A happy Réunion

Kiran Mehta | Updated on May 18, 2018

Small is beautiful :Only 63 km long and 45 km wide, the French outpost of Réunion Island is packed with fantastic vistas: forests, mountains and beaches. Photo: Kiran Mehta

Flavours of life: A gabby local, Marie Theresa Subramanium is seen shopping for ingredients for her family recipe of chicken cari (curry) at Saint Pierre market   -  KIRAN MEHTA

In a world increasingly divided by race, caste and religion, a tiny speck of an island in the Indian Ocean remains the perfect melting pot

The smell of roses and frangipani wafted through the air, as I ambled along the narrow walkway of grass and earth. The coastal breeze blew my way a stray card bearing a gut-wrenching message: “I’d trade all my tomorrows for one yesterday with you.” On either side lay graves, some ornate, others spartan; some recently visited with offerings of bouquets, incense, and cards. I was at St Paul’s Marine Cemetery, not an unusual spot for a visitor to Réunion, an overseas French department that sits in the Indian Ocean, not far from Mauritius. This burial site, located just off the placid St Paul’s Bay, bears the remains of some famous personalities who lived on this island. Crowds gather around the grave of ‘Parnassian’ poet Leconte De Lisle, the pioneer of a movement that, ironically, rebelled against the flowery nature of poetry.

But the best stories can be heard around the crypt of the feared pirate Olivier Levasseur, or La Buse (the Buzzard), a nickname he earned for the speed and ruthlessness with which he attacked the enemy — extracting fingernails, reusing skulls as wine glasses, and so on. When the pirate was captured and executed in 1730, he supposedly threw up into the air a parchment that contained a jumble of 17 lines — a map, he claimed, for anyone who could read it. The cryptogram, incidentally, has been tested by the British Museum and traced back to the 18th century, though it is yet to be deciphered.

Yet, what caught my attention at the cemetery were the handful of graves painted in saffron, and which bore a trishul. What religion did the deceased belong to? My host and friend Cathydja Patel, who represents Réunion Tourism in India, explained, “We’re Creole.” Originally, ‘Creole’ referred to people of mixed black and European heritage. Today, it has evolved to refer to people of a variety of descent who have come together to create Réunion — Europeans, Africans, Chinese, Indians, and more.

The stunning isle, only 63 km long and 45 km wide, is packed with fantastic vistas: forests, mountains, and emerald waters. Réunion owes her unique topography to a raging volcano: Piton de la Fournaise. This speck in the Indian Ocean remained untouched till the 15th century; it first appears on a map by the Arab cartographer Al Idrisi, who called it ‘Dina Morgabine’, or ‘Western Island’.

While the Arabs sailed past, it was the Portuguese explorer Pedro Mascarenhas who first set foot on it in the 16th century; he discovered Mauritius, Rodrigues and Réunion, naming the archipelago ‘Mascarenes’. Incidentally, the man was also a viceroy of Goa.

The Portuguese made way for the French, who named and renamed it ‘Isle de la Réunion’ and ‘Bourbon’, as well as ‘Ile de Bonaparte’. This piece of paradise was initially a prison of sorts, where the fiercest convicts were jailed. Later, the French decided to use the soil to grow coffee and sugar cane. They brought in Africans, Chinese and Indians to work the land, initially as slaves, and later as indentured labour. For a while, the French lost the isle to the British, who brought in more Indian hands.

Each migrant journeyed across the seas, armed with prayer books and beads, bagfuls of spices, languages, customs and traditions. It is this unique blend that plays through in every aspect of a ‘Creole’s’ life; even in death, accounting for the trishul in the cemetery.

Patel traces her roots to Gujarat, accounting for her familiar last name. Her Muslim island-born father wanted her named Khadija, while her Catholic-Parisian mother had her heart set on Cathy. As is the Creole way, a consensus was reached and Cathydja was born.

The mélange also plays out in the language. While French remains the official language, Réunion Creole — a base of French with hints of Malagasy, Portuguese, Hindi, Tamil and Gujarati — is widely spoken. As I drive across the isle, it seems like many places at once. The Art Library of Saint-Denis sits within a beautiful 18th-century colonial mansion, much like the heritage structures that grace some Indian cities. The Felix Guyon Former Military Hospital was completed in the 1830s by the East India Company, and reminds me of India Gate, which some believe was fashioned after Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The rural areas consist of storybook wooden houses with pastel-coloured roofs. Minarets and Chinese pagodas form part of the urban skyline. A familiar façade greets me in the form of the Mahakali Temple in Saint Pierre, built in the Dravidian style of architecture, complete with a colourful, soaring gopuram (tower).

The temple priest Balaram, in a crimson lungi and shawl, greets me in Tamil and Creole. Balaram’s great-grandparents came from Chennai. The family held on to its Brahmin heritage, serving as priests of the temple over generations. Balaram says, “I head back to Kancheepuram once a year, to a pathshala, to revise my Sanskrit.” As I ask him about Diwali, Balaram mentions another Hindu celebration on the island — walking on fire. Thimithi, as it is known in Tamil Nadu, is celebrated on the island as Pandiale. The queen of the Pandavas, Draupadi was born of a sacred fire. It is believed that if one has unshaken belief in Draupadi, a reincarnation of Mariamman, one will emerge from the fire unscathed. Réunion celebrates the festival with much pomp, and people of all religions gather together to watch the act of faith.


Not far from the temple lies the Saint Pierre market, a bustling bazaar that sees farmers and craftsmen set up shop every Saturday. I invest in a necklace made of dried seeds, marvel at an art piece crafted out of volcanic rocks, and check out the baskets made of braided vacoa leaves. As I stroll through the market, the pungent aroma of spices, mixed with the scent of pineapple, a whiff of jackfruit, and other vegetables and fruits, hit me. A gabby local, Marie Theresa Subramanium is shopping for ingredients for her family recipe of chicken cari (curry). She says, “When my grandmother migrated to the island from the Malabar coast, she brought with her scribblings of traditional recipes.” Over the years her grandma’s chicken cari evolved to include not just chicken, but also pork, as well as a vegetarian version, with produce such as palmiste (the bud of the palm tree) and chouchou (a type of gourd).

Flavours of life: A gabby local, Marie Theresa Subramanium is seen shopping for ingredients for her family recipe of chicken cari (curry) at Saint Pierre market   -  KIRAN MEHTA


Chef Jacky, a celebrity who traces his roots to Bengal, puts it best when he says, “In Réunion, you can start the day with flaky, buttery croissants washed down with English tea; a sumptuous lunch of piquant crab cari and rice, with a side of achards (pickles); and end the day with steak frites, washed down with rhum arrangé (rum infused with herbs and spices).”

My journey ends where it all began: the Cite du Volcan, a hi-tech volcanology museum at the foot of Piton de la Fournaise, which is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Through placards, videos and holograms, I learn that the basaltic shield volcano is 5,30,000 years old and erupts regularly — the last one was on April 27 this year — resulting in large lava flow. The active areas are uninhabited and cause little or no loss of life. An employee of the museum, Arthur Vaitilingom reveals that it is possible to hike, cycle, and even fly over the ‘volcano’s forest path’, to peek into the heart of the furnace. The surname has me prodding the museum worker’s past; his great-grandfather came to the island from South India. Vaitilingom Sr brought with him shoots of a banyan tree, which he later planted on the island. He worshipped the tree till the end of his days. His grandfather, who married a woman of Malagasy descent, continued the ritual, but died too young to pass on Indian traditions to his son. Yet, once a year — supposedly the day on which his great-grandfather set foot on Réunion — Vaitilingom’s family heads to the banyan tree to offer a prayer.

As I walk around the museum, I watch a video of the earth trembling, giving way as molten lava covers everything in sight. And though Réunion may have been born of nature’s fury, it is a piece of paradise; a place untouched by the politics of polarisation; a place where blacks, whites, Indians, Chinese and many others live together in harmony. Perhaps in a world that’s increasingly divided, this little isle will show the way.

Kiran Mehta is a Mumbai-based journalist

Published on May 18, 2018

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