At sea on an island as a cyclone comes

This book is neither about ports and the labour of dockers nor about shipping and transport.  But I have to write about it because it is one of the most stunning books I have stumbled into during my obsessive reading of books about ships and ports and transport.

I picked up Mutiny because of its name, and because of its Indian Ocean setting.  I thought it may have to do with ships.  But it didn’t.  Had to do with my other obsession, prisons.   I don’t want to reveal too much about the story, as it is so perfectly crafted, with such beautiful symmetry, and such slow, gorgeous, devastating unravelling of the stories of the three protagonists.  Juna, Leila, and Mama Gracienne are three women -each belonging to a different generation- who are thrown in a prison together for “crimes” that range the spectrum from murder to union-organising and attacking the police.  Mama Gracienne is from Diego Gracia – and I shall say more about her and Diego Garcia below.  There are other women in the stories, including the blue ladies, who are the guards, and especially the malevolent Blue One-One, and other women: friends, comrades, agitators, organisers, leaders, daughters, mutineers.

In the acknowledgements of Mutiny, Lindsey Collen thanks her co-prisoners: “For sharing an arrest and trial in Port Louis in 1981 with me, thanks to my seven co-accused, all women from Diego Garcia, the Chagos Islands and Mauritius Main Islands, and to our lawyer, Kader Bhayat.  For sharing an arrest and trial with me in Johannesburg in 1969, thanks to my twenty co-accused, all students from the University of Witwaterstand, and our three lawyers.”  And it is clear that her own experiences colour her writing, as the stories of the women’s lives interweave with two different other kinds of texts.  The first kind of weavings are quotations from various laws and regulations.  Many lifted directly from Mauritian law; many others fictionalised. The language of these short passages is dry, judicial, horrifying:

Sedition: Any person who by words, writing or placards holds or brings into hatred or contempt, or excites disaffection towards the Government or the administration of justice; raises discontent or disaffection amongst the citizens or promotes feelings of ill will between different classes of citizens; shall commit the offence of sedition. [Criminal Code (Amended 1993) Section 283(1)] – Pasted up in the mess.

The tedium and horror of the language of law can be contrasted to the language of food and cooking when the women talk about their food fantasies, under a regime of strict ration control and near-starvation.  The food recipes come alphabetically, and are rich with memory, flavour, loss, and women’s labour:

Dried fish, crisp-fried like in Diego Garcia in homemade tomato sauce.  

Remember when you buy dried fish, that a half a quarter pound can feed a family,’ you say.

I am comparing the grammatical structures you use for this recipe with those used in a statute. A recipe: Remember, you say, when a, that b can c. A statute might read: Note when a (a local authority is set up) then b (it) can c (govern those living in the defined area). Why do I waste my time with such thoughts?

Boil the dried fish for a while, and the drain it. This takes some of the salt out of the fish and gives it back some body. Then take the fish off the bone, break it up into flakes, almost splinters, throw away all small, silly bones, but keep big ones, especially if you get the one with the spinal cord in it.

Heat up a pan of oil for deep-frying until there’s a haze. Then put the fish in it. Water will steam off in a loud hissing sound. Deep-fry the shredded fish until it doesn’t make the hissing noise in the oil any more and until it’s light. Then pour the oil from the pan, through a metal strainer (not to melt a plastic one, Leila) into a metal container for keeping the oil, which is delicious, for later use.

Then leave the fish draining in the strainer.

Now, brown onions slowly in some of the oil you have used for the fish, add three sprigs of fresh thyme.  When the onion is nearly cooked, add crushed garlic and, if you want to, one or two chopped up green chillies.

Then you chop up tomatoes (sour tomatoes are better) into tiny, tiny bits, almost crushed, and put them into the oil and spices. The tomato then half-boils, half-fries in the spices.

Taste the fried shredded fish to see how salty it is. Then add some salt (but not too much) to the tomato, and at the last minute put the friend salt fish in it. Take off the heat and sprinkle finely with chopped fresh coriander on top.

Serve with rice and lead soup, after a glass of baka dew. 

And the recipes go on, addressed to “you”, Mama Gracienne, and to “her”, Leila.  Some of them have a lot more personal details.  Others are brief and business-like, but they sketch a life outside the prison.  A life organised around sociability and food.  And loss.

The loss that devastates the most is that of Mama Gracienne.  She is expelled from Diego Garcia when she was away from the island visiting family and when she tries to go back she is told “the islands are closed.”  She tells the story:

‘Sometimes I don’t understand.  Sometimes I don’t understand anything. For a star, I don’t know how I got missed out, or maybe it was me that missed my chance. But I wasn’t ever registered like the others  were. I was never in any movement. I never joined in any of the hunger strikes. I didn’t even know there were any. Or what one was. Or where it was held. Afterwards I have heard. I have learnt about them.  I didn’t even know the others were registered. I didn’t know anything. I never got compensation. nobody even knows I ever came from Diego Garcia. I am forgotten.’

Here again, women’s stories are foregrounded, and these stories are inseparable from their histories, memories, pasts, and the worlds they inhabit:

‘My mother came from Diego Garcia too, and her mother, my granny, and my granny’s mother, my great grandmother. Her mother, in turn, had been taken there as a slave when she was only little and had brought Africa with her. My great grandmother could move into her mother afterwards, after her mother had died. She only did that when she was empty, she told me. Into her mother from Africa.  But she wasn’t often empty. Just at night, at full moon, when there was phosphorescence on the sea, then.  Then, she said, she could move into her dead mother from Africa. Or her dead mother from Africa into her. It’s not clear.’

When many years ago, I read David Vine’s extraordinary account of the expulsions from Diego Garcia, I read it for all the wonderful research he had done about the archipelago of US bases across the world. But the book also has a shattering ethnography of the lives of those 1500 people expelled from Chagos Islands in 1971.  In 1971, when they were deported, the UK gave the run of the islands to the US, and Diego Garcia became a lilypad base for the US Navy, patrolling its protectorates on the shores of the Indian Ocean, and especially, on the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.  And since 2001, the island has also been used to incarcerate War on Terror detainees or route rendered detainees.


The story of the expulsions runs in the background of the larger story about the prison mutiny, as a massive double-cyclone approaches:

And the sounds of the cyclone outside gain in uncontrollable restlessness, verging on the shrill now. Sudden and disconcerting gusts, rush in and press down and sideways on everything, and no sooner are the gusts in, than they begin to push and push until things start suddenly to break and to burst out. We hear them. A shutter here, a pane of glass there.

And as the pressure begins to drop, the tension in the story begins to go up. The prisoner mutiny is unexpected in its dimensions, tactics, and shape, and the trajectory it takes.  And the ending of the story comes almost too soon, and although much is resolved, Collen deliberately leaves the ending open… One of the last images is of Leila:

Then in the lintel, she dances. 

It’s so easy. Round and round, dancing revolutions.