The street vendor worked swiftly from inside and on top of the perspex cube on his bicycle, as we stood watching him and talking. I was in a dhal puri queue along the edge of a stone pavement in Port Louis. There are two other dhal puri sellers at the same corner, but they get just the odd client who is in a hurry or is ignorant about dhal puris in Port Louis. In our queue, we all ended up talking politics as usual. I kept my eye on the beautiful pair of round yellow dhal puris the street merchant had on a square of paper in one hand as he deftly spooned some coconut chutney and shrimp paste in a line down the middle with the other hand for the woman at the front of the queue.
‘He must go!’ the man behind me said, meaning, everyone knew, the Minister of Finance. ‘He’s written his letter of resignation, what’s he waiting for?’ Murmurs of assent in the queue. Ministers of Finance since 1979, when the IMF and World Bank started giving them the role of a super-minister in charge of imposing austerity, are not popular people. They come into conflict first with working people who are conscious of being electors too, then the unions, then the women’s associations, then small planters’ associations, then the Opposition, then with their own colleagues in the National Assembly, then with other ministers, then with the Prime Minister. Usually in that order. At which point there is what’s called a ‘crisis’. And Finance Ministers, as well as threatening to resign, also do end up resigning.
A small crowd begins to gather nearby, just where the afternoon newspaper will be sold. They are hoping to glean news of the Minister of Finance’s resignation. Every taxi or car that goes past our queue is tuned in to Radio One or Top FM or Radio Plus – all of them private radio stations that have guests commenting on the political crisis from every angle. The government radio stations are not useful in political crises. They are more reliable only in cyclones.
Another man in the queue takes up the theme. ‘I didn’t vote for him so that he would go and accept all those conditions. So he can resign! It’s not the World Bank that elected him!’ And so on. The dhal puri seller asks the woman how much chilli paste, then rolls the pair of hot dhal puris up into another bit of paper, tucking the corners in, as she places her rupees into his tupperware moneybox next to the pile of square bits of paper. By then the vendor has another sheet of paper with a pair of hot dhal puris off his pile dancing on it, as he spoons out the chutneys. ‘Five pairs, please, wrapped separately,’ is the next order.
This political crisis is even more difficult to resolve than past ones because it reflects a deep economic shift, a systemic crisis, not just unpopular measures. ‘It’s the question of jobs,’ a woman in the queue says. Quite rightly. An ex-colonial economy like the Mauritian one, developed under the straitjacket of protectionism for 40 years, has now been set upon by the wolves of globalization. The sugar barons, who still control much of the economy, whether cane, textiles, tourism or banking, try to ride the change by destroying jobs and stabilizing their profits. Society, under the impact of rising unemployment, is going into generalized crisis.
I watch the dhal puri seller as he holds the beautiful savoury pancakes. Women in his family will have first boiled the dhal, then crushed it and rolled it into little balls. Each ball of dhal, with salt and very light spices, is then placed in the middle of a soft ball of flour dough, and carefully rolled out so the dhal stays in the middle.
I ask myself which of all the traditions will strengthen during this crisis, and which will weaken. Everything is threatened with sudden and drastic change. Will people who may have started to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken and other brands return to dhal puris? They would certainly do well to. Or will street merchants no longer have enough clients?
This particular one will certainly last longer than most others. People will continue to queue for his delicious dhal puris.