On the east side of Duperre street, there once lived a lucky young prince sometime in the past
Of all the children of my boyhood days, I was perhaps the luckiest. I had had the chance of having lived on both sides of Duperre Street at Beau Bassin. Some 500 metres long, it branched off Dr Reid Street to end at its northern side in a cul de sac; which cul de sac nowadays goes into “Cité Chebel”. Of course, we could not say that it was superbly tarred or surfaced, for in those days, when motor vehicles were rare, it was used mostly by bullock carts and pedestrians.
Our house, some 25 metres inside a compound, was almost midway along that road and parallel to it, while the proprietor’s lay in between and perpendicular to ours. Looking back, I could surmise that Lady Luck seemed to have favoured me most: besides my eldest sister and mother there were the proprietor, “Tantine Marazine”, her oldish mother and four daughters. So you could guess how that youngest, single male child was surrounded by a horde of the fair sex.
Most probably my father went to work early and was back home late at night, so I saw very little of him; there is a vague recollection of a middle aged bachelor, Tonton Vishnu, a tall, thin, fair looking gentleman who, I discovered later, might have been the cream of kindness itself. But the feeling was that I was the most loved and pampered member of that compound. The inkling that the girls had jostled each other to get the chance to humour, to tease me or my childish blabbering still lingers on; which suspicion was confirmed by those oblique vocal nuances and female tit bits gathered from hushed voice – many years later.
Tantine Marazine was a “modiste”— always dressed in a white saree — stitching odd pieces of blouses and skirts for the womenfolk of the vicinity. I would see her often at her manual “Singer” stitching machine. Sometimes my mother also would make use of her expertise, and the price for her service would run into less than a rupee.
Between the two thatched houses of the compound, a bit further towards the north would be a magnificent “longane tree” under which would be the sole water tap in the yard, from which all the people of the place would have their daily water supply. Fortunately I was too young to have my share of the household chore, so my only memory of that tap was limited to my hygiene. It may be that children of modern times still depend on their parents for their daily ablution. But in those days, as I remember quite well, at dusk I would be under that tree, below that tap with one foot on a rectangular block of stone, splashing the cool water on the limb.
I would be there, perhaps prompted by the kind mater, to have my daily wash. Was there any soap? I don’t remember. But the memory of that “coto mayye” in ones hand, scrubbing my feet and hands is still green in my mind. After all children of those days went bare-footed, ran around in the dusty courtyard, and were never white as snow. So one had to get rid of all the dust and soil that had clung to one’s body. Probably the daily contacts with God’s good earth at that early age had contributed to our long-lasting immunity – if we are to believe recent medical research.
That unforgettable garden
How could one throw one’s mind back to those tender years at Duperre street without recalling that wonderful garden stretching behind our house? As a child one had the impression that the horizon was in some other far fairy world. Still, on that far side was a solitary house, where I had never ventured. And there was always a solitary man toiling, tilling and labouring that vast, endless land east of home. One good dawn when I looked beyond I would notice thousands of sprouting green heads above land level; and many days later there were white spots peppering those greens. Did the gardener ever water his plants? Difficult to remember. I would forget about all these wonderful magic happenings until he would do something extraordinary: uprooting all his plants.
The mystery would be cleared in the evening, when all the girls in the compound would run to the bonfire Mr Sicharam would have lighted to get rid of his old, darkish, shriveled plants. And the real fun, as I was led to the centre of activity, would be when the girls would frantically search the ground to fish out some small potatoes that the planter had left behind. They would bury the tuber in the ashes of the bonfire, and after some time would retrieve them to share some of their hot, roasted booty with me.
I would stand, stare and enjoy that manna from the wilderness, and love the warmth radiating from that fire in the cool twilight, and watch with amazement as it would spit out wonderful sparks of flame all flying skywards. Meanwhile the girls would throw pieces of sticks into the flame, and soon we would hear the crackling sound as the wood got consumed by the fire. Rounding up that scene was that ephemeral, mysterious, swirling smoke rising from that warm bonfire in that corner of the garden, and the mirth and giggle of those friends who were always close by to hold me gently by my shoulders.
And the magic of it all, that would last a lifetime, would be that timid, westerly fading twilight bathing that huge garden, plunged into a typical earthen smell of freshly turned darkish topsoil, while that unforgettable cool breeze kept blowing gently on the land from the mysterious east beyond, caressing and impregnating the sensitive skin and mind of a three-year old child with all sorts of wonderful memories.
And what to say of those swallows which would invite themselves to the party; they would be chirping, hopping and hovering on the freshly upturned soil, competing for some small, fragile flies, moths or slithering worms in the ground, while flying and battling in that cool unforgettable dusk, as it gradually settled as a grey mantle on the land.
It was, for a child, the greatest wonder.
Years later, I would visit “Tantine Marazine” and her family on many occasions; the eldest two daughters would had married and moved home, never to be seen again. I would stand under her verandah, with my hands hanging in my short’s pockets, and look eastwards with nostalgia. Our house had been pulled down; the garden was still there – and so also the ever faithful Mr Sicharam. My eyes would search for that vast potato field, that bonfire and its mysterious smoke, those swarms of swallows. I would try to relive that magic of that easterly breeze, of that wonderful dusk with its slanting, filtered sun rays bathing the garden, and those girlish, childish giggles of yesteryears. They were no more. Only the memory lives on.
Then I knew that on the east side of Duperre street, there once lived a lucky young prince sometime in the past.
* Published in print edition on 11 August 2017