By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
It is most unlikely that anyone of the present generation of descendants of the Indian immigrants who passed through the Aapravasi Ghat to land on Mauritian soil would have ever seen what is shown in the picture above. I would think that the so-called baby-boomer generation – those born during and immediately after the Second World War – is the last one to have memories of these thatched huts. For the present youngsters, the closest they would have come to such a structure is probably the more modern hut-like constructions in some five-star hotels or the roofs of some coastal bungalows – a far cry indeed from what the actual huts looked like and were as habitations for their occupants.
Quite out of the blues I and some friends started talking about our old times some days back. Among the reminiscences were holidays spent at Nani’s place with lots of cousins around and Nani fawning on her grandchildren, and the warmth inside the lacaz lapaille. One remembers the faint aromatic smell of fresh cowdung that had dried after being applied on the floor to cover the bare earth – and maconné with bare hands too. Before cyclones Alix and Carol hit the island in 1960, the majority of houses in most villages were probably the thatched ones. I remember a few in Curepipe-Road too where I lived.
By the time I got back in 1972 after my medical studies there were no more of these traditional huts that I knew of, securité oblige. The remaining wood and iron-sheet constructions were already giving way to the more robust and secure concrete houses that have today become the norm, although a construction company is now promoting northern hemisphere type wooden houses which are apparently good enough to withstand the cyclonic conditions in the island.
Even though today’s youth can never experience the way of living of their elders, not to speak of their ancestors, they must certainly make it a duty to learn about the trials and tribulations that their predecessors have gone through, and the sacrifices they have made. It is because of these that they are today in a position to enjoy the fruits of that labour and hard struggle. And we must thank all those, from professional historians to all others who add to the collective memories, who are making it their dedicated life work to bring about greater awareness of the lives of our valiant forbears.
It is only through such narratives that we can take cognizance of how far we have travelled, and that things may be easier in some ways but not all, such as human relations and family life for example. Modernisation is tending to produce social alienation, and traditional bonds are breaking down to the detriment of society at large. We need more serious reflection and analysis of our past and what lessons we can draw from it, so as to guide us towards a more humane future than what seems to be looming.
Several Mauritians have travelled to India and attempted to locate the places of origin of their ancestors who had migrated here. Not all efforts were successful or positive experiences, because there were not only some language difficulties but also a few apprehensions on both sides. For a number who have been able to connect, though, they have been gratified, and have even made commitments to maintain links by helping those they have met and who are in need of such help.
For example, as was reported in a local daily last year, Chaitanand (Rishi) Jheengun of Camp Nancy, Pamplemousses made such a trip with three other friends, namely Satidanand Aujeet, Mahen Jugroop and Vassan Juwahir, to village Chanderpur in Uttar Pradesh last year, and met with relatives. They discovered commonalities in customs that are practiced here too. Another friend who had been to Tamil Nadu was narrating how he also found that the pattern of the locket in the tali worn by his wife, for example, replicated what he and his wife had found in their original clan. It was a thrilling revelation to learn that they were sharing customs that must probably go back thousands of years at least. There are many similar instances of discovery and re-connections with one’s lineage.
I for one am finding it reinvigorating to refresh my Bhojpuri-speaking skills when I go around meeting people in different settings. Like on Sunday last, when we celebrated Valmiki Jayanti in Triolet at Shri Jairaj Tacouri’s place, where he has accommodated a branch of the Ramayana Centre. All those who addressed the large audience on that evening spoke in a mix of Hindi and Bhojpuri, and afterwards many conversations were heard in these two languages. A cleric once said that less than a thousand Indian-origin people speak Hindi in Mauritius. If such persons want to make a virtue of their ignorance, good luck to them!
The yaj at Aapravasi Ghat next Tuesday 2nd November will, be as usual, a telling reminder of our deep roots.
* Published in print edition on 29 October 2010