Ageing with l’Express: Personal Musings

The daily l’Express is currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. How quickly time passes: I remember the days when it came as a breath of fresh air as if it was yesterday. Those days were mired in very acrimonious political warfare, and for the Cernéen and the Mauricien, the major dailies of those days, there seemed to be no distinction between “political” and “communal”. Being an Indo-Mauritian was practically the same as having an incurable, contagious disease. I had myself had the bad luck of being the first of my kind to be appointed in a department till then under the control of those who thought they had the God-given right to run this country, and I was considered and treated as a severe threat: no stone was left unturned to destroy me. I fought back too. You can imagine my relief when l’Express appeared and brought some level-headedness into the national debate.

What I particularly liked about l’Express was its Editor-in-Chief, Dr Philippe Forget, a man of unimpeachable integrity. Those of my generation at RCC knew that he was an upright person, instilled with a sense of chivalry that had become out-of-fashion even in those days. We knew him as a laureate of the old English Scholarship days, exceptional in that he had done it with Biology and not Physics as a main subject as was the craze in those days. He had gone on to become a teacher of Biology – before proceeding abroad for his medical studies – and I had had the honour of being one of his pupils. You don’t easily forget what you learn from the laureates of those days. For instance, the amount of heat and calorimetry I learnt in Form III from Clifford Bell, another laureate, easily took me to the School Certificate and beyond; most of it I still remember sixty years later. About Philippe Forget, I still remember that he approved my drawing of the papilio demodocus.

A reasonable view

In the seventies, a decade marked by upheaval following the attempt early in the decade by the MMM to seize power by unconstitutional means, l’Express always came out with a reasonable view. It was critical of the government when Dr Forget thought that was necessary. I still remember his editorial “Il déconne.” “Il” was of course SSR. But on the whole one could live with the paper, and read it day after day after day.

By this time I had been appointed Director of Civil Aviation. Of personal interest to me was a regular feature by columnist “KD” about Plaisance Airport, criticising the efforts made by the Department of Civil Aviation to improve the safety of the airport with an ILS system. This columnist was only a very junior officer in the department and did not understand anything of the research that had gone into that matter, but he wrote good French, and had a great French name. This is proof that linguistic ability does not always signal superior wisdom and knowledge. But l’Express also later published a set of rejoinders from one contributor who signed himself as “Pilote”. I never knew who Pilote was, but he did seem to have a thorough grasp of the matter. I shall always remain grateful to him.

The ILS was finally installed and brought into service. Sadly, this exceptional feat, carried out against the advice of all international experts in the matter, was marred by a factually untrue report by the Director of Audit, a case of misreporting that was not allowed to reach the Public Accounts Committee by those in a position to do so – they had other sins to hide.

L’Express interfered with my life in yet another way. Early in the eighties, one columnist made some totally false insinuations of corruption against me in the matter of equipment purchases. I religiously abided by the Civil Servant’s code of not interacting with the press, but the matter was taken up by the SSS of those days. It was discovered that the article concerned had allegedly been written for a fee. But as the Government was unwilling to do anything further about it, I decided it was time to go – and left for a job with the International Civil Aviation Organisation. But some time later, I am pleased to say, the columnist concerned was found out – he had done it again in another matter, and as to be expected from a man of integrity like Dr Forget, he was sacked.

It may be of interest for some to know that the British firm we were dealing with had informed me that they had provision for a commission, and I asked my immediate colleagues to find out how this could be used to the advantage of the department. The formula they came up was to increase the number of training fellowships in the contract for the equipment from two to six, and I agreed. I know that the people who participated in this exercise, as well as those who benefited from the fellowships, are still around, and should be accessible to investigative journalists.

Acerbic criticisms

I remained absent from the country for nearly twenty years. On my return, Dr Forget was no longer at the helm of l’Express, and it became clear to me that the paper had taken an altogether different direction. Together with Le Mauricien, the acerbic criticisms and the offensive ridiculing it engages in drives the government into a corner. The government’s reaction is also very unfortunate: nothing that they are not obliged by law to reveal is revealed, because it might become a subject of criticism or ridicule or both. Therefore the enquiries, if any, into the recent flooding in Port Louis and the totally unacceptable and unforgivable bus accident at Soreze are being carried out behind closed doors. A nation progresses with knowledge about the world and the environment; our nation is being denied this opportunity and is being condemned to remain in the Third World.

L’Express of Dr Forget had come as a breath of fresh air in the early sixties at a time when racist slogans were at their highest, with the words “malbar” and “péril hindou” being freely bandied about. As far as I can recall, l’Express had nothing to do with that. Great was my surprise then, in finding the word “malbarisation” used in bold characters in a recent Sunday edition of that paper. This term is unequivocally ethnical in content and highly derogatory in intent, and its use should have been punishable under law. It is unlike the term “creolization” which we have often used in our papers in the sense intended in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, i.e. as a purely linguistic term for a purely linguistic process, devoid of any ethnical connotation. Needless to say, we remain firmly opposed to the ongoing process of creolisation because it adversely affects the ability of our children to acquire French and also takes valuable time away from them that could be used for the acquisition of English.

Apology

What seems to have stung the commentator in l’Express is the number of Indo-Mauritians in the Civil Service. To our knowledge admission into the Service is largely based on the results of the Cambridge School and Higher School Certificate exams. Will those results also be referred to as the “malbarisation” of the Cambridge exams?

It cannot be an excuse for a paper to print a word or expression merely because somebody has used it. Reporters regularly hear words which they know cannot be published – unless the editorial board deliberately intends to offend. We therefore believe that l’Express owes an apology to the Indo-Mauritian community.

On seeing the term in l’Express last week, the Brindaban Linguistic and Cultural Genocide Watch Group went into a huddle, and decided to shoot off a rejoinder to the paper. On re-reading the rejoinder we must admit that a mistake was made – l’Express did use quote marks around the word; the rejoinder had been written from memory, without actually checking the text. Even so, the commentator’s argument that the ethnical structure of the Civil Service is reminiscent of deep wound caused by the dichotomy of the concepts of “la petite France” and “Little India” does not hold water. It is the wide use of the Creole language in the Service, instead of French as used to be the case formerly, that is driving down the cultural level of the country. It is excessive creolisation that is the enemy, taking us further and further away from both “la petite France” and “Little India”. I have been around the world, and I know for sure that, abroad, if you speak French fluently, you are “un Français”, regardless of your ethnicity or the colour of your skin.

Those only too ready to ditch their past affiliations and cultural heritage to gain approval by those they consider their superiors should also learn to look for the whole truth, and not just remain mired in half-truths.


* Published in print edition on 14 June 2013

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