From Marish Desh to Moris

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

A friend hailing from a traditional Hindu family residing in Curepipe relates how her parents, though uneducated in English and French, used to discuss topics in Hindi books around a table in the warm atmosphere of a kitchen. The stories provided the basis of dialectical thinking, ethics and philosophy, which set the guidelines of family relationships, individual sense of duty, social interaction, attitudes to life, and the multiple ways in which individuals are linked to binding universal truths. A tradition handed down from the ancestors who left Calcutta to settle in Marish Desh more than half a century ago.

This is just one example among a myriad of cases where one’s own language sounds as a most natural and logical means of communication, and hence, should put a person in a better position to articulate the various aspects of one’s culture and philosophy. The sounds of Hindi, the metaphorical language loaded with alliterations and assonances that run through the writings, appeal naturally to Hindi speakers and to those who understand Hindi but are not fluent in the language. ‘Calcuttiah’ used to commonly refer to people and their language (officially called Bhojpuri), has not enjoyed the same status as Hindi although it is spoken by a wider number of people than pure Hindi. One possible reason for this situation is that writings in Bhojpuri have been available and accessible to the public to a lesser extent. Besides, the predominance and status of Hindi was somewhat enhanced by the undeniable impact of Hindi films and songs on our local Indian cultural landscape.

It is widely acknowledged that a language is the backbone of a culture, its most essential component. Sounds, words, syntactic rules and grammar endow a language with a particular identity and articulate a way of defining the material world around us and our outlook on life generally. More importantly, it conveys beliefs, thoughts, general knowledge in science and philosophy. Its aesthetics should matter as much as its own inner workmanship in expressing ideas relating to all fields of knowledge.

Economic and political status and the exercise of power during the colonial era determined a hierarchy among the existing languages, relegating Indian languages to private use within family and community circles.

More precisely, the forces at work in the colonial days reinforced by the peculiar bi-polar conservative relations between colonialists and descendants of slaves would have simply wished for a total disappearance of ‘foreign’ languages. Had it not been for the relentless efforts of effective leadership and private initiative within the Indo-Mauritian community, the very survival of the languages would have been at stake.

A sense of Loss

Notwithstanding the total disappearance of their language and original culture, descendants of slaves suffered from, at the hands of the colonial masters, they adopted a very conservative stance as regards the presence of other languages than French, the language of the colonial powers and the very imperfect and twisted dialect it generated amid slaves — Creole, which owes its name to Portuguese colonialists. Creole has been transformed into Kreol over the last decades to impart some kind of authenticity to it with an African touch, and partly to keep in tune with language policy in neighboring Creole islands. But the shift from C to K in the spelling does not obliterate the fact that it was widely derived from French by people who painstakingly endeavoured to invent another language to communicate among themselves and with their masters.

Defence of the former masters’ language and its imperfect derivative in the shape of Creole allied with the inherent sense of superiority of the colonial powers to led to inferiorizing, opposing and berating the new oriental languages. Unbecoming epithets were employed to bring disgrace on the Indian languages and those who used them. All this had a flavour of conservatism. Such conservatism sounds quite paradoxical unless we apply a bit of psychoanalysis to our interpretation and view the antipathy as a desire of a downtrodden social category to inflict the same loss of language it was victim of, upon other segments of the population, to continue the process of destruction by internalizing the masters’ destructive force and pulling down other living languages which had the “audacity” to go on living. It is about dragging others in your fall to avoid falling alone.

Seven centuries of military, economic, religious and cultural assaults have, no doubt, moulded the collective psyche of Indians and imbibed it with a sense of powerlessness, weakness and defeat. This sense of defeat has unfortunately been carried forward by this group to the point of renouncing its linguistic roots. Subservience and submissiveness seep through the euphemism underlying the principle of adaptation to changing environment. So, English became the official language and enabled all of us to connect to the world. We are neither Japanese nor Chinese, proud people who did not need a foreign language to carve out a place for themselves in the world. Their representatives speak in their own language in world economic summits while their Indian counterparts resort to English in their will to ‘adapt’ and also, not to offend other languages back home in a spirit of compromise. It may be good politics when an Indo-Mauritian PM praises the progress of the French language in Mauritius at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. What if the same could have been said about the use of Bhojpuri and Hindi in Mauritius? We don’t appear to be going towards that kind of goalpost.

A language that is given lower importance and visibility gradually loses its lustre and appeal. No wonder some of us grabbed our schoolbags and ran away from schools on Hindi/Tamil/Telegu/ Marathi/Urdu exam day! Why burden our heads with subjects which were not reckoned in the exam results at the end of the year? Bhojpuri is still spoken by Hindus and Muslims of Bihari origin especially in the villages while Hindi remains a language we understand and appreciate on the radio and TV, in films and songs, and on rare occasions of speeches delivered in socio-cultural meetings and religious ceremonies. How long a language survives by being kept in the background is yet to be given proper analysis.

The hierarchy of languages

It is no secret that a change in the political arena in the post-colonial period has not altered the concentration of economic power in the country as well as the hierarchy of languages as practised in the past. On the contrary, free market capitalism has reinforced the economic power of those who originally hailed from a business social class and in whose hands lay the capital needed for investment. The very concept of democracy we all cherish works best for those who take advantage of it to concentrate power and wealth within their own group, leaving peanuts for the rest of us. So unequal is the race for economic progress that the traditional power holders speed off to grab opportunities much before the whistle blows for those others who scan the landscape for possibilities to get off beaten tracks and remain on the lookout for alternative economic prospects. A scrupulous and unwavering application of legally established official procedures in allocating contracts exclusively to big companies will play to the advantage of the latter and keep the economic race unequal and undemocratic over decades. On the other hand, the perceived political changeover since post-Independence has been constantly and is still challenged by advocates of the political and cultural status quo of the colonial era.

The sun also shines for the French language whose status has been enhanced as the language of civilized discourse and official interaction in public and private sectors supplanting English, the official language. Several factors account for the phenomenal breakthrough of French: its proximity with Kreol which has become the common language, the inadequacy of Kreol in sustained conversations, its significant use in the hotel industry with most tourists coming from France and Réunion for decades, its support in mainstream media for obvious reasons and the influence wielded by powerful lobbies with the collaboration of the French embassy. With the pull exerted by the overwhelming presence of French channels, Parabole and Canal Sat on television, the younger generation is finding it increasingly difficult to follow and understand a film in English.

Last but not least, the current situation is also due to the colonized mindset and its age-old correlative attributes of powerlessness and defeat that stick to descendants of those who came to Marish Desh. Some of the descendants in the highest sphere of influence look for guiding principles in alien organizations such as freemasonry and in the process, they have bartered general interests for personal gains in the name of brotherhood… of mutual interest. They did not have the benefit of discussions over Hindi texts around the kitchen table of an Indo-Mauritian household. So, they appear to be alienating themselves from the roots ever the more.

Not to mention the brainwashing students are subjected to in European countries, especially French universities, importing not only the language but the concepts and ideas it embodies. Urban Hindu and Muslim intellectuals who have never understood or spoken a word of Urdu, Hindi or Bhojpuri seem to be particularly prone to be inspired by French writings. A recent most ridiculous example is that of opinion makers in the mainstream press who resort to contemporary French philosophers to support their illustration of wisdom. Gallic wisdom, indeed! That’s all we need!

Western outlook

To those who occasionally remind us of our debt to excellent teachers outside the Indo-Mauritian group who trained a whole set of future academics and professionals, we beg to differ. The fact is that our formal education, particularly as regards language and literature, is deeply western in outlook regardless of whoever imparts that education. The time-consuming energy devoted to understanding and assimilating a big chunk of our education which brings along with it concepts and ideas of other cultures leaves little room for consolidating one’s exposure to and knowledge of one’s own language and the writings produced in that language.

To top it all, Kreol has supplanted Bhojpuri in most Indo-Mauritian households. Its widespread use is even supported and encouraged by intellectuals hailing from the Indo-Mauritian community, particularly the 1970s leftist intellectuals who mediatized the romantic leftist credo that the language of workers in Moris should be the national language of one and all. No doubt, signals of the sort sent out very subtly to the rest of the community from high up as to what should be the “approved” linguistic preference, do not go unnoticed or un-acknowledged by younger minds trying to find out what is best.

At the age of 18 and even before that, any thinking person endowed with keen observation and a critical mind cannot fail to witness a deep and alarming sense of loss and a feeling of alienation and estrangement characterized by foreign ways of thinking transmitted in books and sustained in audio-visual media, obliterating cultural landmarks in the name of a so-called universalism and creating a lot of confusion in the process.

The time has come for authentic leaders to come out and voice their views on how one should fill up the void being created by the interplay of multiple forces in one’s cultural and intellectual make-up. It may otherwise become too late to reverse the tide.

* Published in print edition on 16 November 2012

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