The Great South African Ayas


As children, attention was rarely paid to things that we would one day grow to cherish as adults. Memories of the Tamil songs our granny’s used to sing, the energy with which they called us when they were angry, or the love they put into each dish prepared; whether a simple dhall curry or an elaborate beryani served with mango pickle which they made themselves. In South Africa, most of us Tamils call our grandmothers, Aya or Aiya.

I remember my Aya with fondness and what I remember about her rings true for most South African Tamil Ayas.  This is reinforced every time I meet someone else’s Aya and I am transported back to a time when my own used to share all the stories of her life with me. She lived to the ripe old age of 87, and her story must be told because it is a representation of many second generation Tamil South Africans.


Poonambalam ‘Pushpa’ was born in 1926, and was the second eldest of 17 children – yes, 17 is correct and a norm for that generation. The relationship that she had with her siblings was simply spectacular because of the friendship they shared. I remember her two youngest siblings looking up to my Aya as a mother figure.  They visited her as often as possible even though there was a twenty year age difference between them. My grandmother was, without doubt, a true matriarch.


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Arranged marriages were very much a part of the times and Pushpa was no exception.  She was married off at 19 year’s of age. She told me that when my grandfather came over to their house for a proposal he immediately liked what he saw, so he put some bangles on her hands to signify that they would be married. She moved into her new home but encountered some hardships with her sisters-in-law who wanted her to do all the hard labour, even when she was pregnant. My grandmother had six children and one day my grandfather got so fed-up with his sibling’s politics that he packed his little family up and rented a room only a few hundred metres away.


He then purchased the adjacent land and built a home which is now our ancestral family home in Durban. What I find truly spectacular is that my grandmother held no grudges against my grandfather’s family despite their treatment. She entertained her in-laws in her home long after my grandfather had passed away.  I asked my grandmother once why she was so forgiving and she told me that it is not our place to judge others because God will judge those who wrong you. I am still trying to learn this lesson of forgiveness in my adult life.


The etiquette with which that generation carried themselves is truly remarkable. In my younger years, I remember that my Aya always wore a sari. The appropriate way to dress was in traditional Tamil attire – a sari with a matching pavadeh (underskirt) and the moon-tha-nee pleated neatly across the left shoulder and pinned. As she grew older, my mother persuaded her to use the more casual long dresses because the heat in Durban can be quite intense in the summer months. She would do her nails, hair and was always meticulous about her appearance. Her cooking was simply magical – she would produce the most delicious curries and idlis. She loved good food and ate curries with extra chilli every single day of her life.


Her firm favourite dishes were ‘kanji khire’ (sour herbs) and pulee sado (sour rice). She only ate lamb and chicken – no beef or pork. She never tasted a drop of alcohol in her life, but if the Christmas pudding had a bit of brandy soaked in it she would pretend she didn’t know.  When we were younger she used to make her own masala – a mix of roasted chillies and dry spices,  all ground to perfection. She would delight at the green mangos that came her way, and would eagerly chop, wash, salt and pickle them. She hid these pickles in a dark space in a corner cupboard until they were just ready for the tasting.


My grandmother spoke fluent Tamil and English, and because she grew up on a farm in South Africa, she also spoke fluent Zulu. In the context of South Africa this was remarkable as some of the words used for food items are not referred to with Tamil words, such as ‘madumbe’ which is the Zulu word for yams, or ‘pap’ which is a maize porridge eaten with fish curry – kallee. She only ever spoke to us in English unless it was to tell us to go away when we irritated her with a very expressive, ‘Poh!’


Like my Aya, there are many South African grandmothers who’ve influenced this generation of South African Tamils. They have placed the utmost emphasis on education, but also instilled in us a sense of adventure. My Aya only visited India once, but the way she retold the stories of her visit were remarkable. She was clearly a very posh South African Tamil granny and this was relayed at how she turned up her nose at some stories from India, such as locals spitting of betel nut and defecating on the streets.


Ayas are our fierce protectors in life. They are the people we go to when we need that extra dose of unconditional love. Long after her earthly journey ended, the memories and stories that my Aya left behind have the power to transport me back in time to remember her struggle and ambitions.  Every memory that I have of her reminds me how she consistently harnessed her strength to survive so many obstacles throughout her life.


The picture I have used for the feature image of this article is close to my heart.  I held my Aya’s hand in the garden that day and we spoke for almost an hour.  I took this picture because I wanted to remember this precious moment when I returned to Johannesburg.  I hope this article serves as a fitting tribute to the many great South African Ayas of our time and inspires you to always create time for them.


To share your Tamil South African story please contact Nirvani Pillay on


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The Porridge People of South Africa

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Back To Tamil Class

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Nirvani Pillay

Nirvani Pillay

Nirvani was born in South Africa; a fourth generation of Tamil origin. She moved from Durban to Johannesburg as a young adult and joined an eco-tourism company where she now works as the PR manager. She has a BBA degree in marketing from the Institute of Marketing Management, and is currently completing her Honours in Marketing Management. She has travelled extensively throughout southern Africa, including some parts of Europe and Asia. Nirvani’s interests include wildlife conservation, Anglo-Indian literature and art. She feels that nothing compares to watching a great African sunset with a glass of fine wine in hand.

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