In a light vein
Those were the days, my friend, as goes the song. Simple life, but full of charms. Soft indulgence, but no harm meant to anybody. The wings of fancy which carried us through early life and adolescence are worth recounting, if only for the sheer pleasure of bringing back beautiful memories which transcend the bounds of logic and rationality.
As kids, we would go to school in Khaki shorts and white short-sleeved shirts properly starched by Moms, in their desire to present us – and their kids – at the best. Young boys would of course stain them with all sorts of things during their “busy schedule” both at work and play. Girls playing hopscotch (la marelle) would hop about but without spoiling their dresses as much as the boys would do theirs. We led a carefree life, interrupted only on occasion by the austere visits of “the inspector” from the Department, about which our teachers would have reminded us already to answer questions smartly and to keep fingers, toes, school uniforms neat and clean, including well-combed hair and nails that had to be trimmed up.
It was truly a stress-free life. No tuition, except if some teacher decided to help out during the daily breaks a kid or two who were falling behind the others in class, without remuneration of any sort. For boys, the real fun was when classes were over. They would line up in rows along the mostly free-of-traffic roads with all colours of marbles bought from the Chinese shops in the vicinity. Every place used to have several of these shops, and the shopkeeper was one of the characters that peopled our lives. There were big and small marbles.
You have to “pay” two of the smaller marbles if you don’t have a big one when, with all the skills he could muster between his thumb and index fingers, one of the kids in this street competition on the way home, successfully shot at and hit with his marble yours from a distance. If he missed the target and landed close to yours, it was your turn to make him “pay” up marbles from out of his pocket store. Some of the marbles were considered “superior” to the others. The one being called “collalline” was multi-coloured and distinct in this from the rest. It will be given away in settlement only when the rest were exhausted. Winners would show off their bulging pockets full of marbles others had lost to them. For the losers, “tomorrow” was the occasion to reverse yesterday’s losses. No harm intended, only a carry-forward of the play to the next day.
But there were also the tougher games. One of these, called ‘casse côte’ (rib breaker, literally) consisted of one boy throwing a hard tennis ball to another standing at some distance. The latter’s role consisted of grabbing it quickly in the air and hitting the thrower with it. If he missed him, it would be his turn to throw the ball and run away as fast as he could to avoid being struck. Tougher, but nobody’s rib ever got broken. As for the girls, they had dolls and something else called ‘joujoux menage’ (housekeeping toys). They were happy in their own way, chatting away with the others how to use one implement or other in their kits. The boys had no idea what it was all about anyway. They had bigger fish to fry and a lot more excitement.
Someone once told me that those growing years were the best time of our life and that we would not again experience the simplicity and sincerity of them, once we got into the work environment later on where, as the poet would say, “so many cares abound”. True.
So many of these earnest small little things we used to do, disappeared gradually from our routine as we descended into adolescence. New games came our way, more complex and competitive but not really as rewarding in emotions as did those plays of early childhood. Of these, the one that seized our generation’s imagination was football or soccer as some would call it.
Pelé – the greatest ever
It was in the 1960s. Many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America had come out or were coming out of hundreds of years of colonization. It was a moment of liberation fraught with uncertainty about the future. While other countries were born through conquest or defeat, offshoots of previous empires or broken-up parts of a bigger whole that had once dominated important swathes of civilization, countries like Mauritius – former colonies – were born out of hundreds of years of pain and suffering. It is in this phase of transition that the ‘the greatest footballer of all time’, Pelé appeared on the world stage. He looked like an integral part of this liberation process that had been sweeping across the world for at least a decade when he appeared on the firmament of world sports. It was a confirmation, as it were, that talent did not reside solely in those who had been our masters for so long.
Pelé came on the football stage around 1958. He assumed this name which obscured his father’s given name Edison Nascimento (after Thomas Edison, the famed American inventor of the electric light-bulb). This outstanding footballer appeared on my mental screen in the 1960s, during the days of adolescence and the exuberance that accompanies us during this magic phase of our lives.
All at once, this black Brazilian international star of medium-build and a cherubic smile always, flashed with the greatest glory on the firmament of global fame. Here was talent personified. His mesmerizing feats on football grounds in world cups and international tournaments not only won applause from admirers like us. Adversaries from other football teams admired no less his outstanding skills. He demonstrated to the likes of us that there was also potential to excel in the downcast peoples of the former colonies. Because that is what Pelé was doing all over the world of play. He easily outshined the greatest names of world football which, for the most part, belonged to Europe so far.
Pelé was hope personified, known for his sheer fairness, class and want of brutality in all games he played and triumphed in with the finesse of the greatest artist and performer in full view of the entire world. He stood for the hope that we could also release our hidden talents and blaze a trail as brilliant as his in the field of our endeavour. Many young people here in Mauritius and in so many countries besides saw in him a role model well worth emulating if we wanted to hold our destinies firmly in our own hands. Beauty of a supreme architect with grace, no less.
Pelé’s achievements from one football match to the other had the effect of bonding people together, including so many young men and women in Mauritius, who marvelled at his exceptional feats on the playfield and the energy of crowds it elicited in a mood of pure admiration. It was not only sheer delight to see him do his magic tricks on the field. It was as much a source of joy to hear about his adventures recounted time and oft by friends, while walking the streets of Port Louis or, for that matter, in any other place. He occupied an unrivalled place in our hearts, a fountainhead of an unending stream of talent. He was showing to us all, as it were, that nothing is impossible.
The glorious days of our domestic football
Those were the glorious days of our domestic football with teams like Fire Brigade, Police, Faucons, Dodos, Hindu Cadets, Muslim Scouts, Racing Club, Tamil Cadets… There was also the Mauritius team that played many a game against international teams. With trepidation in our hearts, we watched the late and regretted Jean-Claude Sauzier or Nano guarding our goal post at the Georges V stadium against renowned global strikers. Others like Roland Pierrus and Vish Carpenen were our own Pelés in the making. Everyone wanted his favourite team to win, which is normal. But that was without reckoning with sectional excesses which finally had the better of gaming, drowning with it a glorious phase of our common evolution and, along with it, the spirit of fair combativeness and excellence.
England had just won the World Cup in 1966. A group of us used to gather around lunch almost every midday in the sitting anteroom of Tabagie Goolam along Sir William Newton Street in Port Louis. Pelé’s feats and those of other football stars were one of the favourite themes of our daily conversations. It was a motley crowd from different professional occupations in that Tabagie whose owner allowed us to bring in our own food packets provided we partook of other things, such as Cokes, he sold over there. There were people from banks like me, journalists like Roland Tsang Kwai Kew but most of the group worked for the legal practices in the vicinity of the Supreme Court. Bhai Gorah, who worked in one of the legal chambers, was often the chief animator of those sessions for having personally attended some of the football matches he described with cinematic accuracy, dribbles, feints, improvisations and all. His descriptions were so vivid that it appeared he was actually watching the game being played out. Sheer delight!
This dream looked like falling apart early November when news came out that Pelé at 70 had been admitted to the intensive care unit of some hospital. He was thankfully discharged after three days. However, even if he were to exit the stage someday, it will not have been a life in vain. I had noticed that even when Sir Bobby Moore, England’s 1966 World Cup winning captain, was showering praise on him for his magic footwork, his “quick and powerful shots, perfect balance and impossible vision”, Pelé wore the same child-like smile of modesty, content only that a new barrier was broken with each one of his feats in the game.
Such a cherubic smile saw I on the faces of many a scientist in the Control Room of the European Space Agency on the night of last November 12th when they successfully landed on a speeding comet for the first time a man-made craft, Philae, after its voyage of more than ten years in space. It seems we can beat up the biggest of obstacles in life, if we can afford to take sincere pleasure in whatever, howsoever complicated, we undertake in life’s unending adventures.
* Published in print edition on 23 January 2015