Wandering Lenasia with the Purple Pimpernel

by | Nov 24, 2020 | Johannesburg, Townships/Informal Settlements | 20 comments

Last Wednesday I headed down the M1 highway with my pink-haired friend Gail Wilson and my purple-clad friend Faarooq Gardee-Minty Mangera, a.k.a. the Purple Pimpernel. Our destination was Lenasia, a historically Indian township 30 minutes south of central Joburg.

Faarooq in Rose Park, Lenasia
Faarooq, the Purple Pimpernel, in Lenasia’s Rose Park.

Faarooq is one of those people who makes me happy I live in Joburg, as I wouldn’t meet someone like him in any other place. Faarooq is — or has been at some point — a virologist, a U.S. government employee, an artist, a dancer, a cultural guide/city explorer, an anti-apartheid spy, and a spokesperson for the Mina menstrual cup (yes, you read correctly). I imagine he is many other things too but he hasn’t had a chance to tell me yet.

Faarooq’s nickname is the Purple Pimpernel; I asked him why and the answer was a magical, meandering story about ballet and life in Soho is the 1970s. I can’t recount it here but I recommend asking Faarooq if you ever meet him.

Faarooq grew up in Fietas, a neighborhood west of downtown Joburg, which was once home to South Africans of all races and backgrounds. In the 1970s, in accordance with the Group Areas Act, the apartheid government demolished most of Fietas and forcibly removed its non-white residents to various townships on the outskirts of Joburg. When Faarooq returned to South Africa as a young man after several years in London, his family had been moved from Fietas to Lenasia. Faarooq, like millions of other South Africans of color, suddenly had to adjust to an alien life far outside the city.

Gail and Faarooq and I went to Lenasia to visit some of Faarooq’s old haunts. The trip had no specific agenda other than lots of eating.

Note on the name: Lenasia is named after the nearby Lenz Military Base. The “Asia” part was added to the name since the township was created for South Africans of Indian descent. Today, many people call it Lenz.

Gelato for Breakfast in Lenasia

Our main destination in Lenz was the Pather family house, where the Pather siblings were preparing us an authentic South Indian feast. I’ll say more about the Pathers in a minute. But first, Faarooq took us for gelato at Creme Cafe. The gelato at Creme Cafe is legendary and Faarooq wanted us to experience it, lunch plans or not.

Gelato selection at Creme Cafe
The gelato selection at Creme Cafe.
Guy making gelato at Creme Cafe
You can watch the staff making gelato right on the premises. This is a batch of Milo gelato in progress.

I had planned to order burfee gelato, because Italian-style gelato made with an Indian dessert seems appropriate to eat in Lenz. But then I saw the “Chinafruit and Orange” sorbet and had to try that.

Sorbet from Creme Cafe in Lenasia
Chinafruit and orange sorbet.

I had never heard of Chinafruit but apparently it’s another word for persimmon. It seems like a culturally inappropriate term, especially in 2020, but that didn’t make the sorbet taste any less delicious. I ate the whole, huge cup.

Creme Cafe serves coffee and pastries as well as gelato. It’s at 71 Willow Street in Extension 3, Lenasia.

Temple Visit

We still had some time before lunch so we drove around looking at all the interesting streets and houses. Then Faarooq took us to a Tamil temple near the Pather house, which was founded by a member of the Pather family. (If you’d like to learn about another super interesting Tamil Temple in Joburg, read this post about Kavady at the Melrose Temple.)

Outside the temple dedicated to Ayaanar, a Tamil deity who serves as Guardian to Lord Shiva. Ayaanar rides a white horse.
Temple to Ayaanar
Shrine to Ayanaar.

Temple visit complete, we headed to the Pathers.

Lunch With the Pathers

Faarooq grew up with the Pather family, in Fietas and later in Lenz. There are something like a dozen Pather siblings. But the house we visited is home to Esperee Pather, Esperee’s brother, Nishkalan, and their 99-year-old firebrand of a mother, Mrs. Pather. Sisters Bashnee and Padmani also came for lunch.

The Pathers and the Purple Pimpernel.

I visited southern India once, on a two-week volunteer trip to Chennai in 2006. It was my first trip away from the western world and I will never forget the colors, the smells, the clothes, the people, and especially the mind-blowingly delicious vegetarian food. I have always wanted to go back. But at least now I know I don’t need to go to India for a mind-blowing South Indian meal. I’ll just drive to Lenz and visit the Pathers.

We sat down at the table. “This is a very boring meal,” Esperee announced, pleading a shortage of time due to the recent Diwali celebrations. “Everything is very bland.”

Gail and I gazed at ever-increasing number of rainbow-colored foods on the table, trying to comprehend how such a spread could be described as boring or bland. Faarooq just chuckled.

Then the banana leaves came out and I officially traveled to another continent.

Indian meal at the Pather house
My lunch, served on a banana leaf: Biryani, daal, potatoes, pumpkin, brinjal, green beans, papadum, and tomato and onion relish.

I also remember, from my time in India, how difficult it was to refuse copious amounts of food.

“More biryani?” Padmani asked me, wielding a serving spoon.

“Ahhhh, no thanks,” I said, struggling to scoop up the last remnants on my leaf. “I’m so full!”

“More vegetables?” she asked. “Vegetables digest very quickly.” I forcefully declined.

“There is no dessert,” Esperee had told us earlier, but after lunch we found ourselves seated in the dining room with an elaborate spread of fruits and biscuits. Soon there was spicy Indian chai and a plate of cheesecake.

I struggled to make space for watermelon and lychee. “Have a biscuit,” Esperee urged, pointing to the chocolate-covered shortbread. “They’re homemade. Biscuits are a good digestive.”

Digestion is an important topic of conversation at the Pather table.

We sat around for hours, listening to stories about growing up in Fietas and Lenz, sneaking boys into the house at inappropriate hours, and the mysterious case of Mrs. Sulaymon’s murdered roosters. Faarooq regaled us with his strangely cheerful views on death and the best ways to be cremated. There was a lot of laughing.

Late in the afternoon, Gail and Faarooq and I thanked the Pathers and reluctantly left to make the long drive back to Joburg.

That was my day in Lenz with the Purple Pimpernel and company.

20 Comments

  1. AutumnAshbough

    A spy? Faarooq totally gets to be a Pimpernel. 🙂

    I see you are back to blogs that make us drool.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hahaha. Yep, getting back to normal again!

      Reply
  2. dizzylexa

    You’ve captured the day so well, glad we got to go on this gastronomic adventure with the adorable Purple Pimpernel and meet the Pather family, it was an amazing day.

    Reply
  3. Ilse Fouche

    A follow-up with shops and restaurants to visit would be awesome 😁

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Will work on that for next time.

      Reply
      • Ilse Fouche

        Whoop!

        Reply
  4. Sarvesha Moodley

    You’ve captured the Pather family and Lenz SO well!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks so much Sarvesha!

      Reply
  5. Nancy McDaniel

    oh what a lovely day. And your writing made me feel as though I were there (just not quite as full. ha ha). I wish I had been (lunch on a banana leaf is so beautiful)

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I wish you were too 🙂

      Reply
  6. Nomea

    Beautiful story. You just made me so hungry so early in the morning. The Purple Pimpernel is also a brother from another mother to many of us. Love this.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks so much Nomea. I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

      Reply
  7. catji

    Great! post, Heather.
    I still want to go back to Chennai, went in 2003. But next time will make sure to arrange to get out and go to country places.
    Sometimes i felt more at home there than in Durban.
    The first time, stayed at a sort of home-stay…for South Africans. One lady who was staying long time, studying classical music. We went by train to Puri, Orissa, all the way up the east coast, 3 days. I was just thinking/realising couple days ago, it was one of the best experiences in my life. Absolutely wonderful. Puri/Orissa was so different, when we got back to Chennai, it felt like coming home again. We’d been in Chennai for a week, then in Puri for a week, then back to Chennai for a week.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I also loved it. Totally different from anyplace I’ve been, before or since.

      Reply
  8. Clinton

    Excellent article, felt like i sat at the table with you.

    Reply
  9. Lani

    Until I met some Saffas I had no idea that S. Af had the largest population of Indians outside of India. So this was nice to see. Sounds and looks like a beautiful day. xo

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I also had no idea until I moved here! It’s a very interesting part of SA’s history and culture.

      Reply
  10. Peggy Laws

    It sounds wonderful Heather. I also loved my trip to India and can’t wait to return. I never wanted to sleep when there as I always thought I was going to be missing something. But your trip to Lenasia captures some of that magic for me!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks Peggy. I also remember that feeling while trying to sleep in India 🙂

      Reply

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