Living Together in Literature

B y Dev Virahsawmy

The term ‘Living Together in Literature’ is polysemic. It may mean, inter alia, the relationship between texts or intertextuality; the relationship among personae within a text; literature as a bridge between cultures; literature as an instrument of nation building; gender sensitivity, neutrality and equality; and finally literature as an examplum of divine love and sustenance with the milk of human kindness. In fact I believe that living together in literature means all these and much more.


There is a belief that no text lives in a vacuum and consequently all texts, implicitly or explicitly, talk to each other across time and space. The impact of King James version of the Bible on the growth and development of English as a language and texts written in that language cannot be overlooked. In 1966 the novel ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys became a concrete example of intertextual dialogue for the minor persona in Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ (1847), the mad creole woman, becomes a flesh and blood human being and a fully developed character and through her patriarchy, machoism and colonialism are denounced. A similar treatment is found in Tom Stoppard’s play ‘Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead’ in which two minor characters from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ become two full-fledged characters caught in the confusing web of existence.

In 1972, while I was a political prisoner, I wrote the play ‘Li’ in which the main protagonist, a Christ-like figure, is murdered. The human drama is couched in images and echoes from the New Testament, The Ramayana, The Bhagavad-Gita, Germaine Greer’s ‘Female Eunuch’ and plays by G.B.Shaw and Jean-Paul Sartre. The more I look at my work, the more I realise how much I owe to works I have read or studied. All this makes me wonder whether I would have developed writing skills had I not been plunged into the deep waters of international literary works. And the irony of it all is that by living with others and learning from others, I have carved my own image and identity.

Living Together in Fiction

If we had to rely on our senses only, we would only know what we see, hear or feel. So, to a great extent we know what others see, hear or feel because art in general and verse or prose literary works in particular are windows that open into the life experiences of others. Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ or John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ tells us how other people cope with harsh reality; EM Forster’s posthumously published novel, ‘Maurice’, on homosexual love has considerably helped humanity to come to terms with different sexual orientations although homophobia is still strong and requires all our efforts to be defeated. Love relationship between people of different backgrounds (Paul and Virginie, Romeo and Juliet, Laila and Majnu, Antony and Cleopatra, Eloise and Abelard, Salim and Anarkali, Pokahontas and John Smith, Paris and Helen of Troy) has since time immemorial impressed and inspired people of all classes and creeds. Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Hard Times’ or Emile Zola’s ‘Germinal’ has shown to us the horror of working class reality or the grandeur of working class solidarity.

By refining language, poetry has given us a beautiful tool to connect with others, to share ideas and feelings. A play at the theatre, be it comic, tragic or tragicomic bind us together in a common experience and enhance our humanity.

Culture Dialogue and Nation Building

The realm where I’ve personally experienced most vividly the contribution of literature to the ever-growing process of ‘living together’ is my own homeland, Mauritius, a creole island as defined by Professor Megan Vaughan in her book, Creating the Creole Island: Slavery in Eighteenth Century Mauritius (Duke University Press, 2004). This is what she writes: “…by ‘creole’ I simply mean that the island, without natives, has always been the product of multiple influences, multiple sources, which to differing degrees merge, take root, and ‘naturalize’ on this new soil.” (page 2) On this island there have been successive waves of forced, not-so-forced and free immigrants from Europe, Africa and Asia. The different groups have preserved their ethnic identities and have so far failed to develop a common national identity although they have a common history (they are all immigrants) and they have a common destiny (willy-nilly, they must learn to survive together). Race, class, caste and creed divisions are rife. Economic stakeholders prefer to divide and rule; religious and political leaders cannot afford to go against the grain for it may mean a loss of allegiance. But artists in general and creative writers in particular are duty-bound to go against the accepted norm for this is the price to pay to create the new.

Pre-independence writing was dominated by French and English but independence saw the rise of new ideas and creative experience specially in the field of literature.

First of all there was the drive to get the local language accepted as a language per se and not as a ‘patois’ or broken French. In the wake of this movement there was the emergence of a new literature using the local language Morisien as medium and expressing new aspirations in terms of social justice, gender equality, solidarity and sharing.

The two theatre buildings, The Plaza and The Port Louis Theatre, citadels of elite culture, were taken by storm by plays in the local language. ‘Zozef ek So Palto Larkansiel’, the Morisien version of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and ‘Zeneral Makbef’ an original full-length political satire became box-office successes and ran for weeks and months. Several books of poems appeared in the language of new aspirations; changes in mood and perceptions were palpable. Literary prose was slower to take off but soon the void was filled by some gifted writers.

If secular literature was initially the spearhead of the movement, soon religious leaders realised they could no longer ignore the language of the people in a democracy and the translation of religious literature moved to the front line.

Today the scene has changed radically from what it was 50 years ago. Morisien has become the L1 of 90% of the population; it is also the L2 of the remaining 10%; Morisien is taught as an optional language in primary schools; the public utility TV station has a channel almost exclusively in Morisien; the Open University of Mauritius will soon offer a course in Morisien-English bilingual studies; at the Mauritius Prison Services, Morisien is used as medium to teach basic literacy to non-literate and non-numerate detainees (80% of inmates) as part of an intensive rehabilitation programme and some detainees are already trying their hands at mother tongue creative writing. One day, we hope that some scholar will measure the contribution of secular and religious literature on the way reality has changed and is still changing.

Saraswatee, Help us to forge ahead

The future looks bright but for those who are not blind there are heavy black clouds at the horizon. Global warming and climate change will soon wreak havoc and wreck the very foundation of this civilisation. To survive we must now start building tomorrow. Those having economic power prefer to turn a blind eye for gold coins are more attractive and mesmerising; again politicians will not dare say the truth for it might scare off votes; most religious leaders do not understand the problem and if some do they prefer to be silent so as not to antagonise the moneyed people. Most people are attracted by immediate gains and gratification. Only genuine artists and writers can be trusted to set the alarm bells ringing. Initially it could be like preaching to the wind but with time the poetic and prophetic words will be heeded and attitudes and mindset will change.

Creative writing can also help, through the generation of new feelings and aspirations, to intensify the struggle against machoism and patriarchy. A superb example is Caryl Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’. Emancipation does not mean ‘women with balls’. Moreover language has to change. The flexibility of the English language, another creole language, allows it to change and become gender-sensitive whereas French seems unable to do so. Here is an example: Mille femmes et une chienne sont venues (feminine plural) (A thousand women and a bitch have come). Mille femmes et un chien sont venus (masculine plural) (A thousand women and a dog have come). A similar work is indispensable in Morisien. Recently I had to cross swords with sexist conservatism and get people to understand that in Morisien we should stop using ‘chermenn’ or ‘prezidan’ but rather a more gender neutral term like ‘Dimoun Dan Fotey’ (Person In The Chair or Chairperson). Macho reflexes are hard to change!


* Published in print edition on 22 March 2013

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