Gilbert E Chittenden

(in S.A. Railways and Harbours Magazine, October 1915, pp. 925-930)


"Good friends beware ! the only life we know

Flies from us like an arrow from the bow,

The caravan of life is passing by,

Quick ! to your places in the magic show.

Set not thy heart on any good or gain,

Life means but pleasure or it means but pain,

When Time lets slip a little perfect hour

O take it - for it will not come again."

Richard Le Gallienne.


I always ask my friends, returning to the Rand, whether they visited the Oriental Quarters while they were in Durban. They invariably answer, "No," adding, "What Oriental Quarters ?" Now a question such as that has only one effect upon me. It makes me feel savage with myself. Am I such an oddity, such a freak, that like the

 Indian Fish Market, Durban

proverbial professor with a butterfly net, blue spectacles and a large volume, I enjoy prying into places of whose existence other people have not so much as heard. Then there is the other side. People are inclined to think things when you tell them (in all innocence) that you have been wandering about the low quarters of a town all alone. Of course, they never say anything. They merely smile and one looks sheepish, to say nothing of appearing guilty of sins one has not committed. However, despite all this risk of reputation, during recent visits to Durban, I found much interest and amusement in wandering down Grey street, past the Mohammedan Mosques and Indian Stores, odorous of garlic and cheap perfumes, into squalid side streets that led into bazaars and eating - places - not that I dared to eat anything, although I do admit having bought some beads, some brass ash - trays and some joss-sticks. But that is all and I positively had to buy them. Those Oriental hawkers!!! I might have been coated with molasses. They might have been famished flies. They swarmed round me. They all talked at once. They jostled one another. They gesticulated. They chewed garlic. Inside the bazaars each one declared the prices of his wares cheaper than those of all the others. Talk about Sane Trade's Unionism! There is no such thing, at least not among the Indian hawkers. They implored me to buy. In desperation I picked up a string of bright blue beads from the nearest stall. " How much?" I ventured. Swift came the reply, "Half-crown verie cheep." I groaned aloud in fact, I staggered visibly, but speedily recovering myself, gasped indignantly. "Good heavens, you can buy beads cheaper than that in Johannesburg."

 East and West

It was a fatal retort to have made. There was a chorus at once, "Phew, Johannesburg o-o-oh - you Johannesburg, eh! Plentie money, eh, plentie?" (I was probably poorer than any of them). "Yes," I said haughtily, determined to create an impression, "plenty money, plenty gold." With that one of the hawkers scrambled into his stall and brought forth a number of brass ash-trays and copper bowls in which they burn incense. He poked these things under my eyes. "You like?" he questioned. My eyes must have glistened unknown to myself, because he added hastily, "Ow, verie good, verie good Indiane gold, come all way from Galgutta (Calcutta), plentie cheep!" "How much?" I enquired "Tenie Shillink." I never said a word. We did no business. The man with the blue beads saw his opportunity. He came back with the beads. "Taketie pour two shillink!" (Take them for 2s.), he purred persuasively. I could see I had got him "on the
 (p.925) run."

I looked superior, as though in scorn of the reduced price. It impressed that hawker. He came down to 1s. 6d. I was tempted but the Scottish blood in me (I am English) cried aloud, "do not yield." In the end I bought those beads for 9d. The man wrapped them up in newspaper and I moved on, wondering what I should do with them. Suddenly a cold fear seized me, supposing those beads had been "made in Germany?" "Just the sort of things they do make," my thoughts replied. I got panicky. I tried to palm the beads off on the nearest urchin. Snakes! he wouldn't look at them. What was I to do? I dropped them down a street drain while no one was watching and sighed easefully. Lord, if the Johannesburg Vigilance Committee (for hunting out dealers in German goods) had seen me with those blue beads! They would have cried, "Havoc", and let a mob to loose on me. The thought had a sobering effect, moreover, it made me impervious as rock to the honied overtures of those Oriental hawkers. They held up glass bracelets, tin necklaces, wire bangles, gold beads, pink beads, yellow beads, red beads, tawdry prints, looking glasses with shells round them, Indian gods, Brahmin images carved in wood, incense crystals, printed ornaments - it availed them nought. The idea had entered my head, "they were made in Germany." It robbed everything of romance.

I passed on to some fruit stalls. The heat was intense, the air drowsily sweetened with the humid smell of over-ripe fruit. There was just one redeeming feature . The whole atmosphere was redolent of the East. I kept repeating that to myself. But before long I grew oppressed by the heat and wondered vaguely whether, by any evil chance, the yellow heaps of bananas, pine-apples, guavas and mangoes had been made, I mean, grown in Germany . To such extremes of imaginativeness can panic, coupled with patriotism, lead a man. The fact was, I had not yet recovered from the blue bead incident. I was pleased to think of them in that drain. In any case what could I have done with them? Had I proffered them to a lady-friend as a present she might (mark you, I only said might) have thought I was of the unexpressed opinion that she would be more attractive in beads than in a hobble skirt. It must be clearly understood, of course, that I only suppose this.

At length I moved away from the chatter and the odorousness of the fruit market only to find myself in an atmosphere decidedly worse - that of a large eating - house. I had heard it from afar off before entering and was curious to know exactly what manner of institution it was. I stepped within. By the Seven Wonders, what a place! It was a big building with bare white washed walls and a high corrugated- iron roof. In the room there were tables, made up of long boards on trestles - festal boards be it noted - while the rough benches on either side were lined with men and women. Orientals, natives, in fact, all sorts and colours from a few very degenerate whites to cream- coloured Coolies and the blackest of black Zulus. There they were, all talking at the top of their voices in their respective tongues. The result was a cacophonous babel. The rapid and high - pitched juldi - hortra-kortra-portra-ha of the Indians mingled with the deep bass Sakbona of the Zulus. It was like a Scriabine symphony.

There were giants of ricksha - boys, bedaubed with white pigment in the regions of arms and legs, their heads and shoulders grotesqued with horns, skins and feathers. On their ankles they bore stringed shells, beads and berries which rattled like castanets wherever they moved. There were hook-nosed orientals with sallow complexions, langorous optics, flowing linen garments and slippy-sloppy slippers on their yellow feet. There were higher caste Indians and Hindoos, more (p.926) sedate more classic, both in feature and form, quite venerable in their turbans, quite prophetic-Glory be to Allah! There were young Indian maids with amorous eyes, clanking silver rings like shackles on their ankles and enormous brass ornaments on their ears and noses. In his inebriated outlook Omar called these girls "Moons of delight that know no wane". He must have been very drunk at the time. There were shrivelled hags, woeful to look upon as they chewed garlic with teeth stained reddish black from the habit. These old women were, to me, the most interesting of all the human types in that eating-house. There was something extra ordinary about them. They were at once sinister and pathetic. They appeared to be scowling unuttered imprecations at everyone who passed, to be brooding incessantly over dark thoughts, to be meditating uncanny evil. They were living embodiments of a hopeless life. In them too was visible that tragic characteristic of all oriental women-premature decay, which renders them positively hideous even at middle age. Such were few of the types I saw in the eating-house and something of the fatalism of the East came back :

"O, weary men upon a weary earth

What is this toil, that we call living, worth?

This dreary agitation of the dust,

And all this strange mistake of mortal birth?

Would we were sure of some oasis blest

Where, the long journey over, we might rest;

O, just to sleep a hundred thousand years,

Tired head, tired heart, within the earth's dark breast!"

I quote from Richard Le Gallienne's version of the Rubaiyat. To the dwellers in the low quarters that eating-house was seemingly a social rendezvous, a place where they might each be someone and something. They walked about, they lounged or they sat eating fishy and fleshy concoctions, coloured bilious yellows and bright reds, too nauseous even to contemplate. The din of their voices never ceased. What on earth could find to talk about so incessantly? I sought to imagine. Maybe those two sharp featured Indians were discussing the war. I would have given much to hear their views. That trio of Orientals in the opposite corner were evidently discussing a business project. One could almost detect the glitter of gold in their keen eyes. Those black Hercules, two Zulu ricksha boys, were probably relating one to the other, how someone had "done them down" or how they had "done" someone else in the matter of a fare from the Town Hall to the Ocean Beach. They laughed like thunder. Those groups of Indian Girls, giggling and wriggling in bright print draperies, were evidently exchanging confidences, the nature of which I could not possibly guess. (p.927). Lastly there were the flies, great swarms of them, like winged army corps wheeling and whirling in massed formations. They hovered over the tables. They roosted on every available spare space. They outflanked and surrounded every bit of food on the tables, and not only the food itself but even the invisible smell of it. Oh for the brain of a "Cherub" to have organised a fly-swatting campaign! It might have resulted in a Knighthood.

From the eating-house I strayed back through the bazaars. Those hawk-eyed hawkers recognised me at once. Their business enthusiasm had in no way abated. It never does. Some of their prices had fallen. The sun was near setting. It would soon be closing time when the Faithful would be called to prayer; hence the fall in prices. I wonder if the same rule exist on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. This last sentence should be read in parentheses, by the way. The man with the brass ash-trays and copper bowls came up to me. He ventured 10s. "No?" "Alright 8s." I held out. The price continued to totter until it crashed down to 3s 6d. I closed with him and took the ash-trays. They were not made in Germany. Even German Kultur could not turn out articles so dainty as those ash-trays.

Native Medicine Man

 Medicine Men and their Remedies

Consoled with that thought I left the bazaars, harangued to the very door by the hawkers. I came out into a yard which proved to be the consulting ground of a number of native (Zulu) medicine-men licensed to practise. They sat in rows on either side of the yard with their multifarious remedies spread out on sacking before them. And what remedies they were too! Anything, varying from a small frog bottled up in spirits of wine, to the dried entrails of a crocodile. I write in all seriousness. Never have I beheld such a collection of medicines. There were cochineal and tomato-sauce bottles filled with muddy-coloured liquids and potions (deadly poisonous they seemed to me), there were pieces of bark, bones, gypsum, asbestos, felspar, crocidolite, corks, dried roots, calabashes, seeds, chunks of elephant hide, animals' claws, assorted varieties of dried skin, fragments of china - these are all I can recall. I was told many of these things are prescribed as charm-remedies in the belief that they are infallible in warding off disease. They may be efficacious. I do not know. But I felt there and then that though my body were being consumed by seven plagues in a wilderness I should hesitate before placing my troubled flesh in the hands of one of these eminent medical men. I verily believe they would keep portions of me for charms. But, in more serious strain, I was informed that some of these medicine-men prescribe very effectively for certain forms of disease. Their profession and their secret remedies are handed down to them by forebears. The natives themselves appear to hold them in great esteem, although they seemed to me none other than civilised species of witch-doctor, very picturesque and interesting, no doubt, but there it is ended.

I asked one of their number to pose for the camera. The first thing he asked was "Malini?" which is to say, how much money will you give? It was a splendid instance of what environment can do. This great Zulu boy had acquired the money-making instinct through contact with the Oriental. Away in the rugged defiles of Zululand he might have welcomed the idea of being photographed. Here in the town he sought to make market of it. I, for one, do not blame him. It is the spirit of the age. But I solved the difficulty. I snapped him while we were discussing the price. Then I told him I had his photograph. He wad delighted, laughed and added, "Ouk, Menige schelm, baas" from which I gathered he considered me a rogue.

 Grey Street Mosque

From the medicine-men I sauntered back to Grey Street. The sun had almost set. There were long shadows in the street and the cool of the coming evening was sensible in the air. It was the end of a tropic day and everyone sighed with langorous relief. Suddenly I heard a high-pitched voice wailing a chant above the house-tops. It was the Muezzin in the minaret of the Mosque calling the faithful to evening prayer. There was music in the man's voice. I stood some distance down the street and listened. The vocal intonations were beautiful. At one moment the light breeze brought the voice very near to me; the next instant it was borne far away and seemed liked the sad cry from a Bedouin lost in the desert. The sight and the sound of the Muezzin recalled Pogany's poetic illustration of Fitzgerald's lines in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:-


The Muezzin from the tower of darkness cries,

Fools! your reward is neither here nor there!"

I left the streets and entered the Mosque. In what may be termed an Oriental courtyard a crowd (p.928) of Indians was seated in little groups round a covered fountain. They were washing their hands and feet, in accordance with the Mohammedan custom, before entering the Mosque proper. They all went in with bare-feet. I watched them. No one took the slightest notice of me until a young priest, with soft black whiskers came my way. He merely eyed me with mild surprise. I greeted him with an English "Good-day." He bowed ceremoniously. I tried to do likewise, failed lamentably, and resorted to plain English speech. Could I enter the Mosque? Was I of the faith? (His English was perfect). No, but I was very interested. I had read a translation of the Koran and knew the life history of Mahommed. He seemed pleased. He would ask the chief-priest whether I might enter. I waited, wondering what the chief-priest would say when he was told that "an unbeliever" wished to enter the temple. I might have told him that I knew both Fitzgerald's and Le Gallienne's versions of Omar off by heart, for'ards and aft, that I had seen "Kismet," that I could quote long passages from the Diwan of Abu'l-ala, The Confessions of Al Ghazzali and Shaikh Sa'di's Scroll of Wisdom. But I am pleased to relate that I was spared making this pedantic speech of my own erudition, and, incidentally, of telling not a few untruths. The young priest returned. Yes, I might enter. At the same time he glanced at my brown brogues. I understood. Had I not read the Koran? I went to a little seat, near the fountain, and removed my foot-wear, speculating as I did so whether the socks I was wearing were one of my devout pairs, full of holiness. Allah be praised! the right - foot was alright and !!! So was the left. I put my old brogue-shoes amongst the rows of flappy Oriental slippers and with stockinged - feet padded cautiously, like a big tom-cat, behind the priest who led the way into the Mosque. The interior was plain, except for a few Oriental decorations on the walls. There were no chairs, of course. The floor was covered with innumerable little eastern carpets or mats all of the same design. As the worshippers entered, they chose a mat, knelt down and prostrated themselves. They all faced in one direction, towards Mecca it seemed. I also knelt down on a mat, behind them. I watched but did not pray. It would be bad taste and sacrilege, on my part, to caricature their form of worship, but, really, to the uninitiated Westerner those Mohemmedans might have been going through a Swedish physical drill as they bended and unbended in prayer, while at frequent intervals they placed their foreheads on the floor in an attitude of complete humility and submission. There were no priests conducting the service. Each man chanted his prayers in a low, though audible, voice and having finished bent down for a few seconds, with his brow upon the ground and arms outstretched before him, then rose and walked out quietly with bowed head. What appealed to me more than all else was the remarkable sincerity of their devotion. They seemed to prostrate (p.929) themselves in prayer to the exclusion of all worldly thought. The orthodox nature or otherwise of their religion does not concern me, but I do think one seldom sees such whole-hearted devotion as is displayed by the Oriental when he turns to Allah. Of course, he may go straight out of the Mosque and "do" his best friend for a tickey, but that does not matter. In the Mosque he is righteous humility itself.

 Show case of Jewellery

 Gold-beater and Silversmith at Work

Outside the Mosque I found darkness had fallen. I returned thanks to the young priest and was about to depart. But at that moment my eye caught the radiance of a soft red light emanating from the open front of a small building near at hand. At that time I heard musical sounds as of someone beating a silver - bell. The idea of an eastern dance in progress suggested itself to me. I moved towards the place. The dance was a night mirage. I found a gold-beater and silver-smith busy with a quaint blow-pipe furnace and a small anvil. I watched the man. He went on working at a gold pendant. The shape of it was not yet defined. He heated the metal in the furnace and then beat it, to the required thinness, of the anvil. One might have mistaken the furnace for a large hooker-pipe except that the heat given off by the charcoal cinders, when fanned by the blow- pipe was so intense as to dispel the idea at once. A most pleasing aroma filled the place whenever the man used the furnace. The worker looked up after a time. I questioned him. Perceiving my interest he told me all about his trade and shewed me some beautiful specimens of hand-wrought jewellery, in both gold and silver, as well as a number of rare-stone settings in the shape of rings, pendants and brooches. I enquired about the aromatic vapours from the furnace. These arose from the addition of a peculiar resinous substances known as Samarandi (I am uncertain of the spelling). He sold me a quantity of the substance. We said good-night. I have since recalled the warmth and glamour of the East on many a cold evening by throwing pieces of Samarandi on the red hot coals of winter fires. It's perfume is rare and has the power to recall scenes and faces.

I left the gold-beater and the Oriental Quarters for the lights, laughter and music of Western civilisation on the Ocean Beach. There was but one regret. I wished that I had kept the string of bright-blue beads. After all, they might have been useful. (p.930)