Township Triangles

Pravasan Pillay 

I grew up in Chatsworth, a sprawling township on the south-side of Durban, South Africa, which was designated by the Apartheid government for Indians forcibly removed by the Group Areas Act. A sizable chunk of the council-built homes in the township consisted of semi-detached, double-storey two or three bedroom houses.

All these houses possessed a narrow "room" under the stairs leading to the upstairs bedrooms. I use the scare quotes on the word 'room' because this space was barely two metres by one metre, if that. What's more was that rather than the conventional rectangular dimensions of rooms all over the universe this room – because its contours were dictated by the stairs above – was shaped like a Pythagorean triangle.

This meant that while an average-sized adult could stand at the entrance of the room, they would have to start crouching and then crawling once they entered – sort of like a reverse of those evolutionary diagrams you see of human beings. But, despite the awkwardness of maneuvering in the room, I suspect that most residents appreciated having the extra space. Some people even converted these triangle rooms into bathrooms, an idea that, as a child, I found extremely claustrophobic. I already had a prejudice against baths but now you were asking me to take one inside a dark, windowless wedge?

Fortunately, the room under the stairs in our house was empty when we moved in and we began calling it, like most Chatsworthians did theirs, the "pantry". We may have called it that but, in truth, we didn't keep any food or staples in it. Instead, it was the architectural equivalent of those junk drawers filled with domestic flotsam that every home seems to have. You know those drawers with dead batteries, old mobile phones and chargers, tangled bits of string, headless action figures, rubber bands, scissors, etc. Our pantry was filled to the ceiling with cricket bats, brooms, spades, a rusty bike, two dust bins filled with God knows what, fishing rods, odd bits of tools, packets of newspaper, crates with Coke bottles, and much more. In short, it was a mess and finding anything in it was harder than locating a ship in the Bermuda Triangle.

This chaos might have been unappealing to me but it, unsurprisingly, proved a perfect spot for a host of unwelcome critters and creatures. This was Durban after all, where it is impossible to step outdoors without a flying cockroach hitting you in the face. Once, I remember seeing a very large snake slithering its way into our pantry. (Disclaimer: Friends and family have claimed that each time I tell this story the size of the snake increases. Some claim that the snake was, in reality, about the length of an adult's forearm. I strongly dispute this. This thing was easily the size of two boa constrictors stapled together end-to-end.)

My mother tasked college-aged me with removing the snake. Apparently, there was some hitherto unspoken rule that he who spots the snake must removeth the snake. Now, imagine carefully taking out each item from this tightly-packed, jumbled room, examining it thoroughly for signs of snake, leaving the item outside and then going back in. Yeah man, it was scary AF.

For protection I was dressed in Dr. Martens boots, two pairs of jeans, a thick jacket, a building helmet, and protective goggles – kind of like a budget Robocop. In the end, it took me a painfully-slow and nerve-wracking three hours to find the snake – this included numerous false alarms of mistaking hosepipes and extension cords as serpents and screeching extremely loudly.

This is partly why I have a huge phobia of both snakes and for any triangular-shaped buildings. I can't even look at the Louvre without shuddering. And don't even mention the Pyramids. This was basically a long explanation of how Apartheid architecture prevented me from travelling to Egypt.