Colourful bouquets of tributes, homage and accolades for Indian Delights author

QUOTE: “No ordinary correspondence, these letters are between one of South Africa’s best-known political prisoners after Nelson Mandela and a notable personality passionately involved in a wide range of interests.” – Devarakshanam Govinden, in an analysis of Dear Ahmedibhai, Dear Zuleikhabhen – The Letters of Zuleikha Mayat and Ahmed Kathrada 1979-1989 (Jacana Press).

In death, Zuleikha Mayat has symbolically unified the city’s diverse communities and complex social and religious blocs. Her 1950s-founded Women’s Cultural Group and the tight-knit Durban Muslims came out in full force at a colourful homage in memory of a once politely feisty and firebrand activist, whose trademark was talking truth to power and calling for changes to the old South Africa’s status-quo.

Honoring a South African Icon: Zuleikha Mayat’s Impact on Durban

A week after the ageing and iconic publishing editor of the epic cookbook, Indian Delights, which showcased indigenous and migrant Indian home-made cuisines, recipes and culinary tips – it sold a record 500 000 copies and still selling worldwide – passed away in Westville on Friday February 2, hundreds of guests and family members gathered at the Al Baraka Bank’s auditorium in the Kingsmead Park complex for a moving four-hour memorial service.

A Memorial Service Fit for a Legend: Reflections on Zuleikha Mayat’s Life

As photographs flashed across the big screens, more than a dozen speakers recalled the life and times of this stoical woman – her diminutive frame cutting a striking a resemblance to the global face of the poor’s champion, Mother Teresa, the Albanian-Indian Catholic nun born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu 1910-1997. For her own towering community contributions, largely selflessly and tirelessly, and primarily the empowering women from ultra-conservative groups, Mayat was honoured and recognised for 75 years of her illustrious life of writing, publishing, social networking, charity, activism and philanthropy.        

Tributes and Testimonials: Celebrating Zuleikha Mayat’s Remarkable Journey

Dr Zuby Ahmed, widow of medical scientist, Professor HM Jerry Coovadia, said her husband noticed a change in her cooking skills. She promptly showed him her copy of the Indian Delights: “I told my husband that we must do something for this woman.”

In 2012, the University of KwaZulu-Natal awarded the 86-year-old author an honorary doctorate in social science. Mayat completed standard six and achieved a senior certificate via correspondence studies because of a lack of high schools for girls of colour in her native, apartheid-era Potchefstroom. Academic, writer and columnist, Dr Devi Rajab (nee Moodley), who had a hand in the prestige award, sketched a poignant story of one woman and her passion as an advocate for social change for activism, concluding she was a true daughter of Africa.

Mahatma Gandhi’s grand-daughter, Ela Gandhi (Ramgobind), aged 87, outlined Mayat’s decades of activism ranging from social issues, securing bursaries to speaking out against apartheid in favour of a democratic order.

Aslam Mayat played a central role as the programme director, jealously guarding his resilient mother’s reputation and credibility, while borrowing from his wicked sense of human to make light of the grief of her death. He told of how his father, Dr GHM Mayat – the couple were married in 1947 – went against Islamic societal norms and treated his wife to the best of Bollywood films at the cinemas owned by Mamoo Rajab’s family, and also took her to the men’s only Orient Club.

Zuleikha Mayat’s Enduring Influence: From Cookbook Author to Social Activist

In her own quiet diplomacy, Mayat counselled and advised members of her family and relatives who fell in love and married across the religious lines, and she maintained post-marriage relationships and friendships with the couples of the forbidden love club. Her nephew and his Hindi wife in Canada expressed their gratitude via a video link from Canada. Glitches with the quality of sound prevented other well-wishers from conveying condolences and tributes via Zoom.  The event was live-streamed on social media platforms.  

The lavish memorial service befitting a legend of high stature and humanitarian track record was hosted by Shabir Chohan, CEO of Al Baraka Bank, who spared no expenses on the catering fare of food and beverages. He recalled how the widowed matriarch had diplomatically reprimanded him for arriving late for a meeting on a public holiday, and he transported the ageing patriot to a polling booth to cast her vote in a recent election, saying her cross on the choice of her political party will remain a secret in his heart.

The Lasting Legacy of Zuleikha Mayat: A Champion for Social Justice and Human Rights

Lecturer Yashica Padia of the Active Citizens Movement, an anti-fraud-corruption lobby, said Mayat was at the frontline of campaigns and she fondly remembered the milestone of her three, voting-age teenagers casting their ballots and photographed with the Mayats.

Former city deputy mayor Fawzia Peer touched on how the octogenarian slipped at the radio studio of Al Ansaar, but pulled herself up swiftly and pointed out how litres of drinking milk strengthened her bones.

Johannesburg’s Nishan Balton, the voice and face behind the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, would have none of speaking via a video call, and flew into town to deliver his message personally, recalling the friendship between Mayat and his political hero, who along with Nelson Mandela and the ANC leaders were incarcerated on Robben Island:  “The 75 letters exchanged between Kathrada and Mayat focused on culture, politics and religion and were published in a book in 2009, entitled Dear Ahmedbhai, Dear Zuleikhabehn: The letters of Zuleikha Mayat and Ahmed Kathrada 1979-1989. The contents of these exchanges were well received and have been read locally and internationally and have made many people aware of the injustices and effects of apartheid.”

Heartbreak never stopped her

After tragically losing her dapper and blue-eyed husband and sister in a motor vehicle collision in 1979, her heartbreak tragedy did not prevent the acclaimed writer-activist from going public with her extraordinary brand of community outreach work. Her personal battle of ageing and failing health and mobility was shared by her children, Shamima, Nasim, Nadia – her son Aslam recalling receiving his mom’s daily cup of tea.

As the glowing tributes reached its journey’s end, a special homage of prayers in the Sura Yaseen and Salaat and Salaam for the Esaale Thawaab, compiled by Dr Shehnaz Shaikh and Kausar Katri, featuring pictures of the colourful tapestry of shawls worn by the revered and best loved Aunty Julu, was handed to guests to preserve a celebrated life and legacy of a passionate polymath, publisher, playwright, travel writer, migration scholar, author and human rights advocate.

Mayat in a wheelchair at the frontline protests

In her later years, a wheelchair-bound Mayat was at the frontline protests of the campaigns that condemned Israel’s apartheid-styled occupation and blockade of Palestine: “My mom died with her boots on,” quipped Aslam Mayat. He said she was the epitome of the spirit of the Iqraa Trust’s motto: “Life is not measured by what you own, but what you can do for others.” To her great grandchildren and grandchildren, Amelia Salie-Ameen, Iman Haffajee Salie-Ameen, Humaira Survé and Jihaan Haffajee, the nonagenarian with a restless set of feet and energy was simply Nani.

A prolific writer and author, Mayat shot to fame when she compiled the Indian Delights – a staple-diet cookbook found in almost every home among Durban Indians, and expatriates. People still refer to the catalogue of menus, ranging from easy-to-prepare recipes. Among the mouth-watering favourites are curries, rice, vegetable dishes, desserts and Indian snacks and savouries – including the global iconic snack – samoosas.

Apart from updating half-dozen versions of the edited and reprinted cookbook, Mayat penned The Odyssey of Crossing Oceans in 2021, an epic work of non-fiction rooted in her grasp of how migrant communities moved around the world – including to South Africa from India in the 1860s. Her work covers the movement of people spanning 1 500 years, focusing on people who migrated from Arabia to India and to Gujarat, home state of her grandparents, and on to Transvaal (Gauteng). In 2008, she published The History of Muslims of Gujarat – her religious-cultural roots in the extended family’s motherland.    

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MARLAN PADAYACHEE is a still-practicing and seasoned journalist and photographer, former political, diplomatic and foreign correspondent, currently a media strategist, consulting editor, freelance journalist and publisher at MapMedia GreenGold Consulting (Pty) Limited; recipient, 2021 Ammen Award for Excellence in Media, member, International Federation of Journalists, Southern African Freelancers’ Association (SAFREA), SA National Editors’ Forum (SANEF), and Institute for the Advancement of Journalists, recipient, USIS International Visitor and British Council Fellow and Life Member, Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (Gopio International), board member, RK Khan Hospital  (2001-2022).

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