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The only logic of choosing Durban as the city to settle down appears somewhat dubious: that it’s a city with lot of Indians ( around 0.7 million i.e approx 55% of total indian population in SA & 27% of Durban population). But that is exactly what the Indian I chance to meet a day after landing in Johannesburg told me, suggesting Indians are more likely to help a new Indian. That was 1995, and I had just left my job in Nigeria to experiment starting my own business in South Africa, a brand new country then, fresh with possibilities.  I had no friends, family, contacts or business plan, just loads of enthusiasm and reckless dare devilry that comes with youth. In addition, I now also had a piece of paper containing address of his brother in Durban that I could approach for initial help in settling down.  In the back of my mind I knew that if I failed  I could always go back to India and get a job , since I had garnered enough education and job experience by then. However this was the time to throw caution to wind say my prayers and jump into unknown waters and hopefully surface out on the sylvan beaches of Durban.
He proposed that I buy his UNO FIRE that he wanted to get rid of to take me to Durban. Without a better plan in hand, I made my 1st investment in buying that car, accepting his price without a word of negotiation. I hit the road, driving  slowly since I was driving for 1st time in this country and that too long distance, arriving at his brother’s house past 9 pm, just when he had retired  to bed. I was hesitant as I knocked on the door, expecting him to be suspicious and curt at such an unexpected intrusion by a total stranger so late at night. I wanted nothing more than name of a hotel nearby to spend the night.  Instead my Indian accent caught his attention and he asked me to come in and tell my story. Then he engaged me in conversation for next 2 hours, insisted that I have supper and sleep that night at his place, brushing aside all my protests. Before I woke up next morning, he had spoken to his family and they had made up their mind. That I must stay with them till I find my bearings, accepting whatever I offered to pay them as a paying guest.  Thus I concluded my 2nd deal in Durban, done once again without a word of negotiation, this time by my hosts. That I was overwhelmed with all this appear such an understatement today. Ross Moodley became my friend, family and mentor. By all account this was an extraordinary gesture, but it was not rare – since I come across this ever so often in last 17 years I have lived in Durban. Even today, every time I speak to local Indians, the 1st minute of conversation is spent discussing India, before coming to discuss the topic at hand. Breaking ice does not get easier than in warm Durban for a new Indian.  Years later, Ross Moodley told me hearing my story had reminded him of his own grandfather’s journey. His wife Assie, on the other hand had liked my accent, talking just like the Bollywood stars!
Hence within hours of arriving, Durban had opened its arm and welcomed me as her own. I guess it’s a typical Durban tradition. It did the same when the vessel TRURO arrived in Durban in 1852, disembarking 1st lot of Indian contract labourers. Of course it has not been an easy journey since then. In many ways, apartheid did to Indians what holocaust did to the Jews. It brought them together, feverishly upholding the “Indian ness “in their religion, culture, family and those wonderful values of thrift and hard work. There have been many books written that documents this struggle but not enough to capture the true spirit of what makes a Durban Indian so amazing. After all, this is a city that took an ordinary lawyer, converted him into Mahatma Gandhi, before returning the gift back to India. It then went on to provide a long list of freedom fighters to help Nelson Mandela in his struggle against apartheid. And now has given one of the finest finance minister, Pravin Gordhan and Hashim Amla one of top cricketer of South Africa today.
It’s not just Indians, but Durban’s sub-tropical climate has been exuding this very special kind of warmth to other race groups as well. For the white man, it happened from the very 1st time they saw. According to history that took place when the famous Portuguese traveller Vasco da Gama sighted this land in 1492, he named it Natal ( Natal means Christmas in Portuguese).Modern day Durban started when a group of 35 British soldiers arrived from Cape Colony in 1824. One of them befriended the Zulu king Shaka, helping him heal from his stab wounds that he suffered in battle. As a token of his gratitude, Shaka granted a 30-mile strip of coast. That’s how the colonial rule began for the British. They decided to build a capital town and named it “d’Urban” after Sir Benjamin d’Urban, then governor of the Cape Colony (however Durban rhymes so closely with “Turban” that Indians may be forgiven to assume that the city got its name from this head wear popular among the Indian indentured labourers!)
Around 1860′s Britisher’s established sugarcane industry and got indentured labourer from India since they could not get the Zulu workers to work in the farm. Makes you wonder sometimes what the British had in mind when they started getting shiploads of these Indians. Did they think these uneducated labourers will burn out from hard work in the hot sun and just die away or disappear back into oblivion?  Similarly what was King Shaka thinking when he gifted the land to the white man from Britain – a country known the world over for its imperialist ambitions? ( King Shaka, was himself, no ordinary ruler as well, starting his life as a social outcast, he had risen to become the greatest legendary king that African soil has ever produced. Before Shaka, Zulu was just another small African clan, but singlehandedly he created Zulu nation, changing history of sub-continent forever).  It’s as if every time an era comes to a close something about this land triggers a more spectacular one. As if a tsunami wave retreats only to trigger a bigger one. What’s incredible is that the same land produced the greatest warrior known to mankind (Shaka) and then goes on to incubate the greatest apostle of peace in history (Gandhi)!
Following the above logic, it would seem Durban today is at the cusp before the next era the next tsunami. One would have expected hordes of tourists visiting Durban and its surrounding areas just for this. However it’s not history but geography that attracts more people to this region. It’s the miles and miles of stunning beaches coupled with perfect sub-topical weather to enjoy it all. Then again to contrast with the ocean,  Durban has awesome range of mountains (Drakensburg) at a driving distance that even experiences snow a few times every year. Quaint country side that you can drive around to remind you of English country side with verdant greenery, gorgeous gorges and  rivers that come crashing down hillside to make up for stunning waterfalls all in your backyard. Nature reserves, wild life parks and such a rich bird life that most streets of one of Durban suburbs (Glen Ashley) are actually named after birds!
No wonder every long holiday starts in Johannesburg with  cars clogging the freeway, most of the 570 kms  distance  to Durban. However the main traffic is during the week days and office hours, when executives and businessmen travel to this city that’s commercially the 3rd biggest in the country. The Durban port and nearby Richard’s bay facilities make up Africa’s biggest, busiest port and a gateway to most other Southern African countries. Starting with sugarcane industry, today Durban has become an important industrial hub. To cater for all this traffic, Durban had grown to become a bustling metropolitan – with shopping experience ranging from large variety of  cute little flea markets to fancy shopping malls like Gateway reputed to be the biggest in Southern hemisphere. Like all other top cities it offers a wide range of eating experience, casinos and night clubs. Having said that, it must be mentioned, that Durban is not Dubai or Mumbai or New York or Hong-Kong that’s comes alive at night and are known ad city that never sleeps. In contrast, most of Durban goes to sleep early. May be because they prefer. starting their day early by soaking in the gorgeous sight of the sun rising over the Indian Ocean every morning!   What a way to start the day !!!
1 vote, 3.00 avg. rating (70% score)

About Mohan Nair

An engineer who evolved to become a corporate executive, evolved again to become a self made businessman , and then again to become an education activist and finally someone with a passion to make a difference in the lives of Indians with interest in Africa.

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