Hindi in Mauritius: Some personal reflections

‘Language and culture go hand in hand. If language is lost, culture is lost’

Many years ago late Father Souchon, in one of his press interviews wherein he commented on the Hindu community – which he did often –, made the remark that only about 1000 Hindus in Mauritius ‘parlent couramment le Hindi’ (‘routinely speak Hindi’). In an article that I wrote in this paper on January 14, 2003 titled ‘The Conspiracy Theories, Double Standards and Contradictions of Father Souchon’, I responded to his views about the Hindus and Creoles, and amongst others pointed out that ‘Father Souchon is only a Catholic priest, and he should abstain from pontificating on subjects about which he knows next to nothing. His remarks about Hindi, that only about a thousand people “parlent couramment le Hindi, and about reincarnation reveal his prejudice and ignorance’.

I guess that had he been around today, he might have been surprised, or perhaps appalled, that so many non-Hindus watch Bollywood films (whether subtitled or not) and have at least a rudimentary understanding of Hindi that allows them to appreciate and enjoy the gist of the dialogues. And that it is no longer unusual that modern Hindi film songs as well as remixes of old ones, as well as for that matter some Tamil film songs, find their place in the repertoires of DJ’s at parties and receptions in Mauritius, where the sega and numbers from the Bhojpuri Boys too enliven the atmosphere. Why, only a few days ago someone who attended a birthday party hosted in the Creole community told me how they had enjoyed swaying to the rhythm of, among others, ‘hey langaro’.

Which goes to show that music and language, while being important markers of cultural identity, do also transcend culture.

On the occasion of the 11th World Hindi Conference which opens tomorrow at the Swami Vivekananda International Convention Centre, I thought I’d share some personal reflections on Hindi, especially in the Mauritian context. This is obviously from a layman’s perspective, leaving the scholars and academicians to deliberate and cogitate during the Conference on the more erudite and strategic dimensions of the subject.

May I point out that this is the third World Hindi Conference to be held in Mauritius, surely a great honour done to our country as a very important component of the Indian Diaspora, since it is here that the ‘Great Experiment’ of the migration of Indian Indentured Labour was begun and field-tested as it were, before the spread of the latter to other British colonies.

The setting up of the World Hindi Secretariat here too is another testimony of the significant place accorded to Mauritius, where the 2nd and 4th Conferences were held in 1976 and 1993 respectively, the 1st one being held in Nagpur, inaugurated by then Prime Ministers Smt Indira Gandhi and Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. Details of that Conference and subsequent ones have been covered in a couple of recent articles in this paper. That Hindi has acquired a certain primacy is due to the fact that the first migrants were recruited from the United Provinces (later Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, part of Bengal) which were Hindi/Bhojpuri speaking, and they also formed the bulk of those who came.

During the launching in New Delhi on last April 10th of the logo and the website of this Conference by India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the Education Minister of Mauritius Leela Devi Dookhun-Luchoomun, Ms Swaraj said the conference is important to ensure that the language exists among the Indians living abroad: ‘Language and culture go hand in hand. If language is lost, culture is lost. The conference is thus being organised to ensure that the Indians staying abroad do not forget it.’

Certainly in Mauritius Hindi has not been forgotten, and every year there are numerous books that are published by Mauritian writers in Hindi. Perhaps the most famous of them is recently deceased Abhimanyu Unuth, who won prestigious awards for his works, some of which have also been translated in French and English. It may be noted that the founder of Mauritius Times, late Shri Beekrumsing Ramlallah also founded in 1960 a Hindi newspaper, Nav-Jeevan, which was published as a supplement to MT for a number of years. It was edited by Soorooj Prasad Mungur Bhagat.

Besides the writers, there are several other individuals and organizations that have been involved in the promotion of Hindi, notably the Hindi Pracharini Sabha of Long Mountain, which conducts examinations in Hindi to an advanced level. As regards the teaching of Hindi in the public school system, if I am not mistaken it is Professor Ram Prakash, who was brought in from India in the 1950s, who kickstarted the process. He designed and published books in Hindi to be used by primary school children, and I myself remember having used them – until Standard 5.

And that is when, in 1954, my formal learning of Hindi stopped abruptly. The reason, which has relevance today, is an ogre of a teacher, who hated the sight of me for whatever reason. Despite my dedicated efforts and my genuine interest – if only because of the colourful books, something rare in those days – he never found anything good in my Hindi work. And almost daily he used to beat me with la règle carrée – the wooden ruler with sharp edges – on my knuckles made prominent with my fists closed. One day he had gone too far: my knuckles started to bleed, and I came crying home to my mother, pleading with her to have my father write a letter to the effect that I will no longer learn Hindi. After initial resistance, my father yielded.

It was much later that I resumed studying Hindi on my own, using ‘Hindi in 30 days’, a standard book in the 1960s , which my friend Nakata from Japan also used in Kolkata: it allowed him to converse reasonably well with the mother of our Punjabi friends staying opposite the International Students House where we were residents. I made some more progress in spoken, mainly colloquial Hindi when I went over to New Delhi to do my medical internship. About 15 years ago I started to follow the Bhagavad Gita Home Study Course at the Institute of Vedanta, Reduit, and as we recited the slokas in Sanskrit I began to realise how important it was to be able to read them in the original Devanagari script rather than the romanised version. I made time to begin afresh with Devanagari, as a result of which my reading skills in Hindi as well started to improve. I make a conscious effort to read as much in Hindi as I can, within the constraints of time and an aging brain!

It is not a thousand, but tens of thousands of Mauritians who understand Hindi, and speak it too. One only has to listen to the radio talk-in programmes to realise that many listeners do have a good command of Hindi and Bhojpuri. On the other hand, over the years I have found that in the Indo-Mauritian population, there would be relatively more people tending to converse in Hindi/Bhojpuri than the other Indian languages used here in gatherings of the respective communities.

And this brings me to a core and sore point about the teaching of Hindi in Mauritius. In any subject, it is the teacher that makes the difference – as my experience with my former Hindi teacher showed me. Very unfortunately and very sadly, from numerous accounts that I have heard, many teachers of Hindi in our schools are a disappointment to their students. Mind you, I do qualify: there are a good number who are enthusiastic and do a good job. The rest have neither pride in the language nor any passion to transmit it, so that the students are repulsed rather than attracted to the language as they are not made to discover its beauty and richness through a proper pedagogy.

How this situation should be remedied is a matter partly for the government, but mainly for the teachers, who should practise their vocation in a true spirit, with missionary zeal no less. Whether they are willing to do that or not I do not know. And whether the present Conference will inspire them – if they are participating – is also a big question mark. But I hope that there will be some change in that direction. If there is one concrete outcome of the Conference with local impact, let it be a new orientation given to the teaching of Hindi – or Sanskrit – in schools, as a token of gratitude to Mother India.


* Published in print edition on 17 August 2018

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