Modern progress, Cultural regress

It is high time we did some serious reflection on how to contain and reverse this regression from the values enshrined in our culture

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

In the course of wedding celebrations that I attended two weekends ago I was introduced on the first evening, that of the Geet Gawai, to a delightful couple from France who had come over for the marriage. It’s a regular feature in practically all marriages, and some life-event celebrations such as special wedding anniversaries or birthdays, to find relatives, friends and guests who have flown down from several places in the world. We are migrant people, and we have followed the migratory habit, mostly with mini-waves that have left our shores around the time of Independence – and married in their new lands of adoption to indigenous nationals there, or have found Mauritians either overseas or in Mauritius.

The Mauritian husband in this couple, who within moments of our meeting morphed from acquaintance to friend for reasons that will become apparent soon, was among those who in the 1970s travelled to England to study nursing, given the paucity of local employment opportunities at that time. There he became bosom friend of the groom’s uncle: it was the latter who did the presentations. After completing nursing and while working for a while in the profession, they did what many of their countrymen in similar situations were doing too: use their spare hours to pursue university degrees in related or even different fields.

The groom’s uncle went on to do biochemistry and made his way into academics and education before he came back to Mauritius to pursue his career. I got to meet him as a patient a couple of years ago when he had just retired and as these things keep happening, we discovered that we were both interested in biological big questions such as the origin of life, and also in the books of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In fact when he came back from a recent trip to England he was kind enough to bring and gift me one of the latest titles of Dawkins.

His friend, on the other hand, studied economy and became a banker in France, marrying a French lady, and eventually settling there, not far from Paris. The reason we clicked was that it turned out that we were both Old Royals, for he was also from the RCC, my junior by a few years. So that’s what set us off on discovering that we were linked, as it were, not only through the RCC but also through ‘l’ecole Baichoo’ as the present Hugh Otter Barry Government school was known before it moved to its present location, with its new name, after the passage of cyclones Alix and Carol in 1960 which had razed to the ground the ‘longère’ type structure that housed the old school.

In fact, we had mostly the same teachers at RCC, about whom we of course talked a little and also had pretty much corresponding perceptions, but there were also friends, one of whom is a doctor to whom he requested me to convey his compliments when we meet. The icing on the cake came when we began to talk about ‘l’ecole Baichoo’, which was situated in then ‘l’impasse Farquhar’ – now Clyde Lane. From then on, we talked about the teachers, headteacher, and the people in the locality which spanned Charles Regnaud, Abbe Laval and Prosper d’Epinay Streets, and further down to Eau Coulee where his family used to stay. But he also had relatives bearing the same surname who lived in ‘l’impasse Farquhar’, among whom a girl cousin who was my elder sister’s classmate.

So we went on a detailed tour of a shared past of experiences, which was completed last Saturday by me taking him on a physical-cum-nostalgic trip down memory lane in our childhood environs, where he could see for himself the changes that had taken place, the buildings and landscape of yore having been replaced by modernity to put it this way. That included the houses of my two brothers which had taken the place of my Dada’s colonial house opposite the school, where we had grown up and which he remembered.

An appreciation of cultural diversity

A candid remark made by his wife during our conversation revealed a reality we are only too aware of. ‘Quand je suis venue à Maurice pour la première fois en 1979,’ she said, ‘j’étais très contente de voir tant de femmes en public qui portaient le saree, et j’étais émerveillée devant cette diversité culturelle. Quel dommage qu’il n’y en a plus autant aujourd’hui !’ (When I came to Mauritius in 1979 for the first time, I was very happy to see so many women in public who wore the saree, and I was in awe of this cultural diversity. How sad that I don’t see much of this these days!’).

I doubt if she was ever told about the pre-independence strident political slogan ‘envelope nou pas oule’ which I am sure would have horrified her. On the day of the marriage she was herself clad elegantly in a beautiful saree. Here we are enjoying that rich and colourful diversity, appreciated by others who look with fresh eyes and without prejudice, and which we officially boast about to attract tourists – and yet I was reminded that some time ago there was a hullabaloo about a lady wearing her tikka. And ironically, she worked in a hotel meant for tourists, the kind of people who appreciate such expressions of our various cultures with their modes of living. Aren’t we being hypocritical and missing the point somewhere?

In effect, this is unfortunately true. In all cultures it is an acknowledged fact that the woman is the nurturer of children, not only in the physical sense of nourishing them first with her milk but as they grow up she also grooms them through values which she has herself imbibed and which in ways, both overt and subtle, she transmits to them. And this is what has made for the continuation to this day of millennial civilisations which have recognized this crucial role of women in preparing future generations. This means that for a start women must themselves understand their important place in this scheme of things, and that, at the wider level, nations must support them in this role of cultural transmission.

However, since the child’s first teachers are the parents, it is in the home and at family level that such cultural learning must start. In fact, in a survey conducted several years ago, parents are considered by 95% of Hindus to be the most important agent of the transmission of culture. The acquisition of cultural knowledge and the learning process should start at home: that was the clear message sent by the respondents.

Obviously it implies that parents be themselves properly informed about their culture, whose pillar are the values therein. Whereas in the former days women bore this responsibility of imparting cultural knowledge almost alone, this can no longer be the case because more often than not both parents are in employment, so the responsibility must now be shared.

Decline of cultural values

We all know that material prosperity has been accompanied by a decline of cultural values, the reason why we are witnessing so many odious and atrocious crimes. True, from the standpoint of absolute numbers and in statistical terms they may not come to much – but in sheer aggressiveness and barbarity they overwhelm the numerical dimension. Even when such extremes are not reached, there are dysfunctions that are present and that do not necessarily come to the public space. And it’s not as if it’s only those of lower socioeconomic status who are concerned. Some years ago I heard a lady in one of the radio talk programmes crying as she described the descent into chaos of her hitherto tranquil family life. It seems that her husband had by a stroke of good fortune moved from a middle level to a higher level job, as a result of which to show off he developed some frequentations that made him turn into an addict of the bottle; there followed a neglect of the family.

And there would no doubt be innumerable similar tales. So it is for both parents to uphold the family, with man protecting the woman’s role as the exigencies of modern life force her more and more into the public space, so that she may fulfill both her external and family duties with dignity.

On the other hand, the neglect of cultural values is seen, ironically, at the time of certain festivals when we do not display respect for the environment and socially responsible behaviour, a lack for which we pay with shame as we are finger-pointed.

It is high time we did some serious reflection on how to contain and reverse this regression from the values enshrined in our culture, so that we can hold our heads high and so too our children.

* Published in print edition on 7 December 2018

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