||I grew up in Durban, in a township which was pulled apart, where people were driven out, squeezed in and forced to live on the edge… of survival, the city and dignity.
This was Cato Manor. From these beginnings, I began to explore a city which I realised was also on the edge, a seedy, seething and bustling place full of excitement, danger and nooks and crannies of undiscovered delights. Like the proverbial sardine, I was hooked. This place grabs you, pulls you in and can also throw you back out again.
When I read Ashwin Desai’s The Archi-texture of Durban – A Skapie’s Guide (Madiba Publishers) there was instant recognition and memories came flooding back.
How does one write a guide to a city without falling into the trap of exoticisation, of turning it into a brochure that can be copied and pasted for any other city in the world?
Desai does not romanticise his city of birth and tells it as it is, but without any malice. Desai provides an engaging and personal account of the city, which both locals and foreigners will relish, and includes many of his columns published in The Mercury.
This book leaves a bitter-sweet taste in one’s mouth as Desai starts with its history of colonialism, and the conquest of the mighty Zulus by the imperial
But as Desai moves from its days of apartheid segregration to present day, you also get a sense of its beauty; its wonderful beaches, the glorious food and the myriad of colours and cultures, the ebb and flow of the port and its beautiful spaces where people go on Sunday afternoons to fish and relax. This is a book that evokes atmosphere, a sense of place, the knitting together of humanity to form a rich mix.
The Archi-texture of Durban is about contestation too, and Desai shows his deep perception of how the government of democratic South Africa has let down the working classes through policies such as Free Trade Agreements.
He talks about the factories where many Indian and African workers had worked which have now been “decimated”; the fight to save the city’s green spaces such as the Clairwood racecourse, under threat from being swallowed up by the latest fanciful mega-project; the building of the “alien’s handbag” or Moses Mabhida Stadium which lies empty for the majority of the year; and life in the flatlands and desperate areas of Cato Manor and struggling townships.
But there is much to make you giggle too. The story of the Chairman of Point Road had me laughing out loud, as did the chapters describing Desai’s childhood in the city centre through to his teenage years in Chatsworth; the clothes, the gangsters, a style of worlds and words gone by. The text is powerful in its evocation of memory and sense of detail.
In an age in which we are constantly seeking the new, and are eager to move on, in which cities have become homogenous, in which the allure of our parents’ generational ties no longer exists, The Architexture of Durban is a lyrical celebration of a complex and fascinating city on the shores of the Indian Ocean. At the end of the book, Desai quotes Gertrude Page’s words from 1910: “I should distrust Durban as, if I were a man, I should distrust a woman who was so beautiful that she cast a spell over my senses and drained my manhood.”
As Desai tells us, these words are as apposite as ever.
And if you don’t know what a skapie is, only the book will reveal. I can say this though, socially, Desai might be a skapie, but when it comes to writing, he is a shark.