Convergence: Language, Identity, Apravasi Ghat, the Diaspora…

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

During the recently concluded Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, which brought together local and foreign delegates belonging to the worldwide Indian Diaspora, one of the themes that received attention in the parallel sessions was ‘Maintaining language and identity.’ The commemoration of the arrival of Indian indentured labour on the 2nd November gives us an opportunity to share some reflections on the theme.

Our forbears had to struggle to have their languages, customs and identities respected, and the situation today is much more flexible and open than it was in those times, although prejudices still persist in some quarters. However, it must be said of the Indian Diaspora that it has remarkable, innate skills of language learning and adaptability, and that whatever environment that the various peoples of the Diaspora have found themselves in, the predominant language(s) they have had to use for daily discourse has never prevented them from preserving their unmistakable ‘Indianness.’ Even changing from ‘Krishnan’ to ‘Kris’ or ‘Gopalan’ to ‘Pal’ – as remarked by Ambassador of India TP Sreenivasan – could not change that fundamental.

As human beings, inevitably when we encounter another human being what we first register is the physical appearance, made up of skin colour, ‘racial’ features and dress worn. The next thing that comes across is the language that the person speaks, and we would know, for example, that X is from Mauritius by his particular Creole accent as distinct, say, from Seychelles; why, even from Rodrigues because of both accent and the use of certain words.

But there are many other elements that go into making us who and what we are, that define or get us defined. In spite of ourselves, we get labelled as belonging to a specific group or community, and then as the ‘other’. But in Mauritius, like in any other plural society, we inevitably have multiple identities, juxtaposed and superimposed. They are not mutually exclusive, and in practice we have at least three, namely a transactional identity, a core identity and a Mauritian identity.

We all get by with these multiple identities, and some of the main constituent elements that make them up are our body and its appearance, our history, our nationality, the roles we play, our work, our social and financial status, what we own, what others think of us. There are also our thoughts and feelings, our expectations, our language or languages, our knowledge and values, our creative and intellectual abilities, and our character and personality.

The transactional identity belongs to the public space. It is forged as we go through the educational system, the world of work and civil society at large. In these contexts language acts to facilitate our insertion and integration, connecting us to others and allowing us negotiate our way as we play out the various roles required of us, in the world of work in particular. The predominant languages of this identity in Mauritius are Creole and French. Mauritians of Indian ancestry have no difficulty at all in utilising these two languages in the given situations, and in fact one could say that the transactional identity develops practically automatically, needing little conscious effort, as it starts at home, within the family.

Next is our core identity, which belongs, or should, to the private space. It derives from our religious affiliation and the specific cultural practices deriving therefrom, such as our food customs in the home – barring fast foods which are common to all! – the specific festivals we observe, and our apparel especially on cultural/ religious occasions. The language associated with this identity is that of the foundational scripture, in my case for example it is Sanskrit. It contains and articulates the concepts and values of the scripture, but understanding them can in fact be, more often than not, for most of us Indians in Mauritius, in any language with which we are most comfortable or familiar: these can be English, French, Creole, Hindi or any of the Indian languages used here. For example, I read the Bhagavad Gita for the first time in French (as I was on a Surgical Fellowship in France and my colleagues kept asking me questions about Hinduism!), in a translation of Sri Aurobindo’s commentary by the Belgian Indologist Jean Herbert, and it is still my preferred reference for a metaphysical appreciation of the Bhagavad Gita.

The Mauritian identity is a composite of the transactional and core identities, and if we wish to live in peace and tolerance, whether here or anywhere in the world for that matter, it is the transactional identity that should predominate over the core identity. The more we relegate the latter to the private sphere, the better will we be able to live together. In other words, in the public space, we must not wear our core identity like a like shocking pink shirt that hurts everybody’s eyes. Instead, it should radiate from our whole personality as a quiet force for good that is prepared to reach out to the ‘other’ and seek out a similar potential, so that the two – or three, or four – can mutually enrich, and reinforce each other for the common good.

This does not prevent us from having pride in the language of one’s country or culture – because all languages have their own beauty and richness. We all know that there are untranslatable words or expressions which add masala to language, e.g. Creole ‘kasse contour tombe sec’. It is best to learn as many languages as one can, because all are beautiful in their own way – so that one can speak, swear, praise and love rather than hate. Neither should language be a matter of cultural superiority.

In trying to imagine who I am, I find that many of my compatriots belonging to the Indian Diaspora could have a comparable narrative. My natural starting point is that I was born of Hindu parents, and am of the fourth generation of immigrants who originated from eastern Uttar Pradesh, India. In fact my great-grandfather – pardada – was from Ghazipur and came to Mauritius alone in 1858. I attended an Anglican primary school, followed Bible classes, chanted the psalms and recited a Christian prayer daily. I was in an Anglican Boy Scouts troop until my late teens, attended their church, annual midnight mass and I sang Christmas carols – which, incidentally, I still enjoy listening to. At home as a child I spoke the local lingua franca Creole. My grandparents spoke to me in Bhojpuri and Creole, at both primary and secondary school I was taught in English and French, and outside the classrooms we all spoke exclusively in Creole. Interestingly, my Chinese friends tell me of a similar pattern: their present generation speak mostly Creole with the parents and among themselves, have some understanding of Chinese and are not much able to speak it.

Our official language is English. I studied medicine in Calcutta (now Kolkata), so I have a working knowledge of Bengali, and am fairly familiar with Bengali culture, including the works of the great sons of Bengal such as Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore. Moving to New Delhi for my internship in 1971, I married into a Punjabi family, and many relatives on their side were Sikhs. I find as much peace and feel as much at home in a mandir as in a gurdwara, and for that matter in the churches where I have been. In New Delhi I also learnt to speak a bit more Hindi. In my extended family on both sides there are relatives who range from Sindhi and Gujarati to White North American and European of Greek and English extraction.

I have friends and acquaintances belonging to all religions and no religion, and to all local ethnic groups (Whites, Chinese, Indians of diverse provincial origins, Coloureds and Creoles). With all my local relatives and friends I speak mostly Creole and French, with my son it is mainly English with a smattering of French and Creole, and with those from India who speak Hindi, and Indian visitors who do so too, I try to put out my best Hindi, although I still get my gender case mixed up! I am most comfortable in both written and spoken French and English, and I will say, paraphrasing my niece Anu in South Africa, that ‘my heart is Mauritian but my soul is Indian.’ My heart swells to say Jai Mauritius and Jai Hind, and when Jana Gana Mana is played I hear a distant but distinct call…

So what does this make of me – some sort of khichri?!

I have always been sure of who I am: a patriotic Mauritian of Hindu dharma borne on the wings of Bharat Mata. Not a romanticized, idealised Bharat, but one with its warts and all… as all countries are anyway – except that Ma remains Ma. She will ever continue to be the fountain spring of inspiration for her children abroad, whatever the official stand of India in terms of responsibility for them. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru stated that position unambiguously, and it was reiterated by Ambassador TP Sreenivasan in his keynote speech on Saturday 27 October prior to the start of the academic session. But as far as we are concerned, and as we have always done, we will always continue to say, Jai Bharat Ma! Tout en étant absolutely and equally proud Mauritians and Diaspora Indians.

* Published in print edition on 1 November 2012

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