Café Dallas, a small pub in Rivière du Rempart, imposing itself as a landmark on Maurel Road near Arcade Allyboccus; Café Dallas was one of the most famous pubs in a rural part of the Island. For passers-by, this would be a not-to-be-visited place, resting on some seven feet rocky structure, accessible by climbing a good flight of steps – a taboo back in the days! More of a taboo owing to peculiar customers, the acidic smell of cigarettes, the sweet smell of Rhum and beers flowing to quench the madness of men. Oh men, rough men they were; or at least most were! Drawing in the pleasure of tobacco, the fumes dancing in front of misty eyes, and that particular group of queer customers, or so I was told. Among them, José; or Mandel for the dear ones.
Recounting back the good ol’ days, wrinkles spreading all over the face, crackled lips, but always a smile; a mischievous and childish one; thoughtful eyes; dreamy eyes and a ghastly voice – time has conquered youth, yet, the strength, conviction and hope for a better future live through this humble but strong fighter.
Oh Mandel; La Grande Dame. I always have keen ears to listen to her narratives. It would always start with blushs (pronounced as ˈbləsh ) – another Mauritian queer term; meaning handsome men. For trans-people, besides developing a codified language to communicate without reprisals, there are also sweet-bitter narratives: that of being accepted and above all, be loved, but transient love.
She had one of these, a blush, some decades back. A white man, a rich man, pouring riches all over; a bungalow on the shores of Poste Lafayette and a car. Not a week-end was spent without partying when the man was not home, inviting all the other sisters (term used to refer to other gay and trans-people) to enjoy the luxurious life of the private and charming place.
During other hours of the day, it would be a drive to Café Dallas, around a table, enjoying the beverages, and at times, ones or twos of these hunks winking and sending the waiters over to pour a drink to the ones they fancy for a ride. These were in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Daresay, I am pleasantly puzzled by the openness of this rural Mauritian place towards trans-people at that time. It was more than tolerance. It was more than respect. It was liking, cherishing, sharing, sex, flirting and love between souls.
I remember my tender ages, I was something like eight or nine, prior to this new millennia, standing at the bus station on Maurel Road, Café Dallas standing right before me and always intriguing. Unless my memory is playing tricks, I remember the Saturdays and Sundays when some curious inquisitive mind would find its way to this group of queer people moving in and out of – with impressions I had through the people at that time – the notorious place. It ought not to be tricks, I can ascertain, for I still have a faint memory of a pleasant queer person that marked me one fine such day that often, for some time after that incident, I have been secretly eyeing the place to catch a glimpse of Her Strangeness again, but to no avail. At that time, did I realise that I was not like every child?
Mandel’s heartthrob was not often in Mauritius; always juggling between the hectic business life and the forbidden sweet escapades to Paradise Island. Graceful youth is a sinful pleasure to the most fortunate at Café Dallas. Many would refer to loyalty in relationships. I would, selfishly so, refer to loyalty to one’s desires – sinful or not. Who the heck decided it to be this way anyways? But sins have to be redeemed. The forbidden distance relationship was not meant to last, alas; like Café Dallas, the once all-busy-pub; today, in shambles; a shabby place, locked and out-of-business.
Behind this story, there is also Mandel’s other narrative, that of being among the first fighters against HIV and AIDS since the mid 1990’s in Mauritius. Often, whitewashing and pinkwashing of the local LGBTQI and HIV/AIDS history leave many worth-remembering people out. The Stonewall Riots in the United States of America is one of those pivotal moment in LGBTQI history that some have tried to rewrite in white and male gay inks forgetting the black trans-people who have driven this moment of deliverance for a whole community.
From the eastern side of the Island, riding somewhere to Petite Rivière on the total west part of Mauritius, in an unfinished house, some of the self-sewn clothes hanging on the windows, dim-lighted constricted rooms, old crude broken wooden furniture stuffed against the walls; with a variety of novels and books from the once-in-a-lifetime lover, old pictures hanging on the walls, some wood carving souvenirs from abroad on shelves; José has since made this place a home with memoirs; struggling for a living; yet, still keeping up with her struggles for an inclusive community vibrantly alive.
Memoirs of Mandel, out of respect, admiration, appreciation, inspiration and love, but most importantly, to ensure as we celebrate the Transgender Day of Remembrance this 20th November 2016, that LGBTQI history in Mauritius is not rewritten to forget paying tribute to those who have paved a way for the new generation of Queer Fighters.