Post-colonial Mauritius: “Le pays est développé mais… ”

Post-colonial Mauritius is part of the Commonwealth and wisely maintained English as its official language and it is, undeniably, the language of the intellectual make-up of most Mauritians. Ponder over a few puzzling oddities.

All Commonwealth countries have promoted cricket as a national sport except Mauritius where it is non-existent. It would have linked the country to other countries with similar political history through sports events and competitions. If the Ministry of Sports cares to innovate and assess the advantages of diversifying sports activities, it will not fail to see that an additional sport will attract quite a number of young people to it. Besides, local matches would give the public something to look forward to all year round as spectators and fans. Physical activity and pleasure will be guaranteed.

Football has almost disappeared, and obsolete arguments, or should we say retrograde ones, are being put forward in suggestions to revive it. The history of football is quite telling about the truth underlying official discourses on the principle of promoting the ‘one people one country’ concept. Just as ethnicity is constantly used to ensure vote banks, no genuine efforts are made to encourage teams at a regional level.

With football out, small wonder that warm-blooded, hot-tempered males are having a hard time dealing with rising levels of adrenaline: welcome more wife-beating that sometimes end up in deaths – and most crimes occur in villages. Obviously, there are hardly any sports facilities and playgrounds around.

Innovation is a key element in the strategy of development in any sector. Bring in cricket. Let common folks have a break from the daily routine of work, work and work, time-consuming multiple-jobs and gambling at casinos. Triolet is a glaring example of largely insufficient sports facilities for young and adults as well. The 2010 sports project of Rs 30m voted in the budget has been unheard of ever since.

Never mind, in place of asserting our identity through cricket in the Commonwealth family, we have Jeux des Iles among small islands with France as the patron saint.

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Why on earth should a cultural event centred on reading and books, and financed with public funds be called ‘Salon du Livre’ as if the event was taking place in a French overseas territory? The list of guests has focused mostly on French writers and intellectuals. Someone in the organizers’ team had some sense to suggest inviting writers from other countries.

French seems to be the medium of expression widely used in Mauritian writing of novels or short stories. Paradoxically, most people who enjoy reading naturally pick up English books by foreign writers, which partly explains the fact that those French books written by locals enjoy little popularity. The point is that French language is ill suited to translate local life into fiction. Readers cannot be blamed for finding it difficult to connect to everyday realities related in French. It all sounds quite artificial. The language itself snatches the writers from ground reality, and sets them in the realm of a mental landscape which draws a veil upon the subtleties and complexities of village and town life, expectations, dreams and everyday interaction. Probably, from the comfort zone the language has the knack to engender, a good deal of Frenchtoxication automatically seeps into the writing, and one feels that local life is looked at by foreign eyes. A glance at a few titles smack of self-flagellation, Gallic rebellion, 19th century nihilism and characteristic French misérabilisme.

It happens that readers have a daily dose of all that stuff in newspaper columns of mainstream press. Reading a novel is different.

However, the fortunate thing is that an increasing volume of writings is being published in Mauritius which is a free independent country where writers enjoy free speech.

The same cannot be said of small islands where France represents mother, father and godmother. The two West Indian islands had to fight to preserve some kind of cultural identity, and produced great writers. In the sister island next-door where blanchir la race operation in the project of Frenchification has been successful, free speech is pure cosmetics. C’est un leurre, one would say. They have two daily newspapers, and imagination in creative writing has been frozen for some time now. Apart from sporadic gesticulations of local identity by brainwashed intellectuals whose only daring discourse centred on métissage as a highest virtue for decades, real free speech has been stifled by godmother whose double identity, sweet and cruel at the same time, draws her children to her lap and castrates them while they are lulled to sleep with the charm of the language.

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Any idea why the University of Mauritius or the Ministry of Education do not deem it necessary to invite writers whom the public can relate to The great ones from the Caribbean islands, India, Pakistan Algeria, Iran, Afghanistan, Japan and other African countries. Is such a famous writer as Sir Vidya Naipaul persona non grata in this country, just because he had nothing flattering to say about it a few decades ago? Any Mauritian can relate to his life experience in Trinidad and England. Salman Rushdie entertains us marvellously with his poetic style and vast culture. No invitation? Khaled Hosseini is an Afghan writer living in the US and a rising star among contemporary writers. Pakistani women writers are getting popular. All these writers may inspire and encourage writing in English.

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Guess the latest linguistic feat on an MK flight. Mind you, 90% of the passengers were Indian visitors, the rest were Mauritians of Indian origin on an Air Mauritius flight to Mumbai last December. A whole bunch of Hindi-speaking people. Yet, the first announcement by the pilot-in-charge was made in French! We thought English would follow. But no! Some time later, we were relieved to hear him address the passengers, at last, in English. Hindi should have been the first language used in the announcement on that particular flight.

To top it all, after using mostly English and a little Hindi in a non-Hindi speaking state in India, on the returning flight the steward politely exchanged a few words in English; then came up with ‘Ou Morisien ou?’. Oh no! The fellow felt entitled to address you in Creole. Better stop the conversation. It broke all the magic of conversing and hearing sounds which are more pleasant to your ears in India.

No one over here will dare address a Franco-Mauritian in Creole. Most employees deem it fit to dump Creole on the rest of us.

It takes time to change colonized mindsets in post-colonial societies, one would deduce.

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On Mauritius Pride last year, a woman from Réunion made the following comment: Leur pays est développé mais eux, ils ne sont pas développés. That was after a Mauritian passenger in his late forties behaved like a pig in the middle of the night after a few alcoholic drinks and was disturbing everyone’s sleep. When asked to calm down and behave, he retorted ‘Bousse ou…’. Just a benign incident, one might say, involving a bumpkin who is not used to showing good manners.

More seriously though, old thieving habits still flourish at the brand new airport which places the country among other emerging countries’ modern infrastructure. A few months ago this column mentioned how things disappeared in suitcases. Ever since, there has been an issue with AML which, in the Mauritian way, persecutes the complainer. It always happens on the return flight. In October last, my suitcase which is never locked, was searched, for reasons known to AML, and a ‘searched’ AML sticker pasted on it. Books in English, on Hindi, Bhojpuri and Sanskrit disappeared as well as cookery books in English. So in January I came back with a new suitcase with a lock from India; it happily travelled from Kerala to Mumbai, made its way to Mauritius on transit and safely landed in Réunion. Wah! What a feat!

Two weeks ago, on the return flight from Mauritius to Réunion, the lock was broken and the suitcase opened! Becoming paranoid? Just saying ‘Enough is enough.’

Old corrupt habits thriving despite modernity. It recalls the comment: le pays est développé mais…

 


* Published in print edition on 15 March 2014

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