Rira Bien Qui Rira Le Dernier

L’express is having a field day at the expense of the self-esteem of Indo-Mauritians. It began on Sunday 2 June with the publication by that paper in their supplement commemorating their 50th anniversary of the offensive term “malbarisation” in bold type, following its use by some people who had obviously lost their original roots and were worshiping new ones. Individuals can say what they like but for the press to publish such objectionable matter is a totally different thing.

That was followed with a lot of drum-beating about the wrong use of past participle of a verb by an Indo-Mauritian girl who had won some award or other, and was a little confused about suddenly finding herself in the limelight. The same paper has come back on Sunday 28 July to clarify that the author of the offensive term of Sunday 2 June indeed used it to mean “hégémonie hindoue”; the paper has been at pains to explain to us numbskulls that by the derogatory term “malbarisation” it indeed had Indo-Mauritians in mind. Numbskulls we may be, but we had protested in our previous article that the word was “ethnical in content and derogatory in intent”. Was that the only way they could find to refer to their perceived preponderance of people of Indian ethnicity in the Civil Service?

This perception of preponderance would normally be a perfectly legitimate subject for debate, just as perhaps the perceived preponderance of some ethnic community or other in other groups that ought to have a national cross-section would be, like the youngsters who pass the Cambridge exams and qualify for admission into the Civil Service, or who pass the Alliance française exams, or who fail the CPE, or who refuse to work in spite of the fact that we have to import labour for most of our civil engineering projects, or even just those who belong to the motorcycle riding pickpocket fraternity. But its characterisation in the press by the offensive and derogatory term used to refer to Indo-Mauritians is totally unacceptable in today’s world.

Be it as it may, I must confess that I find even the term “hégémonie hindoue” and its concomitant “le péril hindou” offensive. Way back in 1959, I was selected by the Public Service Commission (then in its colonial incarnation, under a British chairman) for appointment as Air Traffic Controller in the Civil Aviation Department. I regret to say that my welcome in that department was less than cordial. People would purposely let me overhear their conversation where the two above terms would be mentioned. Every effort was made to prove me technically incompetent: seeing that I was Indo-Mauritian, it was apparently not possible for me to be otherwise. In my bid to resist that campaign, I got stuck in the department, because I did not want it to be seen as running away from a fight.

But I also used my time to research a safe inbound path for aircraft from Flic-en-Flac; all international experts, including those sent by the British and French governments, had said that such a path would not be possible, and the only solution was a new airport in the North. In 1971, I was appointed Director, and within 15 days of my appointment I put my plan forward to all airlines then serving Plaisance Airport; the plan involved some bold, yet absolutely safe, changes to the procedures of the International Civil Aviation Organisation then in force. All but one agreed; BOAC did so very enthusiastically, and Air France even sent a senior officer from their Operations Department to communicate their approval. That put paid to the rumours about my competence; sadly, red tape did not permit the system to become operational until 1978. I must here put on record my special thanks to Air France: I had given up the project as a lost cause after a team of British experts had examined it and recommended against it. But, in 1974, Air France stepped in and intervened in its favour directly with Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. He thereupon ordered me to proceed with the installation right away without further ado.

I hope I have explained why I jump up whenever I become aware of those very painful terms that have been used for people like me. Everybody is free to use whatever term they like to describe any group of people by any term they choose within the four walls of their homes, but if we are to live in a civilised country where all communities co-exist harmoniously, they ought not to permit themselves to use derogatory terms about any group publicly. Shocking, to say the least, when such behaviour comes from people who claim the inheritance of French culture and civilisation on the one hand, and of the spirit of “Ene sel lepep ene sel nation” on the other.

In this matter it is patently clear that the paper in question has deliberately set out to give offence. This behaviour is not taking us back just to the early sixties when expressions like “malbar pas oulé” were freely being bandied about, but right back to the forties when the Jan Andolan movement of Pandit Basdeo Bissoondoyal was campaigning against “les courses malbars” – a battle which he won, as the campaign resulted in the closure of that annual event. I was only a child at the time, but I clearly recall the eventful day in 1947 when huge crowds, who might initially have meant to attend the races in Champ de Mars, flocked instead to the Brindaban Temple in my village of Palma, off Quatre Bornes, where Pandit Basdeo was holding one of his regular prachars. (Incidentally, the name Brindaban for the temple site was suggested by Panditji, and that is also the origin of the word Brindaban in the name of the linguistic and cultural genocide watch group to which I belong.)

Such offensive and derogatory characterisation of our community in public was not acceptable in the forties, nor was it so in the sixties. It certainly cannot be acceptable today. Pandit Bissoondoyal is sadly no longer among us. Does that mean that the press can publicly insult our community, even if this is done with the help of quislings who have lost their roots, and get away with it with impunity? Do we have any leaders of the stamp of the late Bissoondoyal brothers Basdeo and Sookdeo in the community today? Do the laws of the country allow such things to happen? Even a worm will turn, it is said, when people try to tread on it. Are we less than worms?

* * *

There was also the matter of émuse which was the source of great amusement to a lot people around the country. But those who laughed so confidently may not have the last laugh after all. Frogs swimming around in a small well think that the world is bounded by walls of the well. Those who have been laughing at our young compatriot must be told that the French they speak is the subject of great derision in West Africa and the Maghreb, where, after Paris, the best international French is spoken – most other French speakers in Europe and Canada tend to resort to their local dialectal variants.

The Parisian variety, often called “le français standard”, is, in the wake of a denigration campaign spearheaded by sociolinguists, regarded by many as oppressive. There probably are many such sociolinguists in our own country, and they are likely to teach that Mauritian French is the best French in the world and that Creole “is perfectly adapted to meet all the needs of its speakers”. One can only conclude that Creole speakers do not have many needs. But we encourage all to speak “le français standard”: didactic material to that effect abounds in bookshops. It is also necessary to speak it regularly during at least part of the day every day, particularly to one’s children. If one only wants to speak it only on special occasions, one is bound to make the sort of mistake our young compatriot did. Even so, a few mistakes here and there should not stop you in your tracks. Practice makes perfect. Rira bien qui rira le dernier.

* Published in print edition on 2 August  2013

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