A piece of our folklore has gone into extinction for ever – just like our good old dodo. Never deride the ‘carnet la boutique’!
To say that there were only drunkards under the verandahs of Chinese shops would be to distort the facts; there were also serious, hardworking ‘marchand gato’ plying their trade at their daily rendez-vous there. Near the southern crossroads from our house was Papa Amoy’s shop which would shelter ‘Bonne femme’ Kamaya on the western corner of the verandah. We enjoyed visiting her, specially during winter when some warmth from her charcoal stove would kindle our cold feet while we waited for her ‘marinade’, ‘gateau piments’, or ‘baja’ to come out of her ‘caraille’.
“The children have left, never to pay tribute to these age-old buildings which were once the pride of the vicinity and the breadwinner of their family. A few lonely elders could be seen in some shops, managing as best as they could, but soon they would realize that it was time to call it a day. Century-old traditions have died out, as a page in Mauritian history faded away — much to the chagrin of the senior citizens. And that’s how the new generation would be wondering what that ‘carnet la boutique’ was all about, not realizing that their parents depended on it to ensure their day-to-day living…”
Opposite to her at the other shop of Papa Ah Sen would be tonton Jaglall who fared his trade mostly on weekends; his ‘gato zoiyon, ‘gato bringelle’ and ‘pomme de terre’ were our favourites. Moving 200 metres north from our house to Zorro’s shop, was the unforgettable ‘Bolomme Gato piment’, a polio afflicted middle aged man, always wearing a ‘palto ecrue’, a dhoti and a light linen turban on his head; the nickname became him well, for he had specialized in ‘gato piment’ only. In the afternoon he would amble from his not-far-away place on crutches, and start cooking the circular cakes with a hole in the centre in his blackish ‘caraille’.
When they were pale brownish yellow he would fish them out from the boiling oil and impale them through the hole on a metallic rod which he would lay horizontally on his ‘caraille’, to allow the oil to dribble out. So that was how all the people in the vicinity came to love his crunchy, hot ‘gato piment’; they were light and tasty, bearing some ‘la kay zoillon’ and a few roasted dried reddish chilly pieces.
It was pure dal all the way, unlike the ball-like, hole-less modern version concocted with pieces of bread, watercress and minimum dal. His was the place where we children meticulously planned many a fake rendez-vous with our elder relatives, to extract some cakes at their expense; our maternal grandmother bore the brunt of that greed: she would undo the tip of her ‘downy’ to get the five cent coin to appease our make-believe hunger. Selling at 2 for 5 cents those ‘gato piment’ would fetch the seller hardly one rupee profit per day.
Now we realize that these cake sellers were in symbiosis with the Chinese shopkeepers – they attracted customers to the shops; and while shopping, the latter would expose themselves to the titillating aroma of freshly baked cakes that permeated into the shop’s interior, compelling them to talk to the shopkeeper half-heartedly, with one eye on the verandah, while the mouth kept salivating.
Those were the memorable people and days of our childhood; and as senior citizens we realize that they have contributed to build our memory, our wonder, our inner world of magic that we still live with.
Looking back we realize that those Chinese shops have had a lot of influence on us. The proprietors were kind and had to humour their clients to the maximum, lest they lose the clientele who were after all kings in their shops, always attentive to the first comer and always serving one client at a time. They had to, otherwise the latter would not hesitate to walk out to some other nearby shop to bargain for cheaper. The shopkeeper never deviated from that principle lest he got confused and lose money and client. His wife and the children would join him to manage the shop from 7 am to 7 pm, except on Sundays when they would close down at noon as prescribed by law; some would keep a window open for ventilation, which would in fact be another window of opportunities to do side business after legal working hours. We realized that they were hardworking people.
Our elders would be murmuring how such and such shopkeepers were nice people, or how the mistress of that shop was kinder or meaner than the man or vice-versa. So when we went shopping we chose to whom to address ourselves first. Of course, if the couple were most jovial and accommodating to their clients, they were sure to do more business.
Then we would make friends with the Chinese children, as we went to primary and secondary school together. Ah Sen was one year junior, while Luc from ‘La boutique Maurice’ became a very close and life-long friend after 7 years as classmate at secondary school. We would always walk the Colonel Maingard street every day to and from college. Opposite Ah Sen’s shop was that of Papa Amoy who managed his shop with his sons Markoo, Ah Ling, Pepe, Garçon and Paley and daughters. I became chummier with the latter two boys.
So on weekends or summer vacations we would run away to the wasteland, west of the dead end of Colonel Maingard street, to the small forest and went shooting at the birds or trapping the homing Bengali on some glue as they flew back to their nests at dusk time. We would have prepared the glue from the natural seeds of ‘Pied La Colle’, mixed with brown sugar (which was cheaper in those days) and paint them on some low-lying branches to trap those poor volatiles. One day all this fun ended abruptly. All three of us had spotted a ‘Condé’ bird on the mango tree in a neighbour’s compound, some 8 feet above our head. We went shooting at it several times with our sling shots; we could not have missed it, yet the poor injured bird refused to fall or to fly away. That was the death knoll to my enthusiasm and adventure; that ‘condé’ had struck a sensitive chord, and I was never to go hunting again – up to this day.
Paley’s mother, a short, stocky, plump roundish, moon-faced lady was a kind woman, looking after a large family. As we grew older we discovered that she reared pigs in her compound at the back of her shop. It was her custom to go round the vicinity with two rectangular 20-litre tin containers hooked to each end of a large bamboo blade perched on her shoulders; she would be collecting cooked rice water that some of our mothers would generally throw away into a special recipient kept in each compound. Mum participated in that benevolent deed. I would remember that middle-aged Chinese lady well, because I was tickled by the way she would call her two young sons as we three ran away from home to play truant at dusk. She would be looking for them and we could hear the faraway voice, carried by the easterly breeze, calling out in her typical Chinese intonation: “Paley hooyyye, Garcon heiyye”.
And the death blow
Then decades after independence came a new trend: the hire purchase shops spearheaded by Mammouth. Combined with economic boom, both businessmen and corporates capitalized on this economic eldorado. Supermarkets with wide aisles between their shelves, lighted with hundreds of luminescent tubes, stuffed with almost all sorts of goods attracted the rustic clientele, ready to pay cash only — with a smile. Gradually the small shops at the crossroads lost their raison d’être and started to close down. And as the Chinese youngsters became professionals, and even looked for greener pastures, there were less of them to man the family shops, some of which are now completely neglected and in a sorry state.
The children have left, never to pay tribute to these age-old buildings which were once the pride of the vicinity and the breadwinner of their family. A few lonely elders could be seen in some shops, managing as best as they could, but soon they would realize that it was time to call it a day. Century-old traditions have died out, as a page in Mauritian history faded away — much to the chagrin of the senior citizens. And that’s how the new generation would be wondering what that ‘carnet la boutique’ was all about, not realizing that their parents depended on it to ensure their day-to-day living, courtesy those kind shopkeepers; it epitomized the trust between the Chinese elders and their clients. A piece of our folklore has gone into extinction for ever – just like our good old dodo. Never deride the ‘carnet la boutique’!
* Published in print edition on 6 April 2018