Eb Koybie: A memoir of shenanigans between Durban and Bombay by Ebrahim Essa (Social Bandit Media)
‘The nameplate read: Mr Eb Koybie. In Memon, this roughly translates to ‘And for that matter, anybody’. The ambiguity became a running gag for me and Father and annoyed the hell out of my friends,” writes Ebrahim Essa in his book. Titled Eb Koybie: A memoir of shenanigans between Durban and Bombay, the book is a quirky look at what it was like growing up in an Indian township in Durban during the 1950s. The story moves from the Indian townships in Durban to a college in Bombay, India (now known as Mumbai) in the 1960s.
It is while Ebrahim is studying in Bombay that the joke about Eb Koybie is born. His father, Suliman Essa Patel, buys him a flat to live in to make his life easier. To ensure his friends don’t gatecrash, Essa tells them it belongs to a man named Eb Koybie. The phrase goes beyond an inside joke between a father and a son: it serves to encapsulate what the story means. In the foreword, Essa’s son, journalist Azad Essa, says that the book is not just about one person but about a moment that looks at their family and community. It is simply “for that matter, anybody.”
Essa is no stranger to writing, although this is his first published book. During his 30-year career as a teacher, he was a widely published letter writer in newspapers across South Africa. He was a contributor to the anthology Undressing Durban and is the author of The Life Story of Suliman Essa Patel.
Eb Koybie is a fascinating book in the sense that it is a remarkable account of Essa’s life. It features several stories, from his memory of eating marmalade for the first time (and hating the taste), to childhood fights with friends and siblings.
Most people have thousands of stories in them. Not everyone gets to share them. What makes Essa’s stories about childhood so jarring is that he was growing up as a young boy during apartheid.
From playing games in the street, Essa’s narrative changes as he and his family are forced to move from his childhood home to Durban’s Grey Street (now Dr Yusuf Dadoo Street). Although it is obviously a traumatic experience, at his age, initially Essa doesn’t fully comprehend what is happening and manages to adapt to the changes.
The book is described as a part memoir and part satire, which is made evident during a conversation between Essa and his big brother Walla when they move to Grey Street. The two brothers are people-watching and Walla is telling Essa about the different types of Indian people living in the area. By approaching the subject in this manner, Essa tackles some of the issues facing the Indian community in South Africa, from the caste system to patriarchy and discrimination. But, seen through the lens of his youth, this doesn’t come off as patronising. Rather, it reads as a young boy grappling with life.
Another experience that had a huge effect on Essa’s life was watching Bollywood films. For many South Africans of Indian descent, Bollywood movies play an important role. They serve as a link to a place and culture from which we were removed and yet, still, are somehow connected to. Even though they aren’t entirely relatable, they provide a form of powerful emotional attachment.
Each of the chapters in Essa’s book is named after a Bollywood film. I’ve heard many a story from my parents about what a grand treat it was to go to the movies and see the stars on the big screen.
Essa tells a funny story about this from his time in India. His friends and classmates go to visit his favourite actor, Dev Anand, and don’t bring him along. He is obviously devastated and angry, especially because they tell him they made fun of Anand’s accent.
It is because of apartheid laws, and the racism he experiences at university in South Africa, that Essa crosses the ocean to go to India for his studies. The surety and security he enjoyed from living among friends, family and loved ones is swapped for an unsure world. From meeting relatives in small villages to being almost trampled to death outside a cricket match, India is a whole other world for him.
The book ends when Essa returns to South Africa in 1969. After years of living in India, he returns to a place that is at once familiar and otherwise. He describes the tension between not belonging in the place his ancestors came from and living in a place where he is seen as lowerclass by the apartheid system.
In the book, Essa is revealed as a master storyteller, whose uncanny memory of places, people and events situates the reader right in the middle of his recollections. Because of this clarity, Eb Koybie drives home the importance of people telling their own stories, no matter how small or simple they may be.