An Extract from Made in Mauritius by Amal Sewtohul
In this extract from Amal Sewtohul’s Made in Mauritius, translated from French by Nadiyah Abdullatif, the narrator explores his complex heritage, and the lineage of his father, an worker from China, who would eventually make his way to Mauritius.
Wasafiri 110: Afterlives of Indenture interrogates the lives and experiences of indentured workers, and the legacies that their communities still carry. It is now available for purchase or download.
Laval had never been sure of anything. Not of his wife’s love for him, nor his son’s, nor even his parents’. He only remembered one thing: the pitter-patter of the raindrops upon the container and the smell of wet earth that came to him in waves as the humid air wafted through the alleys and little courtyards of Joseph-Rivière Street. As a child, he had imagined this pitter-patter as a giant invisible schoolteacher, some sort of huge, terrifying fairy, drumming her fingers against the roof of the container as if to say, ‘Come on, Laval, chin up. Enough of your childish daydreaming and snivelling. Be the hero you want to be. Bruce Lee, Leonardo da Vinci, or whoever.’
Yet Laval would always curl up against the inner side of his container – back then, his parents still lived there with him and he would hear his mother through the cardboard partition violently washing the dishes in a little plastic basin – and imagine the ocean rising as the rain poured, devouring the waterfront and flowing into the shops of Chinatown – people panicking as they sought refuge on top of the corrugated steel roofs collapsing under their weight, while others climbed the majestic palm trees of the Place d’Armes boulevard – before long, the Taiwanese fishing boats floating alongside the waterfront would be mysteriously detached from their anchors and end up navigating the streets of central Port Louis, their rusty hulls grazing against the old wooden houses and knocking into the concrete buildings. He too would float, along with his family in their container, surrounded by those extraordinary street-boats – his father would use a wooden pole to guide the container, preventing it from hurtling into the buildings, while on the other side, Laval would use his pole to push away the debris floating in the middle of the water-logged streets – a swivel chair, occupied only by the cat sat on top of it, an entire floating field of Chinese cabbage from the central market, and even a pirogue filled to the brim with freshly caught fish — that’s how they’d get away, watched by the crowds gathering on the balconies on the higher floors of the buildings, some of whom would throw things in their faces, jealous that Laval’s family were getting out of all this scot-free while their houses were being flooded. But neither Laval nor his parents would say a word. They would be embarrassed at suddenly being the centre of attention; they tended not to draw attention to themselves, for many reasons. That container had so often been a source of shame for them (what kind of family must they be, to live in a shipping container when everyone else had a proper house, made of concrete?), and yet all of the city’s eyes would be upon that yellow box that displayed, in the top left-hand corner of the front end, symbols which Laval knew by heart: GWRJ1410751 TransAmerica line. All that attention was too much, and it became unbearable. Laval’s dream would fade away, leaving him with one final image: they were out on the open sea, being towed by one of the Taiwanese fishing boats as the setting sun kissed the sea, lending beautiful golden tints to the gentle valleys between its wide, placid waves. He and his parents were sitting on the roof of their container around a gas stove, dining on crab stew from a large, bubbling pot. Then he would fall asleep, lullabied by the unending, heavy rainfall that was typical of Port Louis in the summer.
When he was very young, my father, Lee Kim Chan, always thought of himself as a lucky devil. By fleeing from his village, Long Tang, into the hills of Guangdong province and managing to find smugglers who agreed to take him, concealed under a tarpaulin sheet on their little boat, on a moonless night with all the lights out to elude the coastguard and arrive in Hong Kong, he had pulled off quite a stunt. Who could have predicted that once he arrived in Hong Kong he would manage to find his uncle Lee Liu Hua’s house? And that Big Lee, as he was nicknamed in the family and who lived in the middle of a slum in the New Territories industrial zone, would welcome him like he would his own son?
What an adventure it had been! Three months earlier, my father had still been climbing the hills of Guangdong, his back bowed by an enormous bundle of rice straw. The harvest, which was traditionally a time of joy for the village, left a rather bitter taste that year. In the small terraced fields stacked against the hillsides like stairways to heaven, the rice stalks were sparse. The ditches at the entrance of some fields had collapsed so that the water tipped out over the fields below. Other fields were covered in weeds. The farmers sobbed as they harvested the rice stalks that had ripened with a sickle.
The causes of this disaster were not war, drought or flooding, but a new scourge that affected the whole country. A calamity all the more dreadful for its novelty and strangeness: the steel production quota.
In the preceding years nobody could have imagined that the country would succumb to such madness. Everything was fine, people led a peaceful life and everyone was happy that the communists had kicked out the Japanese and the nationalists, and had brought order and peace. Then, one fine day, the news reached them through the only radio in the village: Comrade Mao announced that it was time for China to take a great leap forward by, within a few years, matching the USSR’s steel production. Everyone in the village had felt pride on hearing this announcement and it was discussed at mealtimes over the next few days, then promptly forgotten, as my father lived in a provincial Chinese village where life had always revolved around rice cultivation, fish farming, and the rearing of ducks and pigs. Nobody there had ever seen a steel mill.
However, in the following months, Party officials began to visit my father’s village and stress to villagers that the steel production goal was a national effort that concerned every Chinese person, farmer or labourer. Every province, district and sub-district had quotas to fill. The farmers scratched their heads. ‘But we know nothing about steel,’ said one of the more stubborn among them. ‘Oh well, you’d better get on with it,’ replied the political commissars. ‘But we don’t have any iron in this area,’ insisted another. ‘You’ll have to find some,’ replied the commissars, just as obstinately.
That’s when the collective madness began. A smelter was built at the edge of the village, based on the rudimentary plans sent by the Party offices, and everyone set off looking for iron, scavenging here and there for nails, old rusty tools and metal sheets. But nothing could satisfy the appetite of that fiery monster, which swallowed everything and in return spat out only meagre steel ingots of doubtful quality. The commissars harassed the villagers, telling them that if their sub-district was unable to fulfil the production quota, they’d all be accused of sabotage. Then the radio joined in too, blaring the local news which was replete with stories of model villages that had even surpassed their production quotas. All day long, the people were called upon to produce ever more steel.
Dazed by the endless propaganda, the villagers then took one step further into insanity, an insanity that grasped them ever tighter day after day. One removed the metal sheet roofing from their house to hand it in at the steel mill, replacing it with a thatched roof. Another handed over their farming tools: spade, wheelbarrow and sickle. A third finally handed over the Japanese army motorcycle that he had carefully stashed away as a war trophy in his barn. To help China in its path to industrialisation, the village had gone back to the stone age.
During this time, the fields fell into neglect. The chickens, ducks and pigs had become skinny, and many people no longer owned any work tools, having given them all to the steel mill, and were no longer able to work the fields. The village that had once stood at the foot of the beautiful terraced hills was now hidden by undergrowth and covered in weeds. The harvest was a disaster: there was barely enough to feed the pigs!
So the people begged the commissars: ‘You told us to make steel and we did so. Now you must give us food!’ But the commissars were now rarely seen. So they went to the neighbouring villages to seek help. They went on foot, because the trucks from the agricultural cooperative, which would usually circulate regularly at that time of year to collect the harvest, had disappeared. But once they reached the neighbouring villages, my father saw the same scenes as in his village: fields covered in weeds and people wandering about half-starved.
Disappointed, the villagers slowly retraced their steps. ‘Perhaps if we went to the city, we’d find something to eat,’ my father said. The others shrugged their shoulders with the weary resignation typical of farmers: ‘Don’t even think about it, little Kim,’ they said. ‘We don’t have any passes to get into the city — we’ll be arrested. Better to wait in the village; surely the government will send us provisions.’
But my father looked on at the road that lay ahead of him. It was a country road, just like any old country road, very straight and lined with trees, although that year only stumps could be seen all along it, as the trees had needed to be cut down to feed the damned smelter in the steel mill. What took hold of him then?
‘Are we on a slow boat from China or something? When are we getting to your arrival in Mauritius, your friend Feisal and your…’ Frances hesitated for a moment before continuing with the wisecrack: ‘… your beautiful, sweet Ayesha?’ Laval glanced over at Frances from the corner of his eye and saw her smoking a Camel cigarette, almost lying down completely in her fully reclined seat, with her feet on the dashboard. With her dark-tinted sunglasses, she looked a little like Susan Sarandon from Thelma and Louise. He turned his gaze towards the road ahead, which traced a straight line through the desolate rural landscape they were driving through: an expanse of open country covered in small dry bushes. Something seemed to move on their left — a dog? One of those wild Australian horses, a brumby, perhaps? He wanted to see something alive in all that emptiness. Why had God created that immense deserted space? Was it a hiding space, for when he had had enough of humans? And if so, was it wise to come and disturb him here? And what would Feisal, hidden somewhere amongst this nothingness, be like now?
‘You wanted me to start right at the very beginning, didn’t you?’ he replied to Frances.
‘Yes, but this is going a little far. It’s turning into a history lesson!’
Alright, alright, I’ll cut it short. Anyway, that moment my father found himself along a country road, while the others were heading back to the village, is something I often think about but I can only guess at the thoughts that would have crossed his mind. What happened to him to make him refuse to turn back like the others? Why didn’t he peacefully surrender to his fate like a good, obedient farmer and go and die of hunger at home? Perhaps it was because he was still young, and he didn’t want to die. But I like to think that just then he felt a little shiver on seeing the road stretching out ahead of him towards the big cities of the South, Canton and Hong Kong, and that he said to himself that if he must die of hunger, he might as well see a bit of the country before he conks out. My father was like Feisal, one of those crackpots who, once they set foot upon a path, feel a mysterious urge to go and see what lies at the end of it. Whereas I…
‘Oh come on, enough about you. I know you well enough. Even deciding to travel and look for your friend Feisal took you almost 30 years, and if I hadn’t forced your hand, we’d still be in Adelaide. Whatever you say, if your father hadn’t been a little bit adventurous, well, he would have died of hunger in a Chinese village, and you with him — the spectre of your being, the possibility of your existence, I mean.’
Made in Mauritius, Amal Sewtohul © Editions Gallimard, Paris, 2012
Nadiyah Abdullatif is an editor and translator based in Scotland working from Arabic, French and Spanish into English. Her work has appeared in The Markaz Review and ArabLit Quarterly. She has also been a translator-in-residence with the National Centre for Writing in Norwich, UK, and has worked as a copy editor for Asymptote.
Amal Sewtohul is an author and Mauritian diplomat, currently based in Dubai. He was born in Quatre Bornes, Mauritius, in 1971. He is the author of four novels. Histoire d’Ashok et d’autres personnages de moindre importance (2001), Les voyages et aventures de Sanjay, explorateur mauricien des anciens mondes (2009) and Made in Mauritius (2012), were published by Gallimard and the latter was awarded the Prix des cinq continents de la Francophonie. A la Dérive (2014) and Paradise Club et autres histoires (2021) a collection of short stories, have been published at Pamplemousses Éditions. His writing provides insight into the diverse communities of Mauritius, delves into the tensions during the period around Mauritian independence, and explores themes of globalisation, immigration, identity and belonging.
Cover photo by Hansley R, via Unsplash.
Guest edited by Andil Gosine and Nalini Mohabir, Wasafiri 110: Afterlives of Indenture explores the legacy of indentured workers across the Indo-Caribbean, and the diasporic experience. With fiction from Ingrid Persuad and Stephen Narain, a conversation between Richard Fung and Ramabai Espinet, life writing from Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and more, Wasafiri 110 is testament to the legacy that indentureship leaves, and the ways in which affected communities process and reclaim their histories.