Reminiscences for a New Year

‘Banané’ was memorable; it lasted more than 48 hours, sometimes a week even. The 2nd of January was no less special — By Dr Rajagopal Soondron

In the 1950s, buoyed up by Xmas good fortune and reverie we children negotiated the last week of December almost on a magic carpet. Whereas Xmas was more about a virtual, phantasmagoric chubby figure, New Year day was all about parents, relatives, neighbours and us children, and the promise of hard cash gift.

In that week we gladly continued with the varnishing of our room doors, shining their glass panes with alcohol and the brass knobs with ‘bluebell’ solution. The ladies and girls, stitching new plastic curtains, rushed here and there measuring the length and width of each; at the last minute we would thread some strings to tie them up. That typical new plastic smell, epitomizing New Year’s arrival, was unforgettable. Plastic sheets bearing beautiful fruit and vegetable motifs were spread out on the dining and kitchen tables. Unknowingly, our elders inculcated the concept that New Year was a special guest. With elated mood we were impatient to rush head on to meet that royal visitor, or did it fly straight at us?

Ready for the 1st January

Our belief was that the 1st of Jan should catch us at our best and bless us with health and intelligence for the coming 12 months. In the morning we would rush to wish our mother and aunties Happy New Year; father’s and uncles’ turn would come later – after work; all would bestow their blessings on us. For the second time in the year we children would don new clothes, the first having been for the preceding Deepavali. New Year also meant tasty non-vegetarian meals for a few days. They would be served with wonderful tender words and motherly love.

Did we wake up at midnight to light our string of fire crackers? No. Maybe we caught that tradition from our Chinese friends who used to exploit it to the utmost for the Spring Festival. But on the 1st morning some of us would buy some firecrackers at the shop nearby and had fun exploding them one by one; we even covered it with an empty tin can to see the latter being propelled a few inches in the air.

It was the duty of the younger one to go round and wish the elders of the family. And as my paternal grandmother was the eldest, all younger relatives in the vicinity would flock home to wish her, and by extension we children would bow to the tradition to kiss them also. Later in the day we would accompany our parents to pay back the politeness — wishing everyone plenty of good health and good fortune. And the elders would automatically utter “paraiment” — the meaning of which was, for a long time, an enigma to me. What tasty Merven lemonade we were served, and we children capitalized on the occasion to have several servings. At dusk we started to count the 5 and 10 cent coins the relatives had kindly slipped into our hands. Rarely was it a 25 cent coin. Oh, we never missed our immediate neighbours – they were glad to welcome us, to know that we were ‘bien élevé’. Here again we hoped to load our pockets further. Late Lunch or dinner would consist mainly of beetroot salads with eggs, boiled potatoes, macaroni and bread or rice and meat curry.

“Banané” was memorable; it lasted more than 48 hours, sometimes a week even. The 2nd of January was no less special – it was the day when some relatives coming from far would visit us; a few might stay for a few days. The explanation garnered was that in the olden days many poverty stricken labourer ancestors got separated as they were sent to different sugar states to work. New Year was the occasion to reunite and to honour the visiting younger brothers and sisters, to celebrate and renew family intimacy.

Later we would discover that some relatives or families would be fasting during this festive period, so as to participate in the fire-walking ceremony on the 1st or 2nd January.

Was that ceremony sanctioned by the Hindu religious calendar — for New Year? Was it a coincidence? Could it be a long Mauritian tradition? That end of the year festivities of the Gregorian calendar, celebrated by the Christians bosses of the sugar estates, would also be the end of harvest time, and the occasion for everyone to take some two weeks’ vacation. Perhaps the sugarcane workers capitalized upon this dead season to celebrate some religious functions.

In some Hindu families there was a combination of religiosity and animal sacrifice. In those days some were animist – the belief that all living beings have a soul; sacrificing that soul to the various saints and deities was meant to propitiate good luck and health for the family. And what better time to do all that than at the beginning of a New Year. So the 1st of January was a time to kill many birds with one stone: pray to God and perpetuate the ancestors’ tradition, welcome long lost close relatives and brothers, spend two to three nights together, make merry and enjoy one’s vacation, have some good food once in a year, and most importantly forget temporarily the hard life of the cane fields. In those days it was “rum blanc” all along for the men. The son-in-laws made the best of the occasion, giving their wives the opportunity to meet their parents who, in turn, had the possibility to humour them all. And we children had found ourselves in the midst of all that fun.

That’s how my cousin Saga was always at home for New Year. How we had got up stealthily at night, fetched a knife and slit a watermelon out of ‘hundreds’ that dad had parked under the bed after his harvest at Poste La Fayette. We went in a nook behind the bed to have our feast. And what to say of that heavy rainy day when we fabricated paper boats and competed in the vast pool of muddy water in the garage — what noisy fun; when dad woke up he gave us some juicy ones with the ‘rotin bazar’ for having disturbed his slumber. In 1964 we ‘borrowed’ uncle’s cycle and went on a grand tour from Beau Bassin, via Chebel and Petite Rivière, Pointe aux sables, GRNW, up Coromandel and Chapman Hill. But half way through the return journey I took the bus home; all this unknown to the elders! What vacation for us boys!

And to Mahebourg

True to that family tradition my paternal grandmother would, on the 2nd of January, leave Beau Basin to go to Mahebourg to visit her brother-in-law – the last of a family of 9; we were always part of that long trip. How we cherished that grandfather, thin and short, with a small moustache and graying hair, who at that time was working on the railway gate Vieux Grand Port. We loved his place; the train would run parallel to his house and compound near the harbour. We were thrilled by his ‘gramophone’, listening to old Indian songs. In the morning he would bring us along to buy hot ‘pain maison’. And what memorable solid cylindrical water tanks, perched 10 feet high – the ladies would wash their clothes lower down in a well barricaded concrete place, courtesy the railway’s quarters. And there were traditional New Year cinema outings too. In Mahebourg, we went to watch “Tere Ghar Ke Samne” in 1965 at the Mahe theatre – when the temperature was hovering over 30+ outside; we enjoyed the Nutan-Devanand family, melodramatic, romantic tryst; what unforgettable lyrics and songs, and what memorable stay with our grandfather.

Days later we would be back home; our Xmas tree would still be there, faltering, turning yellow, with the balloons almost deflated. We would cast cursory, sad looks at it; its fresh pin fragrance had long disappeared. With dejection we would dismantle that icon of happy times to throw it away in the bin. Soon dad would buy new books; a typical smell emanating from their new pages was enough to send us reeling with regrets and to remind us that Xmas, New Year day and vacation were well over.

It was time to turn a new leaf.


*  Published in print edition on 29 December 2017

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