Having read the original draft of this book, I must compliment and commend Andre Odendaal, Ahmed Essop, and Nasira Bikha-Vallee for their mammoth editing effort undertaken to bring what was once an amorphous and barely digestible mass into such a comely and easily assimilable shape.
Bertrand Russell’s Portraits from Memory come to mind when reading Yusuf Chubb Garda’s book, Literature, Life and Cricket. It therefore, comes as no surprise that the author is also a Russell aficionado.
A miscellaneous group of essays, vignettes, and stories, easily labelled as belles lettres, neatly grouped into three appropriate categories: “Fietas”, “Cricket”, and “Literature”, represent three aspects of the major concerns of the writer’s life.
Urbane, refined, a gentleman from top to bottom, reminding us thereby what cricket is and therefore, should be all about, he also serves as a reminder of what constitutes a life well-lived. In former days, not so long ago, men such as Yusuf Chubb Garda, being so well-rounded in physical, intellectual, and spiritual terms, would have been classified as Renaissance or Universal Man.
A businessman, a man of the world, but also a man with an aesthetic soul that has fastened itself onto all that is beautiful in this world, be it a well-wrought phrase, sentence, or paragraph; or a well-timed, well-executed bat on the cricket field, Yusuf Chubb Garda’s message is simultaneously both simple and profound: that poetry or lyricism (a vital source of an ecstatic state of consciousness) is to be found in all its glory in all the vital complexity that makes up life itself, be it in the realm of language, or sport, or love, or in the very act of living itself. All that is needed is a poetic or lyrical sense that serves as the very essence of a thoroughly humanised soul.
The Spanish poet Lorca has written about this very phenomenon in the context of bullfighting in his essay on the duende, or roughly translated, of the magic of the encounter between man and bull; and now, Yusuf Garda has respectively written of the magic of the encounter between man and ball, man and word, and man and man.
And indeed when we look around at other areas of the globe today, where gratuitous massacres of defenceless people are occurring at this very moment, where the levels of darkness that have entered the souls of men are at an unprecedented high, Yusuf Garda’s message of peace and the striving for all that makes life worth living, could not be more timely.
Although it would be more convenient to discuss his book under the three categories that he himself has chosen or that had involuntarily chosen him, bearing in mind that these categories are inextricably intertwined and that they feed off each other, space constraints also dictate otherwise.
But as the topics representing each category are too numerous to discuss one by one; and moreover, as some of them cut across each category it will be too voluminous to discuss each topic individually. At best, given the size of this review and the platform it is targeted for, a general discussion of the contents and a look at one or two of its representative entries would be adequate to give the reader a general view of its contents and to whet his or her appetite for more.
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There are brilliant essays on cricketing personalities of former days such as W G Grace, Basil D’Oliveira, Sir Donald Bradman, Denis Compton, Sir Garfield Sobers, among others, some of whom the author had met personally. And likewise there are pieces on our local heroes of yore: Jimmy and Sam Bulbulia, Abdullah “Doelie” Rubidge, Moosa Mangera, Solly Desai, Mohammed and Rashid Garda, Hoosein Ayoub, and Goolam Rajah amongst others.
Any writer worth his salt will tell you that it is not only the milieu (in this case Fietas) that moulds the man, but man also has an ineluctable impact on his milieu. Out of these depths, sometimes murky, sometimes inexplicably lucid, his consciousness, in this case, the consciousness of the writer, is born, developed, and ultimately vindicated.
As is well-known, Fietas, also known as Vrededorp or Pageview, a suburb of Johannesburg, land-locked between Auckland Park, Braamfontein, and Mayfair, was formerly the target of the Group Areas Act under the Apartheid regime of South Africa. This meant that the land and improvements in Pageview were subject to eventual state expropriation in exchange for a paltry sum which the authorities declared would serve as compensation for such a high-handed action, thus legally though not morally complying with the constitutional or rule of law requirement that there shall be no expropriation without compensation.
In exchange for businesses thus forcibly closed down and subsequently bulldozed in the area, shops in the Oriental Plaza were made available for rental. Although it is a thriving shopping mall today business at that time was very quiet. Those who accepted shops in the Oriental Plaza at the time did so at considerable risk to their financial standing. The raison d’etre for these removals throughout the country was that these “group” areas such as Fietas, Sophiatown (or Kofifi), and District Six were being reserved for the white race. (“Race” at the time was euphemistically referred to as “population group” in order to circumvent the harsh connotations that it might otherwise evoke).
The sad and painful irony of the upheavals of the lives of the erstwhile residents, amid the squalor and the rubble of the attempted removals was that the Group Areas Act was a dismal failure: an unsuccessful attempt at social engineering by a political party that had supported Adolf Hitler during the Second World War.
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Pivotal to the lives of the Fietas residents, apart from the necessity to earn their daily bread, was the Queen’s Park grounds the entrance to which was situated in Krause Street. Like the battlegrounds of the Samurai of the Japan of yore where, if you listened closely enough, you could hear the triumphant shouts of victorious warriors, you could if you were allowed entry into the grounds today, hear the screams and the shouts of jubilant players and spectators of many a cricket, soccer or rugby match of yesterday. The most important feature of the Queen’s Park grounds was that there was no fancy lawn planted upon it. Sand and stone were what had covered it, so whether you had a fall playing rugby or soccer, or you had to dive for the cricket ball while fielding you would inevitably end up with a nasty skin scrape at best or a twisted or broken ankle at worst.
Today the Queen’s Park grounds are being used as a bus shed. This is indeed a tragedy. Every effort must be made by the community at large to reclaim it as it is a heritage site and the seat of the memories of a lifetime.
And when you consider the relatively “safer” game of cricket you must remember that it was played at a time before the invention of the head and face guards and chest pads that are widely used today. So for instance if you had to face bowlers who could toss the ball at you at lightning speeds, you needed to have excellent eyesight, excellent reflexes, and the cool to break down the ball coming at you in full flight, into slow motion in your mind’s eye, so that you would be able to appropriately adapt the ball to the bat. A full toss missed could land somewhere on your face or chest so that you could possibly end up with a broken nose or fractured ribs. In fact the late Muhammad Ali (may he rest in peace) was fond of saying that he took up boxing because he had found games like soccer and rugby to be too dangerous
I therefore salute not only the sporting heroes whom the author, a man of remarkable modesty, has written about, but I also salute the author himself for a memorable sporting and literary career.
Whilst the chapter headed “Discovering Literature” introduces us to the writers whom the author had first discovered and who had made an indelible impression on him, it is actually in the last section of the book entitled, “Life and Literature”, that we come face to face with the personalities and books who have become part of the author’s psyche. The essay on “The Kite Runner” is a delightful comparison between Dickens’ Great Expectations and David Copperfield and Khaled Hooseini’s novel.
A thoroughly fascinating essay on Mac Carrim (Zarina Maharaj’s brother) is followed by a poetical tribute to Ahmed Essop. Tributes to various important sporting and other literary figures are interspersed with essays on politics and religion. Fundamentally unclassifiable the book is a delightful miscellany of views and reviews and is as mouth-watering and unexpectedly exciting as Zulekha Mayet’s Indian Delights.
Absolutely worth reading from start to finish.
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