moved off to live in nearby Overport.
Studying Occupational Therapy
Julie was a voracious reader in school and evidently bright. Even though her parents made it clear they did not have money to put her through university, she applied to study medicine just to see if she would be accepted. She was. She was also offered a slot to study teaching and given a place on an occupational therapy course at the University of Durban-Westville. But occupational therapy was what she wanted to study more than anything.
‘My mother said, “No, we can’t do it. We don’t have money.” I was very, very disappointed. Occupational therapy was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do. So I thought about it, and the next day I was.’ She pauses, edits herself mid-sentence. ‘I was actually quite mean. I said to my mother, “If I were your son you would have done anything in your power to make me go to university. Why? Because he would bring back the money and you’ll keep it in your house. But because I’m a girl and I’m going to get married and take all I’ve got to my husband’s house, that’s why you are not sending me.”’
The older woman was shocked, Julie remembers. But the next morning, her mother handed her R500, probably half a year’s fees at the time. ‘We will have to cut a lot of corners,’ she told her daughter, and shooed her off to go and pay her deposit. ‘For the four years that I studied, while my brother and sister were working, my mum didn’t take a cent of their money.
She didn’t take anything out of the budget from my dad. With no formal training as a seamstress, and just her sewing machine, Meenachee Edward, née Munsami, paid her daughter’s university fees by sewing. She kept at it for two years, until diabetes pulled the shutters in on her eyesight, closing out the rest of the world.
Dependent on Parents
Julie doing shopping on her own after her parents died.
Julie’s father, John Edward, called her his ‘little jewel’, which somehow transformed into Julie, but her birth certificate has her registered as Thanalutchmy. As she approaches 50, she is something of an anomaly in this still largely blue-collar part of Durban. She has worked her way up in the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s school of audiology, occupational therapy and speech-language pathology, where she is head of department and academic coordinator for occupational therapy.
She is childless, after an emergency hysterectomy in her early twenties (‘in the Indian community a woman is judged by the number of children she has, productivity and all that’); she is a widow (‘you don’t have much status in the Indian community as a widow; you become a non-entity almost’); and she earns a ‘pretty decent salary’ (‘women weren’t supposed to work,’ she says looking back on her earlier years after graduating, ‘most of them were housewives’).
In spite of her education and career buttressing this uncharacteristic autonomy, Julie and her siblings were totally dependent on their parents right until both passed away: first, her father, in 1992, from a heart attack at the age of 62 (Julie was 30 at the time); three years later, her mother, from complications relating to decades of poorly treated diabetes. ‘I remember after my dad passed away, I went to do shopping for the seventh-day memorial prayer. I stood in the market and I cried because I had never done this in my life before. As an occupational therapist you treat people and make them functional, you help them with budgeting and shopping, but I literally never had to do it for myself.’
It was probably the family’s protectiveness that kept her pretty well adjusted, she reckons. So even as she has gained weight over the years – a sluggish thyroid; the pain and immobility with the hysterectomy; years of rich, oily Indian cuisine; and, like so many of us, a simple, hearty love of food – it did not seem to matter much to her. ‘I’ve always known I was fat. It’s just never been an issue for me.’
Her mother sewed all her clothes, shielding her from the unedited scrutiny of those full-length mirrors in shop changing rooms. But when her mother’s eyesight began to fail, Julie was forced to start shopping for clothes. For the first time, she was confronted with the unambiguous size labels stitched into their waistbands and collars. ‘It was very depressing to buy store clothes when I realised this size was not fitting me and I’m not that small.’
A Change in Lifestyle
Julie does not register her weight in kilograms, but in a vaguely sweeping reference to clothing size. Pointing to a graduation photograph of herself in 1999, when she finished an MBA through Technikon Natal (now the Durban University of Technology), she reckons she was about size 46 or so then – though she has dropped down to about a 38, she says.
But Julie’s relationship with food has changed recently, which is why she has managed to drop so many dress sizes since she graduated with her MBA over a decade ago: she has reduced the quantities she serves for herself; she eats more salads; she has cut down on oil and refined carbohydrates; the sugar in her tea, gone; meat is mostly fish or chicken; she tries not to keep sweets, chips and chocolate in the house (‘whenever we have a craving for something, we’ll go and buy something; we don’t buy and stock at home any more’); if she does have a bit of cake, it will be a smaller piece; she has found she will stop eating when she is full, that she cannot eat more than her tummy needs (‘previously, I’d just eat because it tasted nice, but I don’t do that anymore’).
It is a lifestyle change that needed more than just her own buy-in, though, because she cooks and eats with her brother’s family. All of them had to agree to the more austere diet that Julie needed to adopt, and it is not without its tensions. Sometimes Leslie will crave some of the more oily traditional foods; Jennifer might cheat by making a fatty, starchy meal now and then ‘because she feels sorry for everyone’ but probably hankers for some comfort food herself; the children struggle with the soft ban on sweets and chips in the house.
Exercise is not on her agenda, though, she admits. ‘I don’t really do exercise. I’ve never liked it.’ There is a smile – apologetic, or a bit sheepish – and then she jumps to her own defence. ‘But I try. I have gone for walks. If I am feeling a bit lethargic, I put some music on and dance.’
Struggling to Get Up
The deeper Julie gets into her story, though, the clearer it becomes that something else is going on beneath the arduous trudge towards shedding some extra kilograms. Her recent weight loss is not just a result of her diabetes. ‘I don’t know...’ She starts a thought, then tacks in another direction. ‘After my husband...’ And she tacks again. ‘I’ve actually lost a lot of weight. I guess it’s because I wasn’t eating much.’ When Wesley died a few months after their ninth wedding anniversary, in September 2007, colour seemed to wash out of the spectrum for her.
‘I think over the last few years, I’ve actually lost everything in terms of pleasurable activities and I didn’t even know it. Food no longer...’ She stops, mid-idea, and thinks it through a bit. ‘I mean, my sister and I used to almost argue when she’d come to me and say, “What must I cook?” and I said, “I don’t know and I don’t care”.’ ‘And she thought I was just being difficult, but I honest to god didn’t care what I ate. I only ate because I needed to fill my tummy when it was rumbling, and not because I enjoyed food.’
Food used to be everything to her. She loved it, loved baking things, loved trying out new recipes. ‘Ja, I think I got that from my father. He used to love feeding us all the time. But I’ve lost all of that.’ She staggered through a haze of deferred grief in the months after Wesley’s death: accepting a job promotion to head up the occupational therapy section of the department; loads of new things to learn; got... to... get out... of... bed. ‘Well, I didn’t even know I was struggling. I’d get up and go to work, do whatever I needed to do. I don’t know much about what happened around that period of time. I was just basically going to work and back.’
But slowly, almost unnoticed at first, things began unravelling. She would find herself lying in bed for days at a time, not wanting to bath or eat. Her niece and nephew dragged her out from beneath her duvet and made her eat, made her do things, made her keep moving. ‘The kids were my saving grace, they wouldn’t let me die.’ Things kept slipping, though.
A Health Wake-up Call
Julie suffers from glaucoma, a disease where the nerve connecting the eye to the brain is damaged.
Julie was not taking care of her life. Then, one wake-up call after another. Her black Tazz fell apart in Pietermartizburg, and had to be towed back home for repairs.
She took herself off for a full physical, and discovered her insulin intolerance had grown into full-blown diabetes. A routine visit to her optometrist to be fitted for new specs showed that pressure had been building up on the optic nerves; it had pinched off 60% of the vision in both her eyes. The damage was structural, a specialist ophthalmologist later confirmed, irreversible. Glaucoma. You can almost feel the aftershock of this news still shuddering through the bedrock of her world.
Diabetes does not necessarily cause glaucoma, but it can do, by squeezing off blood flow and wrecking the eye’s critical nerve. Whatever the cause, now Julie does what she can to push back the encroaching glaucoma and save what vision she has left. The thought of losing her sight, of becoming dependent on her family – no, no, she is absolutely adamant, she does not want that for herself. She saw what it did to her mother.
‘The ophthalmologist said to me, “Listen, if you carry on like this, you are going to go blind very quickly. With glaucoma you’d be fine but, because of the pressure on the nerve, it could block your vision and within a second you could go blind. You’re a therapist,” he said to me. “You know what that means.”’ So Julie splashes a few drops of medication into her eyes every night, and will keep doing so for the rest of her life if she wants to keep the darkness at bay. The drugs are already working: they have widened her peripheral vision, something she did not even realise she had lost until recently.
‘I discovered, without realising it, that I was no longer driving on the freeway. I was driving single roads, even if it was a longer route to work. I just thought I was tired and my eyes weren’t focusing properly. I just kind of adapted how I do things, how I get to work and back, and I wouldn’t drive much at night. But having had my eyes sorted out, I was driving down the freeway and I realised, oh my god, there are houses on this road. It used to be deserted, but now there are houses and I had never seen that. Ja, but it was because the peripheral vision had gone.’
A recent check-up indicated that the medication was doing the trick, that there had not been any further degeneration in the nerve tissue in her eyes. ‘When this guy said to me, your sight could go like that’ – there is a hint of her clicking her fingers – ‘I thought I would not be able to...’ She pauses, edits herself again.
‘I will definitely not be dependent. I don’t think I can handle the fact that somebody has to take care of me.’ Everyone dies in the end. Systemic death is going to come one day; she is not afraid of that. She can live with the idea of dying. But losing her sight? No, that she cannot handle; not losing her independence. And with the unravelling of her life, the widow finally confronted the guest she had been avoiding for three years.
The Death of Her Husband
One morning in September 2010 – her sister-in-law’s birthday, she remembers – Julie Lingah could not get out of bed. Grief had finally run her down. For the next few months, she did what she had refused to do for three full orbits of the earth around the sun: she began to breathe in the pain and loss that had flooded into the space that Wesley had once filled. And that is when she began to mend herself.
Slowly, she began unwrapping herself from within the Hindu symbols of the married woman. The toe ring fell off one day and she did not put it back on. Then a friend said maybe she should take off the thali – the nuptial chain – to make a clean break of it; and so she did, on impulse. ‘Now put your dot in my hand,’ her friend had said. With that, Julie peeled off the vermilion Kungam Bottu on her forehead that had been her signal to the world that she was a married woman.
Now, an elongated teardrop in dark purple hovers over her third eye. She decided 2011 was going to be ‘the year of the merry widow’. On New Year’s Day she wore pink – a long pink top, tights – which was totally out of character for her. ‘I made a conscious decision to get out of the rut I was in.’ It was time to find the colour, flavour and purpose in life once more. No, she doesn't mind talking about it. But when she does, the undertow of the remembered pain still swells up into the surface currents that ebb and flow across her face. She treads oh so tentatively back through the memory of her loss, the recollection of his death.
It was somewhere between Pietermaritzburg and Mooi River that Wesley started feeling a twinge in his chest. As the bus rolled onward, on its way to Jo’burg to a protest outside a Sri Lanka vs South Africa cricket match, Wesley kept telling his wife what was happening to him, describing his pain. She knew he was having a heart attack but there was nothing she could say or do to stop it. Their fellow Tamils pulled in around them and began chanting while the bus thundered up the N2, heading towards Mooi River, towards some kind of medical help. As they arrived in town, just as the paramedics eventually stepped onto the bus, Wesley Lingah took his last breath, right there, in Julie’s arms. And just like that, her husband was gone.
By Leonie Joubert