Each generation of human beings would like to believe that it has been the most important. That’s fair enough; it is human.
I have always believed that that generation of us who in our teens lived through 1968 should legitimately claim that it has in most ways been the transition generation. By transition I am thinking of a term to denote a generation that had suddenly left a certain way of life of their parents to embrace a new way. Many before us have done it – but in the sixties, a majority of the youngsters started to believe that the time to leave the cane fields and other manual labour for school had come. It was the era when more and more adult descendants of the poor were vying for the national assembly to defend the rights of those very poor – and the young had also decided to do their share – maybe to get a better job than their hardworking labourer parents.
Some of us would not agree because, after all, each generation is different from the previous one, and so could be labelled the transition one.
But the 60s were different in many ways, for me at least.
I get the impression that I belong to that generation who can say that the majority of children had suddenly taken the road to secondary school. The coming up of the Labour Party in the 30s had to wait a full three decades before the children of most labourers took that serious step towards higher education. We would be the ones who were poised to live in between different political trends and changes. Others before us had been laying the foundation stone for these changes, but we were in the teens, very well anchored in puberty with all its hormonal changes, and political upheavals were round the corner.
In 1961 the Mohun Bagan football team from India had visited us and its poor result against our national team was the talk of the day; as many of us were very attached to India we felt the embarrassment much more, and one of my classmates (R.M.) was the butt of much of the “ricannerie” of others. Of course, later the Nam Wah team also would pay us a visit, and it was surprising that even some old Chinese ladies had made the trip to watch them playing. It was pure sentimental attachment. Was it in 1964 or ’65 that we heard of Greenwood for the first time? And the coming of television in our country was a source of pride and much expected thrill; it was a hallmark in progress. Who would not remember the “Bonanza” and “Dr Who” series? It really made us the transition generation. And was it in the same year that my father and I left the overcrowded football stand in George V stadium to invade the pitch, because the match between Hindu Cadets v/s Muslim Scouts was heavily overbooked? Of course much later Banwell, true to the British crooked colonialist mind and plot would come and submit a report on electoral reform; that infamous report was totally rejected by Dr S. Ramgoolam and the LP.
We were hearing about talk of independence, of association and emigration. Our parents, or fathers, were lending an ear to the promises of politicians than to the whining of the children around them.
At high school we would be hearing a lot about “Family planning”, so much so that for each English essay exam we would expect to a question about that, and about our mono-crop economy and our reliance on sugarcane. After all Professor Meade and VS Naipaul had passed through and painted a bleak future for us.
In those days I got the feeling that we students were expected to learn and talk about everything except politics. I suppose the issue was too sensitive, so the teachers were not willing to create animosity or embarrassment in the class. I was later to learn that Mr A. Maudave, the English teacher, had scolded one junior for discussing politics in school, and had pontificated instead “here we don’t discuss politics – we make politicians”. Even in Form VI it was almost taboo to discuss anything about the coming elections, the various political parties and the choices open to the population, though some anti-independence faction would be turning Shakespearian and talk freely about “Ides of March” with some gentle sarcasm.
However, I must admit that there was, in early 1967, an inevitable reference to the upcoming election. One of my classmates was of the view that the Parti Mauricien should win the coming bout and lead the country to greater stability and prosperity. He seemed to have had the total acquiescence and blessings of another English teacher. For some seconds I was expecting one of my many colleagues whose parents were extremely close to the LP to stand up and express a contrary opinion and defend the LP. No one got up, but suddenly I, the very quiet shy boy, surprised myself. I was up and talking, knowing quite well that the English teacher Mr L was a staunch supporter of Gaetan Duval. I had the courage to blurt out, maybe emotionally, that I would not vote for Mr Duval, if I were allowed, because he was just a puppet in the hands of the oligarchy of that time. I sat down fully conscious that my heart was racing — but fully satisfied that I had talked my mind and made my point. What happened next is just a blur.
At that time more and more students were planning and talking of going to India for higher studies. The elections of August 1967, which were to decide about our future political status, went by almost unnoticed to those who had to sit for their HSC final examinations. But though I had no right to vote, I was very willing to offer myself the luxury of going around and meddling in the crowd going to the polls on election day, in Maingard street, Beau Bassin. One incident stirred my political curiosity. I found it very strange that one French teacher, who I knew lived in Curepipe, turned himself into a political agent in lower Beau Bassin, so far from his home; he was very active in enticing voters into the cars of the Parti Mauricien. It was striking, because rarely had we seen someone of that colour in our vicinity helping voters. And I remember thinking to myself that he was a civil service officer and as such he had no right indulging in that activity. He could not do it in Curepipe: he would expose himself to departmental sanction. And why did he do that, I asked myself – and then I was convinced of the importance of the gamble of the Independence v/s Association issue.
Exams “oblige”, our reaction to the result of that election was mixed because we were more concerned about our own fate at the hands of Cambridge. But I am sure I liked it, for my father’s sake. However the beginning of ’68 was another transitional time for us who were waiting for the HSC results. We were uncertain of our future: would we succeed in the exams; would we repeat; would we go abroad or start working in one of the ministries of government; would our parents be able to support us financially if we wanted to pursue tertiary studies? And what did independence have in store for our island?
It was perhaps at that time, in early ’68, while perusing a book in one corner of the library, trying to catch some sunshine in the cool, rainy weather of Curepipe, that I was approached by a Chinese friend. While murmuring and discussing he then spelled out the preposterous idea that we students must start changing and start taking active part in politics! Decades later, when I met that friend and told him about his idea, he smiled at his own forgotten idealism. Maybe he had been closer to that batch of students who would later set a new trend in university life, or maybe he had been reading or hearing of the smouldering unrest that had already gripped students in Europe.
And then came March 1968. On the 12th Gian, Vijay, Sookun and myself and many others took a bus in Beau Bassin and headed for Port Louis. How was the trip? Did we carry a Mauritian flag with us? I do not remember. In Champ de Mars it was sunny but we were far from the centre of attraction, so much so that we did not see SSR raising the quadricolour for the first time. And as Sookun had managed to climb a five-foot tall concrete pole to have a better view, we thought he could give us a running commentary on the historical happenings. But that was not to be, because as the celebration went ahead, gun salutes were fired to mark the occasion. No one expected to hear such an explosion; all of us were taken by surprise, more so our friend Sookun as he was taken aback and fell down from his perchoir, and in the process tore his pants with a barbed wire. We had a good memorable laugh for our first 12th March.
Later that day, I was pleasantly surprised by my father who invited me to join him and his friends to attend the celebration party to be held in Pamplemousses garden, courtesy of Mr Kher Jagatsingh. Generally my dad had never encouraged me to get involved with him and his political career or ventures during his outings. Maybe my passing the HSC and his blossoming plan to send me abroad were already tilting the balance in my favour. I had grown up, and this invitation had signalled to me that perhaps I had become a bit more matured. I remember the evergreen lawn in Pamplemousses, on that 12th March at dusk. My young mind told me that there could not have been more than 1000 persons around. Gradually darkness fell and the lights would take over. As I had the good idea of having a camera with me, we took some photos and immortalized a rare photo of my father and myself together, in front of the central wooden colonial building. His political friends were there also. I, the youngest guest, like many hundreds of others, were waiting for the self-service catering to be thrown open. It was placed about 100 metres on the left and in front of the Chateau Mon Plaisir.
As many of us made our way to taste our first dinner of freedom, I remember quite well noticing three of the well-known speakers of the Mauritius Broadcasting Service of that time who kept standing far away on the right and in front of the same chateau. I thought that they wanted to keep a low profile and not want to join the crowd, or maybe they were on duty – but they were too well dressed for that! Or they had been invited and were just paying lip service; may be after all they were not so much attracted to the concept of independence, or they were accepting it with a bit of salt. However, there was a total lack of enthusiasm, in contrast to the majority of those present.
But the icing on the cake of that 12th March came much later, a big lit-up, colourful profile icon of SSR was set alive by fire works, courtesy of the French government I was told]. We all applauded, more so myself. I had never been so close to such fireworks, nor had our TV of that time ever depicted such an attraction. Surely there were speeches and other formalities. But the last thing I remember of that first 12th March was that icon of SSR. And the rest is just a total blank.
Yes, I had belonged to that transition generation; those were the days of Elvis Presley, of Cliff Richards and the Beatles. “Respected” children going to high schools were not supposed to pay heed to such ‘vulgar’ attractions. But some of us more daring than others would become silent fans of those singers, talking about and praising them in private.
Decades later we would rediscover these songs and singers and we would realize what a treasure we had missed in our youth.
Later that year my father helped me in completing formalities to go to India. By July, I was seen off at the airport by a busload of relatives, friends and neighbours, as the custom demanded. That almost drew the curtain on the most memorable decade of my life; the sixties were over! The new demands of my undergraduate university life spelled the beginning of another completely different aspect of my life. The student revolt in Europe was late to reach India. Even the football world cup of 1970 went by without much notice. My professional activities had plunged me into a different world, far from home and close ones.
* Published in print edition on 7 March 2014