Knowing about our past – to live a better future

On reading the article by Paramanund Soobarah in last week’s issue of this paper – ‘Growing up in the forties and fifties – and my introduction to painful ethnic biases’ –, I realized that there were some parallels and links, and a few differences, in our life courses.

I am certain that the experiences he described, which resonated with several of my own, do so equally for a great majority of those who lived in those times, with some variations in the details but essentially similar. They are stories that must be told, because as it is commonly said those who forget the past are bound to repeat it. Alas, though, it would seem that even if we are aware of what happened, we still tend to fail to act on that, as the British writer Aldous Huxley noted: ‘That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.’

In spite of that, men build memorials and museums as reminders of what has been, perhaps hoping that on visiting them there will be a reluctance to repeat the crimes and horrors of the past. The question though is whether those at the helm of countries visit such places, or if they do, how much it influences them for the better. Given what we have seen around the world over the centuries, it would seem that this is not quite the case, despite the general decline in wars and violence according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, an optimist. Waves of anti-Semitism keep surfacing in Europe, for example, and after all there was a World War II that took place barely two decades after World War I, whose scars were perhaps not even fully healed yet.

As a matter of fact, the 100th year of the anniversary of the start of World War I, on 28th July 1914, was widely commemorated across Europe recently. The ceremonies held, bringing together leaders from several countries that were involved in that holocaust, were supplemented by a host of other activities such as debates on television about various aspects of the War, what were the causes that led to it and so on. Many of the gruesome images were shown and the equally horrendous statistics were recalled.

In Australia, the Melbourne Museum opens an exhibition this weekend titled ‘World War I: Love & Sorrow’, that explores the various experiences of Victorians in the Great War – as it was simply called — and the war’s effects on them. One of the highlights will be the story of the Roberts family, which ‘embodies what this exhibition is about, and how museums can best tell human stories’ as their experience was both ‘unique and representative’. Their son Frank volunteered to fight in the Great War and was killed shortly after he joined, leaving his pregnant wife Ruby widowed.

His father Garry painfully collected memorabilia (photographs, paper clippings, accounts of those who fought by the side of his son) which he put together, along with diary material about the rest of his family, in the form of a massive scrapbook as a way of commemorating the enduring grief that befell him and the family. This scrapbook is a major feature of the exhibition. As Peter Stanley, Research Professor in the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society at the University of New South Wales, concluded in his article on the coming event, ‘Looking at the bulky scrapbook that Garry created as a paper memorial to his son, we can get a sense of the weight of grief that he and all bereaved parents carried… This is what museums can do with a caption and a few well-chosen artefacts.’

Museums and personal collections and stories are about our memories. It is memories that make us truly human, beyond our biological identity, because they give the sense of continuity and thus meaning to our lives. That is why loss of memory is so acutely felt, especially when we forget to be aware of ourselves or others as in senile dementia, the extreme variant of which is Alzheimer’s disease, currently the focus of much study and concern. Even simple lapses of memory disturb us tremendously, although we joke about them quite often.

It is important, therefore, to share memories, without which our lives would be empty. In doing so, especially when it comes to the hardships and struggles that have been undergone, we are not saying that our children should go through similar experiences, far from it. But at least they must be made aware of what those who have brought them to today’s levels of material comfort went through, the values they lived by, the harsh and poorly conditions in which they lived, the sufferings they stoically endured and the sacrifices they made so that their progeny could have a better life.

An example of the parallelism I have referred to in the first paragraph is the fact that my father had qualified as a teacher, but was asked to convert to Christianity to get a job as one. His father – my dada – staunchly refused, and my father went on to train as a fitter as far as I know. On his return from the army, he obtained employment in the railways at Plaine Lauzun, where he was still working when I left for my medical studies in 1965.

Notwithstanding my father’s brush with attempted conversion, practically all of us children including my cousins attended the Curepipe-Road Church of England (CEA) Aided school, which was to become the Hugh Otter Barry school. Our teachers were all CEA adherents, as well as many of our school friends, and we entertained very good relationships and developed some enduring friendships with many of them. I even joined the St Clement Church Boy Scouts Troop, which was part of the Mauritius Diocesan Boy Scouts Association headed by Reverend Bagnall, and there was never any issue with my attending midnight mass or singing in the choir, all of which have enriched my life and enlarged my horizon.

At the Royal College Curepipe, which I joined in 1957, the mix of students was no longer predominantly White, as in Shri Soobarah’s time, although the birds of the same feather tended to flock together. Thus, the bench on the right side of the entrance to the quadrangle was always used by the Whites – but otherwise, there was no longer that segregation of the type which Rector Barnes had practised in the post-war years. In class and on the playground all students mixed freely, and friendships cut across all boundaries. Sure, there were some undercurrents, but they were innocuous. Our relation with the White teachers were very cordial and based on mutual respect especially as we graduated to the higher classes. Testimony of this – and testament also – is the series of articles that have appeared in the centenary issue of the RCC magazine that was launched in March this year.

It was at the RCC that I became friends with Jagdish Soobarah, who was my senior, as we were members of the Indian Cultural Society founded and presided by Professor Ram Prakash, who used to teach Indian Culture. It was one of the many societies which were launched in 1960, an idea of the then, newly-arrived Rector, the stern Mr Herbert Bullen, an epitome – or a distillation – of Britishness if ever there was one! In Form V, I took maths and physics tuition from Jagdish, who by then had left RCC, in the house at Labourdonnais Street in Quatre-Bornes.

I do not remember when it was that he told me about being interviewed by Derek Hollingworth for an Indian scholarship: it so happens that Mr Hollingworth interviewed me too when I applied for a medical seat under the Indian Cultural Scholarship Scheme that eventually took me on my karmic trajectory towards India. Derek Hollingworth had taught history (but not to me) at RCC, before shifting to the Department of Education, a position which took him around inspecting colleges. It was on one such occasion that I met him, when he had come to RCC, and Mr Bullen had called me to his office to be presented to the visitor, as I was then Head Prefect.

As far as using cowdung to plaster the house, there is hardly anyone of our generation – the last, I think – who does not have pleasant memories of that faintly aromatic smell of fresh dung, that lingered less strongly when the dung was dry. Although I myself did not live in a lacaze lapaille – my dada having managed to construct a colonial type house of wooden framework and panels, and iron sheets –, at my barka papa’s place in the same yard there was a kitchen which was shed-like, and whose floor used to be plastered with cowdung – and which we shared in applying too from time to time. A very warm memory of that kitchen is eating hot parathas coming straight out of the tawa that was laid on the ground-level chulha, made by the dextrous hands of dear barka mama – who would smear the parathas liberally with Blueband margarine. I quiver at the souvenir of this yumminess which was enhanced as much by the warmth of the heart as by the flame of the wood which was then the standard source of fuel.

The past? It is there, within our being. May those who laboured for us be ever remembered, may those collective memories continue to be our succour – and will many more of the generation of Shri Soobarah please come forward and share theirs with us. It should be obvious by now why it’s very, very important to do so… As well as take children on guided tours of the Aapravasi Ghat site, and talk to them about the artefacts in the museum. And not wait until November 2nd to do so…


* Published in print edition on 29 August 2014

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