Preserving Our Language Diversity

The point really is about creating an awareness of the language issue in Mauritius and a will to set things right or let one’s linguistic legacy slip into irrelevance

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

Early morning conversations in Bhojpuri just like MBC radio programmes in Hindi are natural features of the linguistic landscape of many people in Mauritius. Folks converse naturally in their mother tongue after they greet one another with ‘Namaste’ in the streets and shops. Female scavengers clad in orange outfit sweeping the streets and occasionally, pausing for a short chat with other women passing by: ‘Kaise hawan, kahan jatawa’, followed by inquiries about relatives, are bits and pieces of conversations you hear as you step out of your yard and greet the cleaning agents. Hardware store owners and vendors easily switch from Creole to Bhojpuri in addressing customers of Indian origin. Now with quite a number of Bangladeshi workers in shops and construction businesses, Hindi is being frequently used.

Preserving Our Language Diversity. Photo –

Unless you take things for granted, you can’t help being amazed at the ease of our compatriots in handling several languages and adapting to circumstances and people without feeling inhibited or whatever. Bhojpuri is spoken by several ethnic groups among Indo-Mauritians. Marathis and Gujaratis, who live among Bhojpuri-speaking folks, assimilate the language over the years. Strangely, a few Tamilians seem reluctant to converse in Calcuttea even when they understand it. Speakers of Bhojpuri in the villages hail mainly from Hindu and Muslim groups, a cultural feature reminiscent of a common Bihari origin.

It is heartening to hear Muslim hardware store owners greeting people with salaam alaikum or Namaste right in the centre of a tourist resort of Grand Bay, and carry on in Bhojpuri with regular customers from the neighbourhood. Modern infrastructure in high-end architectural designs, glitzy shops and expensive brands nearby have literally metamorphosed the once small fishing village, but it has kept a sense of authenticity in the use of language and the way folks relate to one another. Similarly, a lively atmosphere of conversations in Bhojpuri marks early morning hustle and bustle in shops owned by Hindus in the coastal region and nearby villages. The three or four vegetable vendors squatting on the pavement across the supermarket at Triolet speak to one another in Bhojpuri.

‘Leghe, Didi’, is a straightforward marketing strategy of the woman in her mid-forties trying to get you to buy potatoes, chilies, tomatoes, onions and all. Hard times prompt two or three younger vendors in their twenties to sell their stuff along with others. They, too, are fluent in Bhojpuri and switch to Creole when necessary. An over 80-year-old man used to sit on a stool and sell flip-flops and such like items. He enjoys speaking Hindi and English as well, treasures that everyday communication tends to relegate to the background.

Aslam, his octogenarian companion, used to squat or sit on a small bench next to him sometimes. He was a well-known carpenter in the village, and had one of those faces, with bright eyes and a friendly smile, which old age does not devastate and is easily recognized by village dwellers. Both elderly men have plenty of anecdotes to tell anyone who cares to stop and chat. Aslam passed away last year, the old man tells you when you inquire about the absence of his companion. Better spend a few hours on the pavement and sell stuff than stay at home, he added, and kept on as a street vendor until recently. He is getting tired now, the vendor in his fifties says.

Another woman in her sixties dressed in white with a white horni over her head is addressed to as kala; she sells mostly fruits and vegetables from her garden. By 5 p.m., she often gets rid of her tasty bananas for two rupees each. Like the others, she converses in Bhojpuri, but is very quiet, has a melancholic look about her and rarely smiles. Like fellow vendors, she replies in Bhojpuri or Creole, depending on how you address her. On Fridays, sometimes her husband, as quiet as her, joins her to sell biryani. Didi, Beti, Chachi, Kala, Bhai are common polite forms in daily interactions. Kya bechatawa, niman legim ha, kitna ha, bola na, konchi le ba and so on are common phrases you hear and make it a point to use because it is part and parcel of your cultural legacy.

While Bhojpuri is common practice on market days, it is discreetly used in supermarkets. Otherwise, roadside conversations between people from various professional and social backgrounds are also carried out in Bhojpuri. Undeniably, quite a number of Hindu and Muslim households in Triolet, Fond du Sac, Pointe aux Piments, Calebasses, Piton, Montagne Longue and surely in other places too have remained 100% Bhojpuriphone. Relatives from the US or England on holidays here naturally resort to their mother tongue.

However, for more than two decades now, daily interactions among the younger generation and a big chunk of the Indo-Mauritian population is mainly in Creole. A 7-year-old boy in Grand-Bay whose first language is Bhojpuri, which he picked up from his Nani, was regularly mocked at when he spoke Bhojpuri with his Hindu school pals at school until he refrained from using the language. An example which speaks volumes about prevailing attitudes towards Indian languages in general. Let alone the use of Namaste when greeting citizens of Indian origin.

Languages are living entities which form part of the identity of people hailing from the same ethno-cultural background. They give a sense of civilisational continuity to different groups of people. It is common belief that loss of language is equated to loss of soul. The daily use of one’s language is different from only understanding it and giving it the backseat. A few politicians in the former governmental team addressed audiences in Bhojpuri in villages despite the communication gap with media reporters. It was a laudable initiative. Adaptation to languages cannot be a one-way effort towards Creole and European languages.

The point really is about creating an awareness of the language issue in Mauritius and a will to set things right or let one’s linguistic legacy slip into irrelevance. An awareness-raising campaign on the importance of keeping languages alive and a right language policy in public services, administration and social interactions must be given a new drive. From being multilinguals to a gradual sinking into monolingualism is far from being a bright prospect for society at large. It is a key issue that should draw the attention of not only cultural and religious associations but all citizens who express concern over the declining practice of Indian languages.

* Published in print edition on 24 July 2020

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