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The masala stone

  • 12 November 2014

Some envy my ever-lasting tan. The child of horrified Caucasian friends asked why I was always dirty. The colour of my skin. Described as chocolate brown, café au lait or olive. In various shades across my body. It matters because it testifies my family's roots, and speaks of a proud love that defied its times.

Comarassamy Soupa Chetty, my paternal great grandfather, was the son of Appassamy Soupa Chetty, a Tamil merchant migrant from India's South East, who settled in Mauritius in the first mid-half of the 19th century. Comarassamy converted as an adult to marry Anne Euchariste Clam, a Catholic with a family name allegedly of Dutch ancestry. He then changed his full name to Joseph Appassamy. 

Any country with a colonial heritage carries sensitive layers of identities, Mauritius more so because of its size, no indigenous population, and a hybrid nation born from waves of European, African and Asian immigration. The inevitable process of mixed marriages has been excruciating and scarring. Anne and Joseph's budding affection must have been fearless; their commitment endured and led to six children and more than one hundred current descendants across the globe.

In 1968, the independence of Mauritius from the UK divided the country, raised racial tensions and provoked riots. Thousands emigrated. The extended Appassamy family was split with a portion moving to Australia. My parents chose to stay with my two sisters and me. I recall distressing farewells at Plaisance airport and Quay D at Port Louis harbour, and my family standing watching the Qantas plane or the 'Patris' ship depart, gradually shrink, and grow fainter till it vanished.

Families, like mine, that are born from migration are reborn punctually through the scent of their cuisine. I like to think that the Indian curry has transcended its origin, slowly bridged Mauritian ethnic communities, and established its own version as a national treasure. For those who left, the making of a curry remains a patriotic ritual.

What defines a uniquely Mauritian curry? A sound, more than a taste or recipe, comes first to my mind. It's a late afternoon in the early 70s. I'm a teenager doing my schoolwork at my desk in my bedroom. A grinding rhythm from the garden is audible through my window. Leaning over the ros kari, Jessie, our family cook, is crushing spices for the evening curry. With her two hands, she holds flat a cylindrical stone, the baba, and rolls it with