This is something that I’m thinking about for a long time now: as I posted in x5_536 ‘s journal, in reply to her comment, we Mauritian youths have grown up in a strange twillight zone, moulded to a great extent both by the Western and (to a much lesser degree) Eastern cultural influences and the hopes, aspirations and fears of our previous generations. This means that the average Mauritian young person will actually find himself in a state of either shock or alienation when he first encounters the other culture.
For me, what may be termed as Western culture and civilisation was not really unknown to me and my fellow countrymen. We are very much influenced by western culture which is conveyed to us by various media, the most prominent of which, of course, remains the television. Through this, images and ideas of the west find themselves sown, watered and grown … not always with the best of outcomes. And of course, western culture has always been present among us in a more significant way, ever since the days of colonisation..
Africa, despite being the closest continent to our island, and also the geopolitical landmass we adhere to, hardly has any influence on our native culture. We rarely identify ourselves with Africa, flaunting ourselves as being multi-ethnic and multi-cultural: the archetypal melting-pot mixing and churning the various cultures into a rainbow culture (la nation arc-en-ciel)…
Wait a second… do we have a culture, as it were? We, as inhabitants, have been there for scarcely 400 years now on that island. What is this thing we call Mauritian? Formerly, there were only trees and wild animals, including the late Mr Dodo, whose fate was to end as appetiser (if not, the entree) for Dutch sailors and settlers. Thaaaank you!!!
But, as indignant as I may be about the tragic fate of the Dodo, can I even claim a semblance of brotherhood with that big, clumsy bird, which might be said to be one of the initial occupants of the island? Am I not the product of European colonisation, brought to this island, like the livestock and pests that helped to decimate the entire species of Dodos in less than 150 years?
I come afterwards, when the dodo has been long dead, and the island cleansed of its wildness: tamed and modified and redefined according to the Western expansionist logic. I am part of the New Administration, ushering the old natural insular rhythm into oblivion. I am both the product of the East and the West. If I am at crossroads with various cultures surrounding me, my origins are also bleached and transformed by the experience of colonisation.
Like many immigrants/slaves shunted from one part of the globe to the other because of colonisation and slavery, we Mauritian people have also witnessed an erosion of our ancestral cultures. I suppose most of us back home are grateful that we can at least, remember from which ethnic and cultural background we come from. But there are many among us, who cannot look back to an anterior past. I am reminded here of the situation of slaves in Mauritius, brought from various locations from the so-called Dark Continent, and who were made to live in inhuman conditions under slavery. More than the physical indignity of their situation, they were also forced to relinquish their native languages and culture.
As slaves under European masters, all they had to know were the few words that the master needed to teach them in order to get them to do their work. I was strongly reminded of that a few weeks ago on suddenly deciding to switch on the dusty telly (which my feet at caressing at this precise moment) and seeing a man trying to train a dog to learn and act upon a few words from his master and no other. Slaves speaking in their own language were frowned upon and even severely punished. They were separated and mixed together with people from other regions with whom they could not communicate. And if they could not communicate, the colonisers smugly thought, they would not conspire… It’s the old Divide-and-Rule game, all over again…
Ironically, the primitive and basically instrumental language (also very much an imperative one, in a dog-ordering way) which derived from the coloniser’s language became the means of communication amongst the slaves and also the semi-language used by a slave to talk to his master or vice-versa (more usually)…There’s nothing mystical or rosy about the genesis of the Mauritian Creole or Kreol. Those verbal scraps thrown at the slaves (for they had no need to learn the whole language, it was felt, only just enough to barely understand and carry out orders) were eagerly pounced upon; they slowly replaced the languages/dialects/cultures that were being smothered by the process of slavery. The rough seafaring language of the French sailors and mariners also contributed to make the language what it is. Gradually, it has known independent growth, assimilating more and more words from French (mostly), English, some African languages, and some words from late-comers, Hindi, Bhojpuri and Mandarin.
Yet even more ironically, despite having reached the status of a language (and thus, being no pidgin or contact language – but still without an authoritative script), it is still called a creole, something inferior and incomplete as compared to the European languages, French in particular. This is a view still held nowadays by a great segment of the population and you often find snobs in search of easy means of ostentation, who venture in speaking French exclusively in all milieux. Mind you, there are many people back home for whom French is their native or first language. I am speaking of others, who deliberately set out to trample over their own ancestral cultures or look down upon our national language, Creole. We Mauritians still grovel in pathetic admiration of the colonisers and their Word – their Logos, their civilisation.
I have taken the case of that segment of the Mauritian population descended from slaves as prime example because they have known a more radical and significant obliteration of their native culture. What subsists now of their native language but a few obscure words, whose origins can barely be traced? There is a distinct African influence on the national music and dance form that exist now, but can they be traced to a specific country? Can my Mauritian brother, whose ancestor, not long ago, was a slave, tell me where he comes from? He can only humbly say, as do I (to a lesser degree) that he is Mauritian through and through. But he is aware of a great abyss, a great amnesiac block that separates him from his past. He knows he is the product of several hundred years of slavery, but before that? A stronger sense of disconnection cannot be felt, and even I, though only distantly concerned by this, as a fellow occupier of the island, feel very strongly about this lack of roots; this heightened sense of cultural loss.
But have those of us who came afterwards, as immigrants, indentured labourers, artisans and traders, come out of the experience of colonisation unscathed? Unlike the African slaves, who were only allowed freedom of expression through their music and songs, which gradually evolved into what we have today, we who are of Asian origins – Indian Subcontinent (no Pakistan or India, or Bangladesh then, huh!) and China – were lucky in the sense that we came with more freedom. The living conditions and general standard of living were nowhere much better than those enjoyed by the African slaves; moreover indentured labourers were precisely that: indentured: bonded by contract to serve under a master. Arguably, they had had that choice. That doesn’t mean they were not the victims of discrimination under their European employers.
At that time, India was under British rule and Indian subjects were considered as second-class subjects of the British Empire, with very little, if any, privileges to their name. But harsh working conditions apart, we were lucky. Why? Because we refused to let go of our traditions and ancestral culture. Transplanted into this new milieu, we had brought some of the soil our ancestors had grown and prospered on. We were not more courageous or more inventive than the slaves. The masters just did not bother to control the cultural and social life of their servants. So, immigrants came from India and China to work the land and act as artisans. They came in multitudes, wave after wave of immigration. Many went back after their contract had expired. Most were disappointed with the new Promised Land. Recruiting agents had portrayed a very rosy picture of Mauritius; a paradise island where gold could be discovered as soon as a hoe would strike the soil. It would be a place where people could start all over again, free from the shackles of casteism; free from the land that had bound them to it for millenia. So, they came, lured over; enticed with the idea of a freedom of sorts, of a new beginning for their families. And of course, the land they discovered was indeed a paradise island, but no gold was to be found. Only hard toil awaited them. But many stayed back and renewed their contracts. Many worked and worked until they had enough money to buy their own tiny plot of land, where they could settle down.
But it was a hard time for culture as well. Not many were literate. Yet, there was an intense desire not to let go of their faith; not to forget the myths, legends and moral tales from the ancient scriptures. Already, their native languages – hindi, bhojpuri, telugu, tamil, marathi, gujrati – were being threatened by the colonial languages: French and English, as well as the emerging illegitimate child, Creole.
But alienation from the native tongue also signalled imminent alienation from one’s culture as well. There was a reaction to this, with community leaders gathering together and forming regular prayer sessions, of which, Ramayana sessions are still very prominent to this day. Pundits and Imams were called from beyond the ocean to come and settle down and so they did. Temples, Mosques and Pagodas were erected. I cannot speak for the Chinese community, but I know similar efforts were being carried out to preserve the languages, dialects and faith of the Chinese immigrants.
In the meantime, European logic was still deeply inscribing itself upon the nation’s geography. French and English were the only acceptable languages in most milieux and the upwardly mobile individual would take care to cultivate his diction. Even then, his coloured skin would act as barrier to social mobility. Whiteness, in the colonial world, is the ultimate passe-partout; the key that opens all doors…
The study of literacy in Mauritius has been the subject of many books which deal with the issue more profoundly and intelligibly than I possibly ever can. But it suffices to say that literacy was only achieved in terms of English and French. We had to reduce (was there choice involved? I don’t know) the learning and teaching of ancestral languages in order to be proficient in the colonial language.
On another hand, the man of the street realised that he no longer belonged merely to one community, but to a society where several communities had been transplanted – for good or for bad. You could not help interacting with others. How else would one survive? And how did interaction take place? Hindi and Bhojpuri were extensively used among the various Indian communities. But Creole then superceded the other minority languages by slowly becoming the language spoken by all communities. As the language developed, so, a Mauritian identity was being formed. A new Mauritian culture, made up of the old and the new was emerging. And for the new to emerge, some of the old had to give way.
But enough about historical details. If I dwell on history, I might go on and on, because the experience of Mauritians today is very much the outcome of the few preceding centuries of colonisation. We gained out independence in 1968, but are we free from the ambiguous heritage of colonialism? I think – and many postcolonial critics and writers agree with me on that – that you can’t negate your past. I accept this dual heritage. I wouldn’t be here writing in this language, or perhaps, writing from this perspective, if this hadn’t happened. But I was talking about culture, right? Yes, we have a strange set of norms and values in Mauritius. I don’t know how to define them, but any Mauritian who reads this will surely understand. We have a very ambiguous approach to life itself and view ourselves and our children in a very strange manner, which is often upsetting when one leaves the cocoon and ventures out in the world. I do not say that this is the case for every single Mauritian or even for most of us. But it is something: a certain sense of values: a hybrid reconciliation of the East and the West, perhaps? A prudish sense of values; a certain social and moral wearing of blinkers? We are like naive children, in need of guidance. Unfortunately, we more often than not look towards the West for guidance. Hardly weaned from the Empire, we seek to regain its lap. We follow the western mode of life, but only partly, because some things are not meant to be for us. We maintain ourselves in subservience.
So, why am I so angry? Because there is so much guilt mixed with anger at being a colonised people. I do not blame the West exclusively. The Eastern cultural values that are being perpetuated here have also been modified and transformed under colonisation. Where does Mauritius as a society stand?
Mauritius is less a geographical space than a colonial concept. I realise this now that I am far from it, back in the colonial centre, as it were. Mauritius is an idea, named after a ruling Dutch prince; with its capital named yet again after a French ruler. Colonisation is incribed onto the very land, with places bearing the old colonial names till now. The old colonial roads are still there, though transmuted into asphalt and tar, but still bearing the colonial names of Route Royale (or Royal Road)…
Now Mauritius finds itself yet again as an idea; a marketable image being sold throughout the world… The idea being suggested is simple:
Mauritius = sun, sea and sand = come and spend your money here…we exist because of you…you are the consumer, and we, friendly, ever-smiling Mauritians, indistinguisable from the land itself – fixed in the Western mind as if on an exotic postcard – are the product…
So, we are back to square one, being reified and objectified by the neocolonial gaze, redefined in terms of marketability for the white consumer. We are the ultimate package; the all-in-one tourist destination. Open any tourist guide: there’s bound to be mention of Mauritian’s smile and generosity. Mind you, we are that! But the cheapening of what is a natural aspect of our national culture affects me deeply.
We are Mauritians, then and proud of it. We cannot be otherwise, because the link with our initial motherlands has been severed. Mauritius is, like us, a cultural orphan left to fend on its own, created by a tyrannical expansionist jealous God. We see our past vaguely, as through a blurred lens. Not everyone of us. For many (if not most of us), the alienation has not been felt as severely. Many have returned to India or Africa or China. Many visit the old countries from time to time. The link is not entirely severed. Our native languages are being taught now, in schools, and films from around the world come and refresh our cultural memories. Our individual communal identities are very strong. So one is not only a Mauritian, but a Telugu-speaking (which a bit of a laugh because I don’t speak it) Mauritian. At the same time, we cannot claim to be Indian or Chinese or Arab or African. We look through a looking glass, darkly, and the image reflected back is shadowed by our colonial past. We cannot totally reach back to our ancestral past, though we might do all we can to preserve the culture (and even – why not – learn and teach it all over again) but we also cannot totally identify with the Western culture that has created us. Do we still cling to ghosts? I am not sure. For those of Indian descent, the proximity with Indian culture provided by Indian films and songs is not to be neglected. It has reaffirmed our sense of ancestral culture.
For most of us, though, what we have is enough to create our own national culture. The Mauritian culture is not a patchwork of various disparate cultures; to me, it is what transcends when we are no longer concerned with communalism; when we leave aside communal identification to see ourselves simply as Mauritians. I do not mean that ancestral culture has no part to play in this, but I do not think they are in any conflict. I am Hindu. My ancestors were from Andhra Pradesh in India. So we call ourselves, still, as Telugus. So be it. But I am Mauritian, and this is the overarching sense of national identity I feel. We are Mauritians, then, even though what the Mauritian culture is, still eludes definition…
I do not think I have European tastes, even though a postcolonial critic would argue that I am mimicking and replicating the coloniser’s culture by studying (and thus valorising) English literature. I have a strong sense – not of a specific communal identity – but of a larger ancestral and cultural identification with India. India is not my motherland; my motherland is Mauritius. But it is the land of my forefathers, and deserves utmost respect and recognition. I do not dwell in my past; but neither would I seek to negate any link with that past. It is the acknowledgement of this shared colonial past that gives me breadth and openness of mind to understand and accept other cultures. This is why I am at ease in the British society, because i do not see difference in terms of Otherness and exclusion. I see otherness as something to be expected; something natural. We are all different. At the same time, I recognise the frailties and mistakes committed still by our parents and grandparents back home, that instill a false sense of ourselves and a faulty notion of our duties and roles in this life. I am not in a position, however, to make distinctions between cultures and say which one is better. What the history of my country teaches me is that there are often choices to be made and I choose what I perceive (to the best of my rational capabilities and intuition) to be right for me.