By Dr Rajagopal Soondron
Our parents and genes would determine our life, but surely all these people we have met since childhood would contribute, in one way or another, to our life story – structuring and stimulating our psyche in a given direction
Changing houses three times in my childhood, I was exposed to a panoply of events and people. And being the blue-eyed boy of my maternal aunties, hence a regular visitor to their house, their neighbours inevitably became part of my story.
At Dupere Street
Our earliest neighbours – Tantine Marazine and her four daughters teased, spoilt and pampered me – the only small boy around – as I roamed the land. My elder sister, of the same age group as the girls, prompted a lot of complicity between the two families. That’s where I consciously got my earliest experience with other people.
Can I forget Jacques, our neighbour opposite our house across the road further north, and very much my senior, who concocted a pushcart out of a wooden box; it had two wooden handles and – wonder of wonders — was fitted with four wheels. And how overjoyed I was when Jacques helped me to mount into his Rolls Royce for my first chauffeur-driven drive, and went pushing me around on the road… all to my greatest thrill. What a wonderful, life lasting experience it was – and always eliciting my gratitude to Jacques, even decades afterwards when I met him at the shop.
Later we moved house across the street and went some 200 metres further west, where we came to know the three or four families, thereby introducing me to the concept of an expanded joint family, where the presence of the Joosery boys and girls of my age strengthened and developed my relationships further. The matriarch Dadi, always caring and enquiring about us children, would call me by my name or Beta. Another form of friendship blossomed there in that large compound.
At Dr Reid Street
And how not to mention my grandparents’ neighbours; in their yard were my grandma’s sister and her children – with me being the only boy again!. On their left was the father of a Christian family working as cook in a private mansion somewhere; opposite across the road were our Hindu friends – Tamil- and Hindi-speaking. One can hear my grandma complaining not only of her own precarious fate but of others’ bad luck and poverty; how so and so had no work, how the other had become an odd-job man, or doing only part-time jobs.
My aunties introduced me to the Boodoo family across the road, whom we visited regularly at dusk. All poor neighbours were driven to fraternize a lot. How could one forget the Boodhoo boys; during the week-ends, in the dust of the sunny compound, grand marble tournaments would were played by the boys of the vicinity. I joined in and realized how the Boodoos were far too superior to us, and as I accompanied them to their thatched-roof house they would show me their many metallic boxes full of colourful marbles lying below their bed. They were opaque, overused, had chipped surfaces, and stunned me with admiration. Later in the mid-50s, those wonderful transparent ones, with 3D geometrical queer colourful designs at the centre would come on the market, making our eyes pop with amazement. Football matches in the dusty brown compound of some neighbour were regular features; the boys came barefooted, or fitted with some old deformed gaping shoes – unearthed from some open dustbin and sealed in front with newspaper or old cloth. The ball was socks stuffed with paper that were stolen from dad’s drawer, and later gave way to an old, used tennis ball.
The Boodoos were also good at making kites of all shapes and sizes, which they flew before dusk in the open space in the nearby canefields – specially after harvest time – with the setting sun reflecting on the blue sea on the western coast. I remember so well those ‘roidezer’ or ‘Patang’ made with a bamboo skeleton and coloured muslin paper.
At Pasteur Avenue
By the mid-50s we had already settled in our third house – now the property of dad. Our decades- old neighbours became very chummy, so much so that after the devastating cyclone Carol many of them, including our Chinese neighbour, found shelter for days or weeks in our house. For a family wedding, you could vouch that all would get invited – and that no one would be cooking dinner for one night or two, while surplus food would be shared with all on the following day.
We had seen those adults going to work on their bullock cart at 5.30 am and returning so late at dusk; those others who had pushed their cycles loaded with bread, vegetables, milk or haberdashery going from house to house, and the inevitable barbers, shoemakers or tailors at the corner shop. While the aunty a few houses away made a living by rearing a cow and milking it so that the young son could distribute the milk to other neighbours before going to school.
And how could we children forget our ‘elastic’, marbles, ‘lamarelle’ and ‘capsile’ sessions with friends opposite our house? By that time ‘soulier lapin’ had made its appearance, making us bolder to play our football matches without fear of injury in the dusty and rocky yard. Our white shoes soon turned brown; they were washed and dried on Sunday afternoons with the hope of whitening them with ‘blanco’ on Monday morning before classes.
What to say of those neighbours at the marketplace, the breadseller Goolam, the ‘tea-maker’ Bala, or the tomato-seller Prasad. All were my elders, always kind to me – and I was taught by grandma to respect them, and they themselves would be respectful towards her.
Soon the classmate sitting near us became our only guide through our difficult years at school – it was the time of exchanging homework, laughter and jokes.
Then we were at university where hostel life threw us into a different world of freedom, of friends and carefree living far away from home surroundings.
One cannot forget that senior neighbour of mine, known as a ‘chronic’ – who failed exams repeatedly – but we respected him. One exam time after sitting for hours with the textbooks, one would walk lazily onto the verandah. And there was Natarajan recounting the gruelling time he had had at the hands of examiners at the orals test – how he was questioned about lymphatic drainage of the groin organ. One smiled internally and mockingly at his tour de force to utter an answer, knowing quite well he had been at it –unsuccessfully — for so many years. What was not our surprise to realize that the oral question asked to us next day had a bearing on what we had heard from Natarajan! What luck: the examiner promised each of us extra marks if we knew the answer – but no penalization if we did not!! I thanked my stars for watching and listening to senior neighbour Natarajan.
Back home as young professionals we were already wearing blinkers, always expecting medico-legal consequences to be a Damocles sword on our head, and losing our childhood’s mirth and curiosity. Each neighbour had walled themselves off in their houses. A hello now and then was as far we were ready to go.
Recently sitting at the dinner table at the wedding reception of one of my neighbours’ daughter, – I met some totally new faces as my fellow diners; later I bade farewell with embarrassment, for they were our neighbours at the back of our house, whom I had never seen and met since 28 years !!!
Yes, our parents and genes would determine our life, but surely all these people we have met since childhood would contribute, in one way or another, to our life story – structuring and stimulating our psyche in a given direction. Let’s be grateful to them.
* Published in print edition on 20 September 2019