Where, we discovered with glee, the child continued to be the father of the man
By Dr Rajagopal Soondron
As children our program was to go on playing with our pals, to successfully cross our remaining milestones and to lay down all the psychological complexes which would l ultimately sharpen our observation and develop our social interactions to face the upheavals of adolescence. Had it not been for our parents’ interference we would have stuck to our buddies of the vicinity day and night. But the elders stepped in and looked askance at our lack of seriousness, and attempted to induce some form of discipline into our character.
But fancy when we children discovered, to our utter amazement, that there was a place where the adults – men only – would gather to indulge in similar childish practice; they would revert back to our standard – yet so much decried by them – by chit chatting, teasing, cracking jokes with their peers, and sometimes even becoming serious in the middle of their domino parties. They would even give it a respectable name. Welcome to the Beau Bassin Hindu Cadets club. Where, we discovered with glee, the child continued to be the father of the man.
It was perhaps in the late 1940s or so that the adults living at lower Beau Bassin at the crossroads of Louis Pasteur street and Dr Reid got together in a tin sheet building of 3 to 4 rooms to set up a club . Maybe their aim was to have a break from their routine drudgery of everyday – work, home, food and sleep. In those days only men could elect to form such extra-conjugal activity. And so in that building, the two-room club was set up nearest to the crossroads on the west, while the other rooms were occupied by an old couple and further east still was the tailor’s shop.
It was only at around my seventh year or so that I had chances to explore the inside of that men’s sanctum sanctorum. All furniture was of wood – stools, the rectangular table and a triangular cupboard in the corner. The walls were of square wooden poles and fluted tin sheets, which were hidden behind a semblance of tapestry made of old newspaper, and later still it was replaced by plywood plastered with flowered gift paper; it’s possible the floor was of pavement stone, to be covered later by concrete.
My luck was that I was the only boy at home; so whenever a visitor or businessman came to see my dad or uncle, mum would send me pronto to recall them back. I would gladly rush to the club, the only place they could be in. I was mesmerized as I stood there and watched them indulging in their favourite game of domino. They would be shuffling the pieces on the rectangular wooden table, with the left hand crossing vigorously to the right while the right hand going above or below the path of the latter — those two sort of twisting around in a tango dance; with amazement I looked on, as those wooden domino pieces made clicking sounds and went dancing on the smooth hardboard on the table top. The elders would finally pick their 6 pieces, and would carefully hide them from their opponents on both sides.
As the game started comments would be passed, some smiling as they looked at their hands, others trying to maintain a poker face, still others cursing softly about the train of bad luck on a certain day ; sometimes the strategy was to prompt the partner not to rely too much on them in this game . I looked on, wallowing into the world of grown up childishness and seriousness. I was enthralled if I saw my father or uncles winning, but totally down-hearted if they lost. Each player, I was to discover later, had their favourite partner; and as there were generally three generations of adults, we could expect each one to have a partner from the same generation.
My father’s favourite partner was Tonton Poonit; many a time I had seen the latter reproaching dad for a wrong move or calculation in the game — and I felt that dad had been working hard all week and so could be excused for his lack of concentration. Rarely did I see my father playing against his brothers or my maternal uncles, as if it was anathema to face the head of the family on common ground.
It gradually dawned upon me that those elders had a common opponent — “l’homme à abattre”. It was possible he was the only one at that time holding a fairly decent government job, and, in retrospect, I can perhaps assume that he had some sort of a superiority complex over most others who were of more modest standard. So the aim was to demolish that complex by trapping him in those calculating, mind-twisting games of domino.
Sometimes walking home with dad and his partner, I could hear them murmuring about the strategy to adopt next time they cross swords against “missie Garde”. And what to say of that batch of pigeons that rarely participated in the games, but would gladly sit near or hover around their chums for hours on end watching them playing. They were the diehard spectators, non-participators; they are present in all fields of life.
It must be said that in the 50s and 60s there were very few educated men in that club; there were labourers, the milk seller, shopkeeper, lorry drivers, and carpenters. Only later would the first batch of School Certificate holders start coming up in that vicinity; they were few, but gradually they joined the club. Still the latest generation – may be the third — was not happy that only domino be played in the club, so the dormant carom board was resuscitated and became a craze for the newcomers.
Dheen was one who shone as the champion in that game. Later on as more members joined, card playing like rummy gained popularity, sometimes superseding the good old domino game. However, that new generation wanted to have sports activities also, and perhaps because the orthodox elders resisted that move, the youngsters moved away to open another club across the road – devoted to football mostly and made the pride of the locality.
The other agenda
It was only when I became more mature that I appreciated that, besides its social function, the club had another raison d’être. In the 1936 the Labour Party was launched in Champ de Mars. So most probably the poor people in lower Beau Bassin had realized that there was a new dawn coming up for the labourers and their families. And trying to put some cohesion into a common front against the only opposition party, the Parti Mauricien supported by the sugar barons, it would be the only hope of gaining political leverage. That’s how I have seen a whole generation of the club standing together for decades to defend the ideals of the Labour Party.
What fun to see the coming of elections and political meetings, which would be held at the crossroads near the club. In those days there were no TV or other social media to keep people at home; and what better pastime after work than to gather round the shops at the crossroads to listen to neophyte politicians standing on soap boxes? For the club members it would be a balcony view, with running commentaries about the performances of the speakers and their ideas.
Few were the coloured flags or decorations in those days; the party had no real funds to devote to such superficial badinage, and the possible candidates to the coming election might be as poor as anyone. But gradually some monetary help would be coming as the general election drew near and more enthusiasm was seen in the delivery of the candidate. Kher Jagatsingh was the favourite of the club in the 60s, which boosted his popularity and whipped support from the people of the region; that’s how dad would later become one of his main agents.
So the club lived in that transition time of political changes and awareness; the members were loyal to the LP for decades. However, later there was also a hitch. As Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was also keen to develop some small scale industries, he allowed the dairy Purlait factory to be set up to provide work to people. However, the milk-seller member of the club was against that project. So for some years he moved out of the club and joined the Parti Mauricien, and even made a speech on the latter’s lorry – opposite the club! Years later he might have realized his false move and would ultimately come back to “la caze maman” and buddies.
* Published in print edition on 16 November 2018