Remembering 2nd November – and Moving Ahead in the Right Direction
We have come a long way, and it is only individual and collective sacrifice that has allowed us to be where we are today. But always, let us remember and honour those because of whose toil we are what we are
As we are about to commemorate the first, and largest, mass movement of organised labour from the Indian subcontinent to this country, part of what was known as the Great Experiment, that began with the arrival of the first batch of thirty-four immigrants aboard the Nowshera on 2nd November 1834, it is important to remind today’s generation of a few salient facts in this connection.
From Immigrant Depot to Aapravasi Ghat
The identification and official recognition in recent times of the site of landing was the result of the single-pointed dedication of late Shri Beekrumsing Ramlallah. This was triggered by Shri Ramnarain Ramsaha, Deputy Commissioner of Welfare in the 1970s, who drew his attention to the abandoned state in which the immigrant registers were lying in the building at that site known as the Immigrant Depot. Like Shri Ramsaha, Shri Ramlallah realized the urgency of salvaging these registers — but also the historical importance of the site and of gaining official recognition for it.
He made representations to the then Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam to this effect, leading to the eventual shifting of the registers to the newly-built Mahatma Gandhi Institute with the help of its then director Dr K Hazareesingh. It may be noted that when he was informed about these registers Dr Auguste Toussaint, a historian, apparently did not think they were of sufficient historical interest, a stance which subsequent events have belied. Shri Ramlallah personally along with members of his family and a Boy Scout group did a preliminary clearing of the site before the arrival of Shrimati Indira Gandhi in 1971, and made all the required moves so as to include a visit there as part of her programme, effectively ‘officialising’ the site.
Securing 2nd November
Similarly for the date of arrival and commemoration. Shri Beekrumsingh Ramlallah personally searched the archives to uncover 2nd November 1834 as the day of arrival, and carried out a spirited campaign to eventually have that date agreed upon, as there were attempts to distort the reality for political reasons. It does not matter that today loud officialdom has appropriated the celebration, the main point is that the facts about the site and the date are now widely acknowledged. The seminal and pioneering work done by Dr Vijaya Teelock when she was Chairman of the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund, resulting in the Aapravasi Ghat being granted World Heritage status by UNESCO, has now expanded and is being consolidated in the form of archeological work, and infrastructural and related projects which will further enhance the visibility and relevance of that transformative period in the history of our island – more so as Chinese and African immigrants too landed at the same site, then known as the Immigrant Depot.
As a Wikipedia entry notes, ‘UNESCO … has recognized the 1,640 m2 site of the Immigration Depot for its outstanding universal importance. It was proclaimed as a World Heritage Site in 2006, citing the buildings as among the earliest explicit manifestations of what was to become a global economic system and one of the greatest migrations in history… No other indentured migration has so definitely shaped the future of a nation as the movement of Indian workers to Mauritius.’ (italics added)
Present generation: need for remembrance …
Our present generation must realise and appreciate that the road from there to here, that of their parents and forebears, was not at all easy. It was one of non-stop struggle from dawn to beyond dusk, the prototype 24/7 under often inhuman conditions of work and living. For the vast majority of the descendants of the Indians who remained on the island (only about 50% of the original migrants), the real emergence out of their harsh conditions started only after the country gained independence in 1968. In the space of one generation, with the help of free education, free healthcare, and a diversifying economy, they have been able to share in the dramatic improvement in the living standards of all hard-working Mauritians who have availed of the opportunities that opened up over the years.
As the present generation go about their daily lives, they must make it a duty to learn about how they have come to be where they are. They must learn about their valiant ancestors who took a leap in the dark to come to an unknown destination, braving harsh conditions of travel which cost the lives of many of them. They must know that it is hard work, sacrifice, savings from even their meagre earnings, and an indomitable spirit that have laid the base on which their own wellbeing and relative prosperity today is founded.
…and introspection and analysis
We could look at the saga of local Indian immigration as being made up of four phases: the first phase being that of immigration proper, 1834 – 1923; the second phase consisting of the struggle for their political and civil rights, culminating in independence in 1968; the third phase was the consolidation of their socio-economic status through enhanced educational opportunities, beginning in the pre-independence period with greater access to Indian universities (including generous Government of India scholarships) followed by similar access in other friendly countries; the fourth phase which they are now living in, characterised by challenges to their cultural values and social identity, navigating the waves of globalisation, proclivity towards galloping materialism and the appeal of the spurious Bollywood (amongst others) hungama.
The challenges of this fourth phase pose a serious threat of disruption if not loss of all that the previous three generations of their forbears have so painfully built up for them. Although they have not made it a habit to wallow in victimhood, preferring to look resolutely towards the future spurred by the legitimate desire to achieve material prosperity, many are unfortunately allowing the latter to completely dominate their mindset.
This is where descendants of Indian immigrants, the fourth generation mostly, may be led astray, and must therefore do some internal searching as well as take stock of their current situation, and decide in which direction they want to travel towards their future.
Questions the present generation must ask themselves
Will their future be one of continuing improvement, building on their precious legacy, or will they prefer to dilapidate it by riding the shallow and superficial waves of materialism and sink in its hollows?
As they honour their forbears on every 2nd November, are they sufficiently aware of the values that the latter were guided by to come out of their dire circumstances? Will they make the effort to delve into these millennial values, to understand them thoroughly and put them into practice afresh? Are they interested, or motivated, to allow their past to inform their present and guide them towards the future? Do they appreciate enough that their relative prosperity today is the outcome of long and arduous struggles undergone by their dadas, dadis, nanas and nanis and the latters’ parents – and why, even by their own parents? Does it ever dawn on them that it is but one generation ago that many of us were living in lacaze lapaille, fetching water from the river or the public fountain, and having a single tap located outside the house, with a closet of the bucket type or the simple pit hole for our toilet needs?
Do they want to be leaders or mere followers?
The way forward
There is only one way, and it is the way of excellence. They must take pride in being part of the global Indian diaspora which has made its mark wherever it has settled in the world. It is recognized for, among others: bringing the value-addition of their rich, colourful and diverse Indian culture; its seamless and peaceful integration into the host countries, that makes for sharing and harmonious living in multicultural and multiracial settings; its educational achievements and academic brilliance especially in the fields of medicine and science; its successes in business and industry, particularly in the IT sector.
This is the model they must emulate. It is firmly rooted in and inspired by the springs of philosophical enquiries that began at the dawn of human civilisation on the banks of the Saraswati and Indus rivers, and that gave rise to the highly advanced Harappa and Mohanjadaro cultures. These deep explorations provided the answers to fundamental existential questions such as: who we are and our place in the universe, and our relationship to the source of universal existence; the meaning of birth and death; how do we conduct our life – which is the interregnum between birth and death – so as to be physically healthy, mentally stable and spiritually at peace with ourselves and with the creation as a whole, comprising both animate (plants, animals and other human beings) and inanimate objects.
It is these explorations that spawned the appropriate technologies and strategies for not just survival, but for joyous living. Thus developed the proto-sciences and forerunner skills in e.g. textiles, mathematics and astronomy; arts and culture – painting, music, dance, theatre; holistic or integrative health systems that placed equal emphasis on bodily and mental soundness, such as Ayurveda and specific branches of yoga (hatha yoga); literary traditions: poetry, epics, philosophical texts; understanding that allows for inner growth, captured in detail in the scriptures (Vedas, Bhagavad Gita, Brahma Sutras) and reached through universally applicable meditative practices; rich lore and mythology.
It is the duty of adults to guide and support them in their quest for the treasures of their mother civilisation; in turn they must be prepared to be active participants in that search and in acquiring that subtle spiritual dimension that has underpinned their civilisational progress since the earliest times. They will neglect it at their own peril.
All this is to say that we have come a long way, and it is only individual and collective sacrifice that has allowed us to be where we are today. But always, let us remember and honour those because of whose toil we are what we are.
As a young student, Mischma Boodhoa, representative of the so many bright youngsters that I keep coming across with great joy, concluded in her poem Hamare Purvaz which she recited at Antoinette Phooliyar in November 2010:
Aaj unki kripa se hum hai sukhi
Chalo milkar unhe yaad kare hum sabhi
Hamare purvazon ki Jai Ho!
It is a nice coincidence that this year Divali comes immediately after the Aapravasi Ghat commemoration. Let us resolve to be guided by the spirit and mssage of Divali, which is that the light of knowledge should replace the darkness of ignorance. Let us, young and old together not despair. Instead, let us analyse ourselves as individuals, and then as part of our community and the country, and consider the ways in which we need to reinvent ourselves, grounded in our civilisational model but integrating contemporary advances. In this way we will be able to construct a still better future for our children in this country, one that our forefathers, seeing us from where they are, will have plenty of reason to be proud of.
Divali Abhinanadan. And Jai Ho!
* Published in print edition on 31 October 2013