In Mauritius, sugarcane plantations, occupying roughly a third of the island, stand tall and proud. Just like Viju Gowreesunkur, who owns quite a few of them, and is a man who has tasted sucrose and success on the windswept island.
On some days in these parts in Central Flacq, the gentle rhythm of the swaying green plantations and cool sea breeze is interrupted by the staccato sound of an old engine roaring to life.
Locals know this to be Gowreesunkur, out for a drive in one of his many classic Rolls-Royces or cabriolets decked in colors that stand out in the ubiquitous green. The timeless appeal of the sugarcane fields and the classic cars take unsuspecting passersby to another era.
“I love old things, old houses, old furniture… and old cars that make me nostalgic,” says Gowreesunkur, who at 63 has almost as many vintage cars parked in his front yard.
“When you see an old car, it brings back memories of your parents, an old film… the cars are that and so many things, you can’t really express it.”
When FORBES AFRICA meets this sugarcane farmer in the airy patio of his unpretentious two-storeyed Mauritius home that he has been staying in for more than three decades, he is seated on a jaded cane sofa in mustard-colored shorts and a grey t-shirt.
His sunglasses are perched on his forehead but his eyes are fixed on the collection of cars, or his “children”, in front of him. There are no pricey artefacts in his patio – his valuables are all out in the dirt, metal and motor shining in the morning sun.
The saying ‘you don’t see classic cars in a therapist’s parking lot’ must hold true for Gowreesunkur, as he is a man for whom therapy is this cathartic sight that greets him every morning; that makes him grateful for the gift of life, as he deeply inhales in the crisp saline air and the sweet smell of money.
“If I don’t see them, I miss them,” he says.
The antique enthusiast says he has at least 50 vintage cars in his collection, a record in all of Mauritius. A respected senior at Mauritius’ Vintage and Classic Car Owners Association (VCCOA), he regularly attends meets and races. He says there may be about five serious vintage car collectors in the country.
In Gowreesunkur’s dark, musty garage, under greasy white sheets, are such jewels as a stunning burgundy 1950 Opel, six Chevrolets, six Jaguars, three horse wagons, a black Daimler that belonged to the Governor of Mauritius in the colonial period, and three Rolls-Royces, including a 1956 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud “believed to have belonged to Marilyn Monroe”.
For his 55th birthday, his wife Sarita, formerly a mathematics teacher who now runs the couple’s craft shop at the departure lounge of the airport in Mauritius, got him an old red BMW, and for his 60th, a blue Jaguar convertible from South Africa.
Gowreesunkur’s trusty mechanics keep them all in working order, although the family as a whole don’t mind getting their hands greasy and dirty.
You need to look at the ground for any evidence of the mechanics – all you see are pairs of legs and grimy gumboots as they are perennially under the cars fixing them.
Born in Vacoas, near Curepipe in Mauritius, Gowreesunkur, whose family goes back four generations to the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, grew up privileged. Parents from both families were landowners who owned cars, plantations and horses.
“My granddad owned racehorses. My father also used to ride horses. My dad’s sister is the first Indian lady to drive a car in Mauritius, and was also the first to cut her hair and ride a horse,” laughs Gowreesunkur as he speaks of his 90-year-old aunt who is still alive. Memories come thick and fast.
“My father was also a champion boxer on the island, but he died when I was little and while doing his medical studies in France. Our house was on five acres and we even had a gym and stable in the huge colonial house.”
Gowreesunkur’s first car was a beige Citroën that he has now given up. Every car he owns has a story. He bought the spotless white 1933 Rolls-Royce in England five years ago for about £20,000 (approximately $25,500 today), and had it shipped when the government allowed the import of vintage cars.
“I had a friend in England, I phoned him and said, ‘can you see the car for me’. He traveled the whole day to reach there and sealed the deal.”
He says he is very particular about checking out the vehicles before he buys them, as he has been duped several times.
“I had bought a 1920 Chevrolet and got a good friend from Port Elizabeth in South Africa to pick up the car. I had bought it based on a picture of the car [I had seen]; but my friend called to say it was useless, and that trees had grown inside the car. So I had to resell it for a very low price,” says Gowreesunkur. Yet, such setbacks haven’t stopped him from indulging in more collectibles. He next wants to invest in a Buick and a Bentley.
“[To buy them], you don’t use the money you need, but spare money, if you have it,” he says.
“He always says ‘this is the last car we are buying’, but these cars are the pulse of our life now,” says Sarita.
“I drive for pleasure… When you drive an old car through the sugarcane fields, you don’t feel anything, you don’t feel the bumps, it’s incredible!” adds her husband.
But ask him the total worth of his car collection and he vehemently shakes his head: “I don’t want to know how much I spent. Please don’t ask me.”
And which is his most favorite car? “You can’t pick a favorite, they are your children too.”
Seated next to him during the interview, his second daughter, Pevashi, 30, a veterinarian trained in Budapest, nods in agreement.
She is on holiday but has a busy schedule looking after her father’s 15 horses on the ranch, as well as the stray dogs that also find a home in an enclosure in their backyard. Gowreesunkur’s elder daughter Venita, 33, is married and settled in the Canary Islands. The two will eventually inherit his car collection.
But Gowreesunkur has plans to build a museum for his cars, the first of its kind on the island. Sarita says he has already invested in the land by the house with the chimney, the river and the sugarcane plantations. But for now, Gowreesunkur is taking it easy.
“I enjoy the island life, drinking wine and good food.”
He also knows Mauritius inside out.
“I have also been cycling around the island for so many years,” he says.
Gowreesunkur started his career in the country’s biggest sugarcane factory. At the same time, he studied to acquire a diploma in auto-mechanics. There were some detours along the way.
“I went to look for a place in Belle Mare [on the east coast where most hotels are] and brought my five horses. Somebody was building a hotel, and asked me to do horse-riding [for guests at] the hotel. That turned into my hobby as a 30-something. And then it [became] a business – all the hotels asked me,” he says.
“Then it became too hectic and I stopped working at the factory. I looked at my cars and thought I don’t want to wait 60 years to retire and ride them. The CEO, also a friend, of the sugarcane factory told me to sell my horses to him, and keep all the benefits; he gave me 20 acres of sugarcane plantations. At the time, sugar was good money. Then I started buying more land. I bought about 20 or more prime properties near the airport.”
Gowreesunkur did so well he returned the 20 acres to his CEO-friend. He had kept them intact, unsold.
“Nothing is yours. You have to be happy in your mind. Your mouth is so little, how much can you consume?” says Gowreesunkur.
This farmer-entrepreneur’s compassion has seen him rescuing stray dogs on the streets – they pose a real public problem in Mauritius – and bringing them home.
His horses still do the rounds at the five-star hotels and some of his cars are on permanent display at the properties.
It costs him a lot of money to register and maintain his cars. Yet, they come alive in his hands, as he resuscitates them with fuel and passion.
Thus the story of a Mauritius farmer whose riches are not in a bank vault but in a grimy garage filled with nostalgia no currency can buy.