Review by Rasvanth Chunylall
Although primarily recognised as a tourist paradise for its sandy beaches and perpetual sunshine, Durban is a city with a rich historical background that has been shaped by politics, colonialism, economics, class divisions and race relations. This history is explored in Ashwin Desai’s latest self-published work, The Archi-texture of Durban: A Skapie's Guide.
Following a successful launch at Ike’s Books and Collectables in August, the text has received positive reviews in the Witness, the Mercury and exposure in the Post. It isn't difficult to understand the appeal of this guide. Desai paints a vivid but unromanticised portrait of the city and its surroundings. There is the warfare and bloodshed of the Isandlwana region; taboo interracial relationships of the Midland Meanders, the increasing poverty of Mooi River, the political tension of Cato Manor and gangs of Chatsworth. He also highlights popular landmarks such as the Roma Revolving Restaurant, Botanic Gardens, Durban Country Club and Emmanuel Cathedral.
The nostalgia for a past Durban is balanced with Desai’s concern for Durban’s future. He questions controversial projects like Moses Mabhida Stadium and King Shaka International Airport, the dubious honour of Point Road's renaming to recognise Mahatma Gandhi and the continual dispossession and oppression of some of its inhabitants.
Desai’s frustration is understandable considering his attachment to Durban. The guide acts as part autobiography and reveals the way he has been shaped through his experiences growing up in the city. There are touching tales of the time spent with his father at the beach and watching rugby matches at Kings Park Stadium and playing cricket with his friends at Springfield Park. His account of the language of Chatsworth gangsters is amusing as is his description of eating crab curry which elicited much laughter from this reviewer:
Eating crab curry, like regime change, is a very untidy business. As you bite into the crab, the gravy flies in all directions. And so crab curry is best eaten only with your underpants on. We sat around the table, six young males with only our polka dot briefs (all the rage in the 1970s)(44).
Desai has acknowledged that The Archi-texture of Durban may “ruffle feathers”. In in his efforts to create an intensely personal piece, he writes uncomfortable descriptions which may alienate readers. As someone shaped by Apartheid, his admissions can be overlooked. What cannot be forgiven is the sloppy editing of this book. Some pictures are uncaptioned so their significance remains unclear. There are frequent typos like "under-married moulanas" (102), fragmented paragraphs and poor formatting. After he gives a stirring account of a rickshaw puller's story, the chapter concludes by providing the contact details of another rickshaw puller in a way that cheapens his prose. This can be attributed to a possible rush to release the text during the potentially profitable International Union of Architects Conference event this year. Perhaps, it can be chalked down to the draw-backs of self-publishing. Whatever the reason, it is unfortunate that the text has been released in this condition in light of Desai’s reputation as an accomplished writer and academic.
Despite these flaws, the guide is a must-have for anyone interested in the history of Durban or the way ‘place’ has the ability to shape a person’s identity. Desai writes, “…there is also something beyond the stories of deprivation, humiliation and melancholy that surveys, statistics and quick-fire research can never capture” (45). It is autobiographical narratives (like this) written with great humour and the passion of a true Durbanite which succeed in a way that academic and marketing reconstructions cannot.