My Dadi never saw me off to school. It’s the one promise that she did not keep. She passed away at the age of 52. Some mistakenly believe that people used to live longer than they do now. At the time I was 4¾ years old, just a few months from starting the ‘Below’ class at Primary school. The year was 1951.
Dadi’s death was so sudden. Up till then she had been a healthy, sturdy little woman. Not only did she work full-time as a labourer in the sugar estate, but she also kept a dozen goats and many more chickens. With the Rs 9 she earned for a 6-day week and the monthly remittance from my uncle who was serving in the British army in the Middle East, she managed to look after herself and her youngest daughter. She lived quite comfortably in her own 2-bedroom wood-and-thatch house.
One day she returned from work and told my mum that she was not feeling too good — maybe the start of a flu, she said — and went to bed. She did not have much to eat that evening and, when she did not get up at her habitual time the next morning, mum thought better let her sleep. She was still in bed when my dad returned from work later that afternoon. He tried to wake her, but there was no response. Sensing something was wrong, he called for Mr Sahaye’s taxi and took her to Civil Hospital in Port-Louis. Unfortunately she passed away in the night. Looking back, my guess is that she had probably gone into a diabetic coma —words that most folks would not have heard of in those dark ages!
Over the last 70 years I have met with a number of tragedies. But Dadi’s passing away was by far the most tragic, partly because it was so sudden. For a 4¾-year old, it was all too confusing. I did not quite know what to make of it all, and imagined that she would come home any time from (the cemetery) where they had taken her. But after the third day pooja, mum explained to me that Dadi would never come back. Shocked I sobbed, “But how am I going to live now?” and I continued sobbing for many days.
We had been very close, the old woman and I. I used to sleep with her and, whenever cousins visited, I made sure that she would not allow any of them to usurp my place. Wherever she went, Dadi took me along with her. Every December, we used to travel to her three daughters’ place to invite them and their families for the New Year; and what merry times they were! Once a year we went to Pari-Talao for Maha Shivaratri and Pere-Laval during the September pilgrimage.
In those days, money was short. But we still made at least two trips annually to my aunties and visited countless relations at least once a year. Today almost everyone in the family owns car, but we consider it a great privilege whenever anyone pays us a visit. As for staying overnight, we can count these on the fingers of one hand. But then perhaps family ties today ain’t what they used to be. Sociology scholars are right to tell us that we live in an age of absolute egotism, rampant materialism and unabashed hedonism.
We are probably seeing the most selfish generation in humanity’s History. Unlike the all-embracing Hippy collective culture of the 1960s, we now have the egocentric (me, me and me!) philosophy of naked individualism. Hence we will wait in vain for the much wished-for renewal of our political classes, with young blood that is imbued with public service. I am afraid they no longer make the likes of Cure, Anquetil, Bissoondoyal, or SSR. Ministerial chairs and chauffeured cars, perks and prearranged public adulation, overseas travel and handsome per diems are the only things that interest them. Any public good is purely coincidental!
Everyone wants the lion’s share of all that is available. Any notion of social equality and equitable repartition is for the others: the plebs. Dishonesty and nepotism is rife; and any means is considered good enough to achieve the end. So, some will falsify their address to get admission to a star school like Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo in Sodnac. Later on they will step over their school-friend’s body, and climb on the shoulder of their powerful mum/dad/aunty/uncle to get to that plum job. Meritocracy is just a hollow slogan that is pronounced from the political podium to fool the undiscerning audience.
Good Old Days
But how different it was when we were growing up in the 1950s! In spite of their precarious existence people were always ready to help each other. Often it was the ubiquitous baitka, with its sizeable association of members, that played a crucial role in galvanizing this co-operation.
I still remember how the baitka once helped our neighbour — a labourer — to get his groceries for several weeks. Whilst out fishing one Sunday, he had found a large octopus which, unbeknown to him, had swallowed a stonefish. As he was handling the octopus, the stonefish bit his hand. If hospital treatment existed in those days, not many people knew of it. So he turned to a “professional” fisherman who treated the wound with herbs. Unfortunately his hand soon turned septic. Consequently he was unable to handle his chopper to cut the sugar cane. So in order to help the stricken family, Vidya the baitka dhawan (messenger) was tasked with collecting 50-cents from each member after they had received their pay from the sirdar on Saturday.
Nowadays, faced with any kind of need people may have, we hear them recite the same monotonous mantra at every turn: GBDM (Gouvernement Bizin Donne Moi!). No money, GBDM. Too lazy to work, GBDM. House flooded because all the natural drainage is blocked by the concrete perimeter wall we have erected, GBDM. Unable to provide a decent shelter for the basketful of children we conceived with different partners, GBDM. And so, ad infinitum…!
Fifty-five years ago, in March 1960, almost all the houses in our village were blown down by cyclone Carol. But I cannot for the life of me recall anyone ever saying these four dreaded and dreadful words. People just retrieved as much wood, thatch and corrugated iron sheets from the remains of their old homes and, with the help of friends and neighbours, built themselves a temporary shelter.
For the few who were lucky enough to afford it, concrete houses would follow rather sooner than later. But unable to afford the total outlay of around Rs 3000 in one go, the working classes applied to have a Longtill house built on their land at a cost of Rs 17.60 per month for a period of 25 years. That is a total repayment of Rs 5280! Landless people went to live in similar houses made available on GM land for a similar monthly payment. Certainly no GBDM then!
To help with funeral cost, baitka members had to contribute 25-cents for a child and 50-cents for an adult irrespective of need. Thus whether the bereaved was a millionaire or a poor labourer, he received the same amount from the association. On the day of Dadi’s funeral, Vidya gave whatever money he had collected to my dad. And she was buried in the Hindu section of the cemetery a couple of miles from our village.
At the age of 4¾, one accepts without question everything that adults do. It is only in hindsight that I realized how odd it was for a devout Hindu woman to be buried and not cremated as per tradition. But then that mattered less; I had lost my first life partner. And all that remained was the faded black-and-white-turning-sepia photograph and the vivid picture etched in my heart.