In Indian society, every older unrelated male is an uncle and older unrelated female an aunty (not aunt, aunty). Your real uncle and aunts are given their designations by the relationship they come to be your real aunts and uncles by. Your mother’s brothers are your Mamas and your father’s sisters your Poowas. Or Foi or Aatha depending on the dialect you speak. And you then also have big dads and big moms for the eldest uncles and aunts. Everyone else who is older is designated uncle or aunt and then their name. The neighbour, Aunty Saras (not to be confused with the neighbour-aunty, Saras) or Uncle Sagren who lives down the road. When, as an Indian kid, you don’t know someone by their name you default to some attribute of how they look or what they do with and added uncle or aunty at the front. So the Fowl Aunty was the lady who provided fresh chickens on a Saturday morning, Fisher Uncle or Uncle Fishy was a good fisherman and the Milk Uncle drove the van that sold bread and milk and sweets that came around at 3 o’ clock every afternoon. That’s probably how my mother ended up being the Basket Aunty and then the Sweet Aunty.
She will probably claim that it’s because she is actually sweet though. But first she was the Basket Aunty. For more than 10 years my mom carried her basket filled with sweets, chips, popsicles and treats for school kids to and from the primary school twice a day almost every day. It all started much longer before that though, according to my mom anyway. Her mom, or my grandmother (Nani), had her own basket. My Nani would take that basket to the Sezela Town Hall where they used to show double feature Indian movies and she would sell snacks such as battered fried fish and broad beans fried with mustard seeds and chillies and loads of rough salt (my mom still makes this for us and its delicious). My mom and my real uncles would go along to help and then use labels from the 50kg flour sacks to sneak in to the second feature film once the snacks were sold. The way my mom tells it, she never really liked helping my Nani with the basket and being the basket aunty’s daughter (although my Nani was known more by her own name, Dhom Aunty) and because of this my Nani told her that one day she will end up with a basket of her own. My mom promised that that would never happen!
But the idea of the basket must have stuck somehow. Because years later when things got tough at home (late in 1991 I think) my mom filled up a basket of her own and walked with it to the newly opened primary school about 2km away from home. She made only R2 (gross) that first day but that increased with each day after. The basket got heavier over time as more variety was added. In the summer that stretched through 9 months of the year in Durban, home made ice-blocks and popsicles of different sizes were added and in winter a bag filled with chips not too dissimilar to the 50kg flour sack was carried along. We would help after school in carrying all the bags and the basket itself back home. After school and weekend activities were first to help to pack the ice-blocks, chips and in season mango pickle and bhor. We would eat our fair share while packing as well. Even through high-school, we would walk past the primary school and fetch my mom on the way home.
In the second year of my university degree my mom was “promoted” to the tuckshop inside the school. By then she was already well known by most of the children in Earlsfield, having served 10 years as the Basket Aunty on the school steps. Official school policy was that the vendors were not meant to be allowed to serve the children. It was a rule that I was meant to enforce when I became prefect but never really did. And neither my brother or sister followed in their stints as prefects either. But my mom tried to stick to it by sitting on the last step of the stairs leading up to the school, just outside the school gate. There were several other vendors at the school that came and went. A different Aunty at the second gate on the other side of school and several other Aunties who came and went. My mom was a more permanent feature and became known as the Basket Aunty and we the Basket Aunty’s children. When she graduated to the tuckshop and was no longer carrying the basket she became the Sweet Aunty.
The basket days lasted from 1992 to about 2002 and the tuckshop days until 2016. In those 24 years I estimate that my mom served more than 20 000 kids as they came and went through the primary school. Don’t ask home many ice-blocks we tied, how many packets of chips we ate or “damaged” sweets were eagerly munched up. My mom still has a sweet tooth and has sweets and chocolates stashed all around the house. For her recent birthday my cousin volunteered to bake the cake. As far as I know, none of us told her what it should be so it was a pleasant surprise when we did see the cake shaped as a basket filled with sweets arrive. It took me straight back to primary school and I could see that my mom’s own memories also came flooding back. She was 31 when she started, but if you ask her it all started when she was 8. And now she’s just turned 58. 50 years on and the original basket aunty’s daughter grew up and became the Basket Aunty herself and her own children have grown old on the side of the basket. The basket may have skipped this generation but the spirit, I guess, is still there…