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Remembering Hassan

  • 21 May 2008
Practically anywhere I stood on Mauritius, I could see a basalt mountain in the distance. In year 9, our geography teacher asked us to trace from a map onto paper the contours of all the scattered mountains, and then join them. They formed the ring of the giant volcano from which my island had erupted 8 million years ago.

A mountain-like figure, always on my horizon, was Hassan.

Hassan owned a fabric shop in the capital, Port-Louis. He was a Muslim who had known my four grandparents, and sold wide ranges of fabric to four generations of my extended Catholic family.

Before the advent of imported ready-to-wear in the late '70s, Mauritians had all their clothes, linen and furnishings custom-made. A number of fabric shops, mostly owned by Muslims, were spread out over the island. His was the oldest and, in its heyday, the biggest. My mother accumulated most of her dowry at Hassan's, as did my two sisters. Later, my nephews' baby clothes were planned there.

On the phone last week, my mother apologised. 'I thought I'd told you, I'm sorry ... About six months ago ... How old? I imagine in his late 90s ...'

He lived above the wooden and corrugated iron shop with his wife and family. I never caught more than a glimpse of their quarters, which were accessible through an outdoor spiral staircase that overlooked a single tree, an old mango. That tree had a history of bearing fruit earlier than the mango orchards throughout the island, and every summer, before any mangoes went up for sale, Hassan had already treated us to a raffia basket filled with his Maison Rouge mangoes.

As a child coming to the shop with my parents and sisters, I made a beeline for the basement, a cramped space with a low ceiling where the latest shipped-in stock was delivered. I snooped around the aisles, peeped into half-unpacked pine crates and marvelled over the suppliers' foreign stamped addresses. Through the floorboards above my head, I eavesdropped on muddled conversations punctuated by the sound of stilettos and the snipping of large tailor scissors.

By the time I eventually made it back upstairs, my parents had gathered a pile of fabric rolls mostly to clothe the family until the next season. My mother thought out loud the appropriate length needed from each roll which Hassan then swiftly unravelled. I was fascinated by his skill at either carefully cutting