Carl de Souza: Jours de Kaya (Kaya Days)
In 1999 Kaya, a popular Mauritian seggae musician organised a free concert for the decriminalisation of cannabis, The event was peaceful and though some people were openly smoking cannabis, police activity was minimal and there were no arrests. However, later, five people, including Kaya, were arrested. Kaya was put into the Line Barracks prison, known locally as Alcatraz. Bail was raised but, because of blunders not in time for the weekend, so he had to wait till the Monday to be released. He was found dead in his cell on Sunday morning. The authorities claim that, because of his drug usage, he had gone into a frenzy and bashed his head against the cell wall. A coroner later stated that he had been beaten to death.
Kaya’s death led to the 1999 Mauritian riots. There was a considerable amount of looting and other damage throughout the island. The police chief was away on holiday so reaction by the police was minimal. This book is about those riots. However, though people suggested de Souza write a more or less historical account of the riots, this book is certainly not a historical account. It can best be considered a picaresque novel as we shall see.
Our heroine is Santee, a Mauritian teenager. Her mother normally picks up Ram, her younger brother, from school, but had decided to send Santee to go to Rose Hill to do so. Something must have been off, or the tides were all wrong, she thought. Nevertheless, off she goes. However, by the time she gets there, Ram is no longer there. She does not know the area well but has heard that Ram might have gone to the casino. Initially, she follows a mother taking her son home but they go into a house and she is too shy to ask if the boy knows where Ram is.
She heads towards the town and, as she does, she can hear explosions and smell burning. Eventually she arrives at the Négus Pool House Night Club, which she thinks might be the casino, not least because they know who Ram is. Li Chen, a Chinese woman, starts doing Santee’s hair and putting makeup on her. We gradually realise – though Santee probably does not- that this place is a brothel, Santee is being groomed to be one of the prostitutes and that their Ram is not her Ram. When their Ram is brought in dead and Shyam, the owner, exposes himself to her, she flees.
We now get into a more dreamlike, picaresque mode. She is rescued by a taxi driver. The Négus is firebombed and, as they drive away, she sees it burning down. It is Robert de Noir, the taxi driver, who first calls her Shakuntala, a mythical woman from the Mahabharata and Santee gradually takes on the mantle of Shakuntala.
Robert drives her through the town which means driving her through the riots as there are signs of burning and looting, while he appropriately plays Bob Marley on his radio. The sights she sees, all the while looking out for her Ram, are perhaps more reminiscent of the sights seen by Dante as Vergil guides him round Hell. Indeed, de Souza gives us a superb portrait of a town in riot.
We are now in the centre of the town, an area Santee knows well as she used to go shopping there with her mother. However, the shops all have been looted or are being looted. Flames are rising high and people are grabbing what they can. The taxi stops and they get out. It is soon set on fire. She soon loses Robert but is rescued by a man with the tattoo Ronaldo Milan A.C.(because of this Ronaldo, not this one). As she has heard of neither, she assumes his name is Milanac.
The pair join in the looting – she gets some new shoes but soon abandons them – and they carry on through the Dantean Inferno. Milanac falls asleep and seems to lose her but she reappears, more Shakuntala than Santee, doing a Bollywood dance with him. She eventually ends up at the bottom of the Grande Rivière ravine into which she had followed a gang of child-monkeys, one of whom turns out to be Ram. (The other kids from school liked this place, they called it the “casino” for just that reason.) But now the three of them – Milanac, Ram and Santee/Shakuntala continue their mythical journey. The crowd not only loots everywhere but even breaks into a prison and frees a prisoner. And watching them, blissfully unaware, is the large model of a tyrannosaurus in the Dino-Store.
This book is dedicated to Pramesh, a school attendant who went looting in a toy store to get some toys for his two year old daughter. De Souza’s sympathies are clearly with the people and not with the police or government. Indeed, it seems that the government tried to cover the events up, not reporting them on TV but only reporting on the NATO bombing around Kosovo.
It is only a short book but de Souza, cleverly moves it from what, at the start, seems a simple story of a teenage girl looking for her younger brother to a mythical journey through a sort of hell, but clearly a hell with benefits, as Milanac, Ram and Santee/Shakuntala go looting. The image of Ram sitting in a large office chair in the middle of the street while Santee and Milanac bring out stolen goods or Santee as Shakuntala dancing in Bollywood style make me think it might make an interesting film.
De Souza is not unknown to me. I have a copy of one of his earlier books in French which I may now move up the pile but this book, not universally welcomed in Mauritius, is a most welcome addition, particularly as Mauritian literature is barely known in the English-speaking world.
First published in 2000 by Éditions de l’Olivier
First English translation in 2021 by Two Lines Press
Translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman