A Geography of Pickles

Pravasan Pillay

When I attended Pinewood Primary, in the late eighties, early nineties, I would usually use my pocket money to buy Indian-style pickles after school. Pinewood, which has since been closed down, was located in Chatsworth, a township in Durban, South Africa – built and designated by the Apartheid government for Indians forcibly removed by the Group Areas Act.

I would buy the pickles at various private houses that sold them along my walk home down the steep Road 706 – I would alternate between the houses depending on what pickle I was in the mood for. For either five cents or ten cents you could get yourself a tasty carrot, or bor (Indian jujube), or fig pickle. Fresh green mango pickle, chopped or grated, was also available if it was in season, as was kumquat. I would usually frequent three particular pickle houses, though there were many more.

The first house was directly opposite Pinewood. We called it the "Sweet House", and we called the auntie who sold from her kitchen the "Sweet Auntie". Apart from candy, sherbert, chips, ice blocks, and popcorn, she also sold figs and bor that were pickled in a homemade masala-vinegar brine. The pickles, packaged in small transparent plastic bags, were stored in her fridge, or in a cooler box if the auntie was selling outside that day. The brine was ice cold, which made it a kind of strange spicy juice – it was actually perfectly thirst-quenching for the humid Durban weather. An Indian Kool-Aid if you will. You would bite one bottom corner of the plastic bag and slowly suck the juice out, saving the plump figs and bor for the end, all the while careful not to get anything on your white school uniform.

The second house I would buy pickles from was located about halfway through my walk home. The auntie who sold the pickle was married to our school's crossing guard, a retired uncle in his late sixties. The uncle was very respected by all the pupils at school. He would help us cross the street safely and we would buy pickles from his house. I always thought that it was a perfect business plan.

The vegetable pickles sold at the uncle's house were oil rather than brine-based. It was spicier and more complex, almost too adult for my young palate, which is why I wouldn't buy from them as often – saving it as a treat. One thing I remember is that their pickles were stored in these huge buckets, and when the auntie opened one of them to serve you the entire small, cramped kitchen would fill with the smell of spices, making you instantly salivate.

The crossing guard uncle's long, imposing stop sign, which we treated with reverence, was often leaning against a wall in the kitchen and for some reason its presence always made me order my pickles in an exaggeratedly polite manner.

The last house I would buy from also owned and operated a fruit and vegetable van, so their product was always guaranteed fresh. They sold a dry-style, quick-pickled, diced masala-carrot that was absolutely delicious. It was vibrant, crunchy, and was served in paper cones made from the Durban Yellow Pages. This house was really close to mine so, instead of walking and eating as I did with pickles from the other houses, I would sit under the shade of a wild plum tree opposite the house, tossing morsels of carrot into my mouth, and watching passersby. When I was finished eating I would go back to their yard and throw the cone into their outside garbage can.

I was a latchkey kid, and I would often make the ten minute walk home after school by myself. Even though it was a simple journey straight down a hilly road, I still felt like I was using these pickle houses as a sort of way to orientate myself home – like a map made of masala.