In our childhood children had so few outings that even going to the market was an occasion to celebrate
In our childhood children had so few outings that even going to the market was an occasion to celebrate. On Friday or Saturday night, mum would iron my clothes and my elder sister’s with a ‘caro tailleur’ and keep them on a chair in our dining room. At 5.30 the following morning, after our ‘toilette’, we would don our outfits to follow our paternal grandmother. Dressed in her usual sari, and carrying a small vacoas sac, containing her khaki ‘bourse sac’ full of coins, she would set out from home, to negotiate the whole of Colonel Maingard street and finally cross the Royal road for the first bus coming from Port Louis. To keep pace with her we kept running behind the old mater.
And to Rose Hill
As the old vehicle throttled along in a purring, vibrating noise and bumping on the pock-marked road to Rose Hill (RH), we shivered in the early cool air of the morning. I have a feeling the RH bus stop was opposite the present Bata shop. We would run again after granny as we crossed the Royal Road, pass near the place that would later become the “Arab Town” and entered the RH market through the northern gate.
Sometimes most of the sellers had not turned up yet, so all the vegetables on their stalls would be still covered with jute sacs. We had not come to buy vegetables; we were the sellers. Our stall would be the only vegetable one found on the fruit row; behind us would be the bread-seller with his case full of ‘du pain maison’ and further west of the latter were the tea-sellers.
We were proud to be at the elders’ working place. Soon we would accompany grandma to the only tap at the back of the market on the east side. Water had to be collected for cleaning and watering the vegetables to be exposed on the stalls. We children would learn how to stack the ‘cotomili, carripoulle, la menthe’ in perfect rows and order after granny had tied them in small packets; how the heavier ‘rave, bête rave and baton mouroum’ would be placed further away on the table on the south end of our stall, where would be another place reserved for the fragile watercress packets and lettuce ‘millonette’. But to say that we were very active and ‘debrouillard’ would be an exaggeration – we were just shy kids who interfered more with the work of the elders, though we were happy to juggle with the coins in the ‘la caisse’.
Our presence would attract some of the workers of the vicinity who would drop by to wish the old woman good day and to throw some nice, satirical comments on our clothes and thinness. Tonton Parsad, a friend of Dad, would be kind to us and would be busy all day behind his stall selling tomatoes. Soon we would be exposed to the talent of the sellers as they went about promoting their goods in a certain raucous, high-pitched trailing voice, inviting the horde of buyers towards the preferential prices of their vegetables.
But I was most often interested in Tonton Bala, the tea-seller who the whole day long would be boiling huge aluminum containers of milk with thick pale yellowish cream floating on top; it was the same cream that mum used to scoop off and store to make cow’s ghee at home. And here we were provided a good serve of the same whenever we were given tea with milk. I always looked forward to that treat. Sometime I would stand from far and observe tonton Bala cooling his clients’ hot tea as he decanted the hot stuff from one cup in his right hand on to the far away big tin in his left; you would think that he was selling tea ‘by metres’. Further north would be another one tea- seller, Ton Rashid, and further still would be the ‘gateau piment, brinjelle, zoiyon, samousa’ stalls – where fresh cakes were fried all day long. That’s where we would buy our ‘gateau piment’ which we would stuff into hot bread for tiffin.
On the eastern corner of the market would be the unforgettable Tonton Nadesh; so much so his stall came to be known as Nadesh Masala, and the other sellers of ‘poisson snoek and poisson sale blanc’ were south of him; their place was different for it was closed, with a ceiling and shutters. At Nadesh Masala you could also get some ‘saman’ for Hindu’s religious ceremonies; and just opposite him we could buy fresh water from tender coconut. And nearby were a colourful glass siphon apparatus owned by tonton Mootoosamy; later I would appreciate that he dispensed various syrups of different colours; I have a feeling I had never tasted his lemonade.
Saturday was market day – the time when most people are off work and the sellers would import their lot of vegetables to capitalize on the occasion and cater to the clientele. In those days pesticide use was scarce, so the vegetables appeared fresher and would be standing the passage of time better, they could be kept for a few days. Tomatoes would be bought wholesale in ‘caisses’, and some apprentices would be employed to sort them into different grades in a bamboo basket, and to wash them if necessary at the only tap of the market.
The sellers would use their hands to throw water on the vegetables to give them a semblance of freshness; only years later would plastic spray be used for the job. The string used at that time to bind fine herbs and ‘bredes’ together was the natural string made from ‘voune’, unlike nowadays where ‘synthetic raffia’ is used. Just as all buyers were using ‘Vacoas sachels, ‘tente’ or sacks for their purchase; all of which could be bought in the far south east corner of the market – sacks of all sizes and shapes, which would make the joy of many schoolchildren. And again these days they have been replaced by synthetic material or plastic stuff.
Oh, my sister and myself had a reason to come to the market. During the day we were treated to some rare event; suddenly our granny would call us, asking us to hurry and see the train “locomotive’ passing some 20 feet away from the western gate of the market. We would rush and stand on the sill of the gate and stare at the huge massive metallic locomotive as it came from Quatre Bornes going towards the Rose Hill station; we looked at the wagons as they streamed by: were they passenger or good wagons? It was difficult to say; we watched and stared at the thick smoke escaping from the chimney of the locomotive. For us children it was the climax of the day. Sometimes we would repeat that excursion two or three times a day.
That was just part of the Saturday fun; for sometimes we would leave the market and cross the railway tracks, led by an elder person, and land in the railway quarters opposite. For here lived my dad’s cousin, whose husband worked in the railways; he would be the ‘gardien la porte’ near the market. His job was to lower or raise the barrier at the cross roads as the train approached or distanced itself. Being the youngest we were treated royally by the aunty; we were pampered by the elder daughters of the family. And they were good at cooking ‘dal puri’ also – we relished it with ‘satini cotomili’; what memorable Saturdays we had.
Now, some six decades later, and maybe next year we’ll visit that market again, walk to the western gate and stand at its sill waiting for that train to pass by. Oh, it will not come – but its modern version will appear, the Metro Express. Will we have the same thrill we had as children? I doubt. But perhaps we’ll travel down memory lane and think with a certain nostalgia of all those people, close ones and aunty, friends, workers, tea-sellers who are no more, but who had impressed our psychology, influenced our tender years and contributed so much to our cognitive life, in some way or other.
* Published in print edition on 3 August 2018