There were many unknown men of such grit who had contributed to the nation-building process. But to us children, our first love was always that watercress
In the 1960s, the men working for my dad were most sincere, loyal and hardworking people; they were adopted as part of the family, hence we children always addressed them respectfully as “tonton”. My old man could rely on them; my uncle Vavel, tonton Soorooj, tonton Ramkel from Bassin, always with his khaki coloured colonial cap, and then tonton Sew – all stayed in father’s employment for two to three decades. Some would be cutting and tying the bundles of watercress, while the others would be packing them into a ‘ballot’. The last to join the group was tonton Soorooj, loyal and sincere like the others, and living some 700 metres away from our place in Beau Bassin; he would on many occasions come at 5 a.m. to wake up my old man so as to go to work! Come Sundays, Tonton Dayanand our neighbour across the road and of the same political colour as dad, would happily wake up early to accompany his buddy to Cressonville in the lorry. What better than politics to consolidate friendship!
How could I refer to Cressonville without mentioning that day when a deer got stuck in the deep watery end of the marsh? I was told how tonton Soorooj waddled through the marsh and swam towards the poor animal. In those days of near poverty – when a man was earning Rs 35 to 40 weekly – it was manna from wilderness. The animal was killed there and then and immediately taken to dad’s lorry and the whole party sped back home, less they were caught poaching by the Medine sugar Estate watchman. This turn of luck was not an isolated incident. Years later still, on a cool morning, as the workers were going to Tamarin watercress marsh, a deer crossed the road and got knocked down by the lorry. And the men did a quick job to load the dying animal on the truck. The day’s work was forgotten on the spot, and the lorry did a u-turn for home. That day venison was shared with and even sold to some neighbours.
It should have been an open day at the litchi orchard near Beaux Songes, on a Sunday in December 1963, when dad took some of us children, mother and aunty to visit his site of work. Of course all the trees were loaded with red, ripe juicy fruits. As we walked by the baobab tree, to visit dad’s watercress marsh, we saw a couple coming in the opposite direction. The man was gladly dangling a good bundle of watercress in his hand. I looked at my father, expecting him to protest. But that day I learned a lesson from the old man; he kept quiet and walked his way, murmuring that there was no need to pick a fight for so little.
Then came that memorable school vacation of August ’64. My bosom friends, Vijay and Gian, and I joined hands to help our fathers; one of the problems with a watercress marsh was that it could along the years accumulate silt, thereby impeding the smooth flow of water in the plantation. So we boys had to carve out huge blocks of mud from the basement with a knife, and discard them away – quite a tough, back-breaking job for us adolescents. As the 15th of August was looming ahead, my motivation to help was far from being altruistic; dad would go for a 24-hour picnic at the seaside with his club buddies – to celebrate the Independence Day of India. I had to cajole him so as to get a chance to join the party, and the plan did pay off.
On 13th January 1966 our home was plunged into a silent, sad atmosphere. My sisters whispered to me that dad was mortified and had wept. He was sleeping in the small room, called ‘godon’, behind closed doors. Later I could see his reddened eyes, and learned how his old, confident middleman had shifted responsibility to his son, to whom dad had been paying Rs 500 monthly to be remitted to the Medine Sugar Estate administrators. But all along the young man had been appropriating the money for himself and led everyone down the garden path. So finally the administrators had acted and declared the watercress marsh a no-man’s land. It was the collapse of a whole life of hard work. The pride of Cressonville was lost forever, both to my father and myself.
After that tragedy he leased a piece of land in Richelieu, had it cleared by a JCB machine, and flooded it with water, hence starting his own business. Later I would learn how that venture turned sour – yet again. A dishonest proprietor had capitalized on the occasion to cut off the water supply; and what marsh could survive without water? Dad would have pursued the matter legally, but the Brunel Court at Beau Bassin had caught fire and all related files were destroyed. So my old man decided to let go, with the proprietor inheriting all the marsh for his own use! Dad did not give up; he adopted other marshes in Le Val, Bassin, and Tamarin to acquire the vegetable, though he would never again feel as the man of the situation as he did in Cressonville.
Decades later I would gather from Vijay – who had always accompanied his father Soorooj and mine in their work — how the latter would have had heated but friendly political discussions with a certain Mr Jugnauth (father of SAJ) who was in charge of the Bassin marsh. It was the ’70s; the MMM had just come on the scene to challenge SSR. So I could visualize my father, that diehard “Labourite”, trying to convince Mr Jugnauth about his well-founded political tenets, while the latter was all out for the new political party’s manifesto.
The other side of the story
Did watercress bring only monetary gain to dad? No. He had on many Sundays brought me to the Lois Lagesse centre for the Blind in Beau Bassin; he would give for free some packets of his precious vegetable to the kitchen of that institution, to cater for the meal of the inmates. It was another lesson learnt from him—how to contribute to social causes. Then he would have those friends, to whom he would again give freely some of the less edible version of the cress, to be used as chicken or duck feeds. One of such friends was a certain Mr A, who was later cajoled to join the Labour party.
Meanwhile dad had given up on the 1.5-ton lorries, to buy the 3-ton one and diversify his trade. I got the opportunity to accompany him on many of his trips – to Chamarel to collect bags of maize; to Port Louis to deliver his vegetables at the central market, or to the Curepipe market to deliver mangoes. It was on one of such trips, as we went via the roundabout near RCC, that dad pointed to me that impressive colonial stone building, and told me that if I were to go through that college I would come out a doctor! I was naïve and young enough to have believed him. Or still how could I forget his utter irritation on that journey to Flic-en-Flac; as that bumpy, slippery road went downhill, it clearly bore that white ‘DEAD SLOW’ warning on the tar. “What’s the meaning?” my father asked me. And I answered nonchalantly ‘La Mort Doucement’! I could have been the cause of dad’s sudden demise, there and then.
Finally, to keep up to tradition and logic he gave up the 3-ton trucks for the 5 to 7 tons goods carriers. That’s how he slowly changed priorities, concentrating on the lorry business at the expense of watercress marshes.
Perhaps there were many unknown men of such grit who had contributed, in their own way, to the nation-building process. But to us children, our first love was always that watercress, from which the old man had derived so much inspiration, work and livelihood for the whole family. Decades later we still have a “bouillon cresson” on Sundays, just to remind us of his sacrifice, and to pay him and his old trade tribute. And for us to reflect on TS Elliot’s saying that the passage of feelings, ideology and ideas from generation to generation was a sure sign of culture and civilization.
* Published in print edition on 23 February 2018