“Dans une grande âme tout est grand.”
– Blaise Pascal
On Thursday 5th April 2018, Shakuntala Boolell sadly passed away in London. Pillar of French studies, writer, philologist, tutor, former lecturer, lately councillor and Labour activist, her death marks the end of an era for Mauritius. The recognition comes not only from Mauritian Millennials and Gen Z students for her gargantuan influence on their lives, career paths and in shaping their identity into adulthood, but also from the esteem of her peers for her great contribution in the various roles she took on.
My earliest memory of Aunty Shakun is a feeling of awe: this lady definitely defied social norms and conventions, at a time when most women of her generation were known for their traditional roles. I grew closer to her when she became my Alliance Française tutor. I was a young girl on a quest to shape my own identity and character, and she flooded my psyche with inspirations from the classics: with authors like Racine, Balzac, Proust, Hugo, Prevost, Moliere, Voltaire, Baudelaire, to great writers of the 20th century: Collete, Pagnol, Gide, Sartre, Camus, Joffo, Cocteau and Le Clezio.
Her discipline, passion, knowledge and leadership; her vegetarianism, philosophy, spiritualism, arts – they all helped me define my own personality. Her strength of character, her sense of identity and her openness to discussing humanity and human behaviour turned the small tuition room into a vivid stage. She would hold court and her students would be under her spell. Our successes and shortcomings would always be thrown at us with wit and humour and, more often than not, disregarding all forms of political and social correctness: ministre le petit cochon, élève qui doit laver les culottes sales de sa petite soeur, etc.
Memories fade away, but her writings will stay with us forever. Her varied articles in the Mauritius Times (on the indifference of youth to Arya Samaj leaders, for example); her published essays on human behaviour, feminism, and the condition of women, the influence of ethnicity and the future of Mauritian society make us realise she was ahead of her time. She gave new meanings to the sari, transforming the sense of us wearing it from submissiveness and passivity to creativity – giving strength to the wearer to control her own destiny.
Thank you for the influence you had on my life, Aunty Shakun, and the lives of all you have touched. You will not be forgotten.
“And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.”
— Maya Angelou
* Published in print edition on 13 April 2018