No Bed of Roses

By my ninth year or so my dad had other plans for me; he had seen in me a godsend apprentice, to be tamed, trained and taught the hard way of life that he himself had had during his own childhood

Having been a regular jolly goer to the market since childhood, I lived under the impression that those happy excursions would persist. But by my ninth year or so my dad had other plans for me; he had seen in me a godsend apprentice, to be tamed, trained and taught the hard way of life that he himself had had during his own childhood. He belonged to the ‘le temps margoze’, of ‘la misère noire’, when children had struggled to get two square meals. His experience in the field had prompted him to leave no stone unturned to train his boy the hard way – so that the kid could know that life was not a bed of roses.

The Apprentice

Hence at the age of 10, I became a regular weekend apprentice at the market place, where the grandmother would rule her world. My job on Saturdays was earmarked: to stand on a wooden platform at the south end of the family stalls near the huge solid metallic column, behind a heap of watercress on the stall, and be a watercress seller. Far from the timid boy the wish to raise his voice, to praise and promote the quality of the vegetable under his responsibility. His mind was most of the time regretting those football matches with his cronies at home, which he kept yearning for.

There I saw many poor men and women coming to do the best with their little means. So it was not rare that I had done favours to some old ladies. If a packet of water cress was being sold for 10 cents, with no rebate at peak hours, I would look around to see where my granny was, and as a poor buyer would have accosted me with a plea “Mo pitiiii donnnne… 2 pour 15 sous” — I would oblige. That was how it dawned upon me, and perhaps on my elders, that I would never make a good businessman.

My farther, always sensitive to other people’s poverty, did cede to the call of some families who had accosted him to offer work to their progenies. Dad had always understood their difficulties – so he obliged; there had been Jairaz, a school friend of mine, Idriss and Yerbin — some buddies from our home vicinity; there were Bala, a relative of ours, then Vispa who had been a very sincere worker for years. But that had not prevented some other boys to betray our trust: my father had given grandma about 900 rupees to keep with her, in the ‘tente Vacoas’ below the stall; but at the end of the day that sum had disappeared. 900 Rs in the late 50s was a fortune, all of which caused my dad to lose his calm.

The Clientele

However, my morose days at Rose Hill had not prevented me from noticing all sorts of regular visitors roaming through the market, going round and round looking for a few cents bargain and a cheaper buy. People in those days were poor and not well dressed, wearing used, torn, ragged clothes; rarely did I notice a smile on their face; what a contrast to the crowd going to our supermarkets today.

Of course, on Saturday, the market day, it would be a little different, specially as the “coloured” people of Rose Hill would be better dressed. A few of them came in their own English car – what luxury; no parking space problem in those days. And many of them came by taxi.

One couple had impressed me – a nice cute looking, fair, thin lady in European attire and a mini skirt with high heels; always well powdered and in her make-up with deep blood red lipstick, with curly short hair; she would carry her large, flat purse, walked in front of her tall six-footer husband. In fact the latter, with a sharp long nose, would always carry the roundish reed vegetable basket. She did all the talking and bargaining, choosing and shopping her vegetables while the husband was always serious and quiet, following his lady docilely; rarely had I seen him talking. Every Saturday I would be treated to the same scenario – and they were always faithful to the same sellers. It would be many years later that I would come to realize that the husband was magistrate R.

And then there was now and then a Chinese, bespectacled man, who would come to the market on his cycle. He wore Khaki shorts and a white shirt, with a long pair of white socks with his shoes. Later I would recognize him as the proprietor of a famous football pool house in Rose Hill. Sometimes he would be accompanied by a boy in a white outfit; that I would take to be his son. To the east of us would be tonton Sayvo; he was a family friend, very close to us children, always in his shorts in spite of his advanced age in those years. He would later supplement and innovate his business by selling some Chinese stuff like “taekon” and “la queue l’ail”. He had the style to hold his vegetables with his elbow high up, caressing them, shaking them gently to chase the water away before placing it himself in the client’s bag or basket – and which pleased the latter. Generally he would be selling all his watercress before ours were over; and as a good gesture towards the grandmother he would come to our stall and rearrange the packets of watercress on our stall – as if to put a ‘bon la main’ in the vegetables, to speed their sale.

The Tortoise

What to say of that separate market from the vegetable block – it lay east of the latter. There they would be selling fish and all sorts of meat – goat or lamb. But forming the extreme east boundary of the market place was a section that was a no man’s land to me, where I would learn later that beef and pork would be sold. I would accompany my granny east when she had decided to buy fish or goat’s meat from Bye Isoop; he would give us preference – and take his most lean piece of meat, spreading it on his left forearm and hand – while telling my old woman how she had kept it specially for us!

It was at the entrance to that eastern block that I once came along a very sad, inexplicable thing – I saw a live tortoise of about two feet by two lying on its shell, its four legs upwards; nearby would be a heap of yellow eggs. It was only later that I would be told that that was how they kept it until the final kill, but most probably to prevent it from sliding out of the slaughter place!! I have even heard some of the people there saying that even after being killed, its red meat would be shivering and looking alive!

As the years went by I would go to high school, and the pressure of that weekend trip to the market subsided, as my father realized that serious work was also to be done at school. Yet on many occasions when I came back from tuition from Belle Rose I would stop at Rose Hill — I would still make a trip to see the old grandmother at work .To titillate my own masochistic self? No, in fact I would come, watch the old lady, and as she would be looking the other way I would plunge my hand in her wooden “caisse” and ‘borrow’ a 50 cent coin; soon I would bid her goodbye and cross the road and land at one of the “tabagies” near Veeramundar bar – I would buy one of those delicious kitkat chocolate bars that children of those days relish. May be it was my way of having my revenge on that system and market that had had such an influence on my childhood.

Decades later, I do go there again; all the old-school sellers have disappeared save for my friend Manan; he is still to be seen faithful to his job: peeling and carving furrows in his pineapples – as he did some 60 years ago; most of the fruit stalls have come under his control, so he has now recruited his sons and grandsons to help him.

And, for me, the essence of my dad’s hard lesson was not lost – that there were always thorns beneath the bed of roses.

* Published in print edition on 7 September 2018

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