Vivek is driving from Dundee, his home town, to Durban. His mother had stayed on in Dundee with his older brother and their family. He brother had called in the morning to tell that mother had fallen ill. Her doctor needed an item of medical equipment that was not available in Dundee. It could be obtained on loan from the St John’s Ambulance Service in Durban. Could I obtain it and deliver it to Dundee, he asked?
Later that evening, they stop the car to get out and look at the Milky Way … …
Only in the past five years, after the greatest tragedy any family could suffer struck mine, did the last of the pieces of the jig saw puzzle of events start to fall into place. Only then did an amazing picture begin to emerge. I can now clearly see why I was intuitively coaxed, by my higher self perhaps, to note the events in my journal but not to publish any part of it. Anything published earlier would have been disjointed and inconclusive, however interesting the story might have been.
It was September, 1974 and early spring in South Africa. Late one Friday evening that month, I was driving a powerful German car on the magnificent concrete National Highway in the Natal Midlands. In the passenger seat next to me was my younger brother Radha, a schoolteacher. I was giving him a lift from Dundee, where he lived with his family, to Durban on the east coast of Natal province where I lived with mine. Asleep under a travel rug on the back seat was my normally lively two-and-a half-year old son, Kamal.
Both my brother and I had been born and raised in Dundee. It had been my hometown until I turned fourteen, when I went to high school to the city of Durban on the Natal coast.. My brother had followed some years later, to qualify as a schoolteacher in a College of Education in the coastal city. He had married and returned years later to teach in the high school for Indian boys and girls in Dundee. I had stayed permanently in Durban, where I also married.
Our mother had stayed on in Dundee with our older brother and his family. He had called that morning to tell me that our mother had fallen ill. Her doctor needed an item of medical equipment that was not available in Dundee. It could be obtained on loan from the St John’s Ambulance Service in Durban. Could I obtain it and deliver it to Dundee, he asked.
I had been in my office in central Durban when the call came early that morning. Consulting with my director, I took the rest of the day off and telephoned my wife to tell her of developments and ask if she wanted to accompany me to Dundee. Then I drove to the headquarters of St John’s, where I obtained the equipment and drove out of the central city area to my suburban home. My wife could not go because she had to fetch our daughter from school at midday, but she said I could take my son who was clamouring to go with me. She packed a spare set of clothes for him and some food for the three-hour journey to my old hometown.
My mother perked up when she saw us. She suffered from high blood pressure and mild diabetes. Since my brother’s call that morning, her doctor had medicated her and ordered complete bed rest and she had improved. The equipment I had brought would further aid her recovery. For my younger brother, my unexpected visit was a happy development, for he had to go to Durban to fetch his motor car which he had left there a week earlier for a major service. My fortuitous arrival had solved his transport problem.
The concrete highway stretching away into the distance was brightly lit, for we were directly under the incredibly luminescent Milky Way. The clear night sky between the towns of Ladysmith and Estcourt was ablaze with stars.
Dundee was already more than an hour behind us as we by-passed the Midlands town of Estcourt. Durban was some two-and-a-half hours ahead in the coastal lowlands. As the powerful motor vehicle appeared to effortlessly swallow kilometre after kilometre of the highway and spit it out behind us, my brother and I marvelled at the beauty of the night sky and the clearness of the air.
Living in the coastal city of Durban where high humidity and the glare of city lights obscure the night sky, I had last seen the Milky Way in such magnificent glory many years earlier, while I was still a schoolboy in Northern Natal. I told my brother how lucky he was to enjoy such natural beauty, living as he does in the rural town of Dundee. In the Biggarsberg range of the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains some two hundred kilometres as the crow flies from the sea, our hometown also has clear skies low in humidity and free of light pollution because of its rural location.
We had long by-passed Estcourt and were heading towards Pietermaritzburg city when my brother suggested pulling up on the road verge to get a better look at the stars. I thought it was a capital idea because light pollution from the approaching city would soon dim the celestial display. I turned off the concrete at a safe spot and we alighted. The Milky Way was still spectacular as we tried to spot the constellation of the Southern Cross and other major clusters.
As we gazed awestruck into the celestial phenomenon overhead, we were startled to hear my son calling for me.
“Daddy, please carry me. I want to come outside”, he called.
I reached through the back door and picked him up. He gazed up at the Milky Way for what I thought was the first, astonished time in his tender life. Yet he sounded as though he was familiar with the breath-taking panorama sparkling and glittering endlessly overhead and disappearing into the distant horizon.
“Please turn me that way, daddy”, he said, pointing to the right. I turned in the direction he pointed. He continued to stare upwards towards a dark spot seemingly free of stars. There was what looked like a patch of mist in the centre.
“Can you see what looks like a cloud over there?” my little boy asked. “Well, that is not a cloud but lots of stars very far away. In it there is a small world. It is much smaller than your world and there’s nobody there. That’s where I was for a long time before coming here.”
My brother and I were stunned. In his infant’s voice, what my boy said was not infantile at all. In his tiny child’s voice, he spoke like an adult with adult words like world and cloud and described concepts one would not expect a toddler to understand, let alone know. Getting over my initial surprise, I asked my boy what he had been doing in a deserted world.
“I needed time to think because I did something naughty”, he replied.
“How long were you there?” I asked.
“For a very long time. Then I was sent here to you and Mom”, he chirped. He yawned and rubbed his eyes.
“I’m sleepy, daddy. Please put me back in the car,” he said.
I lowered him onto the back seat and covered him with the rug, with his toddler’s pillow under his head. He fell instantly asleep and did not wake until we reached Durban just over two hours later.
The next morning, I told my wife and mother-in-law the story our little boy had narrated as we sped under the Milky Way in the Midlands. Both started to cry, for they had often wondered about my son’s love for dry bread when he had started eating solids as a baby. Nothing pleased him as much as a crust of plain bread, even if it had no jam or any other spread, though he could have had anything he wanted.
Both women felt that he had gone hungry in his previous life, hence his love for a simple dry crust. They cried some more at the thought. That was the cue for my doting mother-in-law to ply the child with his favourite treats. I logged that episode in my journal the same day. It was to puzzle my wife and me for years afterwards.
The incident jogged my memory, for I recalled when I first set eyes on my little boy hours after he was born two and a half years previously. He was fast asleep when a nurse handed me green overalls and face mask and led me into the hospital nursery where there were five or six babies asleep in plastic cocoons with transparent tops.
I leaned down to look more closely at the angelic little thing with its halo of black curls. The baby opened its eyes and I started. They did not have a blue mist covering them as do many newly-born babies, but were as clear as adult eyes. As I straightened up, the baby’s eyes followed me. They were examining me most carefully. Looking into my eyes, the adorable little thing smiled at me broadly, stuck its thumb into its mouth and fell off to sleep.
I was astounded. It seemed to me that my newly-arrived son had examined me as closely as I had scrutinised him. Both my wife and I had prayed for a boy, so on that score, we were delighted. Yet, when he smiled at me before falling asleep again, the thought occurred that he had recognised me.
Little did I know then that the answers to our questions would come only some thirty-seven years later. By then a tidal wave of events would have swept through our lives and we would have undergone diametrical change, both as a family and as citizens of an unrecognisably metamorphosed country. Afterwards everything that had happened in the intervening years would begin to seem like a distant dream. Like South Africa itself, my family and I would be utterly and irrevocably transformed.
He continued to stare upwards towards a dark spot seemingly free of stars. There was what looked like a patch of mist in the centre.