Do you know what burnt sugar smells like? If you’ve ever left a pot of sugar on the hob, and carelessly gone to do some other task, you’ll know that it smells like caramel, ash, and it clings to your clothes for days after. When my family and I arrived in Mauritius fifteen years ago, it was burnt sugar, mixed with the thick tropical humidity that hit my nose when we stepped out of the airport. I was bundled into the car, sleepy enough from the long flight to doze off on the way to our new home, but alert enough to see the wispy tops of the sugar cane dance against the movement of the car. I remember that it was raining and the sky was white. It left droplets of water that ran down the glass making my first memories of the country blurry. My new world was trapped in droplets. With time these memories would become like a watercolour painting. Fifteen years later time had knocked a glass of water onto the canvas and they had become blurrier still. Yet, I’ll always remember the burnt sugar.
When you’re a kid, you never understand the gravity of a moment – this comes later. From the outside, our new house was covered in a thicket of bougainvillaea – the type that attractive large hives of wasps. The house was experimental; Underneath the flowers, it wasn’t much to look at. At best it could be described as a wedge, the type you would use to chock a car or hold back a door in the wind. One could easily imagine it to be a slice of concrete birthday cake that was slowly blackening with mould. Certain members of the family would argue the upstairs was haunted. My sister was scratched, and once a pot in the kitchen flung itself from the hook. It was the house where I saw the first film I ever loved, was given my first cellphone and drank my first beer.
Out the back of our house was a sugar cane field. Driven out of the house by boredom, I would wander the fields. Sometimes I would venture off the rocky paths that cut through the cane and would emerge hours later with tiny cuts on my arms and legs from the sharp blades. Other times I would coax a friend down into the fields (“Come on, it’ll be fun”) and we would wander aimlessly together. A collection of rocks or a stagnant pond would seem like the most exciting of discoveries and we would rush home to annoy our parents with stories of swims in hidden lakes, or hilltops with sweeping views.
My neighbour Dominique once bought a cigarette, stolen off a cousin or bought for rupees at the local store. We lit the cigarette, choked on a few puffs and accidentally set the dry sugar cane waste at our feet alight. Our blackened soles would track a series of footprints across the kitchen tile later on which we would both get in trouble for.
Instead of closed bedroom doors or backstreet alleys, we had tall grasses that didn’t tell our secrets. We became needles in a haystack; Impossible for our parents to find. First kisses were had in the cane, and tears were concealed in its spaces. It was a place to be lost, a place to be concealed, and eventually a place that would flavour the air with its sticky scent. It would become the sight and smell of home.
And then when it was high above our heads and had been filled with all the secrets it could hold – it would be lit on fire. Specks of black ash would paint our wedge house, and rows of flame would be beaten into submission by men in black gumboots. It would lick the bougainvillaea, expose our waterholes, and flatten our hiding places. The island would be flavoured with burnt sugar once again. Life would be lived out in the open for a while. Until the green shoots sprouted again; Ready to conceal the new secrets of the season.