In those days the average price of pumpkin in the Port-Louis market cost between 20 and 30 cents a pound. It grew prolifically but had few takers. It was referred to as “manger fou”, allegedly because that was what the inmates of the lunatic asylum in Beau Bassin were fed upon. A pound sterling was the equivalent of Rs.13.50. Something which we learnt at school when we were given a large number of conversion problems in arithmetic.
My father Ibrahim used to trade between Mauritius and Rodrigues, five hundred kilometres away. The smaller island was a dependency of Mauritius, and depended on us for everything. Regularly about once every three months, the Zambezia, an twelve-hundred tonner belonging to the Rogers company did the Port-Louis- Port Mathurin trip, loaded with stuffs the Rodrigans needed, like textiles, building materials, shoes, medicines etc. The islanders eked out a living as fishermen or small-time farmers, growing produce for their own consumption, selling whatever they did not consume to the Mauritian traders when they arrived in the Zambezia. Ibrahim had been one of the traders, and the family depended on his earnings.
When the Rodriques trip was going to happen, he would start bringing home stuffs that his clients on the small island had ordered, to be taken with him on the three-day journey. A pair of shoes, a hat, five metres of khaki, a bale of white sheeting, pots of paint, nails, corrugated iron sheets. The profits were not great, and many of his clients bought on credit and he never saw big returns. On the return journey, he came back with crates of chickens, salted fish, goats, cattle, and produce. Often a fifty kg bag of onion, jars of pickled chillies, five pounds of red beans, honey, lemons, a dozen crabs, still hanging on to dear life in a wooden box, one or two cabbages. The live animals had to survive the three-day crossing with no water or food. Often when the chicken crates arrived in our yard, the first thing we did was to remove those poor birds which had perished. The poultry was sold at prices ranging from Rs2 to Rs2.50 a pound, and that was a profitable area of business, even taking into account the dead ones. If the goats and cows all survived, Ibrahim’s profits would be quite substantial, and he would count the trip as a success. A rare one. Inevitably he usually lost about 2 or 3 cows out of the ten to twelve that he had purchased from cattle breeders in Port Mathurin. Goats seemed sturdier, but the demand for caprines was not spectacular. Still that was how our family of ten or twelve, including country cousins farmed to us, lived.
I went to Rodrigues once, which enabled me to see my dear old man at work. He was obviously known to everybody, and the moment he landed he was greeted by the islanders come to meet the ship. When the ship cast anchor, it was like a public holiday, for there were very few entertainments on the island. Some people would hand over money which they owed from last time. Others would explain that they had lost a cow or that goats had eaten their crops, which was why they had come empty-handed. Ibrahim would say, Make sure you pay me next time, and shrug.
He then had two days to get rid of the stuff he had brought along, and acquire whatever he needed to take back. He rented a little room for the duration, and his empty crate was in the yard of the house. People would come with a couple of chicken, and he would get them to put them in the crate. After a day the crate was full. Sometimes he needed two crates. He never looked closely at what he was buying. Nice plump hen, the seller would day. A bargain at five rupees. Ibrahim never haggled. Either the money would change hands, or the client would say, Bring me five yards of blue satin next time. I would sometimes pull the old man’s sleeve and whisper that the bird looked frail and sickly, that it would die in the crossing, but only earned a stern look. Later he would tell me, with Allah’s help she will make the crossing.
One time, a man and his wife arrived one morning, with the woman carrying a massive pumpkin on her head. I looked at it sourly. I knew that it was something no one would buy back in Mauritius, and I feared that it would befall to us to eat it, possibly over two weeks! My dad asked how much, and the woman said, one rupee. Father fished out a rupee coin, but the man demurred. Could you make it in small change? he asked. Father took a handful of coins, but the best he could do in small change was ninety-seven cents. To his wife’s dismay the fellow indicated that he would take the mixed coins. Later I told dad that Rodrigans are stupid, and he shook his head. No, beta, he said. A single rupee in one’s pocket does not jangle.
Next day when the ship was due to weigh anchor, he had a suitcase in one hand and the massive pumpkin in the other, and together we walked to the harbour. We settled down in a small boat which rowed us towards the pride of the Mauritian merchant navy, getting ready for the return trip.
Dad’s friends had a good laugh at him. You’ve landed yourself with the means of making a killing there, Ibrahim, someone told him. At five cents a pound you will get a massive rupee when you sell it. The pumpkin was placed next to his mattress in the hold where we had our accommodation. The moment the ship began moving, the pumpkin started rolling away. At first I would run after it and roll it back. I must have done this a few dozen times when my Pa said, Just leave it, it will roll back. The big cucurbita seemed to have acquired a life of its own, merrily rolling from one end of the hulk to the opposite.
When we landed in Port-Louis, Ibrahim had found a string to tie round the orange ball, and hooked his fingers round the loop, and the pumpkin had another one mile before it reached home in Rue Labourdonnais, to add to the three hundred miles it had already clocked.
Mother looked at the massive vegetable with a jaundiced eye, but said nothing at first. Obviously there was never any chance of anybody coming over to buy a pumpkin of that size. As I feared pumpkin would have to feature in our fare for a long time.
Finally after five days in a row, everybody was complaining at having had enough of that revolting stuff, Ma turned to Pa and said, Whatever possessed you to spend good money on this ridiculous rubbish?
Father did what he usually do when cornered. He turned his head slightly to the left, took a noisy intake of breath and said, ‘It was the only thing they had harvested this year, if I had not brought it, nobody else would.’