Mᵉ Annaruby Soopramanien-Saha, writer, barrister, urbanist, historian

“I chose to come back because I was attached to my country as well as my parents”

24 octobre 2023, 10:15


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“I chose to come back because I was attached to my country as well as my parents”

In “44, Rue du Pouce”, you delve into the history and culture of the Ward IV area in Port-Louis. What inspired you to explore this topic in your memoir?

I never had any intention – after two challenging careers, first when I was the Chief Technical Officer of the Ministry of Housing and next when I entered the legal profession – to become a Published Author or even write about the history or culture of Ward IV, where I had the privilege to grow up, in the exciting years preceding the Independence of Mauritius. Everything happened by accident. When I was around 70 years old, I discovered, during a de-cluttering session, an old cardboard box, in which my mother, long deceased, had kept the few precious belongings that I had left behind in the family home, when I left Mauritius in September 1966 to pursue my studies in UK. In that cardboard box, there was an old Diary which I had assiduously kept on a daily basis, when I had accompanied my parents on a trip to the UK from July-September 1962.

My father, Deva Soopramanien, previous Financial Secretary (1982), was then a modest civil servant, but he was still entitled to air passage benefits and he decided to include me in his first trip to UK and back, during my school holidays of 1962. It was during that trip with my parents that I had made entries in the Diary on a regular basis. But the Diary had gone into oblivion, upon my return in 1962 from UK, because, once I returned, I was engaged in very hard work for my studies, first for the Cambridge School Certificate, then for the Cambridge Higher School Certificate. It was upon my accidental stumbling, at the age of 70, upon the Diary (which I had written when I was 15 years old), when I was already steering my second career as a barrister (and I was already a grandmother), that I rediscovered a Lost World (in 1962 London and far-away Scotland) which was so charming that it spurred me to write this memoir, which includes the Diary.

The Diary is published in its integrality in Part II of the Book, but Part I sets out the very calm (neighbourhood), but still turbulent context (political, cultural and economic) in which I spent my childhood and adolescence in the 1950s and 1960s.

Can you discuss the significance of publishing the book under your maiden name, Annaruby Soopramanien?

The book is published under my maiden name, because I relate to my early years of childhood and adolescence, where I was known, as Annaruby Soopramanien to both my neighbours and my school, which was the N. D. de Lorette and thereafter the Loreto Convent Secondary School, both located on Eugène Laurent Street, near the Champ-de-Mars. In those days, the population was much smaller than it is now, and within our area, we used to know most of the people in the locality by their names or faces, as we walked down Rue du Pouce to school and back. I used to walk down Rue Desroches or Rue Labourdonnais, along with other schoolgirls. In the early days, my father put me on his bike and rode me to school, until a young person, who took several children to their respective schools, was hired. She usually carried our bags, on her shoulders.

It was my deliberate choice to use my husband’s name when I married as from 1971, and professionally I am better known in my work environment as Ruby Saha. But for a book, where I go back to my roots, I needed to use my maiden name, so that my contemporaries could connect more readily to me. Should I ever have the opportunity to venture in writing upon matters in my professional field, then I will use the name of Ruby Saha.

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Your book covers your experiences growing up in a modest Hindu family of Tamil origin. How did these cultural and familial influences shape your worldview and writing?

The writing of “44, Rue du Pouce” gave me the unique opportunity of walking back seven decades and looking at my childhood and adolescence, with the experience of a woman, who was already a mother and grandmother, had two challenging careers in succession and had widely travelled throughout the globe. Looking back, I feel very thankful that I grew up in the modest, but multi-cultural environment of Ward IV where our neighbours belonged to different ethnic communities. The circumstances in which all families in our neighbourhood lived, were such that there developed a strong bond between my siblings and other children, with whom we regularly interacted, outside our school hours. That type of relationship does not exist now, in many neighbourhoods, for a large number of factors, including the advent of information technology, which has reduced social interaction on a person to person basis.

My parents were traditional in their way of living, but they were very open to all cultures and religions, like most people of the time with whom we connected were. It was the deliberate choice of my parents to have me admitted to the Loreto Convent School, when I won the Junior Scholarship, for my secondary education – although, at that time, Queen Elizabeth College, under Mrs Flashman as the Headmistress, was already recognized as the Star school for Girls. Queen Elizabeth College would have had considerably more funding from the Colonial Government than the religious schools could have had.

Therefore, as a result of my admission to Loreto Convent school, I was exposed, as a child, in addition to a more Conservative upbringing as well as to a Catholic education, than if I had been admitted to Queen Elizabeth College: I recall going to mass, whenever the opportunity occurred, with my class, in a very mixed environment – throughout my schooling. Conversely, when I was going back home every afternoon, I was going back to my traditional family that participated in all the Hindu celebrations and religious festivities, like Cavadee, Govinden and Divali – and where my father, in addition to being a civil servant, was also a singer of Carnatic music. He was known as Deva Chanteur and whenever somebody would come and ask for Deva Chanteur, my mother would be irritated and ask “Ah, you are asking for Monsieur Deva?”

It has been that exposure to different cultures and lifelong friendships with my peers from all different communities, whilst evolving in the modest, but buoyant environment of Ward IV, that has made me what I am today.

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Your journey from studying town planning in the UK to working for the Government of Mauritius and later practicing law (private practice) is fascinating. How have these diverse experiences informed your perspective on urban development and the environment?

I had left Mauritius at the age of 18, after having worked very hard (Iqbal Rajahbalee, originally of 44 bis Rue du Pouce, recognized, on the Panel discussion, that I was working too hard) and obtained the English Scholarship (Class of 1965). I was to stay for an extra 3 years in the UK to work after completing my town planning studies, but I decided to leave the UK then, although, at the time, I was already a high earner and had already been promoted as a Principal Planner for Swansea District Council in Wales, at the age of 27. I took the deliberate decision to go back home in order to serve the country I loved, with my experience of planning in the UK. It was not an easy move, as I was already married at the time to my foreign husband, and we had already bought our house on the Gower Peninsula. So we had not only to quit our good jobs, but also to sell our house.

Upon my return to Mauritius, I was immediately engaged into the Civil Service where I had a very challenging town planning career at the Ministry of Housing, from which I retired on 14 March 2007. The work at the Ministry was very diverse, inasmuch as we were engaged not only in National Physical Planning, so as to identify areas of growth and those of restraint (in order to maintain the overall sustainable development of the country, within a longterm perspective framework), but also in Local Planning for local authorities, which were not yet professionally staffed. On top of that, we were also engaged in actual projects, including cyclone rehousing, following major cyclones, like Gervaise and Hollanda. My first actual Project was the planning of the Port Louis Harbour Area, which I recall doing with my friend, Nandraj Patten, now a well-known barrister.

I have worked under several Governments since 1975 and a number of Ministers and I am convinced that my experience would not have been as rich, as I had stayed to work in UK where I had started my planning career. In the 1990s, I was invited to connect regularly to the UN system on Climate Change and I kept being called to address specialist audiences in Vienna, Seoul, Nairobi, Canberra, and Brussels on the impact of climate change on small islands. I was also to recommend to the management of the Ministry, following a mission to Australia, the setting up of the Land Information Management System, which is now operating, in the country, under the LAVIMS system.

In the meantime, my interest had shifted from environment protection and planning, to the Justice system. I therefore read law and was ranked 4th in the Vocational Bar Exams in 1998. I was admitted to the Mauritian Bar on 15 March 2007. I therefore shifted to a very engaging second career where I have now had some 16 years’ standing, but where in view of the late stage at which I joined the Bar, I chose to specialize only in topics that I was already familiar with, like the environment, planning and land acquisition.

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My rich and turbulent work experience has therefore allowed me to have a clear appreciation of the following, inter alia:

(i) The historical legacy left by the French planners, in their master planning, including the créole style of architecture, which is so well adapted to our climate

(ii) The incredible network for storm water evacuation that we have inherited from the French: our experience from rainstorms compels us to realize that there is a dire need to maintain that system as well as control density, as demand for more building development increases and the permeability of soils is proportionately reduced;

(iii) The rich elegance of the central parts of Port Louis, as left by the Colonial masters;

(iv) The balance that was always kept between the built-up area and mature trees: Port Louis in the past was characterized by an abundance of greenery and trees, where the lush canopies overhang the streets: I recall not having suffered so much from heat, as I do now, because the trees and greenery altered the microclimate;

(v) The green areas of the City are in fact its “lungs” that all capital cities pride themselves with.

(vi) The complexities of the justice system, especially for the layman and the illiterate.

When I was very young and before I started working, I thought that, once I started working, I would immediately be able to address and resolve social justice – but after 50 years of working experience in both the planning and the legal fields, I know that for each particular case, we can only try our best. We are only part of a well-established, but complex system and often the final outcome is beyond our personal control. I accept that and I do not worry about it. I can be disappointed with the outcome of my endeavours, but I move on, and seek to learn from each particular event.

The rediscovery of your teenage diary seems to have been a pivotal moment in your decision to write your memoir. Can you describe the emotions and memories that surfaced upon revisiting your past through the pages of your diary?

It was upon writing the Memoir that my childhood memories came back. Up to that time, I always had a feel-good factor about my youth and adolescence, but, in my life, there had always been one event after the other and I never had time to reflect that much on the past. It was that Journey back to the Past, over the last 4 years, since the Covid period of January 2020, whilst I was researching for 44, Rue du Pouce, that helped me reconnect directly to:

• The Feelgood factor of growing up in the multi-ethnic, vibrant and rather intellectual Ward IV.

• Our lasting bond with the children of our neighbours, with whom we played nearly all day, outside school hours – within the safety of our homes or on the adjoining streets. At the time, the streets served as an important social platform, after 4pm till dusk, as there was no traffic whilst there was no TV or social media to distract our attention at the time.

• The values of our parents, who like most parents of the day, were devoted to the education of their children, as that was the only way to move out of poverty and towards self –reliance.

Annaruby Soopramanien-Saha 1.jpg (That was a photo taken when she became laureate in February 1966. It was taken by a journalist from the newly opened Tamil Voice newspaper at the time.)

In your book, you provide a vivid account of life in the Mauritian capital during the 1960s. How have you seen the city and its culture evolve over the years? What do you think of the Metro and the Victoria Urban Terminal?

The City and its culture changed overnight with the racial riots and tension that occurred during the struggle for political independence from the United Kingdom. When I looked back at the pre-independence period in Mauritius, which should have been a very exciting time for most Mauritians with political ambition. It was unfortunate that the circumstances gave rise to racial tensions and there was loss of life, as Port Louis used to be a very safe city. Many Mauritians chose to migrate to other countries, in the pre-independence era, because they were wary of any post-Colonial Government, where there would be a Hindu majority. As a result of the ethnic riots, many other families, not wishing to move abroad, chose to migrate away from Port Louis to the other townships, which were more politically neutral at the time.

The habit of “Guette les Passants”, which was the usual habit of neighbours putting out chairs to chat outside the house, until dusk, stopped for good. It is also true that that transition coincided and was reinforced by the spreading of the television network in most households, so that also encouraged families to spend longer hours indoors. Miss Monique Ohsan and Mrs Manda Boolell became very familiar faces in our sitting rooms. Miss Monique Ohsan was the journalist who interviewed me when I won the English Scholarship in February 1966.

The Metro and the Victoria Urban Terminal

I am of the view that the building of the Metro was a bold decision of the present Government, inasmuch as the provision of mass transport had been a constant recommendation of all planning Consultants, right from the time of the MATIM in the late 70s, right to the National Development Strategy developed by Halcrow in the 2005, but it had always been a difficult political decision for most Governments to carry out the implementation phase. The rail transit system has also proved very popular with the local population and, therefore, it would be very important to have its extensions to all the main centres of population and activities as soon as economically possible.

Should the resources of the country allow for the same, the routing of those future lines likely to be implemented in not so distant a future, should be planned as from now, to allow for a softer impact upon our historical urban centres as well as our exquisite rural landscapes. The planning of urban Centres such as the Victoria Urban Terminal, where people can carry out their economic activities, in a state of the art environment, at the nodes of communication, is very much a feature of modern living. It is likely that, in the future, such models would be replicated right round the country, helping working households to save time in their daily journey to work.

Policies of mass transit are normally accompanied by complementary measures to encourage more intensive use of the mass transit infrastructure, and lesser use of private cars for the Journey to Work. In due course, those policies could be examined for Mauritius. It is likely that the inhabitants of Port Louis would welcome greater pedestrianization of some selected streets, including tree planting, as is being done in other congested cities across the world. As our people are becoming more elderly and less mobile, our overall transport infrastructure should be adapted to allow people with less mobility to get from their house to and the nodes of activity and transport, with as much ease as possible.

Annaruby Soopramanien-Saha 2.jpg (Annaruby Soopramanien with her siblings on the day she left for the UK.)

The State, through its Ministry of Social Security, is already taking excellent initiatives to assist the elderly and those with less mobility. In due course, multi-sectoral initiatives are likely to be triggered to ensure that roads, including side pavements, may be made more accessible and friendly to persons on wheelchairs, so as to readily connect with the ramps on the metros.

You discuss the importance of education in lifting families out of poverty and improving their social standing. How did your own educational experiences shape your beliefs in the power of learning?

The power of education has definitely lifted myself and my siblings out of poverty and has improved our social standing. But our learning process was a joy and not a strain, because we evolved in a peaceful and conducive environment in Ward IV, where all the ingredients were there to help our learning process – calm environment, good vibes, wish to achieve, strongly religious values and ambition to have access to a good university and become a graduate. I am of the view that there are far more opportunities now, for young people to be lifted out of poverty, on account of wider opportunities to attend different types of higher education, including for commerce, business, construction, the different trades, communication and the hospitality industry.

We did not have such opportunities before. There are now many more openings for young people, but I find it important that whatever you do, you should do it with love, good vibes, care, dedication and honesty.

Your book offers a unique perspective on the societal expectations of Hindu women during your time. How do you think these expectations have changed, if at all, in modern-day Mauritius?

Although I was born in the post-war era, I was lucky to have parents who sought to give me equal opportunities to aspire to university education – on the same footing as my 2 brothers. However, looking back, if I did not have the opportunity to go abroad, I would probably have joined the Civil Service, like many of my peers did, and had a comfortable career as an administrator. Women in my mother’s generation were less fortunate because they were often not encouraged by their own parents to proceed beyond their primary education. They had to leave school, to learn to cook and to help looking after the younger children, until the right suitor, from the same community or caste, came along. Their only destiny in life was to get married to one “of their kind”.

In my generation, inter-ethnic marriages were taboo, although we mixed freely with other communities at social gatherings. There were several instances of such mixed marriages in our extended family, but there was more of an outcry in respect of Hindu women marrying outside their community. I found that unfair. I have no doubt that there are practical advantages if you marry a groom or bride, who belongs to the same community “and lives down the road”, but I recognize that there are also common values between two persons belonging to a different race or religion or country.

In advising the younger generation, I would look more closely at common values and sincerity of relationships. I do admire those who made the “jump” in the bygone days. Now mixed marriages are very common and are widely accepted.

The story of saving the centenarian Banyan Tree in Tamarin is truly moving. Can you discuss how this legal victory influenced your commitment to environmental conservation?

Both the neighbourhood and their legal representatives were relieved upon the saving of the Banyan Tree in Tamarin in 2011, which has saved the cradle of biodiversity represented by the Banyan Tree, including the thousands of birds, which lived on the Tree, from the Bulldozer. That Order from the Learned Judge also put a stop to the excavation of the golden coastal sands of Tamarin for a basement car park. I was very pleased with that victory, and that judicial decision, but my commitment to environment dates back to my younger days, when I was planning at the Ministry of Housing. Unfortunately, many unbridled property development projects do get through the net, for various reasons, mainly for the massive financial gains, if a higher density than allowed by the Guidelines, can be manipulated and achieved.

“44, Rue du Pouce” emphasizes the need for a sustainable environment balanced with nature. How do you think these principles can be applied to address the challenges posed by climate change on small islands?

Mauritius is a Paradise island, which is densely populated and engaged in an increasing range of activities, requiring land resources. Mauritius is fortunate to have developed a National Physical Strategy for the country as a whole, with Local Plans for the control of development in each local authority area, as well as Planning Policy Guidelines for different areas, including the coastal areas. If the Ministerial Guidelines are faithfully and honestly abided by, development would proceed on a sustainable basis, but not all Promoters would abide by business ethics. Unless enforcement is meticulously carried out by local authority officers, there can be deviations and manipulations, which are not easily detected. It is important that there should be strict development control in the coastal areas of small islands, just to give just one example:

Development in excess of the correct standards on the coastal area of small islands would precipitate pollution of the pristine lagoons adjoining those areas, reduce the quality of the very rich and often unique marine resources that have developed over years, cause depletion of sand and accelerate soil erosion – in other words, they would destroy the very potential upon which many small islands depend for their tourism sustainability.

Annaruby Soopramanien-Saha 3.jpg (Family photo on the day she left for the UK to study in September 1966.)

The official launch of your book was a grand event with classical music and a panel discussion. How did it feel to see your life’s work celebrated in such a manner?

I was delighted and privileged to have organized a carefully planned musical event, with classical music and Devotional songs. The Event coincided with the 10th anniversary of my father’s death. My father had lost his mother when he was only 2 years old, and he took solace in devotional singing from a very young age and continued for almost eight decades. My father contributed, through his singing, to Tamil culture, in Mauritius, over more than 7 decades. Therefore, music and rehearsals were part and parcel of our family life throughout our childhood and we wished to create the proper atmosphere for the Launch of “44, Rue du Pouce”.

I was very lucky and privileged to have the Panchamukam Group, led by Mr P. Marday, perform on 6 different musical instruments (veena, mridangam, table, cajon, morsing and keyboard) as well as songs from 2 classical singers, Miss Krithi Devi Payen (who graduated from the Oriental School of Music of London), and Mrs Malini Soopramanien. My own niece Vani, also from London, was very happy to sing an English song entitled “Journey to the Past”, in honour of her grandparents’ house at 44, Rue du Pouce. I am also very grateful to the Panel, who comprised persons very familiar with the period and the area:

(i) My own brother Anba, a Professor of Medicine, now aged 79, who left Mauritius in 1966. He now lives in London. At the age of 79, Anba is still full of energy as well as passionately engaged in charity work, destined to assist those who suffer from spinal cord injury, disability and ageing. In Mauritius, he works in close collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

(ii) Dr Sooshilla Gopaul, who is specialized in literature and poetry and is a lecturer at the Open University of Mauritius;

(iii) Mr Jose Arunasalom, previous Minister, consultant with international experience and presently an Adviser on Economic matters to the Rodrigues Regional Assembly. We re-connected with one another, since a few years, as Independent Directors of the Lavastone Board of Directors;

(iv) Mr Claude Wong So, Civil Engineer and previous Island Secretary, whom my siblings and I had befriended in Rodrigues, when my father was stationed as Finance Officer there in 1960; and

(v) Finally, but not least, Mr Iqbal Rajahbalee, Senior Counsel, who along with his siblings, grew up in 44 bis, Rue du Pouce and were amongst those young neighbours, with whom my siblings and myself, had the pleasure and privilege to share all our years of childhood and adolescence.

With the French version of the book set to release in 2024, what are your hopes for the reach and impact of your memoir in the Francophone world?

I am of the view that with our rich Colonial history and the symbiotic links enjoyed between Mauritius and France, a French version of “44, Rue du Pouce” will appeal to many in France, Réunion as well as in Mauritius itself.

Lastly, what steps can be taken to prevent brain drain and ensure parents aren’t left to experience ageing alone while their children are abroad, busy building their careers, sometimes in a seemingly never-ending cycle?

The present brain drain of our young persons is a problem for our country as a whole. This is being addressed at national level by positive policies upon the increase of foreign labour. At 44, Rue du Pouce, our parents had never exerted any pressure upon my siblings or myself to come back to Mauritius, when we all left, one after the other in the late 1960s. Both my 2 brothers chose to stay abroad, but I chose to come back because I was attached to my country as well as my parents. As you rightly state, there is a never-ending cycle – in the case of my immediate family, the cycle has started over again… Both our children have left Mauritius, for a good many years now, to embark upon their own careers and personal lives. We are unlikely to make any pressure for them to come back, although we are ageing parents and we have already health problems from time to time.

Ageing persons, like myself and my husband, are lucky in Mauritius to have a very good health care system, that can be very responsive to emergency, including for the elderly. Although we normally consult with our personal doctors for regular monitoring, I have had the personal experience of attending the Emergency Department of Dr Jeetoo Hospital on some 3 occasions, over the last few months, when I was experiencing severe stress, prior to the publication of “44, Rue du Pouce”. On each of the 3 occasions, when I was accompanied by my very caring nephew, I was amazed by the emergency response at each station, and the very professional attention given to me by the young doctors, stationed at Dr Jeetoo hospital. I was always back home, within 3 hours, reassured after the thorough check made of all the vital signs (blood pressure, sugar level, ecg), and the advice of the hospital doctors. And Dr Jeetoo Hospital is in such close proximity – within 30 minutes’ drive of my home at Beau Bassin.

I had also recently an ear Infection, and I was amazed by the five-star service at the ENT hospital, in Vacoas. I was in and out within half an hour!!! I told my family that it was so clean and the service was so rapid, so kind and so effective. Upon my most optimistic scenario, I foresee that, like most elderly persons, whose children live abroad, have to regular monitor their health, in order to avoid any serious deterioration of health. In terms of day to day living, as elderly persons, there is a need to downsize. As a couple, we have now reached a stage, where we will have to consider downsizing from our existing large villa and move into an apartment. That is the next logical step for a more sustainable way of living for the elderly. But it will not be easy to take that decision.

Up to now, we have no true cause to complain or worry, as we are not as isolated as many others of our age. We are confident that, as resources and manpower improve, those aged and vulnerable people who are truly isolated and devoid of assistance may be reached. However, we should not always depend on the State to intervene, with respect to isolation. There is also a need for greater solidarity towards the vulnerable, from children, grandchildren, family and neighbours.