As a broad generalization, our maternal relatives may have proved to be more loving and interesting than those on the paternal side
As a broad generalization, our maternal relatives may have proved to be more loving and interesting than those on the paternal side. After all, the children of a daughter or of a sister must be pampered and humoured, while the paternal relatives would perhaps feel that these grandchildren are those of the daughter-in- law, a foreigner, hence the rigid, formal attitude of the paternal family.
Almost every weekend we would flock to the maternal grandparents’ place for Saturday dinner and sleep or a Sunday lunch or tea. As tots we would be given a warm bath in a small tin bathtub in the open air, under the “fruit de cythère” tree; sometimes we did look skywards and wondered about that leafless tree, loaded with bunches of unripe green egg-shaped fruits. At dusk the aunty, after having fed us with unforgettable hot rice and fried egg, would carry us in her arms when sleep and darkness started to crawl in, through that cool evening trip back home. Those aunties’ generosity and kindness had been the hallmark of our childhood.
Amaye – The Grandmother
The crease-riddled face grandmother would always be pitying the more unfortunates, and complaining about the bad luck of the poor of this world; she was a thin lady with sad moist eyes and always complaining about her painful pylorus. We rarely heard her scolding or reproaching us for anything save in the mildest tone, though it must be said that whenever we went to her place she would comment about the coming of the ‘démon’ – in reference to my arrival. Oh! I was a hyperactive boy, running about the large compound, climbing trees and teasing the girls. It should have given the old relative heebie-jeebies to keep track of the turbulent boy, who capitalized on the luck of escaping temporarily from the strict paternal discipline to land at the grandmother’s abode of tolerance and give free rein to his emotions and pent out excess physical energy. Who could resist enjoying that ancestor’s place: almost a half acre of land spotted with a few thatched houses and plenty of trees, where other close maternal relatives resided and were ready to welcome us with open arms…
Bought by the great grandparents in the1930s the land became an experimental station for the agriculture-minded ancestors; all sorts of fruit trees were planted to cater to the future generation’s taste. There were the inevitable mango and longan trees; and what of that wonderful mulberry tree which stood behind the kitchen, loaded with black juicy fruits. In the far corner were the banana trees of least interest to us children. How could we forget the tall tamarind tree where some elder children had concocted and hung a swing, to our delight. There were also “masson”, “bibassse” trees or the “bilimbi” – one of more interest to the girls than the boy. What to say of the “vavang” tree, always pushed to the hedge at the periphery of the compound. And what a wonderful date tree stood in the middle of the land, more beautiful because it leaned at 45 degree, with such a rough trunk and all inviting to be climbed. Climb and jump we did, down on the ground below… all to the horror of the old Amaye, who was always expecting the worst, like a broken limb.
The vertical coconut trees were of no interest, and so too the starfruit tree. As to the sugar apple and custard apple trees, they were our favourite ones, though the multiple seeds in the sugar apple were not to the taste of all. And, according to mum, there was once even a cashew nut tree in their compound! What to say of that big, fleshy, bitter sweet fruits of the “coronsol” tree, never to my liking; it is still around in the leafy hibiscus hedge by the road to remind us of all the relatives who have gone by.
In addition both uncles and aunts were very keen to keep hens, “li cou tou ni”, fluffy, with curled feathers, or “poules mozambique” which would roam the compound with many colourful cocks around. We children were amazed when we saw a hen marching lazily by with dozen of puny chickens in her wake – where did they come from? And those cute red-eyed little rabbits which were caged in some wooden pen below the mango tree, fed with “la liane ylang ylang”, “l’herbe panier” or “lastron”. There were dogs also, some very gentle but others ferocious; famous among them were “Darling”, who was no darling at all.
My sisters would gang up together with other cousins residing in the vicinity to play “lamarel”, “lastike” or “saute la corde”. Being the only boy (and prince) of the company I was always the odd one out, fit to look from afar, or free to run about and climb the date tree.
Soon I was tall enough to take an intense interest in one of the wonders of invention – the bicycle. Of my two uncles, the more severe one, who always stood alone in the Chinese shop to drink a Malta Guinness and lived to be 90, went to work on cycle. On Sundays the Old Raleigh was always there for the taking when he was busy playing domino in the nearby club. For some 70 years that cycle served all boys faithfully; I had the whole compound at my disposal and taught myself to master the equilibrium trick that cycling demanded. I learned to pedal “karre” under the horizontal bar, holding it with the right hand, while the left grabbed and directed the handlebar shakily. I used my bare left foot to furrow the ground for a stop, while bending forcefully backwards with fear, before discovering that the left hand itself had to manipulate the brake lever simultaneously.
The thrill and experience of moving in a straight line without falling, and playing gravity a turn for some metres was always an extraordinary and exciting feat. Years later the other uncle, the jolly good fellow, the one who told us so many funny stories on his bed at night, who loved dogs and rabbits and went fishing on weekends with his friends, would buy a new Humber. How I waited for school holidays to run to the grandmother’s place, to borrow (without asking) that lighter Humber and ride in the streets of lower Beau Bassin. The wonder of wonders was that cycle had a shiny silvery metallic head lamp with a dynamo for generating electricity. I was proud of my uncle’s choice. Yet my heart had always been for the old Raleigh, as it had initiated me into the riding trick.
The Memorable Massage
Our maternal family was always present promptly by our side for our least health problem. As none of the aunts or uncles were married at that time we, the nieces and nephew, became the apple of their eyes, always all sympathy for any mishaps that might have befallen us children. They sided with me when father was too severe and had taken sanction for my unruly behaviour. I could always count on their support.
However, the most memorable moment was when we children were ill. Aunties and grandmother were sure to flock home at dusk to inquire about our health. I would remember lying in the ‘godon’ on a ‘collegien’ bed, with a pale 20 watts bulb in the centre of the ceiling, always looking bizarre and very unfriendly, out of focus and queer as the fever went high. And Amaye would quietly enter the room and call out my name, and, in a silent, thin, tremulous sad voice inquired about my health with a dose of compassionate pity. The old relative would sit near me on the bed; the smell of the ‘Thermogene’ balm would permeate the room, and the magic would start. She would, with her thin frail hands start to massage my limbs and back for about an hour or so. The moment I felt that she would give up I would point to my aching tummy, and she would oblige; I could feel the loving touch, the hands rubbing gently the skin. I stayed there enjoying the closeness and the wonderful massage. I wished I had flu every week. It was the unforgettable moment of my boyhood sickness days.
I had had the luck of having such wonderful relatives; the memory of their faces still lingers on, as also their thatched house, their dogs, hens and fruit trees, decades after they are no more.
- Published in print edition on 1 November 2017