A story of two matriarchs and neighbours, who couldn’t be more different
Martinique, in the 1860s: Matrizan, a handsome young French Creole of almost white complexion, falls head over heels in love with Valiama, a graceful, petite woman whose parents had come from Madras, India. She is gorgeous with her dark skin, shiny black hair, and as a good Catholic she wears the traditional dress of Martinique, the white fluffy skirts with colourful foulard and Madras turban. Inspite of his family’s dissent, he gets married to that flower of the Far East, and soon after a beautiful little daughter is born to the couple, whom they name Anise.
But the happiness of the couple doesn’t last long. Matrizan’s family just cannot leave them alone, and eventually their interfering becomes so unbearable that arrangements are made with another French Creole family in Trinidad, the de Boissières, to accommodate Valiama with her sister, mother and baby daughter on the Champs Elysées estate in Maraval.
Valiama and her relatives arrived in Trinidad. On Champs Elysées estate, they encounter their future landlady: Poleska de Boissière, whose husband’s interest is with the colonial Legislative Council and to a lesser degree his ‘freely’ given medical advice. Poleska, however, had taken over the ... of the impoverished sugar and cocoa estate. Both women - one Indian, one European, one penniless, the other without financial resources, but highly placed on the island’s social ladder - have to take their destinies into their own hands, if they want to make a living and provide for their children.
Poleska arranged for the four Martiniquan women to live on the estate lands near Cotton Hill. They had to pay a small rent to their no-nonsense landlady, a regular sum which was not easy to come by. Fortunately, Valiama had been sufficiently ‘acculturated’ in Martinique to possess the necessary social skills that made it easy for her to interface with Trinidad’s French Creole society. She continued to dress in the Martiniquan fashion, spoke French patois, and had a marketable knowledge of French pastry cooking. She also was an accomplished masseuse, which was the state of the art treatment for the many muscular ailments experienced at a time before more modern medications were invented.
Poleska, the French creole estate owner, had her own problems. Champs Elysées was heavily mortgaged, and her husband had no interest in running the affairs of the estate. He was a medical doctor, and his highly evolved social conscience made him treat many patients for free, which didn’t put food on the de Boissière table either. So his wife, who had previously been married to an Austrian and lived for several years in Vienna, had to take matters in hand and became - very unusual for the time - a businesswoman. Seeing that not much could be gained with agricultural crops from the land, she decided to go into quarrying. The stones and gravel she extracted from the Maraval river were, amongst other projects, used to build the St. Ann’s Hospital.
Meanwhile, love had moved into Valiama’s little house on Cotton Hill again. She got married for the second time, this time to a Tamil, an East Indian immigrant from southern India, by the name of Narain. Together, they had several more children, and they made money by keeping cows for milk, which they sold to the newly developing neighbourhood of St. Clair. They also augmented their income by cutting grass and selling it door to door fto the many stables, or by working in the Botanic Gardens. Valiama’s children went to St. Dominic’s school, which had been erected on a lot which had been given to the Catholic church by Poleska.
Poleska, after seeing that Valiama and Narain managed to pay their rent regularly, decided to encourage more Tamils to settle on the lands of her estate. Little by little, several other villages were created on the estate: Boissiere No. 1 and No.2, the villages of Cocoa, Guava, Franchine, Dibe, La Seiva and Cotton Hill. Later, Barbadian immigrants settled in Valiama’s neighbourhood, and their colourful little chattel houses mixed picturesquely with the white-washed tapia houses of the Tamils. Poleska was thus able to bring an income stream into the de Boissière household, and when her husband complained about all these Indians in the vicinity of the Great House, she would reply dryly: “If you want to have food on your own table, you have to put up with the smell of them cooking with coconut oil.”
Valiama’s first daughter Anise, who had come with her from Martinique, got married to Tamby Pillai, whose parents had come on the John Allen from Coimbatore in south-west India. Tamby’s father Shiva was employed by Poleska for a exorbitant wage of $ 1 per day, because he had special skills in digging drainage channels on the mountain side which left the humidity for the cocoa trees just perfect. Anise and Tamby lived in the faith of the Tamils, and the Pillais were to become a prosperous Trinidadian family in later years.
Being more Martiniquan than Indian, she had christened all her children with French names and had them baptised catholic. When Valiama’s husband Narain died shortly after the birth of their last child, she had to find ways to feed all her children without his share of income. She got more cows and expanded on the dairy business, with the girls bottling the milk and the boys delivering it to the middle and upper class homes in St. Clair - including to Poleska, who took four bottles every day.
Valiama was known as a cheerful person, despite her poverty and hardship, and up to an advanced age smoked her clay pipe. She and her family had interfaced a lot with the Creole neighbours, and she was well-known and well-liked by all. During the famous Tamil festivals, like the fire pass and the climbing of a very tall pole in celebration of Lord Krishna, which were held annually in the village of Boissiere at the foot of Cotton Hill, her children, 50 grandchildren, 70 great-grandchildren and 20 great-great-grandchildren came to see their matriarch, whom they tenderly called ‘Memé Veronique’. Lady Valiama died in 1954.