“It is easier to blame the past, but what are we doing today?”

Interview: Dr Vijaya Teelock – Historian

“Are we any better than the slave owners? Do we respect the rights of ALL men and women or only of those closer to us in culture and identity?”

“We are afraid now of facing ourselves, not only of facing our past”

Dr Vijaya Teelock, well-known historian and author of several books on local history, and who was also a member of the Truth and Justice Commission, is the one who was responsible for the preparation of the dossier to be presented to UNESCO that eventually led to the recognition of Aapravasi Ghat as a World Heritage Site. On the occasion of the commemoration of the arrival of Indian Indentured Labour on 2nd November, we thought she was the most appropriate person to share some reflections on the event.

As it is, with her usual franc-parler, she suggests a decentralisation of the celebrations, with involvement of more regional artists and resource persons. She also thinks that, as in South Africa after apartheid, there is potential for new forms of tourism in relation to our historical and heritage sites, and hopes that there will be a revitalisation of politics with more commitment from youth, who should in fact be leading a revolution…

Mauritius Times: Yet another commemorative ceremony, this Friday, to celebrate the 178th anniversary of the arrival of indentured immigrants to this land. Besides the annual Yaj, there are the speeches of the politicians at the official ceremony to honour the memory of our ancestors. There are no doubt a number of good reasons for doing so, but we do not seem alive to the need of going nor willing to go beyond this annual ritual to set out a clear and attainable agenda of growth and development for the descendants of the Indo-Mauritian community. Why is that so?

Dr Vijaya Teelock: It is important to stop for at least once a year and to reflect on the past. It should be also an opportunity for the elderly to share their past experiences with their grandchildren: activities being organised around the 2nd November can stimulate discussion in a home or a group. It does not matter if sometimes this is negative. Freedom of expression is important. But it is true that too many formal lengthy speeches can ruin a historical occasion. However, I think many of our politicians already know this! Maybe it is up to us to point them to a different direction for future years… Regional 2nd Novembers — as we had regional PBDs? It would also ‘valoriser’ regional efforts because there is plenty going on in the regions around 2nd November. Give local people a chance to show their creativity as local historians, authors, artists, etc.

* To come back to the absence of initiative to work on an agenda for the community’s growth and development, do you think this could be attributed to a general apathy, an indifference, or rather have we conditioned ourselves into believing that, no matter what, “Gouvernement” will take care of the thinking and of the doing on our behalf? Or does it have to do with the comfort zone we believe we have driven ourselves into?

It is possible that because there has been much progress in the Indo-Mauritian community, there is a tendency for authorities to sit on their laurels. But this is not warranted as the reality ‘est tout autre’ because when one looks at the state of young people today, the situation is troubling: the hard work put in by previous generations is not being replicated by youth today. Parents, teachers and other staff in schools have to endure violence, porn and general bad behaviour on a daily basis and they cannot cope. It is being ignored by authorities, I don’t know why. Parents too have abdicated their role: they think the teachers will do everything: teach good manners (even when parents have none), acting as mother and father to children from broken homes, as well as coping with special problem cases and teaching their subject in overcrowded classrooms. Parents then blame the school or system when their children do not do well.

All this later impacts on behaviour and attitudes when the child leaves school, as this behaviour is replicated at the workplace and on the streets. And they transmit this behaviour to their own children. It is really time to change our whole mindset of how we approach youth and development issues. As for comfort zone, this applies to only a small section of the population: there is a need to see how the other half or three quarters live.

* If we were to go beyond this annual ritual as regards the celebration of Aapravasi Day and examine the road travelled so far, what would that indicate about the progress of the descendants of the Indian immigrants?

Progress has been huge: no one can deny that! And that too in such a short time. However, descendants of Indian immigrants need to now help those left behind and to allow those “others” to express themselves freely, flourish and live by their own standards, just as Indians were allowed to express themselves and decide their fate.

* Who are those “others” you are talking about, and who and what’s constraining them to, as you say, express themselves freely?

Just as Indo-Mauritians live today by their own standards and culture (including the Mauritian version of Indian social hierarchy), they should realise that others who are in less dominant numerical or economic positions also have the right to live by their own beliefs and should have their culture expressed through, for example, public policies. A few examples: curriculum choices and educational policies, architectural design in public housing, language preferences. Even among Indo-Mauritians there are many who don’t want to follow ‘Indian Hinduism’ but prefer the syncretic Mauritian version: they should be allowed to do so freely and not be told this is anti-Hindu, or anti-Islamic, etc.

* What about the profile of the Indian immigrant’s descendant today? Would you say he/she is progressive (in terms of his/her outlooks – socially, culturally, religiously, etc), confident, ‘animé des mêmes sentiments de solidarité’ much like his/her ancestors’?

There appear to be many who are nostalgic about the recent past, the ‘good old days’. But we tend to want to remember good things, isn’t it? We cannot compare these two worlds, they are too different. Our children don’t inhabit the same world our parents did. Things move much faster now than they did before, and for many people of a certain age, they cannot cope with the rapid changes. Yet little has been done to help them understand what is going on or coping with it.

Young people are ‘solidaires’ among themselves but society does not give them the adequate support in this rapidly changing world, nor does it give them creative outlets other than Call Centres employment. Cheap labour is being required of them — nothing else and it is really ‘chagrinant’. So why should we expect them to be progressive-minded? Actually they should be more revolutionary-minded and change this society around totally!

* Some people contend that we have limited our ambition to settling down in a PRB-blessed government job, or that we have moved from an earlier form of indentureship in the sugar cane fields to a ‘modern’ version in the EPZ factories and the latter-day Call Centres. We have not made much headway in terms of economic empowerment – we are totally absent from the commanding heights of the economy – even if many of the earlier ‘marchands merceries’ amongst the descendants of Indian immigrants have moved to selling their wares in countries of the region… Are they being unfair towards us?

The problem is both ‘cultural’ and ‘generational’. Some people want security, others don’t care too much about it. But both have to be respected and allowed. Some people are good at business, others make better scientists. Not everyone can be everything. But certainly everyone must have a decent wage and be protected and enjoy equal access to not only economic opportunities but sports facilities, healthcare, etc. We are still influenced by colonial legacies of clientelism and favouritism: new brand names won’t change fundamental realities about power and ideological structures! The welfare state (SSR’s legacy) should not have been tampered with but improved and people educated to use it more judiciously. More problems have occurred because it has been tampered with rather than adapted to suit modern times. The UK has learnt its lesson: see the new attitudes towards healthcare…

* It was thought at one time that politics would, besides ensuring, amongst others, that the dignity and the rights of the people are respected, facilitate their empowerment at all levels and in different sectors. Would you say that politics served us — the people generally and the descendants of Indian immigrants in particular — well?

On the whole yes, but today the world has changed while policies have not and that’s why many of our children live in a glass ceiling-ed world. That glass ceiling needs to be broken. If not, as the Truth and Justice Commission’s report stated, the writing is on the wall.

Politics has served the people well up to a point in time but the younger generation is expecting a modern outlook from our politicians and that is simply not happening. They do not want to break free from that mould as it is a secure base. But one or two have to set the tone and others will follow. It will be a ‘new’ Mauritian society and much better one to live in than the very constricted and ‘suppressive’ atmosphere that we have now where the politicians have become ‘prisoners’ in the world they have created. All we are asking is: ‘Make that break once and for all’. ‘Create a new Mauritius’.

* The different cultural centres and speaking unions that are strewn across the landscape of the Indo-Mauritian community, while celebrating on the one hand the diversity among the community, may also in the same breath speak eloquently about the ‘fractures’ that have been engineered or even self-inflicted. How do you respond to that?

The concept was good but its implementation has been problematic because those implementing it need to understand the whole concept and the vision behind it. Only what was bureaucratically feasible was undertaken but what of transforming people’s minds and hearts into thinking of a Mauritian ‘nation’? That won’t be achieved by people only concerned with looking good on paper or who care only for keeping the in-tray empty. A lot of creativity and full public consultations need to take place.

* To come back to the 178th anniversary of the arrival of indentured immigrants, if a young person were to ask you why should we commemorate this event, what would you say? Have we done enough to sensitise the young about their history?

Personally when something becomes routine, it loses its vitality and there is no longer any spark: even innovations can appear bland! So the concept of commemorations needs to be reviewed. It should be an opportunity for self-reflection, and not only about spending millions on an event lasting only a few hours!

As for history teaching, I am tired of repeating it: history is not being taught adequately or in a manner that teaches respect and tolerance for others’ histories. The cultures are more segmented and more polarised than ever before. That’s because we have a ‘Westernised’ world emerging as well as a non-Western one in schools: these worlds exist next to each other and rarely meet. Are authorities even aware of this? I wonder, and do we encourage our teachers to think out of the box and innovate when the situation requires it? They are as ‘dépassés’ by the situation as everybody else. And unfortunately they do not give power to the teachers to decide; in the public sector, it’s up to bureaucrats and politicians to decide what, when and how to teach.

* Do you feel that there is an unconscious feeling in society that we should forget about the past?

Well, the Truth and Justice Commission experience has shown that many people want to break with the past without having addressed the issues it engendered: we were given full liberty to investigate and write a report. But what happens after? The report is lying in a bottom drawer in the offices of some ministries. This is because on one hand the issues we raised were not understood to begin with by those who read the report, and/or because our own responsibility as a people in perpetuating injustices and inequalities has continued in modern independent Mauritius. We are afraid now of facing ourselves, not only of facing our past.

* If history or the truth hurts, should there be a need to know something which hurts?

I am not a psychologist but I think confronting the past and trying to deal with it is better than suppressing it as people have tried to do in the past. It only comes back at you in full force. Again, it is easier to blame the past, but what are we doing today: Are we any better than the slave owners? Do we respect the rights of ALL men and women or only of those closer to us in culture and identity?

* If my ancestor had a ‘short, nasty and brutish life’, what should I be proud of?

That somehow his children and grandchildren managed to make it into the 21st century, despite the odds.

* What about those who believe we have different ‘pasts’ and it becomes impossible for everybody to feel the same about different aspects of the past?

It is true that there is never only one interpretation of history but empathy is something all of us can develop: we can TRY to understand what it feels like to be living it in the 18th century as a slave or as a French worker. If we do the trying, that is already the first step. Bu there are some truths which cannot be denied and around which there can be a consensus; we have not reached that stage yet. The TJC report lying in a bottom drawer is a case in point.

* There is also the question of heritage. Do you get the feeling that it has been reduced to a mere slogan, a commercial tool for tourism or is it an abstract concept which people fail to grasp?

French historian Pierre Nora answered this question long ago: heritage sites links people to their past in a tangible way, and in a way that books cannot. Today it has become a tourist item but it needs to be portrayed in a sensitive way and not ignore our slave and indentured past.

As far as tourism is concerned, we don’t want to give only ‘glossy’ tourist brochures about the sea and sand to tourists but also down-to-earth cultural items for them to meet and understand the Mauritian people… not only in luxury spots. See how modern South Africa has ‘marketed’ apartheid: who would have thought 30 years ago that throngs of tourists would visit Soweto?

* We have our own world heritage sites, yet many people remain opposed to these sites on personal, financial and commercial reasons. There are indeed cases in court by proprietors and property developers against the restriction imposed on heritage sites.

Heritage management is a huge problem in Mauritius and our institutions ill-equipped to deal with corporate lawyers making claims. The State needs to intervene fast and empower our public institutions and listen to those small voices called ‘morality’ and ‘public interest’.

* Published in print edition on 1 November 2012

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