Issues of Identity

Why do some people make such a fuss about identities, why do they get so serious that their acute sense of and need for specific identities pitches them into mortal confrontations with the ‘other’?

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

I don’t know when the term ‘identity politics’ was coined but it has come to the fore of late and has been linked to the rise of populist parties in Europe and America, where aspiring politicians and their parties create vote banks by going along with the demand for recognition from groups united around race, religion, gender, ethnicity or other assorted identities.

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In the US, the ‘institutionalised racism’ that even President Obama was so powerless against has been exemplified over and over again by the police actions against Black Americans which have resulted in so many unfortunate deaths. The recent one of George Floyd in Minneapolis has spawned the ‘Black Lives Matter’ or BLM movement, which has now snowballed into an open fight against racism.

Trying to learn a bit more about and understand these developments led me to read ‘What is white supremacy?’ by Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez, which begins with a definition by the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop, San Francisco, CA. It reads: ‘White supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.’

The fuss about identities

While all this was happening, I reminisced about various incidents in my life that had to do with identity, although at the time they took place I never formally associated the term ‘identity’ with them. It was clear to me who I was – it was others who perceived me in various ways. As I look back on those shall I say ‘encounters’ at this stage of my life, I can do so with relaxed humour and some philosophizing: why do some people make such a fuss about identities, why do they get so serious that their acute sense of and need for specific identities pitches them into mortal confrontations with the ‘other’?

My own adventures, though, were in retrospect learning experiences about human nature and society, and that too from an early age when I was in no position to quite make out what was going on in the minds of my interlocutors. These began as early as in primary school, at the then Church of England Aided School aka L’Ecole Baichoo in Curepipe Road, now better known as Otter Barry School. The majority of us pupils were from the locality where several communities lived and mingled, and certainly in the school or outside we children would play together and never think about skin colour or community.

Growing up in those early 1950s we sort of instinctively knew that the families living in the area were from diverse religions and community-types: Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Chinese, Creole, Mulate, but there weren’t any Whites. Among the Christians by the by we got to know who among the families were Catholic, Protestant and Adventist.

All this, however, didn’t affect the budding friendships which cut across all these categories – except one: what I later came to learn was social class, but in those days, we knew that the better-off among us had cars, wore nice shoes and clothes, and shining school bags. The boys among the rest of us wore mostly khaki shorts and shirts made of la toile écrue, the cheapest cloth available. And when it was cold, we braved it because our parents couldn’t afford to buy us warm clothing. Shoes were not of leather but the ubiquitous white cloth type – souliers lapins, and that too only for the rare outings. Many came to school barefoot.

It was in Standard II as it was known then that one day my teacher, Miss Chadien (whose husband Francis Chadien was in the Labour Party) asked me some question and called me ‘Gopee Mulate’ (Milate – mulatto). Later she added ‘Pi’. I do not remember whether anybody laughed, because in those days teachers were very severe and one could not take liberties; I do not even remember whether I felt in any way offended or how I reacted. ‘Gopee Mulate Pi’ stuck to me for a good while. ‘Mulate’ I could understand because of my skin colour, but to this day I cannot fathom why ‘Mulate Pi’ – perhaps Miss Chadien was privy to some secret information that I still do not have.

This episode points to the most obvious criterion about one’s identity: what one looks like, and the first thing one notices is skin colour, based on which a first judgement – right or wrong – is made. Next come the facial features including hair colour, the name, the language one speaks and the accent among others.

Moving on to Royal College Curepipe, I found myself in the same kind of mixed environment of fellow students from all communities, religions and ethnicities which, again, didn’t impinge on friendships in the class or on the playfields. Nor did our teachers ever show any sign that this diversity was of any consequence. For recall, the Rector then was an Englishman and many of the staff were from Britain, the remaining Mauritian ones being graduates from there too or from France.

The one thing that stood out was that the White students would cluster on the bench to the right of the entrance hallway as it opened on to the quadrangle-cum-volleyball pitch in the mornings and recesses. This did not disturb anybody.

‘fake’ Hindu hegemony campaign

In that period of pre-Independence, as students who were focused on our studies and school activities, we were blissfully unaware of the political polarization that was playing out at large, with the rise of Gaetan Duval as King Creole borne on the shrill echoes of what would today qualify as the ‘fake’ Hindu hegemony campaign that the vitriol of NMU was peddling on an almost daily basis in Le Cernéen. We hardly read the newspapers anyway.

RCC introduced me to language as identity, though I repeat that this is a retrospective ‘diagnosis’. In fact, as I moved through the lower forms, I was asked alternately whether I spoke French at home/where I had learnt to speak the language, by our French teacher Dr Karl Noel (nicknamed ‘Mafate’) after he had made me read a poem, ‘L’Albatross’. He seemed mightily pleased, but for me that was neither here nor there. Many years later, in Marseilles, Professor Bureau, Chief of Plastic Surgery under whom I was doing a fellowship, told me ‘Tu as un étrange accent belge.’ A similar story repeats as regards English with my geography teacher Mr Gill, who expresses astonishment at my spoken English when I tell him that I have never been to England. And ditto later with Mr Herbert Bullen the Rector.

To us all the teachers from Britain were from England, English. It was years later that I came to know about the chasms that split down the length and breadth of Britannia. The first inkling of this caused me some embarrassment, because I had touched a very sensitive chord in my lady guest. She was the wife of a Mauritian colleague who was doing a short stint with us at SSRN Hospital after his graduation from the UK. We had invited them for dinner at home, in the hospital quarters. After settling them down by way of conversation I engaged her in some small talk. At some stage I said ‘of course you English…’ Her reaction was immediate, ‘Excuse ME,’ she exclaimed, ‘I am NOT ENGLISH, I am WELSH!’ Nevertheless, we had a pleasant evening.

It was a few years later that I went to specialize in the UK, and I got to know some of the deeper realities about languages spoken, regional accents and the class and ethnic divides that go along with these. Interestingly, one day in the Operation Theatre the Sister told me ‘you look Indian but your accent is not Indian’, to which I replied ‘I am Mauritian’. Her reply? – ‘Thank God you’re not Indian’!

Which brings me to medical college in Calcutta (now Kolkata). It was my first day as we were waiting to enter the anatomy hall, and I was with these Bengali classmates, seeing them the first time too. Where are you from? – they asked in a chorus. From Mauritius, which I had to explain and that my forefathers were from Bihar – at least that’s what I had heard in Mauritius. You’re lying, they said, you are not from Bihar. You must be from Punjab, Kashmir. Didn’t mean a thing to me at that time, so I insisted, Bihar. No, no, you don’t look like a Bihari. Well, I snapped in a bid to end this exchange, I do not know what a Bihari looks like, so suit yourself!

As a matter of fact, it was only when I was applying for the PIO card some time ago that I learnt from the MGI archives that my great-grandfather came from District Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh.

And a last one, even more interesting! Four of us medical students from the hostel went on a holiday to Odisha: Jacob and Raymond, Malaysians of Keralite origin and Christian; Jaya from Sri Lanka, Buddhist, and me, Hindu. We went to visit Lord Jagannath Mandir. At the entrance, we are stopped and told in Hindi that only Hindus are allowed to enter. My friends, who don’t speak Hindi, in low voice request me to keep silent about their religious identity. Believe it or not, the ‘problem’ was not with them but with me – and we had a good laugh later in the hotel!

The gatekeeper insisted that I was a Muslim! I decided to argue and he was adamant until I played my trump card – the locket depicting Lord Krishna that hung from my neck chain.

Who am I? Poor others, let them figure it out!

* Published in print edition on 17 July 2020

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