That 1960 episode of our childhood would tell us a lot about crowd mentality; how in times of stress the human mind can become blind to reason — By Dr Rajagopal Soondron
The last week of Feb 1960 saw us children going through the most traumatic of experiences. The older generation had the souvenir of the 1945 cyclone which, we were told, had been a nasty one; but soon we youngsters were convinced that it was nothing compared to cyclone Carol of that February. The trauma was evident, for many people had lost their houses – thatched or wooden and tin sheet mansions. Thousands of refugees had flocked to the government primary schools, which were converted into refugee shelters.
The trauma was more pronounced because for the first time we would experience the eye of a severe cyclone passing over the island. We never expected that it would be so calm and windless, with the sun shining. So people came out on the streets to see what damage and desolation laid in front of them, inquiring about other neighbours’ fate or luck. The trees were almost naked, bearing some half leaves which were lucky to be still anchored to the few branches hanging around. All yards were littered and matted with leaves and mangoes or ‘longanes’. The streets were strewn with fallen trees, shrubs, wooden bars, rusted tin sheets or twisted bamboo hedges, along with odd pieces of wooden furniture and other paraphernalia from the surrounding compounds.
Unfortunately in those days we did not have wireless phones, and most of the telephone and electrical lines had been damaged; some of us had heard vaguely that a police van had gone by, warning that the cyclone was coming back. Lack of meteorological facilities meant we were stranded without proper information concerning the impending danger. So we had the bad luck for an encore, courtesy of Carol; the wind started to blow in the opposite direction and most of us were caught unawares. We had not paid heed, for how could a cyclone make a U-turn and batter us again? This was never heard of. In those days we were totally ignorant of the physical laws governing a cyclone.
So we children went through another bout of psychological stress, especially as my dad had been recruited to fetch bread for the refugees in his ‘camionnette’ at the industrial bakery in Coromandel. He got stuck over there for the whole night, much to the distress of my mum. Next morning we witnessed with incomprehension the desolation that the Almighty had sent us; the knife had been twisted in the wound. And so on the following days we cleared our muddy compound of branches and leaves and shifted all detritus onto the road, which became a big public dumping ground.
The trombe d’eau
It was against the backdrop of such calamity and uncertainty that, a day or two later, around midday, we heard some strange commotion on the road; we children rushed out to see some people hurrying about and shouting that the floods were coming. Two individuals on motorcycle, coming from Stanley, had spread the news that “Trompe d’o fine kasse… Trompe d’o fine kasse” — a water sprout had gone bust; it was like a ‘traînée de poudre’. So after days of mental fatigue and trauma from Cyclone Carol, the people mind’s was a fertile recipient to any threat, whether true or false. The rumour spread like wild fire. People in lower Beau Bassin ran amok, furthering the bad news about the impending flood.
My father, dressed in his usual khaki shirt and trousers, stood on the bridge over the 4×6 feet canal running in front of our house, with his hands clasped behind his back and a worried, perplexed look on his face. What to do, he might have been asking himself? News came that so and so had run away to the nearby Petit Malabar Hill at Chebel. Some neighbours were looking for ladders to go up their houses. We children looked around, all confused but agog. I stood on the bridge and looked up and down Pasteur Street; most people had run away and the street was getting deserted. My dad remained undecided still, may be weighing the pros and cons of going on top of the house or leaving for the hill.
Then around 2 to 3 pm I noticed a middle-aged man living some 100 metres away from our house, a labourer in the BB-RH municipality, always going about wearing a felt hat; he was drunk. Coming from the bar at Markoo’s, the Chinese shop round the corner, he trotted along with an unsteady gait, but very much aware of the commotion that had disturbed his well-being -because as he passed by our house to turn into his street he remarked in a blurred, stuttering speech: “What is all this nonsense about? If there were floods this ‘baké’ (bucket) – pointing to the big canal – would have been full by now.” He repeated his contention and moved on, perhaps to enjoy a well-deserved sleep. Peeping down the canal I noticed for the first time that there was almost no water in it; could that drunkard be right after all? Could his remark have influenced my dad’s decision, and prolonged his inactivity? Difficult for me to say – but our family stayed home and made no move while other families were busy moving.
The humidity laden air had become oppressive, more so after the sun had set; a thick fog would invade the land, houses and tree-tops – creating, for us children, an eerie atmosphere all around, specially as there were no electrical lights in the street or at home, save for a few petrol lamps. This wait-and-see strategy went on till late at night, and how did we finish that nightmarish day was a blur to me. I did hear the elders talking about other people who had left home and property to seek refuge elsewhere; how so and so had climbed on their house, how our educated neighbour east of us had brought his old mother and Nani on top of his tin sheet house. But we did nothing of the sort. Dad’s intuition turned out to be the most just and reasonable, and our drunkard neighbour had perhaps opened his mind to reason and tipped his decision to his advantage.
Decades later one of my friends would tell me how his own family had lived through that rough time; he knew many of his uncles had sought refuge on the Petit Malabar Hill. His Dadi, the old plumpish, sympathetic grandmother I had known since my childhood, was also compelled to follow the family exodus. However I was told that Dadi refused to budge if her cow did not accompany her. So finally the granny had her way… and her cow went along!
That was how some miscreants and irresponsible youngsters had played on our emotions in those days of utter disarray and confusion.
Decades later, in 1994, we would witness a similar bout of mob reaction in the episode of “Touni Minuit” after Cyclone Hollanda had hit the island. A certain malefic, invisible human phenomenon would manifest itself at night around the streets and houses in a certain ward of Port Louis. It seemed to have haunted many people, especially during prolonged electrical blackout around midnight.
That 1960 episode of our childhood would tell us a lot about crowd mentality; how in times of stress, of unusual social disturbances and uncertainties the human mind can become blind to reason and logic. There would be some collective hysteria, eliciting herd behaviour. Do only susceptible individuals fall prey to that behaviour or do all of us react in concert when we form a crowd? Difficult to know. Such reaction may take different forms: it could be passive or active, the latter presenting itself as aggressive, acquisitive, expressive or escapist.
In the wake of that “trombe d’eau” hoax, running to the hill or going on top of the house was the escapist mode.
* Published in print edition on 26 January 2018