Mauritian Identity: Colourful diversity, not dull uniformity

If we are all the same then we have little or nothing to share and thus to enrich each other. If we are from different backgrounds, then we have much to share and exchange for mutual enrichment

As if to give context and contemporaneity to the results of the Afrobarometer survey on identity in Mauritius that were made available at the beginning of the month, there erupted the wholly unnecessary episode about a staff wearing her tikka at La Residence hotel, about which I wrote in last week’s issue of this paper – (‘Why should the tikka cause such controversy?’). To my mind, instead of going down the confrontational pathway, as has been done, with a modicum of commonsensical understanding and goodwill the unpleasant situation could have been avoided, the more so as it took place in the tourism sector which could certainly have done without an incident likely to tarnish its image.

The starting point in this discussion about identity is this most human of desires in each of us to want to ‘belong’, which begins of course at family level as a child who seeks security, and what other structure is there than the family at that stage? As human society evolved, families became groups and tribes that later made up nations and countries with boundaries. Throughout this process, security and identity have been closely associated – hence the proverb ‘birds of the same feather flock together’.

We have come to use culture and religion as the basic markers of identity, and this despite the fact that people belonging to the same culture and religion do have conflicts that also lead them to fight among themselves. This has been cryingly evident throughout history; in recent times the well-known example was also the longest ongoing one, viz. the Catholic-Protestant strife in Northern Ireland, and now it is the Middle East (Syria) that is exemplifying this unfortunate reality of the human condition.

The lesson we must therefore learn and relearn is that, in order to avoid such conflicts, especially when we live in societies whose populations are of different origins, we must accommodate each other by mutual adaptations and adjustments. Fundamental to this are first, respect of each other’s culture and religion and, next, contribution of one’s best to the common weal and learning from each other. From a cultural point of view, if we are all the same then we have little or nothing to share and thus to enrich each other. On the other hand, if we are from different backgrounds, then we have much to share and exchange for mutual enrichment.

Every thinking Mauritian will agree that we have been doing this quite successfully over the years, and have learned to coexist peacefully enough to be cited as a model worth emulating. We must therefore avoid doing anything that would upset this delicate balance that we have achieved. It is our duty, however, to continuously work to preserve it. Towards this end, it is important for us to appreciate what we mean by the Mauritian identity, the factors that go into making it, and how all of us individually and collectively can play a fruitful role in constantly honing it.

‘Colourful diversity, not dull uniformity’

This is the expression used by the late great philosopher-President of India, Dr Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, also a foremost scholar of Hinduism, to in fact characterise Hinduism. I find that it very aptly describes our ‘Mauritianism’ too, because it is a composite identity as will become clear from what follows.

As human beings, inevitably when we encounter another human being what we first register is the physical appearance, made up of skin colour, ‘racial’ features and dress worn. The next thing that comes across is the language that the person speaks, and we would know, for example, that X is from Mauritius by his particular Creole accent as distinct, say, from Seychelles; why, even from Rodrigues because of both accent and the use of certain words.

But there are many other elements that go into making us who and what we are, that define or get us defined. In spite of ourselves, we get labelled as belonging to a specific group or community, and then as the ‘other’. But in Mauritius, like in any other plural society, we inevitably have multiple identities, juxtaposed and superimposed. They are not mutually exclusive, and in practice we have at least three, namely a transactional identity, a core identity and a Mauritian identity.

We all get by with these multiple identities, and some of the main constituent elements that make them up are: our body and its appearance, our history, our nationality, the roles we play, our work, our social and financial status, what we own, what others think of us. There are also our thoughts and feelings, our expectations, our language or languages, our knowledge and values, our creative and intellectual abilities, and our character and personality.

The transactional identity belongs to the public space. It is forged as we go through the educational system, the world of work and civil society at large. In these contexts language acts to facilitate our insertion and integration, connecting us to others and allowing us negotiate our way as we play out the various roles required of us, in the world of work in particular. The languages of this identity in Mauritius include the Indian languages (of them Hindi and Bhojpuri being probably more common), English mainly for official purposes, Creole and French. Mauritians of Indian ancestry have no difficulty at all in utilising the latter two languages in given situations, and in fact one could say that the transactional identity develops practically automatically, needing little conscious effort, as it starts at home, within the family.

Next is our core identity, which belongs to both the public and the private space. It derives from our religious affiliation and the specific cultural practices deriving therefrom, such as our food customs in the home, the specific festivals we observe, and our apparel especially on cultural/religious occasions. The language associated with this identity is that of the foundational scripture, in the case of Hindus for example it is Sanskrit. It contains and articulates the concepts and values of the scripture, but understanding them can be, in fact more often than not is for most of us Indians in Mauritius, in any language with which we are most comfortable or familiar: these can be English, French, Creole, Hindi or any of the Indian languages used here.

The Mauritian identity is a composite of the transactional and core identities. We have have come to live in peace here because we have reached a level of maturity as a people that has made us accept many of the elements of our respective core identities that are expressed in the public space, such as religious processions and celebrations, and the multitude of cultural events that fill our annual calendar. There are also the ‘visible signs’ that much has been made about elsewhere in some countries as being of concern particularly for security reasons. Here, on the contrary, a number of such signs – the tikka, for example — are widely accepted, as they can not only embellish one’s personality, but also find appreciation and admiration on the part of others.

I am a typical Mauritian: my multilayered, composite identity

The majority of us Mauritians speak more than one language as a matter of routine. At the same time, we have pride in our ancestral language – because all languages have their own beauty and richness. We all know that there are untranslatable words or expressions which add masala to language, e.g. Creole ‘kasse contour tombe sec’. It is best to learn as many languages as one can, because all are beautiful in their own way – so that one can speak, swear, praise and love rather than hate. Nor should language be a matter of cultural superiority.

In trying to imagine who I am, I find that many of my compatriots belonging to the Indian Diaspora could have a comparable narrative as typical Mauritians – just as others could craft theirs along similar lines. My natural starting point is that I was born of Hindu parents, and am of the fourth generation of immigrants who came from India. I attended an Anglican primary school, followed Bible classes, chanted the psalms and recited a Christian prayer daily. I was in an Anglican Boy Scouts troop until my late teens, attended their church, annual midnight mass and I sang Christmas carols – which, incidentally, I still enjoy listening to.

At home as a child I spoke the local lingua franca Creole. My grandparents spoke to me in Bhojpuri and Creole; at both primary and secondary school I was taught in English and French, and outside the classrooms we all spoke exclusively in Creole. Interestingly, my Chinese friends tell me of a similar pattern: their present generation speak mostly Creole with the parents and among themselves, have some understanding of Chinese and are not much able to speak it.

Our official language is English. I studied medicine in Kolkata, so I have a working knowledge of ‘functional’ Bengali, and am fairly familiar with Bengali culture. Moving to New Delhi for my internship in 1971, I married into a Punjabi family, and many relatives on their side were Sikhs. I feel as much at home in a mandir as in a gurdwara, and for that matter in the churches where I have been. In my extended family on both sides there are relatives who range from Sindhi and Gujarati to White North American and European of Greek and English extraction.

I have friends and acquaintances belonging to all religions and no religion, and to all local ethnic groups (Whites, Chinese, Indians of diverse provincial origins, Coloureds and Creoles). In my circle of family, relatives, friends and acquaintances, the languages we routinely use daily are Bhojpuri, Hindi, Creole, French and English. I am most comfortable in both written and spoken French and English, and I will say that ‘my heart is Mauritian but my soul is Indian.’

I have always been sure of who I am: a patriotic Mauritian of Hindu dharma with ancestors from India. That is why I can say with pride ‘Jai Bharat Mata’, tout en étant absolutely and equally a proud Mauritian and Diaspora Indian.

 


* Published in print edition on 27 April 2018

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