Farewell to a cultural and cooking pioneer

Dr Zuleikha Mayat with her famous cookbook, ‘Indian Delights’.

Dr Zuleikha Mayat with her famous cookbook, ‘Indian Delights’.

Published Feb 15, 2024


Devi Rajab

South Africa’s gems lie in her people and the loss of a stalwart leaves us bereft of its lustre.

One such doyen of our community whose influence was felt widely was Dr Zuleikha Mayat, who passed away recently at the ripe old age of 98, bringing an era of grandness to a close.

Her loss to the Muslim community in particular and the Indian community in general throughout the diaspora, from Australia to Canada, the UK and the USA, wherever SA Indians have settled, will be felt for a long time.

The name Zuleikha Mayat, a pioneer freelance journalist and author, is synonymous with the Women’s Cultural Group and the birth of its oldest and most successful project on South African Asian cuisine, Indian Delights.

Published close on half a century ago, it has become a cultural phenomenon in the country – and a notable export. Locally the proceeds of her project were used generously to support needy African students.

I was fortunate to have spent some quality time with her a few months ago when I visited her at her tastefully designed home in Westville. Though she was frail, she was very appreciative of my visit as she happily ate the South Indian idlis (rice cakes) I had made for her. She was always receptive to other cultural foods and music, and incorporated the influences among South and North Indians with ease.

Zuleikha’s story is one of active cultural citizenship. Although not political activists themselves, the Mayats often lent a helping hand to political figures like Nelson Mandela, who sometimes sought refuge in their Durban home while on the run. This meant that their home was sometimes raided by police looking for escaped political prisoners.

As leader of the Women’s Cultural Group,she forged a vibrant public life emancipating women in their communities and acting as agents for change.

However, in the latter part of her life her activism in support of the Palestinian people got her out onto the streets, marching for justice. And her final message to us all with a raised fist was never to forget Palestine.

Zuleika Mayat was a household name. At first glance one may have dismissed her as a traditional conservative Muslim lady of prominent stature.

With not a hair out of place and neatly wrapped in a headscarf, or downy, she had eyes that sparkled with life, depicting a freedom beyond attire.

Being married to a medical doctor of high standing placed her in the upper echelons of the Gujeratispeaking Muslim clan, living in the exclusive preserves of wealthy Indians.

Although enjoying the status of wealth and social standing in her community, she chose to create a more meaningful world for herself, one that was multi-layered, creative, enterprising, intellectual and politically astute. Living in her husband’s shadow did not diminish her light.

Instead, she found her own space and forged her own path. She was an avid writer, progressive thinker and a responsible community organiser with a strong appreciation of Islamic art; she brought all these skills together, mixing aesthetics with pragmatism, to develop a legacy around her famous Women’s Cultural Group.

Zuleikha was born in 1926, one of seven children, in the small mining town of Potchefstroom in the Transvaal where her family chose to settle as immigrant merchants in the late 19th century.

Her parents were well-off shopkeepers despite the municipal restrictions that legislated against free enterprise for Indian merchants. She saw her mother, Amina Bismillah, as someone who, despite being in full purdah, adopted an emancipated role early in her life when women were allowed to run family businesses and handle finances on par with men.

As was the practice during that period, her formal education ended in Standard 6, but Zuleikha never ceased to pursue her studies in formal and informal ways. She sat for her Junior Certificate and matric exams through correspondence and followed this up with a course in journalism.

In 1947, she married the dashing Mohamed Mayat and moved to Durban, where it was expected that she would live with her in-laws. Like most traditional families, they were culturally conservative in their faith and practice and required their daughter-in law to fit into their way of life.

But Mohamed was also the first gynaecologist of colour in the country – and fortunately for her, was a very progressive man who preferred her to enjoy an equal status with him. “Mohamed was the one who taught me to ride, play tennis and fish – although I soon surpassed him in horse riding!”

It was at this point that she began to assert her independence through her involvement with the Arabic Studies Circle and the formation of the first women’s debating society, including women from the ranks of Hindu, Muslim, Parsi and Christian groupings.

Zuleikha’s brainchild, the Indian Cultural Group, was formed in 1954 by a group of friends and relatives who were predominantly but not exclusively Muslim. The founding members included the prominent Tehmi Rustomjee, Zubi Seedat, Devi Bughwan, Bontha Naidoo and Savy Ramkissoon.

As the group celebrates its 70th year, Zuleikha leaves a rich legacy. At the time of its inception, when an Asian women’s organisation was received with scepticism and male myopia, Zuleika recalls having to tread carefully.

For half a century, she inspired the women to start soup kitchens for the poor, to organise educational lectures and cultural events such as poetry readings, plays and musical recitals, and to set up a fund to assist financially needy students to continue their studies at tertiary institutions.

As Lakshmi Subramanian of the Centre for Studies of Social Studies in Calcutta has noted, “they sculpted their identity and claimed their citizenship through informal mechanisms”.

Later, Indian Delights would become the most popular and best-selling book on South African Indian cuisine, famously becoming known as the item every Indian mother would give to her newly married daughter.

Through several editions, beginning in 1962, this culinary bible charts not only the rich accumulated heritage of Indian cuisine, but also how it had evolved through the use of local ingredients and changing regional tastes.

To date, more than a million copies have been sold, reaching the USA, Australia and Canada, and its pre-eminence remains unchallenged. The proceeds of these sales have benefited local communities of all hues, making its relevance doubly important.

For her profound contribution for the betterment of her fellow human beings, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2018.

She was truly a daughter “Conceived in India, Made in SA”. Hamba kahle daughter of Africa and of India.

*Dr Rajab is an award-winning columnist and psychologist.

The Mercury

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