Zuleikha Mayat (93): A true Indian Delight

Despite a lifetime of serving, noted humanitarian Dr Zuleikha Mayat vows to continue making a difference in the life of others till the end, writes Ismail Suder.

If you are lucky enough to chat to South Africa icon Dr Zuleikha Mayat, you’d be forgiven for NOT realizing that she’s pushing 93 – her sharp mind and wit belies her age.

While many in her age group are in full time nursing care, Mayat talks with the joie de vie of someone with enough energy to take on the world. Sprightly and exuding a timeless elegance, her agility, confident tone of voice and sharp-wittedness puts many people half her age to shame.

Mayat’s dynamic leadership, her contribution to humanitarian causes, philanthropy and cultural activism has earned her respect in South Africa and beyond our borders. As the founding member of the Women’s Cultural Group (WCG), seasoned traveler and adventurer, author of several books, including the famous Indian Delights, Mayat has certainly led a colourful life – and a life of humility.

She married Dr G.H.M. Mayat in 1947, but sadly lost her husband and sister in the same car accident in March 1979. But, that did not stop her from throwing herself headlong into her community involvement.

Al Qalam caught up with Mayat recently after the Durban-based Iqraa Trust had honoured her with a lifetime achievement award – one of umpteen accolades she’d collected from organizations over the years. The event was held in the boardroom of Al Baraka Bank, Kingsmead.

I ask about her health. “Yes”, she says, her body hurts and she walks with the aid of a stick, but she can also quite ably walk without a stick. “Here …hold this!” she says, shoving the walking stick at me, and briskly marches down a passageway to demonstrate her agility. MashaAllah, I say, before getting down to interviewing her.

If there was one thing that people should remember you for, what is it? I ask.

“Well, I guess I would like to be remembered for being someone who interacted with everyone, no matter who they were, without prejudice,” she said softly.

At the Iqraa Trust event held in her honour, she said: “My appearance today, after having determined not to accept public acclaim, makes me recall what a friend once advised, ‘don’t go running after recognition or accolades but if it comes your way, accept it with thankfulness and grace.’ Hence it is with the utmost humility that I accept what is being extended and I pray that I have proved worthy of it”.

After she had married and left her hometown, Potchefstroom, to settle in Durban, Mayat said she thought she was “escaping” from a small conservative “Asian” community, but little did she realize that the “Asian community” in Durban was far more conservative than the ones she left behind.                   

Fahmida’s World

“In Durban I sorely missed the spectrum of communities in Potchefstroom. To my rescue came Mr. Moosa Meer, the editor of the weekly Gujarati/English Indian Views. On the strength of some of my letters that had been published in it, Mr. Meer offered me the women’s column – Fahmida’s World – which I unhesitatingly accepted.  Ready or not, I could not let the Moko – the opportunity go. My husband was elated as he had constantly nudged me to spread my own wings. That column, gained me many fans – and some male critics.  Good! For that meant that I had gained the notice of men.

“Meanwhile I was gaining good experience in writing. Thinking in Gujarati, vocalizing in Afrikaans, writing in English, naturally my column was pitiable but the editor had warned the proofreaders that while grammatical errors were to be corrected, my thoughts should be left strictly alone.

“Noticing the many talented young brides languishing in domesticity, I felt the time was ripe to gather them to do something collectivity. In my small flat I invited some friends and after supper, thirteen of us started the Women’s Cultural Group composed of one Parsee, one Hindu, and eleven Muslims. Devi Bughwaan, Fatima Meer, Hilda Kuper, Violaine Junod – and Dr Goonam who were also there – did not become members of this fledgling group but remained our mentors and supporters. Over the years we had multiracial membership of nearly a hundred.  

“With a foot in the press and a group of enthusiastic women encouraged to discover their own talents, we stepped into territories dominated by males. Instead of opposing, we started networking with them which resulted in better aid for deprived causes.

“Sensing that many young girls were now entering secondary schools and no longer learning cooking from mothers and aunts, I urged our team to start a cookery book, and being the only one with some journalistic experience, became the editor of the many different issues of Indian Delights.                                    

“From the proceeds, we were the first NGO to issue interest free loans to students at tertiary institutions.”

Foreseeing that future generations would need to know of the hardships their forebears had endured, Mayat compiled another publication, “Nanimas’s Chest”, which recorded a treasure trove of memories of yesteryear.

Writing became an obsession, so in between different editions of the Indian Delights series, she also published Quranic Lights (1966-2012); Journeys of Binte Batuti (2015); History of Muslims of Gujarat 2008 and Ahmed Bhai/Zuleikha Bhen (2009).                                                                                                          

 Mayat had played a role in numerous organizations, MYM, Orient School, Arthur Blaxwell School for Blind,  Natal Indian Blind Society, Darul Yatama Wal Masakeen, Sanzaf, Sanha,  the Mosque in Kwa Mashu, the UDW Mosque, Institute of Race Relations and numerous NGO’s.

“The candle by consuming itself may have given light to others but it was the inspiration and assistance of the team players that ignited the flame and kept it burning.

“The wind under my wings, coming from the team players, took me soaring high. Without the inspiration provided by the liberal Maulanas of those times, the cooperation of NGO’s, aunts, uncles and friends the flame would have flickered out.

 “The universal saying is that behind every man is a woman, but behind me was my husband who undeniably led me to nurture my own talents. When separated by death, more than the kisses is missed, the companionship that had been enjoyed.”

Last word came from her activist son, Attorney Aslam Mayat: “Unlike many widows, her life did not end when her husband died 40 years ago on 1 April 1979. She took stock, faced the challenges and strode valiantly forward.  

“If Islam demands a full and middle path balanced life, Zuleikha has observed that. A true Indian Delight.”

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