For those of a certain age, like myself, the passage to a new year is the time when we are wont to reminisce.Although the ‘division’ of time is a convenience that allows us to function within some pattern of order and discipline, and we know that in absolute terms there is no such thing as seconds, minutes, days, years and so on – yet, the demarcations do act as reference points for conducting the routine of life. We are aware that something is passing and we expect, rather hope, that what will be coming will be better.
The end of year is also a period of slowing down on the daily mad rush, although the festive atmosphere tends to keep many of us overly busy with shopping and preparations to celebrate, when we suspend judgement about realities and abandon ourselves in some temporary day-dreaming. But we do need, too, this short-lived relief, and if we have managed ourselves well, then we may be ready to start afresh without too much of apprehension.
When we are young, the new year is a real new beginning, especially for those of school-going age, as it means joining a new class, getting new teachers, having a new set of books and the associated educational paraphernalia. But the older one gets, especially as the family has grown and matured into independence, there is more of a sense of continuity when we take a long-term perspective. This same vantage point tends to make us look back, and there are triggers that induce this process. It is quite natural to recall pleasant memories about things past, perhaps in part as a comfort in the face of the many contemporary ills that seem to be without end.
Thus, one Sunday morning as I stopped by the newspaper kiosk at Chasteauneuf Street in Curepipe, I noticed a lady standing by its side, and she was selling poutous. Immediately my mind went back to my childhood days when the marchand poutou used to come round regularly down our lane and in the locality. He would carry his container on his head, and keep shouting poutou chaud, chaud chaud poutou! We children would then rush out, stop him, and someone would quickly go inside and ask for money from the parents, and we would then buy the hot poutous, and start eating right away. No need to say that there were little fights sometimes to get a bigger share! Similarly for di lait caille and fenousse, although these were a little rarer.
I picked up two packets of poutous, each containing five pieces at three rupees apiece. And they were hot too, and we skipped on bread that morning as we shared them for breakfast, with the dog also partaking of the fare! One thing led to another, and as such matters go, I happened to mention this incident to an older friend of mine in the evening. Ah, he exclaimed, I will tell you where you get the best poutous in these parts: it’s at bazaar Belle Rose, there’s a lady who makes it on the spot, and it is steaming hot; very tasty too, just the right dose of sweetness!
Another friend who was around and who had studied in Chennai (then Madras) recalled how he tried to eat idlis that were served for breakfast in the hostel with sugar! This attempt at ‘poutouing’ – if I may be allowed this neologism! – failed miserably, no need to say. Brought up on the standard dipain-dibeurre of the Mauritian breakfast of those days (though I do not think it has changed much), he struggled to adapt to the idli-sambar combination that was served for breakfast daily, and was never really able to despite being Tamil. Anybody heard about something called Mauritianism?
I give a staunch advance warning to any medical expert who will dare come forth and tell me that poutou is no good for health because it is made of white rice and sugar. Crap. Everything is potentially harmful – just try drinking five litres of water in one day. No jokes, because there is such a thing as a water-intoxication syndrome. Just to be done with this digression, and barring poisons, it is the dose of a given substance that affects our health for good or bad. Anything in excess can have a negative effect on our health, a lesson we ought to retain at this time in particular, when we do tend to indulge ourselves on the flimsiest pretext.
As a country we are highly dependent for our living on imports, and I understand that nearly 80% of our food comes from overseas. We have been witness recently to all the types of contamination that food is exposed to, not to mention spoilt fish/meat that happen to either transit or be put up for sale often, to add insult to injury, under very poor hygienic conditions. Fortunately we have a very active surveillance system that acts in the interest of consumers and protects the Mauritian public from dangers associated with damaged and inappropriate foodstuffs. But this does not absolve us from individual responsibility, and we have to be very careful about what we buy and consume.
This said, this is no call to revert en masse to the days of manioc-patate, but there certainly is a case for greater use of local produce in all its varieties in our diet, and in this way move towards not only a lesser dependence on imported stuff, but a conscious substitution of the latter for the sake of our own health. Whatever is imported is bound to contain additives and preservatives, all of them chemicals which, whatever be the assurance, can never be guaranteed as being 100% safe for the human body. So why take an unnecessary risk?
Being given the financial and economic difficulties that will inevitably follow in coming years as a consequence of recurrent economic/financial crises, at national level it should be a matter of policy to encourage through the proper incentives production of local foodstuff. Because the population has grown, the folkloric marchands cannot perhaps supply the volumes that are required, but definitely they have more than just this symbolic or memory value in these difficult times, and somehow schemes must be worked out for them also to play an accrued and more visible role in our economy and alimentary habits.
Parents should take the lead in inculcating in their children respect such valiant hard-workers deserve. What is better for your child, I will ask every parent, especially the younger ones: a poutou, a slice of arouille – or a packet of salted twisties?
In the same vein, it is still possible in Mauritius for most families to have a kitchen garden, never mind the size. One can grow some herbs and salad if nothing else, and I have read about growing vegetables in old car tyres and on the roof. So with a little bit of imagination there are many possibilities, and they ought to be exploited.
By the same token, although I acknowledge that there is such a thing as a consumption-driven economy, because we have seen with our own eyes what was happening in the richest country in the world – the USA – in the wake of its financial meltdown some years back, we ought also to exert caution when we go on our buying rounds. Prudence should be the order of the day. We must also think of the year ahead, and start to put something away for the rainy day besides the other expenses that the start of the new year invariably entails.
Alexander the Great it was, I think, who requested that when he dies, he would like his upper limbs to show outside his coffin with the hands turned upwards, for everybody to see that they were empty: although he was a great conqueror, he would be leaving the world with empty hands. None of the objects which are our proud possessions while we are alive go with us when we take our exit from this world. So let us keep things simple, and be content with whatever is possible within our means, without the need to take debts and show off. A good way to continue on life’s journey…
* Published in print edition on 22 January 2016