‘Culture and our identity’
By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
The article on ‘Culture and our identity’ by S. Chidambaram – clearly a genuine, full-blooded Mauritian – in last week’s issue of this paper fired another salvo at the sterile attempts to define let alone catch that will-’o-the-wisp called Mauritianism. As he rightly emphasized, we do not need to have a precise academic definition of Mauritianism to be Mauritians.
But it is all right for academicians and others to have interesting discussions about it, and it would not matter in the least if they never managed to come up with such a definition which… by definition, would most likely circumscribe the notion or concept. Or it would need to be so long to encompass all that it means to be Mauritian that it would cease to fall under the category ‘definition.’
All genuine Mauritians know what it means to be one. Not only, however, do they know, but they live and experience it fully and daily, whether it is in Mauritius or abroad – in fact, it would seem especially when they are abroad. Mr Chidambaram went to great lengths to explain how being a Mauritian has evolved as a mix of the diversities of beliefs, practices and behaviours that were brought in with the different cultures of the peoples that came to inhabit the island. To use a current terminology, it has now become part of our DNA – but meme, not gene.
By a process of sharing, borrowing, copying, exchanging and observing in matters of dress, food habits, language, our forbears created so to speak a unique blend that consists of openness of hearts and minds, acceptance of differences which provided fertile ground for cultural infusions and fusions, mutual respect and adjustment, an élan of spontaneous help and solidarity in times of difficulty – cyclones or bereavement for example – and a bonhomie and camaraderie which is probably unique in the world. All of us who have travelled – which nowadays means a lot of us – know this for a fact. And the best we can do is to continue to live it in our daily interactions, especially in the manner that we do so when we are away from Mauritius. Why not practice ‘extra-territorial Mauritianism’ in Mauritius?
All of us have multiple identities which are lived simultaneously – social, religious, cultural, professional where this applies, and which particular identity comes to the fore depends on context and circumstance. For example, in professional activities, cultural and religious identities are secondary, and are relevant only as so far as they may have any bearing on the matter at hand as in medical practice, where a particular belief or a food custom may be relevant, such as Jehovah’s witnesses not accepting blood transfusions. Where others are battling false demons, we are quite happy with one another in many ways, and not least among these are what we share both on a daily basis – the varied food fare on our tables – and in particular on special occasions and festivals. Divali, Kung Shee Fat Choy, and Eid come to mind – when friends or neighbours send sweetmeats around.
Should that food commonality surprise us? Not if we realize that food is our fundamental need, what keeps us alive – and by extension, without stretching the imagination too far, I would venture to say that it also infuses our Mauritanism with liveliness. Not for nothing that we speak about the ‘cultural life’ of a nation. Some people lament that we are not a nation, because we tend to accentuate the differences. I beg to disagree, because I think we have moved a long way on the path of nationhood. But I would also say that, if any of us find that there are negative things that are preventing us from making faster progress, then we must take the responsibility as educated and concerned adults to try and address them, especially where, because of our positions whether by virtue of community or religion, we are better placed than our other compatriots to bring pressure to bear and exert influence for the better on our peers.
This debate on Mauritianism dates back, as far as my memory goes, to the pre-Independence period. I remember that the term ‘entité mauricienne’ was in vogue, and many intellectuals of the time, among whom some teachers at the Royal College Curepipe, gave their views in various forums. Why this subject came up around that time would constitute a fertile field of research for historians, but subsequently the notion of entité seems to have morphed into métissage and mauricianisme. These surface from time to time, and as we have said, let the academic play go on for fun or for the sake of seriousness but we, Mauritians, have other chats à fouetter and must needs get on with our lives.
What is more important for us to make the next leap in our Mauritian commons (akin to the global commons) is to see how we can further enrich our living space, not the physical space but our moral, psychological and cultural space. For this we have to turn inwards, and start putting order in our own house: we must examine en pleine connaissance de cause what is it in our customs and practices that disturb our neighbours, and apply what lawyers call the test of reasonableness. Each community or religious entity must do that, and remember that reasonableness depends a lot on common sense, both of which go into creating that essential ingredient (amongst other things) of a vital commons, namely civic sense. We will soon enough discover that if we are comfortable in our own skins, then aggressive assertions of identity are neither necessary nor fruitful, and will ill-serve the future generations of Mauritians for whom we all bear – must bear – collective responsibility.
This discussion could go on interminably, but we must choose to be practical and to focus our energies on how best to serve the country and the people in all aspects of our lived daily experiences. A dose of humility and much understanding, and vast openness of mind, and a cavernous heart are required for the symphony of Mauritianism to reverberate across all divides.
Trust me, it’s not at all difficult…
I must end with this beautiful, very apt saying: ‘Minds are like parachutes: they function best when open.’
* Published in print edition on 18 March 2011