There is nothing postcard-perfect about the town I come from. No lagoon, gilded by golden sand. No forever summer temperatures, no branding possibilities. Our main attraction is a quiet menace: a remnant of the volcano from which Mauritius sprung. Tourists visit the crater, then the shops that sell discounted cashmere.
A town built by Europeans, favoured for its colder, greyer climate. A colonial outpost: that’s why, they say, our town is so well-structured. Its name may or may not mean curer sa pipe, a place where travellers used to stop to stock up on tobacco. I haven’t seen any tobacconists here. The only ubiquitous smoke I know rises from the tarmac in thick tendrils after the rain.
Our houses are streaked with mould, and are framed by disorganized sets of trees. Heavy, they droop with humidity: the temperature keeps rising, and we haven’t had a strong cyclone in twenty years. Twain would note, on a train to Curepipe in 1897, the ‘frantic luxuriance of vegetation’. This has not changed. At night, I can hear the fruit bats shriek by my window. They devour the lush fruit that could not grow in our once-colder air.
But Naipaul will tell you that ‘lushness has been abolished’ in 1972. He too visited Curepipe; inspired, he succinctly defined the whole country as an ‘overcrowded barracoon’. A lurid snow globe, where Mauritians batter themselves against the glass of their isolation, against their imitative, pathetic semblance of culture. Naipaul mimics the Englishman Twain encountered here in 1897, who explained why ‘you wouldn’t expect a person to be proud of being a Mauritian, now would you?’ As if these men bestowed on us some kind of honour, through their naïve critiques. As if it were acceptable for Naipaul to write what he did, because he too came from an island, he too was brown.
A few years ago, a department store overtook the church spires as Curepipe’s new landmark. An aluminium-plated monstrosity, but here, it’s utility first. Aesthetics are of no concern. Strange, for the town was known for its fashion and textiles in the 60s and 70s, the place where white people lived, where white women went shopping. There is still a building on the royal road, ornamented with a pair of giant rusty scissors.
Someone should be worried about our shops, which have graced these streets for decades. Our Chinese laboutik sinwa, which sell everything from hair mayonnaise to fishing hooks. The storeyed Indian garment stores, the Muslim-owned fabric boutiques that leave their doors wide open, so that the wind will billow their tissus. The owners will tell you that doing business here is a struggle, but it’s home. Save them from the shopping malls, from Adorno’s industry.
These shops will disappear some day, but our sacrosanct street food will not. Beyond our mixed-race people, it’s the embodiment of our ‘multicultural hotpot’ cliché. The best cooks are island-famous, their stalls always a place where enn dialog is exchanged. Two of my favourites: Rozario’s roti emporium, a one-family enterprise – the epicentre of their culinary activities is called ‘Pabs Palace’ for a reason. Then you have Monsieur Edley’s unique farata. You’ll find him near the bus station, in his little white stall and chef’s outfit, fusing the Indian flat bread with Creole favourites: oyster-sauce beef, rougaille saumon. But don’t think you’ll be eating salmon – here, for some reason, this is the name we give to pilchard. Derrida would be proud.