As the Indian diaspora has spread across the world, it has carried along many of its customs and cultural practices. Certainly one of the most significant characteristics of this diaspora has been its recognised ability to integrate seamlessly into the host societies, and to participate in the national life of those societies in such a manner as not to disrupt the prevailing ethos of the country of destination.
Another mark of its presence has been its contribution to the economy as well as to the professions in the countries where it has settled.
And so it is that in the UK which has one of the largest numbers of Indians outside India, and who are now British Indians just like we are Mauritian Indians, as she hosted her first Diwali event at 10, Downing Street, a few days ago, Prime Minister Theresa May lit a traditional lamp and said that the festival was ‘an important part of our national life’. She went on to say that ‘when we analyse the true meaning of Diwali, its relevance extends beyond India, beyond the Indian diaspora and even beyond the Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists who, in different ways, mark the festival. Its messages apply to every single one of us – whatever our background, whatever our faith’, according to a report in Hindustan Times from London on October 25.
The ceremony was attended by nearly 150 leading British Indians and India’s acting High Commissioner Dinesh Patnaik. Mrs May is due to embark on a visit to India starting November 6, in her own words ‘my first bilateral outside of the European Union and I’m going from Delhi to Bangalore – a true celebration of relations between our countries and our shared ambitions for the future’.
Further, she added: ‘I want us to be proud of what Diwali means to our nation… I do know the story of his (Lord Rama’s) homecoming (to Ayodhya) from the many Diwali celebrations I have attended in my own constituency over the years,’ and ‘the values he embodied are values which we can all heed. Values of charity, sacrifice and responsibility; to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi: losing ourselves in the service of others’.
Who else but narrow-minded people would refuse to light a lamp, traditional or not? After all, isn’t light a universal, both materially and symbolically? For there can be no intelligent life without light, and to partake in spreading light around is to send a message of lifting the veil of ignorance that breeds prejudices and misunderstandings. That is why, therefore, Divali is for everybody, so that we are touched by the light that dispels ignorance and opens our heart to the world — to thus make it a better place for all of us.
In Hindu culture, the fundamental symbolism is that of light dispelling ignorance which is represented by darkness; as we gain knowledge, of our Inner Self and the Universal Self, we then engage with the world in such a way as to pursue righteousness – dharma – and to overcome unrighteousness or adharma. It is not about good conquering evil, which is a very restrictive way of looking at the world.
There is, furthermore, another aspect of light: it is made up of seven colours, the colours of the rainbow out of which all types of combinations and permutations are possible. And that is why all Hindu festivals are celebrated in a riot of colours. We don’t believe in dull uniformity, as our great philosopher Dr S Radhakrishnan wrote. We are fans of colourful diversity, and without doubt our celebrations reflect that to the fullest!
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Quo Vadis Aapravasi?
Where are you going aapravasi – immigrant? It was a long, perilous journey for the nearly half a million immigrants who formed part of the ‘Great Experiment’ deemed as one of the largest mass movements in the economic history of the world, starting formally in 1834 with the landing of the first batch of indenture labour from the Indian subcontinent on November 2nd of that year. The road they have since travelled to improve their living conditions, and their economic and political status has been equally arduous, every little gain being obtained after hard and often protracted struggle, initiated by inspired sincere leaders who dared to confront the combined powers of the colonial structure.
There is no doubt about the emancipation and the material progress that they have made since then, which their descendants have amply benefited from, and continue to enjoy the fruits of this ancestral legacy. Industrialisation and modernity have enhanced further this material well-being, which has spread to all the constituent communities of Mauritian society.
Nevertheless, we cannot afford to be blind to certain hard realities that have accompanied this emancipation. One of them has been the visible disintegration of several illustrious families with patronymic surnames who in their heyday were the pride of the community, and whom those lower in the social hierarchy sought to emulate.
Given their clout and visibility then, they were expected to consolidate the economic and cultural base that would impact not only the community but national life as well. Unfortunately, down the years and down the line, their centripetal energies and resources have been wasted away by their descendants, several of whom took to wayward ways that led the families to spiral further downwards. Feuds over property and lack of a larger vision led to wealth dilapidation and downfall.
Others who were less fortunate managed to gain social mobility through education. Latterly, though, such education which focuses more on the intelligence quotient rather than the emotional quotient has paradoxically led to a cultural drift. Moreover, there are examples of child-parent alienation that, as the saying goes, are too deep for tears. Such as the highly-educated daughter who was not even present at her father’s funeral, having cut off all contact with the parents who laboured to send her abroad to university, despite having been back for nearly twenty years.
There is clearly work laid out here for sociologists and historians to study this phenomenon of moral decline in the community. Of course, the show of leaders bickering amongst each other whereas they are supposed to lead by example only helps to accelerate the phenomenon.
Over 180 years after our valiant forbears landed, the question we must ask ourselves is quo vadis aapravasi descendant? Are you a worthy successor of those who took the bold leap into the unknown land of the dodo? If not, then there is serious work to be done, and it is urgent. Nothing less than a new beginning must be made if we want to continue on the path of progress.
Dr RN Gopee