May 2012

A bookshelf, a bed and a teak railway-issue desk.  Thick and solid and on that table I worked and worked and re-worked my manuscript.  I might sit down and only get up ten hours later.  I’d often re-write a section that took me four hours to write.

Sometimes I beautified my room with a vase of cornflowers or purple irises.  There were prints on my wall.  Pink harlequins in the Spanish desert.  A woman bent over an ironing board in a navy blue dress.  An old man with a guitar against a pale blue sea.

I was trying to develop an understanding of a historical period on the one hand; and, on the other, I was coming to terms with the present and that had a lot to do with the lifestyle I was leading.  The magnitude of what I was trying to achieve seemed endless.  It was frustrating trying to blend the minutiae of research with the philosophical vision I was developing.  How could the two be combined?  Was I being practical.  The fact that I did not have the support of my immediate family was soul-destroying.

I sent all my worldly belongings up to Johannesburg in a blue steel trunk.  The same trunk I had used to transport my things down to Cape Town when I had embarked on my studies.  I returned to Cape Town at the beginning of 1997 with a bundle of clothing and some computer disks.  Seven painstaking years at UCT were drawing to a close.  I was at a watershed in my life.  What would I do now?  I needed a change.  I felt like I was just wasting away, ‘I am twenty-three years old, but I am waking up tired.  My peers are at the peak of their physical and mental powers.  And I am just wasting away!’  I began to exercise, read holy scriptures and work more consistently on my MA thesis.

I would scuttle out of the bakkie, off De Waal drive, and walk along the footpath that flanked Newlands Forest.  I sometimes walked past the abandoned zoo, overrun with creepers and grass, where Cecil John Rhodes kept his lions.  I sometimes rested on the gardens outside the Arts Faculty, until the sprinklers were released and woke me up.  Devil’s Peak loomed majestically in the blue sky.  UCT was a mix of modern and classical architecture.  The train ride to Fishoek flanked False Bay from Muizemburg.  I liked to look over the sea – now turquoise, now silver-grey and deep blue – and let my mind settle on some thought or other.  Andrew’s house was a ten minute walk from the train station.  It was dark by the time I got home.

‘You are a real non-coper, Michael.  Don’t you know, there’s no room for the weak’, my mother’s harsh words rang over in my head.  Why did I have to participate in your madness?  Why did we have to have highways and shopping-malls and cars, cars, cars.  All I wanted was to be happy.  To live a life of peace.  The parables of Jesus Christ inspired me.  Jesus said: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like this.  A man is walking in a field and he finds a treasure.  What does he do?  He goes and sells everything he owns, and buys that field’.  What was that treasure?  The Kingdom of God.  By giving up our material attachments, we can purchase our heart’s true treasure – the Spiritual Kingdom.

I began to identify with the young prince, Siddhartha.  His father, detecting his leanings towards spiritual life, sheltered him from the sufferings of this world.  He lived in the penthouse of the palace in a room with a ceiling like the sky and many beautiful young women.  He asked the driver of his chariot to stop when he saw a man squirming at the side of the road.  His driver said, ‘This is a man with a terrible disease’.  On another occasion he saw a very elderly person and his driver said, ‘This is someone who is afflicted with old age’.  On a third occasion they saw a dead corpse in the road.  ‘What is this?’, asked the young prince.  ‘That is death’, responded his driver.  One night he passed the sleeping beauties of his harem and climbed over the walls of his father’s palace and left for a life of introspection in the forest.  Seeing the rotting leaves on the ground, he determined that there must be more to life than sensual pleasures.

My personal victories seemed limited to the restricted goals and expectations of both family and teachers.  Life was bigger than my little world.  There was a deep need within myself for personal improvement, but I didn’t know where to begin.  By slowly giving up bad habits like drinking and smoking and eating meat, I realized that there was more to life than studying and hanging out in pool-bars.  I remember seeing a film about an alcoholic footballer who pulled his life together  with my father when I was eight years old.

I liked to read philosophy when I woke up in the morning.  Afterwards, I’d read from the Bible or from Buddhist writings.  I would bath, take a light breakfast and get ready to go to Campus.  I lived like a monk: no TV, no music or social life.  My only recreation was exercise.  I found that I only really needed potatoes, pasta and rice for energy.  I was slowly phasing meat out of my diet.  I took cold showers and practised celibacy.  I developed an ethic of exercise, morality and self-improvement.  Around this time, I remember driving back from a party from Teena and Andrew’s house.  I slapped my hands against the steering wheel of my red Volkswagen Beetle and said, ‘Enough! This must stop!’  From that moment, I quit drinking completely.

A common four-armed form of Ganesha. Miniature...

A common four-armed form of Ganesha. Miniature of Nurpur school (circa 1810). Museum of Chandigarh. Martin-Dubost, p. 64. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Ganesa is missing one tusk, a piece of which can sometimes be found in one of his four hands.  In another hand he sometimes holds a hatchet (parasu), which, according to some texts, is for cutting away illusion and false teachings.  Another of Ganesa’s hands often gestures fearlessness and reassurance (varada-hasta-mudra).  He also holds a goad (ankusa) like that used by an elephant trainer, symbolizing his insistence on proper training or spiritual discipline.  He sometimes holds a noose (pasa) used for restraining wild animals, here representing the restraint of passion and lustful desires.  Sometimes he is seen holding sweets (modaka), for which he is said to have an inordinate fondness.  Hence the belly.

Who is this strange-looking god, and what, if anything, does he have to do with the worship of Krsna or Visnu?’

Our Jurisprudence lecturer had the habit of asking intellectually provocative questions.  He had a thin, curved nose and a cropped beard.  His eyes bulged from behind his glasses.  The Professor went on, ‘There was a period in the history of Ancient Rome called the Classical period.  This was a revival of the days of Ancient Greece’.  The Professor paced in front of the chalkboard, his eyes occasionally glancing over our blank faces.  He paused, then challengingly asked: ‘What is a classic?’

No immediate response.  I felt like saying something, but thought I might make a fool out of myself.  I was one of the worst students in my class.  One girl, sitting on the floor, was finishing an essay.  A curly-haired boy, arms around his knees, stared blankly at the wall.  The students were dumbfounded.  The professor had dropped a bomb. ‘What is a classic?’, he repeated.  This time, the Professor’s words, pronounced with his strong German accent, seemed to cut the air.  Some of the students began to answer the question, but none to his satisfaction.  I put up my hand.  The students glanced around the room as if to say, ‘What does he know?’.  They were waiting for the Professor to give them the answer.  The Professor’s face was perspiring.   A strand of hair hung over his glasses.  He grimaced and his eyes squinted.

‘A ‘Classic’ is something that outlives its time’, I said.  ‘Yes’, hissed the Professor, wide-eyed.  I carried on, ‘Be it a work of art, a work of literature or a legal precedent’.  ‘Very good!  Very good!’, said the Professor.  The tension dissipated.  Some of the students looked shocked.  The others looked on appreciatively.

The weather was warm and slightly windy.  I picked up the call-box and called Elspeth.  ‘I’ll fetch you at the exit of the station, Michael.  Ask someone to show you where the exit is’, she said.  I struggled with my trunk, but managed to wheel it through the exit on a metal contraption fixed to turning wheels.

Elspeth was waiting in a silver stationwagon.  Her son, Thomas, got out of the passenger seat and helped me with my trunk, ‘Hurry, Mike.  Mom wants to get out of here before the roads get worse’.  ‘Viva! Viva!’, he screamed as Elspeth dodgemed the car out of the station.  Traffic streamed into the city.   The car beetled past Table Mountain, up De Waal drive.  ANC supporters ferried on the back of trucks shouted, ‘Amandla!’ and ‘Viva!’  Women ululated and ANC flags, formerly forbidden, fluttered in the wind.

The stationwagon halted in a leafy driveway in the suburb of Rondebosch.  Thomas rushed out of the car and into the house.  I hung my bag over my shoulder as Elspeth took the other end of my trunk.  ‘You’ll be staying here, Michael’, said Elspeth.  Thomas was in front of the television, watching Mandela and De Klerk walking over the cordoned-off greensward.  Thomas punched his fist into the air and shouted, ‘Viva!  Viva!’  I was trying to make sense of the strange ceremony between the two men in black suits.  A voice sounded in the passageway, ‘Would you boys like a cold drink or tea?