South Africa, Maverick Life

Op-Ed: Opulence and Emptiness of the Gupta Family’s Shrimad Bhagwat Katha

By Nomboniso Gasa & Roshnie Moonsammy 25 April 2017

When NOMBONISO GASA and her friend ROSHNIE MOONSAMMY decided to attend the Gupta family’s supposedly public Hindu Festival, there was more anger and suspicion than peace and love.

“Ghee. I have told you to go easy on the ghee. This food is smothered in it. Customers say this food is greasy,” shouted a Cordon Bleu chef who, due to an emergency, was forced to help out in his parents’ shabby restaurant. This movie came to mind as I watched two tall and heavy-set Gujarati men escort my friend from the Gupta Hindu Festival.

A distance from the Military Museum, where the festival was held opposite the Gupta compound, we saw security guards on foot and security cars in the street. We wondered whether we would get anywhere near to the museum.

Inside the Military Museum, the mood was far from what one would associate with such an occasion. Whatever motivated the Guptas to host a public religious Hindu Festival certainly had very little to do with Hinduism and spirituality. Almost everyone we encountered – except for the guards at the gates – was glum, surly and openly hostile.

The event was poorly attended and practically empty. Roshnie, an experienced organiser of functions and large concerts, quickly assessed the audience. There were 60 people inside the hall and about 20 people milling around, aimlessly. It was hard to tell how many of the 60 people were guests, Gupta employees and plainclothes security.

Despite low attendance and indications before the start of the festival that many people would not attend, including Hindus from the South African-born Indian community, the Gupta family spared no expense. This was evident in the heavily dressed table – as it happened, for guests who did not turn up.

There were guests who travelled from as far as India. There were lots of flowers: fresh and fake, shiny new raw silk kurta sets and fine and delicately embroidered cotton, and men who seemed to live a life of excess, and almost all with shiny hair. At a deeper level, this display of wealth exposed cultural and spiritual poverty and, yes, thinly disguised racial prejudice and India’s caste system.

So, why did we go?

On Monday 17, my friend Roshnie Moonsammy casually suggested: “Let’s drive to the Military Museum and check out the mood at the Gupta Hindu Festival.” There were reports of poor attendance and rebuttals from the Gupta family. We wanted to have a sense of what it was like, beyond the numbers.

So, we drove around the museum and tried to make out how many cars were there. With every view through the gates and fencing, our curiosity was piqued.

We drove to the gate. “Sanibonani, (we greeted the African guard) which way to the Hindu Festival?”  The man who gave us directions was friendly. Despite his amiable disposition, the boredom in his voice was obvious.

We missed one of the landmarks and had to go to the second gate. We were told, “You see that Net1 Ambulance? Park down there. Walk towards the ambulance and you’ll see lots of Gupta Security. That’s where it is.” Indeed, there was lots of security near the main entrance, and inside the venue we saw service staff milling around.

Inside, we encountered bizarre imagery and sounds. Life-size army paraphernalia was on display, hovering above humans, of various heights. Decommissioned helicopters, striker planes, missiles, cannon and every imaginable life-size weapon once meant for death and destruction seemed to compete with the big screens which projected the events inside the main hall. This, it seemed, was meant for the “overflow” of people from the main venue. But since there was no overflow, the blurred images on the screen and the flat religious singing amid military weapons gave the man who led the service, sitting on a custom-built stage, a rather cartoon-like impression.

“What a place to host this,” Roshnie mumbled as we went past curated weapons.

On our way to the main hall, we passed men and women who were cooking in big pots and tables scattered around for the masses, who never turned up. On the left, although closed, we saw a hall lined with tables, weighed down with decorations, visible through the windows.

The sound of singing drew us into the inner sanctum. The first part, with about 300 dressed chairs, was empty. We sat there for a few minutes and tried to absorb the heavily draped walls, empty chairs and the man who led the prayer from the purpose-built stage.

We moved to the last row of the front section. In the row in front of us, a few chairs to our left, was Ajay Gupta. He and his two companions were the only people in that row. There was a light-skinned Indian man, with a raw silk outfit that seemed as if it had been unpacked from the store package that morning. He was talking on his cellphone. Our eyes locked. I held his stare. He looked away. On the extreme end of the right section, a man paced up and down, talking on his cellphone. He had the tell-tale earpiece worn by security personnel.

“Delete those photographs,” commanded a woman who spoke with an unfamiliar accent.

“Why are you here?” asked a man who was on my left.

“Why am I here? What do you mean? This is a Hindu Festival, isn’t it like others, open to all people,” I replied.

“Delete those photographs,” the woman insisted in a menacing voice. Why did you come here? Do we go to your churches and take photos?” the woman persisted with the questions.

“Delete those photographs,” she insisted.

It was clear that this plainclothes woman oversaw the security operation. She pointed at Roshnie, ahead of us. “Her! She took photographs. Go to her.”

Two big men rushed to Roshnie. She continued walking and refused to stop or look at them.

“Don’t touch me. Don’t you dare lay your hands on me,” Roshnie said as she lifted her arms in a gesture signifying “leave me alone”.

“Delete the photographs,” insisted one the man. He stretched his hand towards Roshnie.

“What, are you sexually harassing me now?” Roshnie asked.

“What? What do say, madam?” His stretched hand stopped mid-air.

He was at a loss for words. I watched as his cheeks turned pink. He turned with eyes bulging with shock and looked at the woman who was giving instructions.

“Take the cellphone and delete the photographs,” she barked her instructions. Clearly, she did not realise that her colleague was in no state to do anything.

Roshnie continued walking and talked to no one in particular.

“This is City property. What is this? A Hindu Festival, which is not open to everybody? This is unacceptable. No, [Herman] Mashaba must know about this. I’ll write to him.”

At the mention of the City, the second man, who was still escorting her out, stopped in his tracks. He started shaking his head vigorously, not in disagreement. It was a nervous twitch. With his pudgy right hand, he covered his mouth.

My team of escorts were still hostile and there was running commentary about “you people”.

I was not listening to them, though. I was mesmerised by the theatre that was unfolding in front of me. “Damn! I wished I had a Go-Pro camera on my forehead. No words can describe how Roshnie disarmed them and refused to stop and even look at these men,” I thought.

The two men who were escorting Roshnie had long deserted their posts and were now part of my escort. The tall man may have been part of the security team, but it seemed as if the only weights he lifted were large plates full of greasy curry.

We walked at a pace determined by the security who were escorting us.

We got to the car. A big Afrikaans-speaking man took pictures of my car registration.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked

“You took pictures of us. So, we take pictures of your car registration,” he responded.

“Okay then, let me also take a photograph of you.” I had hardly switched on my cellphone before I realised the man had quickly turned and rushed away. All I got was an image of his back.

We probably won’t know how many South African Indians were there, if any. To us, it seemed Roshnie was the only South African of Indian descent. Besides video crew members and two photographers, I was the only African in the festival.

Perhaps, if they had hosted it in a temple, it would have been better. But then, which temple would host the Guptas now? DM

Nomboniso Gasa is a researcher and analyst on land, gender, politics and cultural issues. Roshnie Moonsammy is a music curator, cultural and literary events organiser.

Photo by Nomboniso Gasa.


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