When a house is not a home

letter-from.jpg

Sarah John ©

A group of women living in a housing estate just outside Port Louis called on me – I was the last in a string of people – to help with their housing problem. Being in The House Movement, a fully unregistered association, I agreed.

It had rained the day before so, as I walked into the living room of the first of the 20 houses, I was met by this artwork of brightly coloured plastic basins on the floor, on the table, on chairs, on the television. Each was collecting drops of water from the ceiling, making xylophone music. Seeing my face all admiration for her resilience, Marie-Michelle burst into laughter. Then, with a grand flourish, she opened the door into a bedroom. A dank smell poured out. ‘Look, we’ve cancelled this room! It’s too wet!’

She led me into the other room, where she, her toddler and her mother sleep. The double bed was covered with pale-blue plastic sheeting. She pointed to two big, green plastic dustbins like those that municipalities supply, one on top of the other. ‘I had jettisoned three generations of waterlogged wardrobes before I got this idea!’ She then called her mother over, and gently parted her hair to show a recently sewn-up wound; concrete had fallen from the ceiling onto her head while she had been watching television.

Across the road, her neighbour greeted me: ‘Is this a door?’ she asked, tongue in cheek, and ‘This, a window?’ Her house having subsided, neither the door nor the window opens or closes any more.

Meanwhile, successive ministers of housing claim 90 per cent of Mauritians are ‘home-owners’. But Statistics Mauritius, the official data-collecting agency, defines a home-owner for the census as someone who ‘does not pay rent’. A fuzzy definition of ownership for a capitalist state! So, Marie-Michelle is a home-owner, responsible for repairs. But she, like tens of thousands of families, lives in a legal vacuum. People have coined a phrase for it: ‘heirs’ houses’. The quaint-seeming but socially lethal Code Napoleon holds that children inherit equal shares. This means families live in houses bought or built by now-dead fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers, now technically ‘owned’ by dozens of descendants. Those living in the house can neither sell it nor raise a loan against the land to rebuild; they hesitate to spend on repairs in case some heir, like a bullying cousin, returns from work abroad and takes over the house.

Marie-Michelle and her neighbours’ council houses were constructed and sold off to their forefathers without proper steel in the uprights. So, repairs don’t work.

After some nice long meetings, we came up with a plan to force the Housing Minister to take charge of pulling down and rebuilding at state expense as the properties were defective to begin with. We are still at it.

We find a precedent: the government has agreed to replace asbestos housing. But the Housing Minister, we find, is hard to get hold of. He doesn’t reply to letters, or to petitions either.

‘I am the Minister,’ he then announces, ‘responsible for Smart Cities.’ That’s the government’s economic strategy: creating Smart Cities.

Thus The House Movement finds out why the Minister is never available: he is too busy with housing for the rich.

The sugar barons, still reeling from the termination, under WTO rules, of the protected European Market for sugar, are now making windfall gains from land speculation. Ministers grant permits and massive tax cuts. The oligarchs then parcel up agricultural land, set up gated communities, and sell off villas around golf courses to millionaires from abroad. For over 10 years, the State has subsidized the construction of millionaires’ holiday and retirement villas. Now, with Smart Cities, it will subsidize settler mansions, too – no longer giving just ‘permanent residence’, but outright citizenship.

‘So, the Minister in charge of housing for workers,’ Marie-Michelle exclaimed at a meeting, ‘is now doling out money to millionaires from abroad?’

As we share stories, the broader picture emerges. The gated communities – scores existed even before Smart Cities began – are modelled on Israeli settler colonies in Palestine: walled-off settlements connected by motorways. The people already on the land are made, somehow, redundant.

So, Marie-Michelle’s group meets people from other areas. They broaden their demands. I’m with them, too. Our aim: to stop this colonization. Our demands: food production not land speculation, proper jobs not redundancy, and immediate housing for all.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian political activist and twice-winner of the African section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Country Profile: Mauritius

When Nobel Literature Prize winner VS Naipaul first wrote The Overcrowded Barracoon in 1972, portraying Mauritius as a stinky hell-hole, his whole anthology was promptly banned by the Labour government. There is an embattled Labour government back in power, still busy muzzling free expression. But VS Naipaul could not have foreseen advertising execs turning Mauritius into ‘paradise’, nor the IMF/World Bank branding it a ‘success story’, nor Mauritius conceivably becoming the ‘biggest investor in India’.

Vacant billboards as a metaphor for economic downturn.

Lindsey Collen

Strangely, all four portrayals contain both truth and lies. Mauritius is like that. Contradictions and extremes.

The dodo was notoriously driven to extinction in 1780, while the pink pigeon was saved from the very brink of extinction 200 years later. A woman in slave times led a rebellion against the Dutch colonizers, who abandoned the country not once, but twice. The French were later kicked out in 1810 by the British, who were in turn kicked out at Independence in 1968. And twice since then, in 1982 and 1995, the Mauritian electorate has voted the government parties out so entirely that they lost every single seat in the National Assembly. In-between times, everything is becalmed.

In colonial times, Mauritius was a one-crop sugar-cane economy but the Royal Road in the capital, Port Louis, was lined with a kilometre of hardware stores for ship’s chandlers worldwide, while the Port itself was a shop-counter for East-West trade. The Powers-that-Be actually brought in the entire population as a ‘workforce’ to make these three ventures profitable. So Mauritius did become something of an overcrowded barracoon – for 100 years under slavery, 100 years under the legal framework of indenture, and 100 years under still-draconian wage-slavery laws.

It is a country invented by colonization. Perhaps this fact makes for extremes, in that there is not the moderating influence of a millennial history. Or maybe it is ‘cyclones’, those visitations that build and build and then wreak havoc, from time to time.

Pasting posters in a campaign for mother-tongue education, introduced for the first time in 2012

Lindsey Collen

The most recent havoc was wreaked by the World Trade Organization. It outlawed guaranteed markets for sugar and textiles. This contributed towards employment falling from 50,000 to 3,500 in sugar and from 100,000 to 55,000 in textiles. The European Union compensation was squandered by the government, which gave it to the sugar bosses using the money to destroy rather than create jobs. Precious capital designed to ‘restructure the economy’ was used to ‘restructure the sugar industry’. Cane is still grown – now for ethanol from molasses, electricity from straw, as well as for refined sugar.

Now, the largest work sector is tourism. When VS Naipaul wrote his piece, there were no hotels to speak of. Now they are all over the place, all ‘paradise’ – that place where vegetation is lush green but where it never rains, and where hotel workers smile all day. It’s a labile sector, sensitive to economic downturns in Europe and minor epidemics. It also ruins the very paradise environment it so needs.

When Mauritius came under IMF and World Bank scrutiny in the 1970s, loans poured in, but the conditions attached to them were never enforceable. It was a lively democracy, where opposition political parties, social associations and militant trade unions all fought to maintain universal benefits: free education all the way up, free high-quality healthcare, universal old age pensions, and free bus travel at all times for pensioners, disabled people and students. So the greatest ‘success’ was that IMF ‘medicine’ was actually not administered.

Another big sector is ‘offshore’. With a non-double-tax agreement with India, investors from the US place capital in Mauritius when investing in India, then choose to pay zero tax here. This produces the true lie that Mauritius is the biggest investor in India.
The republic consists of many islands, including main island Mauritius, outer islands Rodrigues, Agalega, St Brandon – as well as Chagos, including Diego Garcia (illegally occupied by the UK, which sublets part of it to the US for a military base) and Tromelin, which is jointly managed with France due to a territorial dispute.

Another side of paradise

ILLUSTRATION: Dominic Bugatto / www.threeinabox.com

Almost everyone uses the cliché, from the World Bank to hotel bosses, from the Prime Minister to visiting academics, from journalists to primary school children – ‘Mauritius is a multicultural paradise where different communities live side by side in harmony’. When I try to situate the cliché in my mind, I think of three defining flashpoints in recent Mauritian history: the so-called ‘race wars’ at Independence in 1968, the general strike movement in 1979, and the uprising against the police in 1999.

‘Race wars’ – 1968

When in 1975 a colleague at Bhujoharry College in Port Louis was sacked – along with 30 other teachers, including myself – for setting up a union, she told me that her father wanted to talk with me. His right hand had been cut off in the ‘race wars’ around Independence in 1968, the worst time of all for communalism – and he still mourned it, I could tell. He told me, however, that it wasn’t someone of the ‘other’ community who had chopped it off. It was when monopoly control was being established over the meat market: he had a small meat stall and was punished for being too stubborn. I realized how vested interests hid behind this ‘conflict of cultures’.

In the 1970s, nine of us set up a radical bookshop. We had difficulty finding premises. Then, someone offered us an ideal spot for hardly any rent. Why? In 1968, when his family had not had time to flee, they had been sheltered secretly for a week by the family of one of us. The shop owner was waiting for this moment, he announced, when life would offer him an opportunity to do something in return. Even today the closeness of those two families is total. So, was it really ‘one community’ against ‘another’ in 1968?

I met an old woman in the homeless people’s movement in the 1990s who said: ‘I am scared to leave Plaine Verte [where she had illegally built a tin shack on state land] because I came here from Baie du Tombeau in the race wars.’ This is what affected her most: ‘They broke my fishbowl. I ran with my two little boys and a babe in arms, looking back at the goldfish gasping on the red cement floor.’ People who have to flee are left with vivid memories for decades.

The scar between two suburbs of the capital, Plaine Verte and Roche Bois, is still visible: pylons in a wasteland where a no-go area had appeared after the communities separated out.

There were no trials afterwards. The deaths, maimings and rapes lie buried in shallow memories, as if any attempt by the State to bring anyone to trial might put a spark to the inflammable materials that are us.

Independence went ahead in 1968, even if it came during a ‘State of Emergency’ and a curfew manned by British soldiers. This was already 21 years after the partition of India provoked a divide whereby the ‘Indo-Mauritian’ community became ‘Muslims’ and ‘Hindus’. Two-thirds of Mauritians are descended from Indian peasants shipped here as indentured labourers in the hundred years up to 1920. Before that, for a hundred years, when Mauritius was French, slaves were shipped in from Africa and Madagascar to work in sugar, at the docks and around the commerce on the Royal Road in Port Louis.

The sugar oligarchs opposed Independence, instinctively fearing it and the nationalization they thought it would bring. They believed they stood to gain from a bit of communal strife. So they paid thugs of one community to attack neighbourhoods of another, and vice versa. This desperate plan interacted with ongoing disputes in the harbour area of the capital between gangs that ran drugs, prostitution and meat rackets around the market. People fled their homes while others looted in their wake. Port Louis separated out into predominantly Catholic Creole areas and areas where mostly Muslims lived. How could cultural richness be blamed for this?

General strike – 1979

New factories started up after Independence, producing for local needs. Tax and customs duty exempt textile mills opened. State-owned companies took on thousands of employees. The working class grew and organized – in unions, co-operatives, clubs and political parties. Mauritian society became ever more closely knit. Women’s associations, set up before Independence to get the right to vote, now grew strong. The ‘race wars’ were discussed in all the new unions and associations. The most popular slogan on the walls was Lalit de klas, pa lalit de ras! (Class struggle, not race conflict!).

Ten years after the race war curfew, a woman could walk home in any part of town late at night after attending a political meeting. This was Mauritius during the general strike movement of 1979, the best time of all. You never heard a single uselessly used communal term. Enquiries from foreign visitors about the many ‘mixed’ marriages grated on people’s nerves. Academics studying ‘pluralism’ sounded like philosophers arguing about how many angels danced on the tip of a needle, given the economic problems uniting working people. The cane labourers, port, transport workers and machinists, all united in action over three weeks – having patiently prepared for three years – to demand trade union recognition, job creation and an end to sugar mill closures. It was at one point almost an insurrection. That most cane labourers were Hindu, most port workers Creole and most transport workers Muslim was as irrelevant to their politics as the fact that some workers played in a band at night while others lifted weights. There was harmony at a time of sharp class war.

Twenty years passed.

Uprising against the police – 1999

Then came a narrow escape. In 1999, the beloved singer, Kaya, was found dead in a police cell. It was a time of rising unemployment and unrest. Machines had replaced workers. Unions had weakened. Government was trying to privatize health, education and pensions, cut food subsidies. So, when Kaya was found dead, young people’s anger was spontaneous. They erected barricades and set tyres alight. They attacked police stations; nine were demolished. Three were shot dead by police. The Grand River prison gates were opened from the outside and the prisoners freed. The police lost control.

And everywhere among the people there was peace: an uprising can be peaceful. There was no traffic, just women and men walking, talking, while passing bicycles threaded their way between barricades.

But then, as night fell, people seemed to realize that the stocks of commodities were no longer being policed and looting began. At first it was relatively innocent. Mainly old ladies and children taking from warehouses what they had always wanted. A stainless steel sink with a plug. Or a whole box of Deep Heat ointment for aching knees. Then a sinister form of large-scale looting started and danger began to stalk. Women and children hid. Professional looters carted off loads in lorries, then set fire to the ransacked warehouses. Tourists had by now been locked in their hotels for days.

Then came the communal part. Murky elements of the State, together with some shop-owners, organized bands of men to burn down all the houses in two hamlets, mainly Creole, within the predominantly Hindu areas of Triolet and Goodlands. The torching was meant to signify that the uprising had not been against the police for killing Kaya, but against Hindus for being the majority. It threatened to bring everyone into a vortex of intercultural violence.

So, everyone stopped the uprising. Because it had never been about cultural differences; it was against the State. But it had been a close shave.

Now

Today, ten years on, with impending economic chaos, there will be more provocation and more danger as people’s livelihoods become more precarious.

With the end of the protected market for sugar in 2009, the raison d’être of Mauritius disappears. With 10 per cent unemployment already, further massive job cuts loom. Panic emigration begins. Social problems abound.

The global crisis now hits Mauritius. The organized working class is shrinking. The union federations that bound them together are fragmenting. The balance of class forces is unstable once again. Different sections of the bourgeoisie compete desperately. Shady organizations grow more powerful: the Voice of Kreol is funded by the bourgeoisie, the Voice of Hindu nurtured by the State and business, and a Hizbullah party was, for a while, encouraged by some Muslim traders. The classification of election candidates as ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Sino-Mauritian’ or ‘General Population’ (mostly Creole and Catholic) has never been removed from the Independence Constitution, and kindles communalism.

Once again, economic interests are clashing as different crises converge. There is already more instigation to intercultural conflict than ever before.

How long can people resist? It probably depends on the degree of their political sophistication and organization. And the claims that ‘Mauritius is a multicultural paradise...’ inevitably ring hollow when chanted by those who have no commitment to freedom, equality or justice. The continued struggle for liberation is what history seems to show to have been the basis for peace, even in the face of extreme provocation.

Lindsey Collen’s novels include The Rape of Sita which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the African region in 1994, Mutiny (2002) and Boy (2005).

Ropes in the water

Illustration by *Sarah John*

An early-rising tourist could be forgiven for seeing only peace. The sun hasn’t risen from behind dark-green mountains yet, but the sky is already a luminous blue and the lagoon, flat as a mirror, is a gentle grey. The Black River Bay, huge and calm, is ever-so-slowly waking up. The police station only a hundred metres inland is oblivious. A fisher’s pirogue, newly painted white with its proud red line along each side, its mast tilted back at the perfect angle, is being poled to the edge. Another is being untied lazily from its moorage. Tourists might sense nothing but tranquillity in the air. Two or three people, nondescript they might think, talk quietly, or just sit on the storm drain, gazing at an almost imperceptible reef. Other little groups gather on the beach. A tourist might pick up nothing in particular in the tones of their voices.

A couple of pirogues start up their outboard motors, move into the lagoon and turn them off. The Coast Guard are still fast asleep.

Fishers employed on the big, shiny fibreglass boats and bright orange catamarans that take tourists out deep-sea marlin fishing slowly walk the jetty, carrying the fuel, the drinks and the plastic food baskets aboard. They call to each other nonchalantly.

In all, 22 pirogues, one by one, engines off, line up in the lagoon as if in formation. Between the pirogues lies heavy rope, strung from one to the next. An early-rising tourist might think it was just nets.

But it’s a demonstration. A protest. A blockade. The tourist boats can’t leave the jetty now. A quiet air of satisfaction sets in all around us, like a smile. Imagine that much cooperation. It’s a silent protest. Almost invisible. No posters, no slogans, no shouting. But there it is.

Ram and I are there, invited by the fishers. Witnesses, they said. And if there’s trouble, maybe advice.

One day a few months ago, a tourist fishing company had trucks unload huge piles of rocks in front of its premises, between the sea and the highwater mark, which is common land. The company intends to construct something in concrete. Already, no-one can walk past any more. Fishers can’t get to where their pirogues are moored. They have petitioned against this illegal occupation of public space. The Village Council supports them. They have even won a Court Order.

But rocks put anywhere by powerful men are not easy to get removed.

‘Damn! Look, the tourist boats are reorganizing,’ a fisher suddenly exclaims to Ram. ‘Must have spoken to their clients on their mobiles,’ Ram says, ‘getting them to wait for pick-up some place else, instead of the jetty.’

The fisher signals the speedboat in charge of running messages amongst all the pirogues in the protest, to come to the water’s edge. They make new plans. ‘Hop on!’ says the skipper, so I do. We speed from pirogue to pirogue, reorganizing the formation. The blockade is further out now, barring the entire gap in the reef that boats have to pass through to get into the open sea. The rope now stretches from the coral shallows at one end, linking 22 pirogues across the whole bay, to where we tie it to a casuarina tree.

Tourist boats sail up, clients on board now. They try to find a way through the blockade. They can’t. Two big catamarans come and try. They can’t either. One skipper seems to consider forcing his boat through. Then hesitates. What if his propeller gets caught in the rope? Or worse still, what if he damages a fisher’s pirogue?

Three or four coastguards eventually wake up, amble down to the lagoon and get aboard their Zodiac. They whizz here and there, trying ineffectually to persuade the fishers to stop the blockade. ‘You tell them to remove their rocks, instead,’ a man on a pirogue replies.

When I’m back on land, police officers arrive at the water’s edge. More representatives of the State. They are looking for elected representatives of the fishers. ‘Why don’t you negotiate?’ they ask. ‘Get those rocks removed first!’ the representative replies.

The company loses thousands of dollars in trade just on that one day. The press deplores the bad publicity for tourism.

We don’t know where this particular confrontation will lead. Meanwhile, all over the land, as economic ‘imperatives’ roll out, people who thought they were voiceless create ever more imaginative protests.

*Lindsey Collen* is a Mauritian novelist.

Of robbers and plants

The sun was already high in the sky, beating down hot that weekday. Four young men on bicycles arrived, one by one, outside a small hardware store in a sleepy residential area in Quatre Bornes. No-one noticed them as a team at the time. The events were only reconstructed in retrospect, and put together by all the people in the area going over what had happened.

‘Look at that suspicious man with a towel wrapped around his head! Look – standing across the road, leaning on his bicycle,’ the old lady in charge of the hardware store exclaimed to her only assistant, who happens to be a friend of mine. ‘Probably got toothache,’ Dojo replied, as he turned his back to dust the different-coloured oil paint tins, shining on the shelf in the store’s dimly lit interior. In a matter of seconds, a young man tore into the shop, grabbed Dojo by the shoulders and, at close range, sprayed some gas from a canister into his face, while another immobilized his elderly boss and gave her the same treatment. A fourth man then had just enough time to put his hand into the till, and grab a fistful of notes, then all four were off on their bicycles before the arrival of neighbours in response to the shouting.

Dojo laughs as he tells the story. This kind of thing has become so common in Mauritius as unemployment increases, that it has given rise to a brand new series of audacious robber jokes. Most often the robberies involve little or no serious injury. The serious injuries and murders, one cannot avoid mentioning, are left mainly to the realm of the family, which is imploding in senseless violence as the economic crisis puts increasing pressure on an institution with no access to land or income.

SARAH JOHN

The taxi driver who drove Dojo and his employer to the hospital ended up needing treatment too. So strong was the gas still emanating from his passengers’ clothing and hair that his eyes were burning too much for him to contemplate driving them home. Dojo recounts this, shaking his head philosophically.

At the exact same time that all this was happening, when the sun was up high in the sky, I was in a social centre at a local women’s association meeting on the outskirts of Port Louis. The association had invited our women’s organization that day. So 3 of us joined 25 or so of their members and we all sat in four neatly prepared rows of chairs as their elected president formally opened their monthly meeting. Ironically, at the same time as the four young men on bicycles were addressing the economic crisis in their way, the ambitious theme of the meeting was the effects on women of the selfsame economic crisis, and the political need for addressing the issues in a collective way.

After a short interactive DVD focusing on how the sugar industry’s collapse is being handled, Marie-Antoinette explained, pushing back strands of hair, how she and her daughter both lost their jobs when a textile mill was closed. Her daughter then got a new job in a factory further away. ‘Maybe I’ll set up a small enterprise,’ she announced, her voice tinged with sarcasm.

‘Like me,’ another woman laughed. ‘I took one of those loans. Now I have to change what I make every few months. First, children’s clothes, but I could only sell the initial few batches, so I turned to sewing flowers. That only worked for a while. Now I cover cushions.’ An older woman in a sari solemnly predicted, from a lifetime of experience, ‘Things will get worse’. Everyone smiled.

But perhaps most evocative was what Manta said: ‘I finally got a permit to sell food inside a textile factory yard. So I took a loan and got a tricycle made, equipped with a big see-through box, handsome green parasol over it and all. My business was a success – until the factory closed.’ She has loan repayments and nowhere to work. ‘So you don’t even have to work at the factory to lose your job there,’ she smiled across to Marie-Antoinette.

Letter from Mauritius

The sun was already high in the sky, beating down hot that weekday. Four young men on bicycles arrived, one by one, outside a small hardware store in a sleepy residential area in Quatre Bornes. No-one noticed them as a team at the time. The events were only reconstructed in retrospect, and put together by all the people in the area going over what had happened.

‘Look at that suspicious man with a towel wrapped around his head! Look – standing across the road, leaning on his bicycle,’ the old lady in charge of the hardware store exclaimed to her only assistant, who happens to be a friend of mine. ‘Probably got toothache,’ Dojo replied, as he turned his back to dust the different-coloured oil paint tins, shining on the shelf in the store’s dimly lit interior. In a matter of seconds, a young man tore into the shop, grabbed Dojo by the shoulders and, at close range, sprayed some gas from a canister into his face, while another immobilized his elderly boss and gave her the same treatment. A fourth man then had just enough time to put his hand into the till, and grab a fistful of notes, then all four were off on their bicycles before the arrival of neighbours in response to the shouting.

Dojo laughs as he tells the story. This kind of thing has become so common in Mauritius as unemployment increases, that it has given rise to a brand new series of audacious robber jokes. Most often the robberies involve little or no serious injury. The serious injuries and murders, one cannot avoid mentioning, are left mainly to the realm of the family, which is imploding in senseless violence as the economic crisis puts increasing pressure on an institution with no access to land or income.

SARAH JOHN

The taxi driver who drove Dojo and his employer to the hospital ended up needing treatment too. So strong was the gas still emanating from his passengers’ clothing and hair that his eyes were burning too much for him to contemplate driving them home. Dojo recounts this, shaking his head philosophically.

At the exact same time that all this was happening, when the sun was up high in the sky, I was in a social centre at a local women’s association meeting on the outskirts of Port Louis. The association had invited our women’s organization that day. So 3 of us joined 25 or so of their members and we all sat in four neatly prepared rows of chairs as their elected president formally opened their monthly meeting. Ironically, at the same time as the four young men on bicycles were addressing the economic crisis in their way, the ambitious theme of the meeting was the effects on women of the selfsame economic crisis, and the political need for addressing the issues in a collective way.

After a short interactive DVD focusing on how the sugar industry’s collapse is being handled, Marie-Antoinette explained, pushing back strands of hair, how she and her daughter both lost their jobs when a textile mill was closed. Her daughter then got a new job in a factory further away. ‘Maybe I’ll set up a small enterprise,’ she announced, her voice tinged with sarcasm.

‘Like me,’ another woman laughed. ‘I took one of those loans. Now I have to change what I make every few months. First, children’s clothes, but I could only sell the initial few batches, so I turned to sewing flowers. That only worked for a while. Now I cover cushions.’ An older woman in a sari solemnly predicted, from a lifetime of experience, ‘Things will get worse’. Everyone smiled.

But perhaps most evocative was what Manta said: ‘I finally got a permit to sell food inside a textile factory yard. So I took a loan and got a tricycle made, equipped with a big see-through box, handsome green parasol over it and all. My business was a success – until the factory closed.’ She has loan repayments and nowhere to work. ‘So you don’t even have to work at the factory to lose your job there,’ she smiled across to Marie-Antoinette.

*Lindsey Collen* is a Mauritian novelist.

The Neighbourhood

ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH JOHN

Last weekend my husband Ram and I sat under the thick-leaved atemoya tree, its fruit already ripening, and mulled over a request from a European ethnologist. ‘She’s studying what she calls mixed marriages,’ Ram explained. ‘An anthropologist of some sort.’ Ram had asked whether by ‘mixed marriages’ she meant marriages between a man and woman, but she didn’t have much sense of humour. She wanted to know whether among our neighbours there was ‘a Hindu’ married to ‘a Creole’, or ‘a Muslim’ to ‘a Chinese’, or ‘a Tamil’ to ‘a white’, and so on. ‘All the perceived communities,’ as she had put it. By ‘community’, she didn’t mean the neighbourhood, but ethno-religious divides within it. Ram hedged. He said he would let her know. Then he and I started laughing, as we remembered years ago someone asking us what it was like to be in a ‘mixed marriage’, and we had realized the idea had never crossed our minds.

Eventually Ram had to respond to the researcher. She would want to know if he would introduce her to our neighbours.

The image of a bull in a china shop immediately came to mind. I shuddered at the thought of my beloved neighbours being exposed to the crude intellectual tools used for studying the natives of foreign lands.

Neither we nor our neighbours in the village would dream of inquiring whether the researcher from Europe and her partner, for example, were ‘a Catholic’ and ‘a person of mixed race’, ‘a Protestant’ or ‘a Jew’, of ‘noble blood’ or ‘peasant stock’. Nor would it be too easy for her to go around classifying her neighbours in her own country. She would need to tread carefully.

So that was how one day, sitting under the atemoya tree, Ram and I came to be looking at our neighbours, for the first time ever, as if each were a specimen from a different ‘community’. We chose just the neighbours who border us, to consider whether we could be involved in exposing them to this researcher.

Across the road, there is a welder, Farouk, who is on the village Mosque Committee, which has a fund for helping the needy, regardless of religion or community. He’s married to his childhood sweetheart, Parvedee, whose family (a house or two along) are Tamil, which in Mauritius has become a religious category as well as a language one. Their three children are all just about grown up now. They feed our dogs whenever we’re late or away.

Next door on the left, there’s an extended family of Hindu faith, most of them working in factories. One son fell in love with and married a Muslim girl, who came to live with them, but after a few years, it didn’t work out. The old granny there is in charge of ‘choosing’ dates for parties and weddings because she’s like a computer at throwing up problems with dates: that’s a religious festival, there’s already a wedding that day, it would be better outside cane-cutting time.

Over the back fence, you can hear Claude, a sugar-cane labourer, who would consider himself a Creole, practising singing his sa-re-ga-ma Indian music scales. He’s married to a free-zone factory worker, Prabawtee, sister of our next-door neighbour, Leelawat, on the right-hand side. They and their daughters follow both religions, Christian and Hindu. The sisters, whose father’s land we had bought a bit of, are of Hindu faith. Leelawat, a widow caring for her adult disabled daughter, was married to a Tamil man. She and her family are involved in Shiwala activities and walking on fire – Tamil festivities. She gives us _farathas_ when she cooks them.

Our neighbours live calm, dignified, happy lives. The researcher would certainly consider us ‘mixed’. But we are all knitted together into a neighbourhood, through a myriad of relationships. You can’t really separate us and our families into ‘groups’ that we supposedly belong to. In some areas there is relative geographical separation, for the historical reasons of original settlement or as a result of the 1968 ‘race wars’, triggered by politicians against Independence. This legacy serves to remind us of the dangers of irrational divisions. And we wonder if divisions are perhaps not engendered by perpetual classification.

Our neighbours’ relationships, like our own, are precious things, sensitive and in a delicate balance.

‘No,’ Ram concluded, ‘I love my neighbour as myself. I wouldn’t like to be the one to bring an ethnographer or whatever into their lives.’

*Lindsey Collen* is a Mauritian novelist.

The Dhal Puri Queue

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.

Sarah John

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.

*Lindsey Collen* is a Mauritian novelist.

The breadfruit tree

sarah john

The breadfruit tree out front has got too big. Glorious, but ridiculous. That’s what happens if you miss one pruning season. Trees get out of hand. Now it’s gone and grown too tall. Too wide, as well. And generally spreading. Everything’s like that here. Grass invades the tar on the Government’s motorways, weeds have to be fought back from people’s verandahs and paths. An old abandoned sugar mill soon has a full-sized tree growing from its highest chimney, your house can get a pawpaw tree growing out of its gutter if you don’t watch it, while mango trees push the wooden tiles out of the roofs of abandoned houses from the inside. Any neglected back garden turns into a wilderness of green.

So we ask Fareed Tronsonez to come around – he makes a living in our village from his electric saw. Which he does, little grandchild on his hip, to discuss the matter of the breadfruit tree.

We know we’ve got a big job on hand. How to _persuade_ Fareed, although it is his living, to cut back such a beautiful tree. Not cut it down. Just cut it back.

He stands with one hand affectionately feeling the smooth grey bark of the three-trunked breadfruit tree. He looks up adoringly at its huge leaves. Half a metre long, almost as broad. And thousands of them, layer upon layer. He smiles.

It will all depend on our arguments. Only the most delicate and the most rational will do. They will have to be developed at some length, and at a gentle pace. Fareed loves trees.

So we stand around, his grandchild playing about our legs. Ram begins. ‘You’ll notice, it’s impinging a bit on the sun-space of the mulberry and the fig. They could end up stunted.’ Subtle argument.

‘A problem,’ Fareed nods. Anyone can see he is unconvinced. The trees both looked spindly anyway.

Silence. Then I mention that we’re having this bit of difficulty managing the pruning now that it’s that tall. The ladder doesn’t reach, and the branches are rather too thick up there to cut with an ordinary saw. This could perhaps make upkeep dangerous.

‘True,’ Fareed mumbles. Not too convinced. We look too fit for such arguments.

More silence.

I try another tack. The profusion of fallen leaves, going dry, that we have to sweep up. Day in, day out. And if we can’t keep up, how this will breed mosquitoes, what with each leaf being like a big bowl on the ground, catching rainwater; how mosquitoes will in turn spread Chikungunya (viral fever). Not to mention, I add when he seems unmoved, the hundreds of male fruit that fall male-shaped all over, that also have to be swept up. I make them sound positively rude.

‘Exercise,’ he says, now swinging his grandchild between his legs, ‘is good for everyone.’

And another thing, I go on bravely, is that the bright green football-sized vegetables, with their tiny hexagons carved all over, so beautiful to see, to pick, to hold, are now growing too high up to get to. So, we can’t harvest them properly anymore, nor share them with neighbours. We can’t get to boil them and serve with butter, salt and a bit of chili. Nor to make mash, nor to use them as stuffing in _faratas_. Nor to parboil them, and cut them up for chips, nor to make a dry curry, nor to let them ripen, pull out the big stem, fill the hole up with brown sugar, rum and raisins, and bake them in their skins.

They get left up in the sky until, of their own accord, they plummet down in a big over-ripe plop. This is hard to clean up.

‘Problem,’ he nods, reverting to the second-last point, pointedly ignoring the last one as invalid, ‘when you can’t enjoy the fruit. When neighbours can’t either.’

I’m pleased. At last an argument worthy of consideration.

Ram thinks it’s time for our trump card. The most important argument must be left for last. ‘You know, there’s a danger to such a big tree in the next cyclone. Isn’t the season getting nearer? And now this side of the tree is right above the corrugated iron roof of Lindsey’s writing den. Those huge branches break so easily.’

‘Yes, maybe,’ Fareed says, ‘maybe she’ll have to be cut back a bit.’

We’ve probably won. But he adds. ‘I’ll think it over, let you know tomorrow.’

*Lindsey Collen* is a Mauritian novelist.

To a place of healing

Twenty-five years ago, there was great consternation in the village I live in, Bambous, when a young woman neighbour, Santa, was abandoned by her fiancé after he had tricked her into accompanying him into an empty house and then raped her. The consternation was around how to pressure the man to make amends for the rape by forcing him to go ahead and marry her. This was done by a band of Santa’s male relatives going over to his village and threatening to castrate him. The Criminal Code, as the band of men knew, specifies that castration is ‘excusable’ (meaning has lesser penalties) if carried out in direct response to an attack on a woman’s ‘chastity’.

Santa had acquiesced in the original marriage proposal. ‘I’m already 25,’ she had explained to me, ‘and my mother is a poor widow. She’s so pleased she’s found a suitable boy for me, because he owns a plot of land.’ But from the beginning Santa found the man repugnant. The rape obviously disgusted her further.

However, a shotgun marriage went ahead. Such was the attitude to rape, only 25 years ago.

I was among the women who had tried to give Santa the courage to refuse the marriage. But, after failing, and with the wedding preparations going ahead, I still had to face a serious moral dilemma when Santa asked, ‘Will you help me? Will you type a few wedding invitations?’

Anyway, the marriage lasted no more than three months. ‘I’m back!’ Santa announced one day. She got a job in a factory, made lots of friends, and lived happily ever after with her mother.

In those days rape within a marriage was not only not illegal, but was generally deemed impossible, a contradiction in terms. Marriage entitled a man to his wife, so how could he rape her? In the District Court in Bambous, I heard a barrister for the defence in a rape case get away with openly deriding two women who had been raped by police officers inside a police station.

It was against this baseline view of rape that, when my novel _The Rape of Sita_ came out in 1994 and I came under death threats from some religious fundamentalists and under attack from the Government, a long debate ensued. It was something of a turning point in attitudes towards rape. Rape, once perceived as being ‘the woman’s crime’ could not go on being so. Old women who couldn’t read at all supported me for ‘allowing women who’d been wronged to walk with their heads held high’, as they put it.

I often wonder how it was that attitudes changed so much and so fast. Rape is now universally denounced. Woman speak out in public. Marital rape has been made an offence.

Perhaps the main underlying reality is that women’s oppression in Mauritius has always, since slave times, through indenture and into the modern epoch, been countered by a surprisingly strong women’s consciousness. Women never seem to have accepted the idea of being inferior. Oppression was imposed, resented and resisted. From the 1950s onwards a very organized, vocal women’s movement grew up around the political issue of the right to vote. Today there are over 600 women’s associations in Mauritius, and almost all of them have a dimension that is both emancipatory and political, as well as the jam-making and embroidery. There are two in Bambous.

Come 2001, when a Mauritian woman, Sandra O’Reilly, spoke out publicly about two double-rapes she suffered in one night, consciousness had reached such a height that the more advanced sections of the women’s movement put forward and won support for the demand that rape victims be able to report directly to a hospital and not have to go to a police station.

And by the end of 2006, after some women’s mobilization, the Women’s Rights Ministry, together with five main hospitals, issued a ‘protocol’ on what everyone should do after a sexual assault. You, as victim, can now go direct to a hospital for all the care you need, and a woman police officer interviews you as a witness, far away from the patriarchal structure of a police station. Police medical officers now examine you in a place of healing.

So women in Mauritius avoided making the demand for _‘Women police officers in each police station!’_ or for _‘More punishment for rapists!’_. Demands which, if won, probably would only strengthen, instead of weakening, the very patriarchy that allows such a thing as rape to exist.

*Lindsey Collen* is a Mauritian novelist.

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