The nine billion names of Midrand

In Arthur C Clark’s classic science fiction story, The Nine Billion Names of God, Tibetan monks hire two Western scientists to help them complete a divine task with the help of technology: to list all the names of God according to a mathematical scheme they had devised, after which the world would cease to exist.

The scientists play along, given the large amount of money involved, but quickly make their escape before the final names are printed to avoid the monks’ disappointment at the world failing to end.

But as they plod away on their ponies they get a surprise. The last line of the story has always stayed with me: “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

That’s a little how I feel when I head north of Hyde Park.

I know—talk about bathos.
And dissing Jo’burg’s northern suburbs is, like, so last decade. Not if you have to venture that way at least twice a week. Tired jokes about Tuscan architecture? Clichéd barbs about life behind gated communities? Bring it. Anything to spur me onwards through the genteel torture of Bryanston.

Curse the family who celebrated the end of apartheid and its restrictions of where to stay by leaving their little Indian township in Pretoria and heading south. But they baulked at crossing over the insipid drip of the Jukskei River. Instead, my parents chose to settle down in the flat plains of Midbland. Or was that Rand? I forget. Either way, it’s a little like purgatory—not quite Pretoria but not Jo’burg either. It’s a strange limbo place where you can work off the sins of being from the wrong side of the boerewors curtain before you get to ascend towards the great Vodacom tower in the skyline.

But I brave the trip, if only for a taste of my mom’s chicken curry.

It’s usually close to 7pm when I hit William Nicol, to avoid the stupefying traffic of the clearly psychotic commuters who choose to live in the north despite working in Johannesburg. Before long the road spools out ahead of me like a dark ribbon across the unnerving expanses of that part of the world. Gone is the comfortable bustle of the Johannesburg CBD, the winding suburban roads of the Parks and even the narrow parallel roads connecting Rosebank to Sandton.

Suddenly the stars start blinking and you’re left in a no-man’s-land of excess of road, SUVs and car dealerships. Forget the nine million names of God. The modern-day monks of the north have taken their god delusion to new levels, building for themselves a strip mall of Tuscan-flavoured Babel—and stringing some fluorescent lights around it for good measure.

When I finally head back, this time on the highway,I sometimes torture myself as I round the looming menace of Woodmead shopping mall, that I’ll approach the Grayston offramp and see that the world as I know it has slowly blinked into nonexistence while I was away. But then Sandton’s gleaming skyline pops into view, and I can breathe easy until my next foray to the north.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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