Locked up and still free…

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

« Beaches are not attracting crowds even during the week-ends. Lockdown gave a respite to beaches from being trampled upon by thousands of feet every week-end and they recovered their former lovely pristine sandy stretches of the 80s. The sand became whiter, saplings freely sprouted here and there, and the lagoon water became crystal clear, offering a landscape which we thought belonged to the past…”


Not only supermarkets, banks and restaurants as well offer what by now is a familiar scene of emptiness and scarce presence of customers, beaches are not attracting crowds even during the week-ends. Lockdown gave a respite to beaches from being trampled upon by thousands of feet every week-end and they recovered their former lovely pristine sandy stretches of the 80s.

The sand became whiter, saplings freely sprouted here and there, and the lagoon water became crystal clear, offering a landscape which we thought belonged to the past. Saplings have been removed but the beaches are still white and fresh, enjoying a breathing space with the gentle ebb and flow of mild waves. Luckily for the lagoons, people here keep away from wading into cold water during winter time.

No crowd rushed to relax and spend the day at the seaside since the end of lockdown. A few families scattered along the beach of Mont Choisy, and some more on Sundays. A sober atmosphere of folks taking time out, a far sight from the usual noisy Sunday crowd and music busters. Thinning bank accounts and unemployment are taking a toll which is likely to stay for a longer period. Simply, low-income brackets and low middle-class folks have no means to afford petrol for cars and extra food outside homes. Food stalls are closed; coconut and fruit vendors have disappeared.

A millionaire couple sitting on a bench, watching the sunset sounds realistic enough in the present circumstances. If two hotels are closed, they are kept afloat by cross-subsidies from other businesses. ‘I am dreaming of flying away to all the places that are dear to my heart,’ says the wife. She is a foreigner who is married to a Mauritian businessman. Sure, she is not the only one who is looking forward to taking up traveling to different continents. Her daughter has come back from France just before the 1st October and is in quarantine somewhere. She keeps looking at her phone in case she calls, no fun being locked up there. She set up several businesses and worked hard to make them thrive. She is one of the top, if not the first, successful businesswomen in the country.

The husband is a man of few words and has not been in good health for some time. He attends meetings in boards of directors at several places, and has a competent staff to manage his businesses.

In casual encounters, sometimes in town and mostly at the beach, conversations quickly drift to travels, the joy of visiting countries and having a good time abroad, and where the kids are living abroad and how they are coping. Fortunately, there are conversations which centre on the good things in life and avoid toxic topics.

Hailing from a rich merchant class of Indian origin, his family and cousins have prospered in various sectors throughout the 20th century till today, are broad-minded and hold a modern outlook on everything. Polemics, heated debates and sectarian animosities are not his cup of tea. He leisurely brushes them aside with a shrug. ‘There’s a lot of people who claim to defend such and such lofty ideals,’ he says, ‘yet, they are the most intolerant people. They cannot accept that someone holds different views and defends a cause and expresses them freely.’ Above all, he has a strong aversion to religious fanaticism and ethnic divides. ‘The island itself looks like a prison. Well, no choice now, better takes things easy,’ the wife observes, smilingly.

As we stroll along the beach, sunset casts its last rays on the horizon and the birds noisily bid good-bye to one another, hopping from one branch to another up there in the filao trees.

A woman from Reunion who is a resident in Mauritius talks about her quarantine experience at the bus stop. ‘It was awful, I don’t want to sound a racist, but…’ Self-censorship in its most stupid version, conditioned by taboos and political correctness. Seeing things through the lens of race and what not, or it may be an impulsive propensity to view social interaction in binary terms, which she takes along in her luggage.

What are the terrible conditions of quarantine? Three meals a day, no outside space to walk on and no one to talk to. The very definition of quarantine, what more do you expect? Up to you to bring along music and books, and be grateful that it is being financed from public funds.

And now, the island bets on its Covid-free brand in its marketing strategy. It sounds reasonable though you may complain about gilded prisons for exorbitant prices, which makes J.M. Leclezio’s ‘La Quarantaine’ look like a holiday resort where inmates could still walk around Flat Island.

What does the near future look like? It is the topic of conversation at the small eatery in China Town. The son takes a break and smokes a cigarette on the threshold while talking to a passer-by who drops in for a chat. ‘Hotels want to re-open’, he repeatedly says, ‘The lobby is putting pressure’ – he delivers it as breaking news. His mother remains behind the counter.

‘Well, it’s better that way. Otherwise, we are going to pay taxes for those who don’t work,’ replies the passer-by, a Chinese man in his 60s. The street is empty; a few youngsters are busy making decorations with all sorts of stuff for a coming festival in a workshop nearby.

They look cool and happy with what they are doing. Things might get tougher in the coming months. They exude the confidence of youth, aware that whatever be the circumstances, a long life lies ahead and happier years will come. The world is their oyster.


* Published in print edition on 9 October 2020

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