01 November 2012 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

A recipe for life

If cooking is a metaphor for life, Zuleikha Mayat has perfected her recipe: some common-sense basics mixed with courage, grace, humility and empathy, that necessary salt.

Zuleikha Mayat – still right at home in the kitchen

Zuleikha Mayat, known for her cultural activism, books and decades of leadership (she’s in her mid-80s now), began life in a small, rural town in South Africa. I was lucky enough to talk to her while working on the Mail & Guardian Book of South African Women, in which she featured.

One of her best-known projects was producing an iconic South African cookbook, Indian Delights, which has sold about 400 000 copies since it was published in the 1950s. She generously shared her story with me, from growing up as a curious, observant child trying to make sense of the bizarre, segregated world around her, to taking her place as the matriarch of a family that continues to play an important role in the KwaZulu-Natal community where she lives.

The book, which features South African recipes from all social, economic and cultural backgrounds within the broader Indian community, is just one of the many ways she worked to bring people together at a time when the state wanted to keep them apart.

The book came to be about more than just food; it was about the women who cooked it, their lives, celebrations, struggles, identities, families and politics.

'There is no way to predict what will happen in your life, but you can cultivate the things that give it purpose and meaning,' she said. For her, one of these things has been the Women’s Cultural Group. Officially formed in 1954, it became a forum to discuss everything from education to culture to religion. It also started a number of philanthropic projects aimed at assisting the disadvantaged, with a strong focus on helping black students to access education – an area where it has excelled.

Zuleikha recalls collecting the recipes for the now-famous cookbook, one of the group’s 1st projects, and in the process creating a study of the community that formed the backdrop for much of her extraordinary life. 'We helped each other through everything in those days, and it taught me the importance of community.'

Zuleikha recently published Dear Ahmedbhai, Dear Zuleikhabehn: The letters of Zuleikha Mayat and Ahmed Kathrada 1979-1989. The book contains the correspondence between them during apartheid’s last decade.

The book came to be about more than just food; it was about the women who cooked it, their lives, celebrations, struggles, identities, families and politics. Recognising this, Gender, Modernity and Indian Delights: The Women’s Cultural Group of Durban, 1954-2010 by Goolam Vahed and Thembisa Waetjen, was published by HSRC Press in 2010. This book 'looks back at how a group of women, who were formally excluded from both political and customary power, nevertheless forged a vibrant citizenship and public life for themselves in South Africa'.

Speaking to Zuleikha was a privilege, reminding me of the extraordinary people in South Africa and the roles they have played in our society. As much as I’m intrigued and impressed by her many achievements – several books, an honorary doctorate and countless successful community projects – it’s her humility, compassion and humanity that stand out for me.

She told me a little bit about her late husband, whose example still inspires her today. 'He stood up in the community, even against our own orthodoxy when it pushed us down.'

She also recounted why she wanted to start a women’s group where all ethnicities would be welcome: 'If you live with people in a country, you have to get to know them and try to understand them.'

And she shared some of her memories of the struggle, downplaying her and her husband’s role, which included, among other things, sheltering Nelson Mandela. 'We were ordinary people but we helped where we could.'

My heart nearly broke when she told the story of how her husband and her sister died in a car accident in 1979 – an ambulance arrived, but they couldn’t go to the nearby hospital as it was for whites only. 'If you want to understand apartheid, this is an example – he died because they wouldn’t treat him.'

And at the end of it all, she said humanity is one: 'That’s what my husband believed. I believe it too.'

Indian Delights is always available through the Women’s Cultural Group, and 2nd-hand copies of some of her other out-of-print books are always in demand.

After our interview, Zuleikha also very generously sent me a copy of her books, A Treasure Trove of Memories and Nanima’s Chest, simply because I’d expressed an interest in them. And much as I covet a copy of the iconic Indian Delights, there's one I'd like even more – the one she’s used for her life. How very lucky I am to have had a small taste of it.

You can contact the Women’s Cultural Group on +27 (0)31 208 6203, or email womensculturalgroup@gmail.com.

Category: Culture & History

comments powered by Disqus