A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon's Memoir of Apartheid

A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon's Memoir of Apartheid

by Himmet Dajee M.d., Patrice Apodaca


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As a brown boy growing up in apartheid South Africa, Himmet Dajee’s life could easily have turned out quite differently. As the fourth, and largely discounted, son of tradition-minded Indian immigrants, he faced a future of oppression under the white ruling class. His path seemed predetermined: to follow his father in the shoe trade and accept an arranged marriage.

But Himmet’s name means “courage” in his parents’ native tongue. Supported by a devoted older brother and fueled by his own driving ambition and hatred of apartheid, Himmet was determined to escape the course charted for his life. Despite almost insurmountable odds, Himmet carved a future of his own design, with a world-class education, a career as a cardiac surgeon, and a life a world away from South Africa. But Himmet had to confront his past if he was ever fully to be at peace with it.

A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon’s Memoir of Apartheid is the story of one man’s quest to overcome racism and oppression to find his place in the world and escape the shadow of his troubled homeland. Thoughtful, emotionally honest, and at times heartrending, this account of the personal toll wrought by one of the most shameful periods in modern history provides a unique glimpse into an often-overlooked community affected by apartheid. It is also a testament to the triumph of the human spirit, and to the boy who persevered against all odds to live up to his name: Courage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781947976009
Publisher: Cynren Press
Publication date: 10/09/2018
Pages: 210
Sales rank: 645,203
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Himmet Dajee, MD, holds medical degrees from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the University of London. He was an assistant professor at UCLA and a staff cardiac surgeon at Kaiser Permanente. After two decades in private practice in California, he retired from surgery in 2006 and currently serves as a medical director at a California health care organization that administers health insurance for low-income patients. He is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, and the American College of Chest Physicians. The recipient of numerous academic awards, Dajee has coauthored twenty-one papers published in prestigious medical journals and is a frequent speaker at medical conferences.

Patrice Apodaca, a veteran journalist, is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is currently a featured columnist for the Daily Pilot, a Los Angeles Times Community News publication.

Read an Excerpt




Born two months premature, so tiny I could fit in the palms of my father's hands, I was nestled into a shoe box lined with cotton while my parents kept vigil, occasionally dipping their fingers in brandy and letting me suck the warm liquid from them. That I lived and eventually started to grow apparently came as a bit of a shock, and my mother always said it was because of the brandy. The other Indian ladies who came to visit when I was young would cluck and coo whenever they saw me, each time reminding me about the cotton-filled shoe box and how little and fragile I had been. "Eat," they always urged me, for I was such a scrawny kid that they were probably still half-convinced that I'd wither and collapse at any moment.

By the time of my early arrival in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 22, 1942, my parents already had three other sons. Amrit, named after a mythological Indian nectar that bestows immortality, was eight years my senior and the only one who had been born in India. Next was Bhanudey, known simply as Bhanu, a Hindi word for "sun," who was more than three years older than me. After that came Dhiraj — his name means "calm" or "patience" — who was born a little more than a year before me.

I have no idea why my parents decided to name me Himmet. Perhaps it was a hopeful gesture, given that they weren't sure I'd live beyond my first month. Even when I did begin to thrive, I was plagued throughout my youth with the curse of low expectations. I don't know if my family and our friends in the Indian community thought I was slow-witted, exactly, but they certainly didn't think I'd ever amount to much, a point that was made abundantly clear to me on a daily basis. I was the runt of the family, the unremarkable kid who was so skinny and insubstantial that others took to taunting me with the insulting nickname "Slangetjie," which in Afrikaans means "snake."

I tried to ignore such slights, and in my darkest moments, I would remind myself that my real name carried far more significance and, I hoped, was a harbinger of the future I began to envision for myself. Himmet, in my parents' native Gujarati language, means "courage."

I was a lowly Indian boy, the fourth and largely discounted son of an immigrant family, and a nonwhite living among a ruling class who considered my kind worse than the dirt beneath their shoes.

But I was the boy named Courage, and I never forgot it.

* * *

My parents were probably no older than five or six when they became engaged.

My father, Govind Dajee, was born in 1913 to a low-caste family of cobblers in the tiny village of Tejlav in the Surat district of Gujarat, a rural state in western India that was also the birthplace of the great leader Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi. Our people weren't the lowest of the low, but their work with the finished hides of cows, which are considered sacred among Hindus, put my ancestors fairly near the bottom of the strict social hierarchy in India. My dad, like his father, and his father before him, had traveled to and from South Africa, part of the diaspora of native Indians, who were then under British control, that reached to the far ends of the Empire in search of economic betterment. My mother, Eicha Dajee — Kanta to her family and friends — was born in 1915 and was promised to my father in the traditional way when they were both young children. Neither of my parents ever received a formal education. When he was thirteen, my father was sent off to South Africa to work in the family's shoe repair shop in Cape Town, returning to India seven years later to wed. My brother Amrit was born in Tejlav in 1934, after which my father moved his small family back to Cape Town to run the shoe business there.

There was nothing unusual about their story. Indians had been in South Africa since the earliest days of European settlement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when European colonists and traders brought them there first as slaves and later as indentured servants. After those practices ended, the steady stream of Indians emigrating from the mother country to South Africa continued. Indeed, Gandhi began his activism in South Africa in the early twentieth century as an immigrant lawyer who led a campaign of civil disobedience against laws that discriminated against Indians.

Despite its discriminatory policies, South Africa was still a place where low-caste, uneducated Indians like my parents could make a decent living as small merchants. The little Indian community in and around Cape Town in which I was raised was made up of a few hundred families just like our own — modest shoe merchants with roots in Gujarat, members of the lowly Mochi caste who stuck together and clung to the old, traditional ways even as the world around them underwent cataclysmic change.

When I was born in Cape Town in 1942, the world was at war, and the conflict could be felt even in a place as remote as the southern tip of the African continent. South Africa, a British territory for two hundred years, was officially on the side of the Allies and even sent some troops to fight against the Germans. But the country was deeply divided, for the Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch and German settlers, loathed the British and sympathized with the Nazis. During the war, my father and all our friends and relatives lived in constant fear that German aircraft would swoop in and bomb the city. At night, they would close their curtains and dim their lights to reduce their chances of being targeted. Rumors circulated of German submarines off the coast of nearby Namibia, which was friendly to the Axis powers.

In 1947, two years after World War II ended, the Indian Independence Bill was passed, ending Britain's long reign and carving out the separate, independent nations of India and Pakistan. My father decided that it was time for us to make the trek back to India for a two-year stay. It was common practice among our friends and relatives to return to India to visit family members who were still there and to stay for many months, even years, as the trip was long and arduous. My dad left his shop in the care of friends and took his growing family — my sister Padma had been born in 1945 — on a journey. We slept on the deck of a ship with other Indian families as we traveled up the east coast of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to Bombay. There we stayed for a short time in a relative's apartment, from which we could look out a window to the crowded, filthy street teeming with rats the size of small rabbits.

From Bombay, we traveled by train to Surat and then on to Tejlav. I have no clear memories of the trip, just the vague impressions and mental snapshots on which a young child tends to focus: ducks swimming in the river, the smoky aroma of dried salted fish, vendors selling tea and jackfruit. Our little village had no paved roads. We stayed in a modest, one-story house where my father's parents and two sisters lived, bookended by the houses of two uncles. Nearby were corn and rice fields, sugarcane plantations, and a mango orchard where we'd use long poles with hooks to pick the fruit. We took water from a communal well, where my brother Dhiraj got smacked once for touching the water jugs before the higher-caste people had filled theirs.

Certain scents and images have stayed with me over the years — the distinctive minty fragrance of eucalyptus trees, the brilliant blue and purple jacaranda blooms, and the sight of women hunched over open fires as they prepared our meals. When the monsoon rains came, it was quite the event. It wasn't Seated left to right, Amrit, Bhanu, Dhiraj, Himmet, and Padma, on board a ship bound from South Africa to India. cold, so we children would run outside and revel in the mud, paying no mind to the swarms of stinging red ants. We were warned to stay away from snakes, some of which were poisonous, and we were properly terrified, so much so that when a cricket ball got stuck in a tree, no one had the guts to climb up to retrieve it for fear of being bitten.

During the colorful Holi holiday, we painted our faces, dressed in costumes, and danced, and all the stomping feet destroyed our porch made of dung and clay. But there was plenty of clay to be found for repairs. Amrit would collect the reddish stuff from around a nearby dam and use it to sculpt little cow and buffalo figures.

My father, despite his traditional ways, was considered a bit of a progressive in our backwater. He would brag about his physical prowess and challenge the other men to wrestling matches and swimming races in the river, which he always won. When he bought a horse and carriage, it was the talk of the village, and he also purchased a used car so he could travel around the country. Though he had no formal education himself, he insisted that we all attend school, and he bought a radio so he and all the other villagers could gather around and listen to music and the news of the day.

He revered Gandhi. He talked about him constantly, quoting him, lecturing on and on about Gandhi's philosophy of passive resistance, telling us that he was a symbol of nonviolence and change in India and South Africa and, indeed, all the world. When we grew up, he told us that we must strive to live as Gandhi did and always be compassionate and understanding.

We were in Tejlav in January 1948 when the news came of Gandhi's assassination. People from the village gathered in front of our house to hear the reports on my father's radio. I remember the shock and anger, and the disbelief that it had been a Hindu man who had killed the Mahatma, the "great-souled one" of our people. A few weeks later, my father, distraught with grief, took my mother and Amrit to Delhi to visit Gandhi's cremation site to pay their respects. My other siblings and I were told we were too young to go with them, so we stayed behind with relatives, understanding little of the forces that were shaping the world in which we lived.

During our long stay in India, our family grew again with the birth of my youngest sister, Hansa, in 1948. The following year, we embarked on the long voyage back to South Africa. Not long after our return, we got the news that my grandfather had died back in India. The Cape Town business was now in the sole hands of my father.



THE SOUTH AFRICA TO WHICH WE RETURNED had undergone momentous change in our absence. In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party had won control of the government. The age of apartheid was upon us.

My father always used to say to us that an Afrikaner will tell you to your face that you are worthless shit. The British, on the other hand, will smile and speak to you in a civil manner, but when your back is turned, they'll stick a knife in it. The message was clear: all whites hated our guts, and we mustn't ever forget it. Even so, my father and his contemporaries must have known that with the Afrikaners in power, we were heading from bad to worse.

White supremacy and racial segregation had been the de facto policy in South Africa long before apartheid, but the Afrikaners took those policies to new, ruthless extremes, justifying their actions by claiming their biblically ordained superiority. Apartheid in the Afrikaans language means "separateness," a simple philosophy that was carried out with a comprehensive brutality. We Indians were classified separately from the blacks and from the coloreds — people of mixed race — but all of the nonwhites were regarded in virtually every way with utter contempt.

The government began passing a series of laws intended to keep the whites on top and everyone else crushed under its heel. The Afrikaners took land away from nonwhites, often forcibly removing people from their homes, tossing their belongings into the street, and confining them to tightly congested ghettos where resources were scarce and poverty and desperation prevailed. They limited the places where nonwhites were allowed to go — just traveling from one province to another required a special governmental pass. Strict curfews were violently enforced, and sexual relations and marriage between whites and nonwhites were banned. The Afrikaners were brutish, but they were also cunning. They used their apartheid laws, and the enforcement of those laws, to pit different races and native tribes against each other to tighten their own grip on power. Chinese South Africans, for instance, were treated similarly to Indians, but those of Japanese ancestry were given "honorary white" status, meaning they had more rights than we did, although, like us, they were not allowed to vote.

Like the racist policies of the Jim Crow South in the United States, apartheid forced separation among the races in almost every aspect of life: in schools; on buses; in restaurants, stores, and parks; and in governmental offices and workplaces. Nonwhites were banned from owning certain businesses and holding certain jobs, and even if they had the same job as a white, they'd be paid far less. Signs were everywhere: "Whites Only" for the best places and "Nonwhites" for the leftovers. Cape Town is renowned throughout the world for its beautiful beaches with sand that glistens like sugar, but in those days, the "Whites Only" signs stood in warning that such places were off-limits to my kind. The only beaches we were allowed to visit were those with jagged rocks instead of soft sand. At the drive-in cinema, we were only allowed to park our cars in the back row. Daring to go where we weren't allowed carried the risk of imprisonment. If a whites-only ambulance on an emergency call arrived to find that the person in need of help had dark skin, the driver would turn the vehicle around and leave.

* * *

As the apartheid government began its long campaign of racial suppression, my family nonetheless slipped quickly back into our life in South Africa. My father's shop was on Sir Lowry Road, a main thoroughfare running through the center of Cape Town. Our store was one in a long row of small businesses. On one side of us was a confectionary shop owned by a Jewish couple, who we could see through their window as they slept upright in the reclining chairs they used instead of beds. We interpreted their unusual sleeping arrangement as a sign of the frugality that was common among the local merchants and to a lack of usable space in their tiny store. On the other side of us was a Muslim butcher, at whom we used to laugh as he waved his meat cleaver and chased his workers around the shop and out into the street when they didn't follow his orders.

When the forced removals began across South Africa under the Group Areas Act of 1950, our neighborhood was exempted — at least for the time being — so my family and our neighbors were allowed to stay and continue to serve clientele of all races. We were surrounded by big factories, where everything from pharmaceuticals to ladies clothing was made. Once, the Baumanns Biscuit factory a couple of blocks away caught fire, and the whole neighborhood smelled like baking cookies. The company had to unload its inventory, so we stocked up on so many tins of biscuits at a fraction of the usual price that we were still eating them a year later.

My father's shop had two big display windows in front where his newfangled neon sign flashed bright red the words "Shoe Repair." Just inside was a small counter where we kept the cash register, and on the other side of the shop were the Landis machines that were used to cut the big sheets of leather that we bought from a wholesaler on Buitekant Street. After the forms were cut, we used other machines to sand, glue, nail, and sew the shoes. The whole place reeked of shoe glue mixed with the earthy smell of treated cowhides, and though we had a big vacuum to suck up the leather dust, fine layers of it settled everywhere, coating the shelves, sticking to the floor that my siblings and I swept each day, and probably adding to the suffering of my asthmatic mother.

A door at the back of the shop led to the few rooms that we called home. There was a small parlor, which doubled as a dining room and a bedroom for my brothers and me. Next to that was a kitchen, and behind the parlor was a bedroom that my parents shared with my two little sisters. Off a small alleyway just out back was a toilet, a shower with water heated from a wood furnace, and a pigeon coop. Our roof was made of corrugated zinc. When it rained, it sounded as if the gods were pelting us with pebbles from on high, and when the southeastern winds swept across the Cape each spring, the constant rattling above our heads would jangle our nerves.

It was a modest lifestyle, to be sure, but we were comfortable and well fed. My dad was a clever businessman, always looking for ways to expand and improve. He would tell us about his hard life in the early days when he would ride his bicycle all over the city, carrying sacks of shoes and making pickups and deliveries at the back doors of white people's houses, because they wouldn't allow him to approach by the front. He always had new ideas, though, and he soon began selling shoes as well as repairing them. Later he bought up a huge supply of old army uniforms left over from the war, which he resold in the shop at a big markup. Soon he added other clothing, and my brothers and I would laugh as we dressed the mannequins in the front windows and adjusted their arms and legs into strange poses. When he added ladies' nylons to the inventory, they flew off the shelves. He made enough of a profit that he began investing in other businesses, such as a dairy distribution firm, and in real estate, buying a few buildings on his own or in partnership with friends in areas where Indians were allowed to hold property.


Excerpted from "A Boy Named Courage"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Himmet Dajee and Patrice Apodaca.
Excerpted by permission of Cynren Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue ix

1 A Boy Named Courage 1

2 The Age of Apartheid 9

3 Always an Outsider 23

4 A Colder World 31

5 Learning to Dream 37

6 Meant to Be 49

7 All Up to Me 57

8 My Calling 69

9 Onward to Canada 81

10 That Cursed Country 89

11 Carrying On 99

12 California Bound 109

13 Complications 117

14 City of Angels 125

15 Suddenly Sought 135

16 Breaking a Promise 147

17 Matters of the Heart 153

18 A Day I Never Foresaw 163

19 Happiness 169

20 Letting Go 175

21 Courageous Heart 185

Epilogue 191

Acknowledgments 207

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