Of the primary school years 1956 has stood out as the most wonderful because it witnessed so many memorable events.
It was the year that the Mauritius Government Railways would be dismantled after serving the colony since 1864. I was lucky that my maternal uncle Dorsamy invited me on a Saturday to accompany him to Port Louis to enjoy the last passenger train of that era. We went to Victoria Terminal where he worked.
I was impressed by the large rectangular stones of the platform pavement at the station; more amazing were those innumerable huge ‘books’ neatly arranged on the office shelves. Uncle introduced me timidly to his boss, which was his manner of indirectly seeking his leniency for bringing his nephew to the site of work. Those vast rooms and the stone building with its cool, strange, austere morning atmosphere, that only belonged to the private quarters of a train terminal, was most impressive to the small boy.
The return journey to Beau Bassin was no less memorable; the salient fact was that I would put my head out of the window to enjoy the rushing wind from higher Plaines Wilhems and soon landed with a foreign body in my right eye. My uncle did his best to remedy my distress, as I had been entrusted to his good office and care.
Princess Margaret’s visit
The archives would tell us that by 31 March 1956 there were no passenger trains; yet an exceptional event would take place that had forced the colonial authorities to reopen the railways to passengers: the visit of Princess Margaret at the end of September. The officials did their best to give the population the opportunity to come down to Port Louis to admire and cheer their Princess. And that royal visit did reinforce further my memory of that magic year.
In Standard III at the Beau Bassin Government School, word had gone out that all schoolchildren would make a trip to the Beau Bassin railway station, on Saturday 29 September to salute the royal cortege when it would pass through town. To celebrate that exceptional excursion in fanfare, we had been given ample time for preparations; for the first time in our life, we would be hearing about ‘uniform’. We finally donned a khaki shirt fitted with shoulder galloons, and khaki shorts with flies – all courtesy of Tonton Devindar, the family tailor.
There could not have been a prouder boy in the whole school; the typical smell of that new cloth, the pride of parading about in that special attire for the first time had fired the boy’s mind. We walked the distance to ‘La Gare Beau Bassin’, where we were properly lined up by the teachers, and were gifted with a small Union Jack flag to wave when the princess would pass by. We boys were khaki clad; what about the girls? Absolutely no idea. It was a most wonderful, memorable sunny September morning, around mid-day when a motorcade of some cars with the important people passed in front of us towards Rose Hill. We children cheered and waved our flags happily.
Years later, while visiting Tristan Breville’s photographic museum in Port Louis, I spotted a photo of that 1956 school gathering at the Beau Bassin station; had I looked at it with a magnifying glass I might have spotted the boy – but I did not. Worse, I failed to buy a copy of that souvenir, thereby falling to that tendency to procrastination that seems to have haunted most of our lives. When I later went back for it, I was informed by Mrs Breville that some of the photos had been lost following an incident at the Museum; no trace of that souvenir could be found, to my greatest regret.
Being too young to know what the Princess’ agenda was, I soon overheard my paternal uncle Marday telling my aunty how Margaret’s tour was essentially to humour and help her to forget her love for a certain divorced Peter Townsend. I remember the latter’s name well, because Uncle would recount how a photographer at Royal Road-Coignette-Rose Hill, opposite Wellington Street, had previously been ordered by the concerned authorities to pull down his name board, which bore the same homonym as the unfortunate lover, from his studio. And no risk could be taken to stir and revive the poor Princess’ memory of a lost love when she was to pass through Coignette.
As children we would not know what the political state in the colony was at that time. Again the archives tell us that some a journalist of Le Cernéen reported that the hundreds of thousands of people who had travelled free of charge by train to Port Louis to welcome their princess went berserk and ran amok in the streets of the capital.
It was left to Jay Narain Roy to counter that projected bad image of the colony by writing in the Mauritius Times that “these were the very things that the BBC reported as instances of the great reception to Princess Margaret. Basing on these, the knowledgeable correspondents added that the welcome in Mauritius was unprecedented in the experience of the British royalty.”
And the editorialist of the paper ended his article by stating: “Is the criticism meant to show the world and Whitehall that the Mauritian crowd is a barbarous horde, an enemy of law and order, unripe for things like Universal Suffrage and Self-Government?”
All these hinted that the wind of political change had started blowing on the colony, and the tug of war between the social democrats and the ultra conservatives was already engaged.
In that year our teacher was Mrs Desveau; a short middle aged matron-like lady with wavy hair and thick glasses. She was tired of calling us pupils to silence and order. So she decided to break away from that old tradition of herding the girls in one part of the class and the boys to the other part. Ganging the girls together was inviting perpetual chit chatting and disturbance. Nor were the boys any better!
So Mrs Desveau came up with a bright idea: the seating arrangement would be to alternate one boy with one girl on the long desks that were the traditional furniture of government schools. And the order was out: should a girl utter a word, the two boys on each side would twist her corresponding ear; so it was for a chattering boy.
We waited patiently to pound on our neighbor and secretly enjoyed the task, probably to the detriment of our academic work. Most memorable for me was the that the girl on my right was fair – so when she had the misfortune of uttering even a few innocent words the boys on each side would take to their job seriously and twist her ears, much to the embarrassment of the shy Miss K…. who gratified us with a wonderful blushing! That prompted us boys to test that physiological conditioned reflex fairly regularly!
We still smile when we think of Mrs Desveau’s arrangement. It had given us the official green light to touch the opposite gender physically and spurred our mischief further, rather than eschewed it. Did Mrs Desveau initiate, unknowingly, the equal opportunity rights for the two sexes in the fifties?
I had the misfortune of having running eyes since my young age. Modern ophthalmologists would have tackled that tear problem, but in 1956 doctors dared not take it lightly and operate upon a young child. One day the hospital medical team visited our school at Gustave Colin Street. As we were herded into the medical camp, I was most tensed and apprehensive, as a good school boy in those days I had to talk in French, not Creole. But I did manage fairly well, and spluttered to the nurse “Mon oeil coule”.
What the treatment was I cannot remember, but the feeling that I had blundered has always stayed with me. As I walked out of the clinic I knew then and there that I should have said “Mes yeux coulent”. Would the medical staff treat only one eye? Finally in that same year my father bought me glasses on the advice of Dr Gaya of Quatre Bornes. It was my first pair – roundish, horn rimmed glasses that years later, I would realize, resembled Mahatma Gandhi’s. But I would wear them with some pardonable childish pride, as much as Tom Sawyer would with his bandaged sore thumb as he loitered down the village street.
One day as I passed down Colonel Maingard Street on my way home, near the Lois Lagesse Trust Fund for the Blind, one of my uncle’s friends, sitting on the partly damaged wall of that institution, would somehow pull my leg and blurt out: ‘ Allo, doctère…’. I could not say that I was vexed!!