The Picnic

The outing to the seaside, whether to Belle Mare, Post Lafayette or Cap Malheureux, would be for us a further insight into the childishness of our elders. We saw in them a grown-up copy of ourselves and we secretly enjoyed their make-believe mood

Dr Rajagopal Soondron

How could we boys remain insensible to the news of the coming picnic on the 15th of August of the 1950s, a public holiday in those colonial times? The elders of the Beau Bassin Hindu Cadets club, still loyal to India, capitalized on that day to celebrate the freedom of the motherland — by going for a 24-hour stag picnic, far from home, wives and family. Some fathers took advantage to bring along their sons for that once-in-a-year grand outing. As for me it was always a perpetual suspense until the last minute; some uncles would be all for my participation, another one closer to the old man might be more dubious and pessimistic after news of my cavalier behaviour at home had been made public. But most probably dad would lean on the ultimate criterion — my performance at the school second term exams.

This outing to the seaside by bus, whether to Belle Mare, Post Lafayette or Cap Malheureux, would be for us a further insight into the childishness of our elders. They would have divested themselves of the seriousness of a family man’s role and would be joking, passing comments, criticizing some football teams to titillate some opponents, some time singing Indian film songs, accompanied by ‘armonium and tabla’; the sega, in those days, was yet to be as popular as nowadays. We saw in the elders a grown-up copy of ourselves and we secretly enjoyed their make-believe mood.

Near the sea we would be treated to makeshift tents and would be gathering dry filao branches for the evening bonfire; the culinary know-how of dad, the bar owner, would be put to the test. Few would forget that evening at Post Lafayette when he had made a pot of rasom, with pieces of goat venison, bones and what not; of that spicy recipe I remember the unpeeled half chouchou floating on top. Its aroma was so enticing that everyone had come to partake a bowl of that hot moolooktani on that unusually cold windy evening on the east coast of the island. Everyone was in a hurry to taste that preparation, but lo! most of the picnickers had their tongue and taste buds stung and burnt on that night, the culprit being most probably the light, whitish greasy topping on that brew. I was a victim too.

In those days what better pastime did our hard-working elders have than to indulge in rhum parties to forget their family responsibility for one night, accompanied with fresh meat curry and some beetroot, potato and watercress salads? We boys were sure to capitalize on our good fortune and enjoy the good food while the going was good, all done around the bonfire. At night I would be sleeping on hard mats on the ground, my head covered with the bed sheet to ward off mosquito bites. That’s how we boys, half asleep, overheard secretly so many tales told by the drunken elders.

One of the tipsy simpletons elated by his first alcoholic experience and working near the Champ de Mars in Port Louis, and perhaps contaminated by horse talk of some “palfrenier” tried seriously to convince a dubious gang of married men that he was damn sure horses do lay eggs !! Such news would spread in more sober times like wild fire, and later be used to tease the youth for years to come. Another old bachelor would be telling how years earlier, on a similar 15th August club outing, he had been bitten by a swarm of bees or wasps when he had gone to toilet in the open. So when he went home he had difficulty to put his pants on his swollen bottom; he suspected that his mum had interpreted that incident differently – and had avoided raising the question of his marriage in years to come!

At night the total darkness of the night revealing a string of stars in the southern sky, the persistent wind howling gently in the filao tree tops, the faraway crashing of the waves on the beach below, were a totally new experience. In the morning we would be first to go walking on the cool white sand as the waves came washing ashore .Some bolder elders in shorts, still recovering from the night’s revelry, would not hesitate to plunge into the cold sea water. For me it was the most unforgettable picnic of my boyhood; and at dusk as the time came to leave for home I looked back at the sea with regret and asked myself if I would be part of that fun again the following year.

Divali Nite

That picnic would be the talk of the elders for days to come, while we children would look with nostalgia every time we passed by the club, regretting that bonhomie that was so evident in our fathers’ picnic life and so wanting when they came back home. However, we children were diehard optimists; we knew that the club wouldn’t forget us so quickly. For within two months or so it would be Divali night!

I do not remember whether Divali was celebrated in the club then. We must not forget that most members were mostly poor, hard-working people. I had heard on so many occasions our neighbour Mr Bohoree, secretary-cum-treasurer of the club, reproaching some of those members for the irregularity in their monthly contributions, which was perhaps 50 cents or one rupee. The club had to pay the rent and electricity bills, and money had to be spent on some basic amenities. So the idea of celebrating Divali on a grand scale was surely a later event – when the second generation of better-off bachelors, less of the labouring class, took upon themselves to organize championship tournaments in Domino and Carom.

And still years later they decided to decorate the club with the inevitable ‘bleu blanc rouge’ muslin paper, with a lone Indian flag in the foreground. Some more jovial members would bring a ‘bouquet banané’ flowers to enliven and hide bare wooden poles here and there. The shutters would be pulled down only on that occasion – to give the club a feeling of openness to one and all. The ‘tourne disque’ and rectangular loudspeaker would be blaring some of the Indian oldies of those days, advertising to the people in the vicinity of the special night at the club.

For our first taste of a social gathering, we kids would rush to the club to celebrate Divali away from home. The young members would put a table outside in front of the club, not far from the cross road. It was rare in those days to have any vehicle coming that way. We loved the sweetmeats and the lemonade served, specially the almond green one. Was it home-made Indian cakes or was it some French pastries? Difficult for me to say. Pastry for Divali? – sounds incongruent! For us children the best was the musical chair event, our first taste of that competition – where we would pitch our rapidity and cunningness to secure the last winning chair. It was fun all the way. Years later I remember as the members became more educated small drama sketches and plays were set up, perhaps all to start stimulating our young minds into a different form of culture.

That special night was perhaps the only occasion when the restricted divide between elders and children was forgotten; we kids came to enjoy mixing for some hours with our seniors, more so in that no man’s land the club was to us youngsters. We also met our classmates, neighbours and friends; the mood would be more wonderful and relaxed if school examinations were over and we had a foot already into our December vacation. That Divali night at the club had epitomized the impending carefree childhood life away from school, books and teachers — as the year was drawing to a close.

* Published in print edition on 30 November 2018

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