If we were to ask the immortal mages of olden times – when would they prefer to live: in the 1960s or now, what would they reply?
About 50 years ago VS Naipaul and Prof Meade looked into their crystal ball for Mauritius, and proved that predicting the future is a risky business. If we analyze all the newspaper articles written since the 1960s, criticizing or throwing doubts as to the feasibility and sincerity of successive governments and the performances of various political parties, we would perhaps discover that only about 30 to 40% of those criticisms are valid. The rest were wishful thinking. But still we do know that corruption and waste in the public sector, as spelt out by the audit bureau, year after year, do point out that everything is not so rosy in our country.
“We evolved from radio to movies, our only form of entertainment. Then came black and white TV in the 1960s. How could we forget all the serials of Bonanza, Zorro, the Invaders, the Black and White Minstrel shows and the Thursday Hindustani pictures, full of advertisement breaks? A two and a half hour picture would end after three and a half hours!”
Some years ago, an issue of New Scientist was extolling the good performances of island states, and even mentioned Mauritius as an example in spite of all comments to the contrary. All of us are wont to certify that we have gradually progressed – in the manner of our cave-dwelling ancestors whose descendants are now living in flats.
Yet to be impartial, let’s have the hypothetical situation where we are honoured by the presence of those immortal mages of olden times, never ageing and exempted from bias… they are our wise men. How would they gauge the changes made in our island state in the past five decades?
Long ago, they would say, the middle class was very meager. The poor of that time, though maintaining their distinct communal belongings would still be very close, sharing the little food that they had. . The hedges between their houses or lands were non-existing, so they would cross over to share a few “la moke di riz”, or a little oil when in need. Anyone struck by tragedy would be flooded by sympathy coming from the neighbours. But 50 years later, the middle class has expanded, built walls between their houses and rarely share anything. They have become more aware of their communities and religious differences. Many have cars, are richer and more comfortable. The proportion of poor people has diminished.
Has the gap between rich and poor narrowed? As we are exploiting the capitalistic system to improve our per capita income, the rich do still more business, become richer, and allow some of their profits to trickle down to the poor, whom they know how to exploit; the latter get richer too, yet the gap, surprisingly, keeps widening. The only times it narrows is during war!
The poor mage will definitely tell us about thatched houses with earthen floor. Then came cyclones which wiped out almost all of them and forced Mauritians to build concrete or tin sheet ones, with the government helping with Longtill houses built for those who had a piece of land, and ‘cités’ for the less fortunate. Nowadays we have self-styled skyscrapers, all concrete jungles – for our town planning people, it is said, have neglected their job. These buildings are responsible not only for raising the basic temperature, but also provoking spectacular thunders and lightening – so we are told.
The rich mage will remember how our seashores were unspoiled, rustic and natural, with white, fine sand; the lagoons were unpolluted and teemed with fish that made the day of poor amateur fishermen. But now the mage will see so many hotels round the island, providing work to the people, but the public cannot afford to walk and camp near any beach they want to… because we have to sacrifice our comfort to make way for the tourists who bring in a lot of foreign exchange. By so doing, the rich mage will tell us, we increased our per capita. But for how long will the tourists come – if our beaches get eroded at the rate they are doing? Of course our island was long ago a vast cane field – a risky business of having all eggs in one basket only; but we had our textile breakthrough in the 1970s and we diversified our economy; we now have financial services too. Shall we plant tea in our cane fields?
The poor mage may wonder how we managed to have such poor medical services long ago, in spite of a welfare state. There were so few doctors, few specialists. Gradually more hospitals were built, more area health and community centres. Long ago many cardiac or renal patients had to do with the minimum and died early. Now they benefit from coronary bypass surgery, or dialysis and renal transplant for free. Pinhole surgery made its debut two decades ago, while the latest radiological techniques have helped in better diagnosis of disease. Unfortunately, with the coming of better income there has cropped up the scourges of modern times – diabetes, hypertension, and non-communicable diseases, while e life expectancy is going into the 70s bracket. Few people went to the few private clinics in the 1960s. But gradually some 25% of the population have private treatment now. Side by side with this modern development there has been the invasion of drugs into the social fabric of our society. People of various ages, and even at school, are being hooked by that new threat, a major concern for our modern society.
Oh yes that other mage may remember how our roads were so narrow, with potholes, or very bumpy and slippery. Years after independence those billiard table roads made their debut, and we were happy to do away with these bumpy roads. Our bus services improved; but as our population increased the problem became complex. And as the duty free cars were extended to most of the civil service officers there was an explosion of the number of cars on our highways and roads, compounding the road congestion. Long ago there were so few, and one could almost drive from Beau Bassin to Port Louis almost blind-folded. However, now it is the opposite, there are too many traffic jams, which result in a lot of stress, pollution and noise. So much so that the railways which were dismantled in the 1950s may be back in a few years time!
Meanwhile our people have improved their look. Decades ago they were haggardly dressed; only a few could afford a suit, and the majority of us had to wear the same clothes for ages. After the economic boom of the 1970s came shops selling readymade clothes. Youngsters went for the bell bottom trousers and sported long hair. Those were the days of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and the Beatles.
Gradually the Chinese shops at the cross-road corners had to close down as super- and hypermarkets opened their doors. Gone were the days of ‘carnet la boutique’ when the poor could buy on a credit basis offered by the no less poorer shopkeepers. People flocked to the new markets with a smile on their face, all ready to spend their savings, especially as some could benefit from a hire purchase facility. And the lure of electric gadgets, of household appliances to save our women from back-breaking house chores was irresistible.
The sporting mage would remind us how our football team was top in this part of the world some six decades ago; but nowadays it is almost last. In those days each community would support a football team belonging to its own community. Sport meant football, but nowadays it’s badminton, kick boxing, volley ball or basketball, rugby, and handball. Our athletes come back home from international meets with medals. The day the government abolished communal football teams, the fan support went down the drain, as if we Mauritians were wearing blinkers and could not be less tribal.
One of the mages notes with pleasure how we made a breakthrough in communication; few people had phones long ago. We had to go to the police station to transmit news to other police stations in other part of the island, which would then forward the message to our far-away relatives. We evolved from there to radio and to movies, our only form of entertainment. Then came black and white TV in the 1960s. How could we forget all the serials of Bonanza, Zorro, the Invaders, the Black and White Minstrel shows and the Thursday Hindustani pictures, full of advertisement breaks? A two and a half hour picture would end after three and a half hours! And now we have got computers, mobile phones, and all the social media after the bulky VHS and DVD.
The backlash is that all this has shifted the loyalty at home – children are becoming more self-centered; if they have their electronic gadgets what’s the use for parents’ voices and talks? It’s a new potent factor on the psychological, social life in Mauritians – as it is everywhere in the world. It has upset that apple cart; youngsters of all communities are exchanging information as never before, and suddenly they are awakening to the fact that they have much in common, though the old school is watching, telling their children to maintain their cultural and religious ancestral heritage. There are more mixed marriages than before – but to what advantage? Time only will tell us.
Long ago, one mage will point out, there were less crimes, less family feuds, less hold-ups or kidnapping. With the coming of wealth, of easy communications it seems that human beings are prone to commit unlawful acts; more of them are going on pilgrimage and in grander style, but most probably it could be just a showoff.
The education mage would tell us about our changing schools, their syllabi and modern training and pedagogy; how more government schools have been built in all regions of the island, how education became free in 1976; how books and even tablets are being distributed free, how education has become compulsory up to 16 years. More scholarships are being earmarked for the top students to encourage competition and reward the hard- working students. Universities have opened their doors, and even medicine courses are being offered. But long ago we went to school bare-footed, we returned home to see our mum to welcome us. Nowadays the youngsters need only brand shoes, they leave home by school bus to return late in the afternoon and to find the mother absent as she is at work. The children are taking a liking more to their friends than to their parents; the poor kids – the school knapsacks are giving them a deformed, hunch back. Long ago it was English and French at school all the way; Creole was taboo, but now we are introducing the latter as a medium for teaching! Of course as we have free health services so also everything is free at school – even the transport – both for the young and their seniors.
From an agricultural economy we have diversified to secure some form of financial stability, but with an equal tendency to increase our public debt. We have emerged as a consumer society, where the impression is that we must consume, to keep the industries running, and create more jobs for the people; we find ourselves being caught in a vicious circle from which there is no escape.
Politically new democratic rules were spelled out, and the tendency is to remove the concept of communal belonging from our political life; but that is a difficult proposal to most people – specially the old school. The political parties have given up their purely religious appeal, but they do keep it as a hidden agenda, especially at the time of a general election. From a single elected post from each constituency, it has now gone to three, and we still have to do with our best loser system; we wait impatiently for a dose of proportional representation.
The mages, sitting in conference, would have to agree that there has been progress; the rise of life expectancy, of better jobs, of better health care and educational opportunities, of people getting the chance to travel, to visit other parts of the world, or to move to other shores for better prospects. But those mages still would not understand why the joint family is breaking up, why filial love is fading, why divorce is going up, how the percentage of deaths on the road keeps climbing, how some people are still so poor and are left to manage by themselves; how in the 1960s people were asked to do family planning, but nowadays ministers are coming on TV asking the same people to have more babies, how corruption is still flagrant and not abating, how our water supply is so erratic and irregular, though our electric and telephone services have improved .
And if we were to ask these mages – when would they prefer to live: in the 1960s or now, what would they reply? And would we the middle aged (65- 75) prefer the modern times; maybe we would choose that ultimate criteria: if we have severe chest pain our chance of survival is higher now, if we have a damaged knee joint we have the possibility of having a prosthesis – which was impossible in the 1960s.
But the nagging question at the back of our mind is: Will climate change and rising temperature keep that optimistic mood afloat, and for how long?
* Published in print edition on 9 March 2018