The French were the first to settle in Mauritius permanently. Indians were expected to be birds of passage.
Their employers changed their minds when they saw they were docile and hardworking labourers. By 1859, they stopped paying their passage back to India although revenues from sugar were high. Unable to pay for their tickets on their own, they were condemned to stay over as old immigrants, and their numbers grew. The factory-owners needed more and more sugarcane for their mills. They started practising the metayer system whereby they took up to 60% of the cane as rent. The Indians started seeing the silver lining in the dark clouds of indenture.
Then came the Petit and Grand Morcellements of the 1860s and 1880s. They were a boon to the land-loving Indians who bought plots ranging from a few to hundreds of acres, mainly difficult lands far from rivers and lakes. From single men and women to married couples and even whole villages, Indians rushed for Mauritius. Soon, they outnumbered all the other communities. Wonderful to say, they resolved to stay Indian in spite of heavy odds.
First and foremost, Indians came to Mauritius to make money. They toiled to turn forests into fields and stoically waited for the tide to turn in their favour. It did not take long for the cane-hungry mills to provide them with the chance to become self-employed. Villages came up around the whole country with the reunification of families and relatives, with caste predominance within areas. It sufficed for only one of them to buy an estate for the rest to crowd around him to seek their own prosperity.
Examples abound everywhere. The most spectacular was the Gujadhur family, the first of whom was Luchmun who came as an indentured labourer in 1859. Together with his resourceful wife, he became prosperous through hard work and perspicacity in business. His son, Rajkumar, would create the largest plantation with factories, railways and all to become the richest person in Mauritius, though he started life by delivering tanks of milk he carried on his head to the British garrison in Vacoas. Indians swore by the name of Gujadhur till the 1960s and found inspiration to do progress on their own. The Gujadhur branched off in different sorts of trade gradually.
The villages were humming with economic activity. Cartwrights, jewellers, tailors, barbers, cabinet-makers, food-growers, mechanics, shopkeepers, bus- and other vehicle-owners, and other professionals kept the regions active. For recreation, cinema halls, football and volleyball grounds with tournaments held every week, indoor and outdoor games and cultural activities filled the lives of the people.
The anchorage of the Indians was religion. To Hindus, the transmigration of the soul occurred where the River Ganga flowed. Outside India, their soul roamed about aimlessly. Jhummungir Gossagne understood that danger and declared Grand Bassin sacred when he reached it in the 1880s. Together with Pandit Sajeewon of Triolet and his Association members, he helped to start the annual pilgrimage to the lake in 1898. Henceforth, Hindus could die in Mauritius without fear of losing their soul.
On the other hand, Indian soldiers introduced the Arya Samaj movement in late 19th century. This reformed version of Hinduism was going to shake Hindu beliefs to the roots. The struggle between the orthodox and the reformed followers consolidated their faith further. Manilal Doctor had a say in this for he wanted unity among the Hindus to bring the changes proposed by Gandhiji. Baithkas cropped up all over the island to keep alive Indian culture.
Education for the sake of education did not tempt the Indians. Besides, there was the danger of losing their religion and culture if they attended Christian schools. They became interested when Gandhiji told them to take up western education and learn English and French in 1901. His envoy, Manilal Doctor, helped Tamil merchants to start the Tamil-based Young Men’s Hindu School in Port Louis and, in Triolet, Adnath Chicooree and Shivprasad Ramlal (Ramloll) Tiwari set up Maheshwarnath School in 1911. The latter was the first school where English and French were taught alongside Hindi and Indian culture.
Setting up a school was one thing and filling it with pupils was another. Parents were to do without the few rupees their children brought through work. On top of that, they had to find clothes, stationery and food for them. It needed all the diplomacy of the headmaster, Gopichand Chuttur, to convince them of the worth of education. He went around Triolet and the neighbouring villages together with his eldest daughter, in homes and fields, talking with them. Both boys and girls were invited to attend classes. It was pioneering work on all counts.
The advice of Gandhiji to Indians to join politics was well received. General elections were already being held although there were restrictions on the number of voters. Several Indians stood as candidates in elections and lost till the 1930s when Gajadhur and Lallah won. The trend was set.
Indians had made a home for themselves outside India. They created every aspect of life for themselves by competing for a place under the sun of Mauritius. They asserted themselves in every way possible, inching their march up the socio-economic ladder in the days when racial discrimination prevailed. Their wisdom came from their rich ancestral culture that gave them a clear picture of what mankind and its environment are. Their resilience and tolerance led them forth. With time, they have come to help create the Mauritius of which we are all proud of today, and a model for others to emulate.
* Published in print edition on 17 June 2016
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