At home in the groove


At home in the groove

When you find yourself in a space where your brain commits before your mind can react, you don't need to ask for directions. You're where you're meant to be — even if it's often unpleasant, writes ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.


THE Egyptian poet Naguib Mahfouz wrote, “Home is not where you are born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease.”

I arrived back in South Africa on Sunday after spending a few months travelling from west to East-and Southeast Asia. Within an hour of being back, driving into Cape Town on the “hell run”, my brain took over. I was in the groove. To understand “grooving” in this instance, think of approaching an escalator while you’re in discussion with someone. You don’t miss a beat when your brain directs your step onto the moving floor. That is how you “groove” something; you do it without contemplation, calculation or conscious exertion. There is a scientific language and a lexicon (used by neuroscientists) to explain this more scientifically, but never mind that. I am not a scientist. Here it is the brain that commits to life before the mind has time to contemplate, calculate or react consciously and with intent.

Travelling between the airport and Athlone, and having asked my nephew to drive, my gaze darted from passenger bridges across the N2, in anticipation of rocks being dropped, to the sides of the road, where attackers sometimes lurk.

I sat with the doors locked and my arms held higher than normal, experiencing more tension with every taxi that sped by, passing on the left and changing lanes at high speed, randomly and always without indicating. In one taxi were 10 or 12 women in church dress, smiling. In the right lane, luxury cars sped by, way above the speed limit.

I looked straight ahead at the back elevation of Devil’s Peak. What a beautiful mountain. Such beautiful blue skies. A light breeze. A pleasant autumn. I am home. Balik kampung, I muttered, Melayu for “coming/going home”.

And so, within 45 minutes of being back home, I was back in the groove. In the groove you don’t ask for directions, you know all the shortcuts, you greet people in a language we all understand, in a way that we know instinctively. Back in the groove you also know to keep money in a safe place, camera out of sight, laptop concealed. You tell yourself that this may not be how to live but it is precisely how we do live. As much as we try to understand life, we have to live it, more so when it is lived in fear. In my case, now that I am back in South Africa I have once again become horrified by my own place and time (in the groove), a concept which I borrow from Antoine Roquentin. It often makes me want to leave, to go somewhere where I really fit in, but my place is nowhere but here, in the groove.

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I have been back and forth since August 1976, flying in, out and around the country, but never before have I felt, upon arrival, my body twisting tight as a rubber band twirled around itself, ready to snap at any time.

In my mind, I am back in the east. I have flashbacks of capital cities in Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, of protruding metal joints and pipes, rails and structures, bus stops, people sitting on trains, on buses, in parks, electric scooters and bicycles everywhere. Outside buildings visitors have left shoes at the door. On the train, a woman is asleep, her phone dangling from her limp wrist. A sleeping young man has left his phone lying on the seat beside him. Food delivery services leave your order at the door or on your car bonnet, then call to let you know it is there. Nobody steals the food, the shoes, the phones or the metal fixtures.

The tragedy of isolated incidents

At the home of a relative in Athlone, all metal fixtures, including taps, have been removed. They were originally ripped from the wall then replaced. After the second or third replacement, you give up. The walls are now naked. A cousin recalled how, while she was washing the dishes, a young man climbed over a two-metre wall, walked towards the window, in full view, knelt down and undid a 30cm metal strip, then without looking at the woman in the window turned and scaled the wall. She dared not go out and confront him.

A few years ago, I was troubled by random electricity outages. I could not figure it out. It was certainly not load-shedding. I called Eskom and technicians were dispatched. It turned out that the neighbours had tried to steal electricity from me, but every so often it tripped and both of us were left in the dark. The neighbour looked at me with great (real or manipulative) sadness and projections of self-pity and suffering after I asked Eskom to install a locking device. He tried for two or three years to make me feel guilty for preventing him from stealing my electricity.

My brother-in-law had been fishing at the same spot, more or less, for five decades in the tradition of men in Cape Town’s Malay community, notably the Kalk Bay fishers who are on record as having said, “The sea is in our blood."

Two decades ago, the seal on his car’s windscreen was stolen. A few weeks later, someone stole the side mirrors, then he caught two guys trying to jack up the car. A few weeks before I returned to Cape Town, a nephew and his son were mugged while hiking on Table Mountain (their response was, “alghumdulillah we are okay". What kind of life is it when you are glad you were not physically harmed or killed?) A few months earlier a cousin in the Eastern Cape sustained a deep gash on his skull, the work of a man wielding a machete at the place where he and his late father and grandfather had fished for several decades. My cousin, too, was just grateful to be alive.

When, you ask, do isolated incidents amount to a trend?

Here I was, then, back in this place called home, and the first thing I did, after making sure my bags were sealed and my money safely on my body, was to remind myself, constantly, that this was home. In the airport, I avoided several approaches by men offering services, never mind that there are warnings, airside, not to fall for solicitations. Real vendors, selling cellphone contracts to visitors, competed with scavengers, predators waiting to pounce; liming with noxious intent.

More than a decade ago, Guyana's capital of Georgetown had signs warning against “liming”, that subtle act of standing around apparently meaninglessly or without intent. After my first visit to Guyana, I looked at formal studies which tied liming to building social capital. But seeing young people standing around staring at you can be intimidating. It was the same back in Eldorado Park or Western (Coloured Township) and Soweto, when young men stood on street corners, as I did in my teens, intentionally or unintentionally posing a danger, a threat or just a reminder. Sure, some of us were looking for opportunities, especially when we sensed strangers in our midst. But for the most part we were harmless, even if others saw us as predators.

At the airport, and now at the shops in Athlone, men stood idly against a wall, one arm hanging limply, the other across the back holding the limp arm in place. I recognised the characters. In Eldorado Park and Soweto, Mitchell’s Plain and Manenberg, they were the ones to be wary of; I know that because I was one of them, four decades ago. 

I arrived home. Relieved. The wind had damaged the fence. Everything seemed intact. The last time I was away, someone, quite a clever someone, took bolt cutters to the chain around the two gas bottles and carried away one of them. Every day, every week something disappears or breaks.

My village was quiet. I could hear birds chirping. Waves broke on the rocks. The seagulls wore dirty wedding dresses.

Once inside my yard, I closed the gate and wove the thick, bolt cutter-proof cable around the post. There was a satisfying clunk.

I checked all the padlocks, the windows, doors. My chilli plant had given me a few red and green chillis. They’re quite hardy. As with the parsley and basil plants; I have paid the them no attention for four months but they are reliable. Then again, thieves don’t steal food or vegetables.

At the door of my home, I hesitated to remove my shoes, as I always have when I enter my own home or any other place over the years. Once inside, I sat down and tried to unwind. It was barely two or three hours since I arrived back. I clicked the car security system again. I made sure all the doors and windows were intact, still solid. I turned to the simplicity and minimalism of Erik Satie.

I wish things were different. Right now, I am perfectly prepared for a life turned upside down, guided by the words of the Persian poet Shams of Tabriz, who once wrote: “Instead of resisting to changes, surrender. Let life be with you, not against you. If you think ‘My life will be upside down’ don’t worry. How do you know down is not better than upside?”

My sensibilities force me not to look for faults or complain, and avoid extending my personal experience with crime and violence universally. It is my truth, nonetheless, and how I groove life in South Africa.

♦ VWB ♦

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