What a long road we have travelled!
— Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
Over the weekend I caught up with my elderly friend again. I think we all retain a bit of the child in us, and we like to listen to stories. And what my friend talks about sounds like a good story! Like what a lady mentioned to me some time ago: she once told her daughter about the maternal grandmother that the latter had never known, and there wasn’t even a picture to show for in the days when she lived only those who could afford could have a photograph taken. And every so often the daughter would curl up next to her mother and ask her to talk about grandma.
So it is about my friend, for he talks about some aspects of the days and times that I have not quite known, and this is always triggered by some simple matter. For example, I asked him whether he was going to vote on the 5th May. It depends, he replied, I find it a bit difficult to move about as you can see. But if I get a lift, he continued, not too early in the morning though, I will do so. I got the hint, and told him not to worry, I will drive him to the voting centre.
Thank you, he said, if it was in the old days, and I were in this condition, I would not have been able to vote. There probably was only one car in the village where I lived, and I cannot see that I would have got a lift. Nowadays there are so many cars on the roads, and one family can possess more than one car – as is the case with television sets too!
I asked him if he thought that was a bad thing. Yes and no, he answered, No object is either good or bad, it all depends on what use you make of it. And then he told me how he used to walk a couple of miles to go to school, and how is it that he left the country. It was before Independence, and when he came back with his degree jobs were difficult to come by. There were only a few secondary schools, most of which are still called colleges in our country. After waiting around for some time, he decided to try his luck elsewhere. But as he looks back, he says he has no regrets, and on the contrary is glad to see that nowadays it seems we are reaching a point where there will be more school seats available than students.
Who would have dreamt in his time that Mauritius would have two universities, and students who can’t afford to go overseas would be able to complete their tertiary education locally. On top of that, there is now free transport. He recalled that he and most of his school friends used to go to school barefooted, and money was scarce so there was no such thing as getting pocket money. Maybe one or at most twice in a week he would be given ene sou, and that was good enough for only one sucre d’orge or four pastilles limon. Coke and Fanta? Out of question!
And not a bad thing too, I told him. See the ravages that modern eating and drinking habits are causing to our health, are you aware of that? He replied in the affirmative, having watched on television the programmes that are regularly shown and in which doctors and other health personnel come and give advice about a variety of health matters. He is all for that of course, but he is skeptical to what extent this influences the behaviour of people, and especially the young, generally. For he still sees the rush towards fast food joints, and he is worried about the widespread availability of alcohol and the powerful media campaigns that encourage its consumption.
But, he said, if people consume everything without exceeding limits, then they should have nothing to fear. On the whole he felt that we definitely were better off than when things were scarce, but we had now to be careful about not going to the other extreme of harming ourselves because we have too much rather than too little. He has known genuine poverty, which was almost the norm when he was growing up. Nothing today is comparable to those times, of that he is convinced. True, there are people in difficulty, but he says he has read about and heard on TV and radio about the many schemes that are available to help people with building houses, for putting up roof slabs, access to finance and so on. Tell me, he said, about children who go to school barefooted these days? If there are any, then there must be a problem with irresponsible parents who either refuse to work or get into drinking.
Life is still difficult for some, I commented. He accepted that, but pointed out that in his time it wasn’t simply difficult – it was hard! Most of the 1.2 million people of Mauritius today are able to satisfy their basic needs in conditions of proper sanitation and comfort. It was the reverse in the olden days; only a handful were living under good conditions. His conclusion was that the country had made a great progress, but that of course this was a continuous process and nowhere in the world is progress ever complete. Even in developed countries people complain about their fate and conditions of living, and it was everybody’s responsibility to seek out the best for themselves and theirs while respecting the rights of others too to do so. That is why, he added, countries needed a strong and stable political and social environment so that they could evolve positively. Only then could the benefits of economic development filter down to the people at large, and this was a recent phenomenon.
Well, since he is a student of political science, I could only bow to his knowledge and wisdom.
OK, I said, I will call you up and we’ll fix the time for you to go voting. It’s a public holiday, he said, isn’t it? Afterwards we can have another spot of Old Rhum. What the heck, I retorted, you were just cautioning me about alcohol!
Excess of it, he emphasized, excess, not the odd tot!
Point taken, I noted, as I waved goodbye to him, and looked forward to sharing the tot and another round of story-telling after the voting.