Can one escape from pervasion by an alien culture?

Nita Chicooree-Mercier

If anything, regional cooperation is making headway in terms of exchange of brilliant ideas. Not only due to media impact on language but its deeper implication in the change in mindset. That’s all we needed! Let us not dwell on what has already been mentioned. There are common wishes such as ‘bonne zourné’ repeated several times a day, or ‘bon couraz’ which is even worse. Why? Hold on.

Yesterday evening, at the end of a conference, a retired French professor of English observed: ‘There is no equivalent of ‘bon courage‘ in English by the way, or shall I still wish you ‘bon courage‘?’

No, thanks, was the reply. Maybe, it is a cultural difference. English Protestant culture emphasizes individual effort in life, which implies assuming both success and failures, and facing adversity with courage and resilience. This attitude to life is an even more pronounced cultural trait in American society. Conversely, God knows whether it is the ‘victimhood’ attitude in French mindset or Catholic influence.

Mark you, there is no ‘bon appétit’ either in English. It is a cultural difference, too. We never used to wish our relatives ‘bon appétit’ over a plate of bouillon and rougaille!

Well, it can for one be related to the bon vivant aspect and the Latin sensuousness permeating French culture across social categories though initially, wishing someone ‘bon appétit’ was mainly a working class habit probably due to the idea of ‘enjoying’ one’s food after a long history of food deprivation. It was not considered proper and elegant however to employ this kind of wish in the higher educated and religious-minded classes which fed on dainty food anyway. Our local mimicry of such such alien habits is gaining ground thanks to the passing-on of the French cultural model, outside influence of RFO, the influence from tourism, the impact of television and private radios.

Today, the point is another external trait which seems to be gaining ground and is being deplored by some voices: jealousy, ‘the green-eyed monster’. Years ago, the now retired French professor who was present at a conference yesterday, a specialist in American Studies, made the following observation in the amphitheatre of a university. “In the United States and in the UK, someone who buys a big new brand car, a Mercedes, for example, is congratulated by his friends and neighbours. But not so in France. People will seize the first opportunity to give a kick to the car and scrape it, out of sheer jealousy.”

Speaking about salaries is a taboo subject. ‘How much do you earn?’, an American will ask you straightaway. No taboo there. American Evangelist Protestantism considers riches as a reward for hard work and individual efforts, and hence material gains are blessings from Heaven. In their outlook, poverty is a sign of laziness, and people should be left to fend for themselves. National social security enhancement is regarded with distrust and even as a dangerous offshoot of Communism — the red devil itself.

Now, jealousy in French society may be related to the ‘anti-rich’ attitude prevailing in the days of the Revolution and later associated to the ‘anti-success’ mindset, which successful people, as in the recent Depardieu case, denounce occasionally when they feel enough is enough. There is also the ambiguous relation to money which Catholicism has always had. In the early days in France, poor peasants, were expected to give away part of their wages to the local churches. Poverty is almost a virtue which gives an opportunity to right-minded people in the upper classes to get sentimental and shed tears on the fate of their less fortunate brethren, and be charitable and all.

Well, let the French not bear the stigma of jealousy alone. This feature is also shared with the DOM-TOM-POM circle of French West Indian islands and the Indian Ocean islands. It is one of their most marked common points. You also find this feature in African literature, in African-American literature and in West Indian literature. The successful neighbour arouses jealousy around him, and if ever, due to an unexpected twist of fate he finds himself in a predicament, no one will stoop to give him a helping hand but on the contrary, they will fold their arms and watch his fall, even with pleasure in certain cases.

Jealousy gets bitter if the successful neighbour belongs to another ‘tribe’ or ethnic group. Someone who has travelled enough can observe this social phenomenon in Guadeloupe, Réunion, Seychelles, Mauritius and elsewhere. From personal anecdotes, there are concrete examples of throwing stones at the houses of those who have made it in Seychelles and Guadeloupe. Not to mention that for historical and cultural reasons, societies pervaded by French influence regard other ethnic groups as undesirable ‘intruders’ in the conservative black-white relationship for one thing, which means that success, power and money are traditionally considered as the attributes of the White ruling class. Now, add to all the above mentioned factors, a perverted mindset reminiscent of communist left-wing ideology of anti-this and anti-that.

Mauritius is widely Asian in outlook. It implies that success is worshipped much as the Americans do. Enrichment may sometimes be its corollary. Most religions, including Judaism, also do not look down on enrichment but do not present it as an end in itself either, the ultimate end being spiritual uplift.

How foreign ways of thinking are creeping in due to exposure and openings of all sorts is just too obvious. Mauritius is not only exposed to influence of character-types not native to its own genius; it is exposed through normal exchanges to take on character traits of other cultural influences. In a globalized world of diluted identities, which is supposed to create a model of uniformity, it is being made out that there is a sense of belonging to a ‘community’ which Mauritians appear to be exporting to Réunion, if we go by what part of the intellectual élite in Réunion is expressing concern about in the Mauritian press. That’s the only thing Mauritius looks, in the eyes of this élite, as exports free of charge from Mauritius! It is being claimed that this is thanks to collateral damage caused by tourism from Réunion and through regional cooperation.

So this particular Mauritian characteristic is raising alarm among thinking-minds, specially those who are unable to think outside French assimilationist policy. Brigitte Croisier was also present in the audience at the conference yesterday. The answer to her ‘communauté-tribu’ discourse is that ethnic groups, mainly Tamilians, Gujrati Muslims and Chinese, do not want to go down in history as endangered species in a National Park, an Eden of innocence untainted by the curse of ‘identités meurtrières’. To put it simply, they are waking up from the yoke of assimilationism and suppressed identities. Le retour du refoulé.

* * *

Let the stone be thrown up on all sinners indiscriminately…
…if you hold to reporting absolute truth.

As far as the private life of rulers, Presidents, PMs, royals is concerned, the response of Mauritian citizens to this has been a combination of conservative morality and ‘none of our business’ attitude. After the green light given by a judge to media news and “headless MSM” followers crossing the floor after burying their leader, a last-minute survival instinct jolted the MSM leader into coming to life with breaking news. No great news overall since it has been whispered around for some time already…

In a country which is a big village where there is no way of concealing private matters, and gossip is quite a pastime after football and wife-beating, just imagine the private news galore that the press will disclose to satisfy the voyeurism of the public and satisfaction of opponents who are already rubbing their hands for the next round in the boxing ring with an eye on 2015.

What is suppressed comes up sooner or later. It is a sort of ‘retour du refoulé’ if you consider the whole affair of infidelity and adultery over decades from the angle of family history. What is resurfacing is the remembrance of a confidence of a French gentleman, an énarque, who used to be an advisor to a minister, over the active sex life of the erstwhile PM. Being very young and quite a liberal loathing to judge other people’s private life, the author of this article just brushed it aside. The piece of news came around from hearsay to our father’s ears. Like other adults, he was deeply disappointed and shocked. Not the younger generation.

Adultery, illegitimate children, even homosexuality run through most biographies of heads of states from times immemorial. We have no answer to what goes on in the minds of those who reach the summit of political power. Socialist hardliners denied that their idol, François Mitterrand, had a mistress and an illegitimate child on whom he allegedly bestowed privileges. Lord Mountbatten came to India with his wife and a young French mistress, and a ‘non-aggression’ pact between him and his wife enabled each one to carry out his/her duty without hindrance. The last Viceroy was fully aware of the love affair between Pandit Nehru and Lady Mountbatten later on. There are plenty of “transgressions”, from the homosexuality and adultery of Alexander the Great, Emperor Adrian entangled in extramarital affairs and even incest in 16th century royal families to Mao, modern-day rulers in Africa, Asia or Europe, you name it. There is a long list.

How do Mauritians react to such big news? They neither treat sex casually as the French nor do they subscribe to American-style puritanism and the Inquisition-like witch-hunt that follows the revelation of scandals. Notwithstanding, they expect exemplary behaviour from top rulers. Lying as Clinton did while swearing on the Bible in Court is unlikely to arouse outrage here. Sex news leaking from a bungalow, homosexual, bisexual, orgies or whatever – all this was amply commented privately without inflicting severe judgment on the parties involved in such deeds decades ago. People around knew it all and no one cared. The politicians were adulated and respected. The key point in the whole affair is the extent of conflict of interests and misuse, if any, of public funds.

The press is likely to go through the whole series of revelations in the present case. To make a long story short and to really inform the public, the best way is to give us cases where there has been NO conflict of interests, personal abuse of public funds to favour close relatives/associates, commissions paid to politicians, etc., over decades irrespective of WHO were in power at distinct points in time. Will the press do it without picking and choosing? If so, it would be really playing up with neutrality irrespective of who was/is concerned. Can we expect this kind of fair treatment of information from part of our media? I doubt it.

* Published in print edition on 8 February 2013

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