Dev Virahsawmy

In search of an identity

 

— Dev Virahsawmy

 

In a plural society — or multi-racial if you want — it is normal that the search for an identity is an on-going process specially in the case of a newly independent country (some 40 years are not a big deal). This issue regularly surfaces, normally before, during and after general elections. For some the solution is ever so simple; for most it is intractable and for some others it is a long and slow process of change.

 

 

 

For the cock-eyed optimist we should embrace Morisianism and ignore/delete the rest. What’s strange with the ‘Nou Morisien’ bunch is that among them we have quite a few who support the opinion that the people of the Mauritian diaspora should retain all the rights which Mauritian citizens enjoy. A very noble stand indeed! As a matter of fact they accept the principle of dual citizenship for those who have settled down in a foreign country. You can be British or French or Australian or South African or American or Indian AND Mauritian at the same time. A person can have two or more identities. Yet they deny this right to citizens living in Mauritius. You cannot be Mauritian and a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Telugu or Marathi or Vaish, etc.

The ultraconservatives – we will burn forever in the hellish flames of ethnic division and conflicts – think it is pointless and dangerous to even think that a supra-ethnic identity is possible and are determined to preserve their so-called purity.

There are also people (they may be only a handful) who are convinced that a supra-ethnic identity is in the making. The process may be slow but for those who want to see, hear and feel there are clear manifestations of a new reality emerging. We may be called Don Quixotes. Never mind! The world needs more Don Quixotes.

Now that my career as a culture activist is drawing to a close there are a few upsetting experiences I want to share which can give a glimpse of how hard the task of nation building is. After the by-election of September 1970, Loga accompanied me to the Legislative Assembly for the swearing-in ceremony. She was elegantly dressed in a beautiful saree. The editor of an important afternoon paper told me off in private for allowing my wife to wear a saree. For him Morisianism meant ‘anvlope nou pa’le’. Today he runs a very important paper. I have never asked him if he still holds to his retrograde view.

Some 10 years later, when the Mauritian version of ‘Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ became known as ‘Zozef Ek So Palto Larkansiel’ some left-wingers started to attack me and the artistic artefact. I was the traitor, the turncoat, one who had sold people’s culture to the Catholic Church. Moreover the symbol of the rainbow was pooh-poohed. In those days the catchword was ‘Enn sel lepep, enn sel nasion’. The colours of the rainbow never merge or fuse. So the symbol of the rainbow as one of national unity is all wrong. The rest is history.

 

The Straw and the Beam

 

All the honest, honourable, open-minded citizens who never practise communalism or casteism have every right to denounce these scourges. I’ve always wondered why racism is never denounced. It is even thought improper, not politically correct, to say that a handful of white people own and control over 75% of the wealth of the country. The racist belief that only the whites can develop the country is never denounced or condemned while it is politically correct to say that communalism is responsible for all evils affecting us.

What is communalism? Feeling different? Feeling superior? A feeling that one should preserve one’s culture? A combination of all these? If it is bad to consider oneself superior, is it bad to feel different, to want to preserve one’s ethnic culture and identity? Is anti-communalism a genuine concern for nation building or just a diversion tactic so that racism is ignored and an anti-Hindu propaganda is subtly and cleverly distilled?

Navin Ramgoolam is systematically attacked because he is a Hindu and a Vaish by the Euro-Creole controlled press which turns a blind eye on Bérenger’s communalist, casteist and vaishist political tactic. Is it in the name of ‘Morisianism’? Has Navin Ramgoolam won over Bérenger simply because he is a Hindu and a Vaish or is it also because he is a good, charismatic leader with a clear vision and a progressive strategy for the future? The same could be said of Sir Seewoosagur or Sir Anerood. Ashock Jugnauth, Madun Dalloo or Dinesh Ramjuttun are all three Hindus and Vaish. Who in their right minds would choose them to govern the Republic of Mauritius?

 

Back To The Rainbow

 

In the Bible, the rainbow is the covenant, an agreement between God and humankind. As a poet I see it as a powerful symbol of our national identity. This was what I had in mind when I called the rock-opera ‘Zozef Ek So Palto Larkansiel’. That the colours stay separate and don’t mix is good for otherwise the result would be a bland, colourless, insipid hodge-podge. The rainbow remains in fact a good symbol for the motto ‘Unity in Diversity’. The arc stands for unity and the different colours for diversity. But that is not the end of the story.

The concept can be perceived in at least two different ways. Conservatives see it as something static, rigid and fixed. Progressive thinkers see it as a dynamic, dialectical reality where opposites reinforce each other while at the same time conquering new heights. Recently Art Academy under the talented leadership of Anna Patten and Sandhip Bhimjee staged in India a new creation entitled ‘Katha’zz‘ (Mauritian Kathak) which according to reports was a stunning success. At present Father Alex Maca and his team are preparing an ‘Afropera‘ (term coined by Eric Triton) called ‘Rekiem’. Artistic creation is breaking the walls. Creativity does not fuse or merge the colours of the rainbow but rather help them to shine more brightly.

Reality will not stop changing. Whether we like it or not Mauritius is a Creole island as defined by the historian, Professor Megan Vaughan. On this Creole island a new language has developed without which cohesion would collapse. Our food culture has been enriched by borrowings and innovations. We have our own music and dance. Yet the colours of the rainbow have not become dull. In fact they are brighter. Let’s not allow the ambition of a loony to destroy all this.

Recently when I publicly declared that when I rediscovered faith after a spell of serious doubt, God took the shape of Jesus Christ in my mind, several persons asked me if I had turned Christian. They could not understand that I could consider Jesus as an avatara. Moreover people find it hard to understand that a person could have faith and not practise any religion.

I am a Mauritian of Telugu background who has undergone a rich voyage of discovery through cultural miscegenation. I live at peace with myself and every morning and night I thank Jesus, my God, for the opportunity I’m enjoying here in Mauritius, as a linguist and a poet. Incidentally, that could make me a member of what is known as General Population. An interesting thought!

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