It has rained all night, with rolling thunder. On and on. And it’s still raining.
And, from today, there will be a skeleton bus service. After one week of no transport at all. A Lalit member who works as a bus conductor works her first shift tomorrow. Except for people in Constituencies 15, 16 and 17, who won’t have buses yet, and who are still barricaded in. When speaking to a Lalit member from that area on the phone, I was amazed to hear en passant, “Then shewas taken into quarantine,” and later in the same conversation again en passant, “And then his boss was taken into quarantine.” So, there is no bus service starting up there today.
When we first came to live in Bambous, I would take the Number 52 to Port Louis. I worked at Bhojuharry College in Port Louis where I taught Economics and General Paper to groups of brilliant girl students until, along with 32 other teachers, we were all sacked for setting up a union. Thus ended my career in education. The union was called UPSET then, the ancestor of today’s UPSEE. Members then included Amedée Darga today of StraConsult, Soorooj Phokeer the Loud Speaker, who was also sacked alongside me, with Patrick Michel of Le Mauricien, with the famous writer Dev Virahsawmy, and with former Minister Bashir Khodabux, to name a few who come to mind.
But all that is another story. Today’s story is a bus story.
On the bus, I often sat next to the mother of a village shopkeeper – who was, himself, already of a certain age, and who ran one of the 14 “Chinese shops” in Bambous. She must have been 90, if a day. We began to chat every day as we chugged in to Port Louis, as much as her Kreol and my Kreol permitted. She was a mentor to me. Like the late Liliane Tigresse, née Simonet was. And Ansu Dilmohamed. And Paulo Ninan. And Pulo Khaytoo. All three gone now, too. Anyway one day the mother of the shopkeeper surprises me by proferring, right there on the bus, woman-to-woman, the following advice: “When men retire, opium is good for them. It keeps them away from vice.”
“It keeps them away from vice?” I ask, in case I haven’t heard right – what with the din of the old Vacoas Transport bus engine grinding away, and through the Matelot smoke swirling around the standing male passengers, smoke so thick her words might get muffled in it. She just stares back at me, as if I’m being silly.
“It keeps them away from vice,” she repeats, this time firmly.
I am silenced. I just look ahead through the smoke and the din, speechless. I am out of my depth. Clearly, opium is not a vice.
I am busy thinking what to say.
“It keeps them away from vice. What vice?” I ask.
Matter-of-fact, she looks at me and replies, as if my ignorance disquiets her, “The two main vices, of course.”
I wait a while, then venture, “What two main vices?”
“One is women. Say, if you’ve worked in his shop a lifetime, do you want him taking up with some young woman? If he goes to the opium den once a week, women will not tempt him anymore.”
That’s a point, I think. When you live literally in the shop. You and your children. With no real security. No work-related pension. It would be a serious vice, that. You could be out in the cold. I shudder. My previous ignorance.
“And the other vice?” I ask.
“Gambling. He will gamble away what you’ve worked your fingers to the bone for. He might even gamble the whole shop away. It has happened to many a woman. Then, there goes your life savings. Gambling. It’s even worse. But, once he’s in the habit of smoking his pipe once a week, he won’t look to numbers games, horses, lotteries any more. And the outlay on opium is fairly fixed. No problem.” And I remember a cousin of Ram’s and thus of mine too, saying, “All commercant in Mauritius smoke opium when they retire.” He meant the “all” in the sense of “from all communities”. I had taken the statement lightly.
Of course, it dawns on me, the old ladies’ husband, as a retired man, was in the dusk of his life, so what harm was there in his getting a gentle opium addiction?
And why I’ve remembered this advice now – this relativisation of different “vices”, this looking at the consequences of actions in real life, not just avoiding an abstract list of sins – is that on Day Five of the second lock-down, the neighbours across the way began repeating history.
In the last lockdown, all the terrible pressures that might otherwise have made them follow their usual tendency towards breaking out in domestic violence, especially when they drink, have turned the couple, once again, to setting up a gambling den. A vice.One of the two main vices, a vice so bad that opium helps steer retired males clear of it.
In the last lockdown, I wrote about their gambling den. It, being upstairs, is very rowdy, with hoots of laughter spilling out with every hand. It starts around noon, and ends around midnight. And I wrote last time round about how, much as I detest gambling, it is certainly better than domestic violence.
This is what I said on 18 May last year, and I am saying it again today: “And the make-shift gambling den brings us a lesson in dialectics: I hate gambling. I think it is child abuse to have young children selling tombola tickets, that’s how serious my disapproval is. I believe that addiction to gambling is enabled by this exposure of young kids. To let us all, including me, have a flutter, a national lottery should do – plus a horse-racing season, an old tradition, with its socially controlled gambling. But preserve us from a whole gambling industry. Not that capitalism, especially finance capital, is not, itself, gambling. Anyway, this particular gambling den near Ragoo Lane, the one that developed in the neighbourhood during the lockdown, I welcome. Yes, I who hate gambling, welcomed it. Why? Because it replaced domestic violence. A bit of gambling on dominoes, even with the children involved, is much, much better than domestic violence. So, we judge things by the effect of an action within a given situation.”
And that is how I remember the advice I was given by a very old lady on the Number 52 bus in 1975, on how opium can keep retired men away from vice.
I think the incessant rain may stop the little vice of the gambling den across the way from operating today.