A South African Indian Delight’s giant legacy — a tribute to Zuleikha Mayat
Zuleikha Mayat was a journalist and columnist of great impact at a time when women were supposed to be seen and not heard. She used her journalism and writing to shape the worlds of generations.
News of Zuleikha Mayat’s death at the age of 97 last weekend triggered an outpouring of love and a flood of tributes across South Africa. One common factor in the condolences was that many people – across race, religion, class and gender – said they had a copy of Indian Delights. This bestselling cookbook that Mayat edited for the Women’s Cultural Group, which was founded in the 1950s, is as much a South African staple as braaivleis and rugby.
Since it was first published in the late 1960s, the book has sold about 500,000 copies in multiple editions across the world.
Its grand history is captured by historians Goolam Vahed and Thembisa Waetjen in their book Gender, Modernity & Indian Delights — The Women’s Cultural Group of Durban, 1954-2010.
The cultural group wanted to do something significant and considered different book options. “But their determination grew when anthropologist Hilda Kuper asserted at one of their meetings that, after a century in South Africa, Indian South Africans had failed to produce a literary work of note,” wrote Vahed and Waetjen. It was, of course, not true, but the lazy slur galvanised the women into action, and Indian Delights was born.
The book was a hit, with illustrations by Mayat’s good friend, the artist and anti-apartheid revolutionary Fatima Meer, and recipes painstakingly collected in an oral tradition from Durban’s finest cooks. Until then, recipes in the migrant Indian community had been handed down from memory and by word of mouth.
Mayat edited the cookbook and on a few occasions I was privileged to witness how she would taste something delicious and then collect the recipe as she widened her foraging.
For decades, Indian Delights has been the Women’s Cultural Group’s staple product and its proceeds have put hundreds of students through university; many testified how this cookbook propelled their lives to become better ones when they paid tribute to Mayat.
Through 13 editions, it evolved with the times, adding shorter or healthier recipes as women moved from the domestic to other domains (the professions, work, academia and politics, among others) and as tastes changed. The book is a marvel of innovation.
The granddaughter of an Indian migrant, Mayat grew up in Potchefstroom to a merchant trading family. Always a keen writer and observer, she sent columns to Indian newspapers. Fatima Meer’s father, the publisher, MI Meer, liked her iconoclastic style and ideas.
For years, Mayat was published in a column called Fahmida’s World — she adopted the name Fahmida from Persian; it means intelligent or wise.
The column caught the attention of a dapper young doctor, Mahomed Mayat, and the two met. They were married, and she moved to Durban, where their union broke new ground. Zuleikha Mayat told Ashraf Garda in this interview that her husband wanted her to have her own life and explore new worlds.
This is standard now, but then it was unusual in Indian marriages. Her husband insisted that his wife, whom he said should be a companion, attend the Orient Club (a stylish social club in Durban) and sports events and travel with him. (Until her last days, she was an avid cricket fan.)
And so began a life of adventure, travel, discovery and impact. The couple would return and show slides of their trips to far-flung places, including Egypt, Afghanistan, Europe and the US. They maintained wide circles of friends and opened their home to anti-apartheid resistance fighters, including Nelson Mandela, when refuge was needed.
Her prison letters exchanged with Ahmed Kathrada between 1979 and his release in 1989 are collected in the book Dear Ahmedbhai, Dear Zuleikhabehn (bhai is brother and behn is sister) and are an evocative insight into the times.
Both were deeply invested in South Africa’s future, and Mayat was concerned that minority groups became integrated into society. One can discern a dual purpose in Indian Delights and other books she published with the Women’s Cultural Group; they were also bridge-builders across communities. Her beloved husband died in a car accident in 1979 when a white hospital refused to admit him and another injured family member. She wrote about it and, while heartbroken, held no rancour.
A polymath, Mayat was also a playwright, travel writer, migration scholar and author of many titles besides the one she is most closely associated with. She was particularly interested in how Indian migrants had come to South Africa from Gujarat, India, and published a slim volume on this topic.
‘A powerful force’
Her purpose was to preserve culture and ensure people knew their stories as new generations were born. Apartheid did not bother with the migrant stories of brown people, so her work was also to document lives overlooked.
I learned of places I would later visit, like Iran, from her writings. When invader armies and occupiers ruined Afghanistan, her chapters on its beauty gave a dimension to its story that made me realise what has been lost there. I first learnt of China’s Uyghur territories from her travels with the family. At the age of 94, she wrote The Odyssey of Crossing Oceans.
Her grandchildren remember her for many beautiful reasons. I was lucky enough to know Mayat as “Nani” or the beloved granny of my nieces Jihaan Haffajee, Humaira Survé and Iman Haffajee-Salie-Ameen and the mom of my sister-in-law Razia and brother MR Haffajee.
Occasionally, I had a front-row seat to her mind, her outlook, and the calm, curiosity and simplicity for which she was so well loved. As someone from whom I always wanted to know more, I realised retrospectively that she asked more questions.
I love that she was a journalist and columnist of such impact in times when women were supposed to be seen and not heard, and that she used her journalism and writing to shape the worlds of generations. I hope I have learnt from that.
The final word I give to Iman, who wrote this about her Nani on Instagram: “A powerful force, who taught us to always educate yourself, to keep learning, to always make and keep the peace with others, always to give time, space, energy and support to everyone (especially those in need)…”
I offer my love and comfort to the Haffajee family; to Aslam, Shamima, Nasim, Nadia and the extended Mayat families. DM