A tale of blood, sweat and tears
— Philip Li Ching Hum
It is a journey down memory lane. Beau Bois (St Pierre) a tiny village, nestled near the foot of Pieter Both, lying half-way to the north with Nouvelle Decouverte as the gateway with its luxuriant vegetation carpeting the region as background with the scenic and panoramic beauty of Creve Coeur and in front a bird’s eye view of Floreal and Curepipe, is a haven of peace and tranquility. This village has marked my early adolescence and left deep imprints upon my formation and development.
La Boutique Albert, as it was affectionately called, was indissociably linked with village life. It was the heart of all activities and everything revolved round it. When “la boutique sinois” sneezed, the whole village caught cold. During the Spring Festival, the villagers had to make provisions for several days in advance for it was the only time when the shop remained closed for long — it used to remain closed throughout the duration of the festivity.
During the whole year, the Chinese shopkeeper was at the helm to serve the customers. Day in, day out he was the last to go to sleep and the first to wake up at dawn to serve the customers. He became a counsellor, a mediator, a banker and a chemist. The esteem they held him in was beyond cultural or ethnic boundaries. His cultural assimilation has been spontaneous and natural. Though an immigrant coming from different climes, he has developed such a close relationship with the villagers that there was a close communion among them. He would participate willingly to the various Indian cultural activities of the village. He fielded for village council election and was elected. He served the region with devotion and dedication and won the admiration and respect of each and everyone in the locality.
During the inter-crop season, the villagers had to rely on La Boutique Albert for their subsistence while waiting for crop-season to settle their bulky accounts. It was all a question of trust – no legal papers to sign. Honesty was much to be valued in those days. Life was difficult, money was rare and wealth was measured in terms of cows or goats one possessed. Dire poverty stared them in the face. They led a meagre living. Some even wore clothes sewn with gunny sacks and they walked around bare-footed. They lived in thatched houses with hardly any furniture inside. Their houses were plastered with cow-dung. Running tap-water was a luxury undreamt of: the villagers had to walk almost a mile across winding and steep steps to carry buckets of water home for domestic use. This was a back-breaking and soul-searching household chore made worse during torrential rain when the soil was slippery and treacherous.
Many spent their time loitering under the verandah of the Chinese shop waiting for a Good Samaritan to treat them with bread and butter to satisfy their gnawing hunger. The Chinese shopkeeper became the life and soul of the village. In spite of his Chinese origin, he has started picking up rudimentary words of bhojpuri and over years, he had become fluent in that language. The only day of rejoicing in the village was the celebration of a wedding ceremony. On the eve, the day of gamat, many would emulate the singers of Hindi films. Solidarity manifested itself. The “la boutique sinois” would provide all the required commodities to make the wedding celebration a success. Invitation cards would only be issued after the consent of the Chinese shopkeeper was obtained because of the line of credit to be given to the new couple.
Village life was mournful and monotonous. The transport system was undeveloped. The only means of transport was bicycle. Ox-drawn carts were used to carry loads. The most yearned-for entertainment was a fishing expedition in a nearby river. Once in a blue moon, some villagers would hire a taxi to go to a film show at Luna Park or Cinéma des Familles to watch a film of Dev Anand or Dilip Kumar or Raj Kapoor. Those were the days when going for a film show was an immense pleasure
On pay-day, the shop assumed a different atmosphere. The customers would queue up early in the morning while waiting to take their provisions home and would settle their accounts of the past days and would take new ones on credit again. Each was given a ‘carnet la boutik’ to record their accounts.
The colon in his boots and khaki short uniform with his severe and stern look drove across the village in his Volkswagen and woe besides the villager who had not saluted him. Rumours ran afloat that the lascivious young colon yearned for beautiful svelte women in the sugar cane fields. Labourers were looked down with scorn and hatred. The shopkeeper on his part had to carry his loads of goods to his home on his bicycle. Many a time, he was assaulted and bitten by his ferocious dogs at the entrance gate. At the end of the year the shopkeeper had to provide him lavishly with luxury goods, otherwise he might face the closure up of his business. On Sunday mass, in the little chapel, seats on the first row had to be reserved for the colon and his family. Even in the church, there existed the Bible-and-whip policy.
All these humiliations and sufferings were meted out to the immigrants. Political awareness came only with the sermons of the Bissoondoyal brothers and the rise of the Labour government for the descendants of indentured labourers to obtain their dignity and recognition. The road to emancipation was long and winding. It was all a tale of blood, sweat and tears.
Philip Li Ching Hum