I have now lived a total of 21 years outside of Mauritius. I have reached ‘exile-dom’ and do not really know what exactly it means to be a Mauritian. I have the old ‘dream Mauritius’ vision in my mind but on coming back to the motherland this ‘dream Mauritius’ has clearly ceased to exist since illusions often get debunked.
It is so similar to me leaving for UK in 1989, but on arrival I instantly noticed that the England of my mental creations i.e. Enid Blyton and Country living, was not the place that I had originally mentally mapped. Today for example, I have created a certain regard on UK based on my own personal experiences.
So do we not all create fragmented visions of places and no one amongst us really has an all-encompassing view of what a ‘place’ ontologically stands for? I clearly do not believe those who tell me being Mauritian means to be a part of a beautiful Arc en Ciel society, to strive to be constantly happy and respectful of all, enjoying la vie douce. Although attractive, this definition is much too idealistic (and a tad annoyingly jingoistic) to make any rational curious person go home satisfied.
In his book Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie offers some guidance for déracinés like me. After the success of the stellar work of art Midnight’s‘ Children in which we find the narrative of Saleem (a pure bred déraciné) and in the words of Rushdie, ‘his mistakes are the mistakes of a fallible memory compounded by quirks of character and of circumstances, and his vision is fragmentary. It may be that when the Indian writer who writes from outside India tries to reflect that world, he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost.’ End of quote.
In other words, things are indubitably lost after the process of ‘partir’ takes hold of self. This sense of loss cannot be understood by a ‘lucky’ fellow who has stayed all his formative years inside the country, protected and shielded. Compounded with the sense of loss to us déracinés, is the sense of guilt. Why did I leave in the first place? Could I have stayed and ‘tracer, roder, croire’ and made an actual difference in the country, too late?
Rushdie says in the same essay: ‘We are Hindus who have crossed the black water, we are Muslims who eat pork. And as a result we are now partly of the west.’ But this is the new world and our sense of loss and guilt is not an impediment to us having created a new ‘I’. Any Indian writer for example when he emigrates does not write like the English writers (I mean the locals) do, and ends up creating his own personal ‘new’ language and narrative. He uses the sense of loss to look deeper into his fragmented self for greater meaning. Great tour de force novels like we all know have come from such ‘fragmented’ individuals — Vikram Seth, Allan Sealy, Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Shashi Tharoor, Ananda Devi and many more.
However, as with a breath of fresh air let me say that one should not always be desperate and at a loss as if standing at a precipice ready to jump because there is truly no ground under our feet. Rushdie’s Saleem echoes not just his failures but the tension in the text, a paradoxical opposition between the form and content of the narrative of Midnight’s Children actually smartly mimics Saleem’s complex mind (and any déraciné déracinés for that matter). Saleem’s minds represents the ability of exiles to continuously reinvent themselves, and this is what makes the sheer brilliance of the book.
I am not as talented as the one and only Rushdie, but my recent return to Mauritius during a visit confirms that there is a part of Rushdie’s Saleem cynically living inside me (modestly speaking) like a benign tumour. One cannot stop rethinking Mauritius in one’s mind since the concept of ‘dream Mauritius’ that one had is now of course lost, but in fact how can it be lost when it never really existed.
At a recent dinner with a group of highly privileged individuals with apparent unlimited resources to travel, hunt, enjoy the best nature has to offer, the narrative of the party was about ‘important’ things, i.e. real estate, diseases, politics etc. One cannot but be in awe of this is a slice of Mauritian society that the Saleem in me had never ever really directly experienced or known to even exist. I did not know the people present, but I cannot help thinking that Mauritius is now so full of super rich folks who live in the best parts of the island in villas. They seem to have a sense of fearlessness because in fact they do not need to leave Mauritius to bring the western world and much more to their feet. They are shahenshahs and confirm that one can stay here and succeed, and no one really needs to be a déraciné and leave, like Saleem does.
Many years before the déracinés like myself had seen that the future would be bleak and flatly left the base. The rest of the week, Saleem continues his journey into the space called ‘Mauritius’. In a tour of a sugarcane plantation at Bel Air, he talks to a group of labourers busy with the harvest and feels a tension in their language as he approaches them for a conversation. Why would a Missie Gujadhur talk to me, they seem to say in their mind, one of them even leaves the conversation shouting, ‘arey kuch nahin milne vala hai usse’ (oh we will not get a dime from this one).
The distrustful chasm between the so-called rich and the poor in this country is clearly impossible to fathom. How they must have felt when they saw $ 200 M pouring out of their dear PM’s coffers? The gaps must have felt wider and impossible to fathom. How did we come to this point? Where are we heading? We are now living in the age of accelerated Gross Mauritian capitalism (AGMC) and it is bound to create an even larger gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.
In an interview in the press during the same week, Saleem reads about a scathing attack that strangely feels transparent and authentic like a deep existential cry of the heart. The interviewee rightly mentions that big promises constantly thrown at us by a few of the apparatchiks are illusory and bogus to say the least. They promise 15,000 jobs to the honest populace but more importantly, he asks why did the government rush and dismantle a conglomerate that had employed 6000 people with an air of vendetta. Economic miracle my foot!
Something seems fishy and impractical in the narrative of those firmly seated in power. Are their plans really feasible? Are they united? Do they really think we are stupid? The media in Mauritius is also clearly mediocre to say the least. It plays to the tune of the optimistic dance from the government and misses the boat as most so-called great articles they propose lack objective criticisms. It is laced with nou ban zot ban. There is a sense of alarmist tactics that is always palpable in the press.
Who rules the press, what is their agenda? Saleem turns to the press to feed himself on the national debates but it feels bogus, superficial and empty. This is not debate frenzy France. This is empty Mauritius. MBC on the other hand lacks any serious independent authority and is the peak of mediocrity.
Most importantly the press loves the orgy of governmental mishaps constantly thrown at the public, and the narrative seems to be as follows: The ruling party does not have any sense of unity and everyone here is on to become wealthy. The lure of wealth is the new religion. If you fall behind you are not cool enough, and if you succeed this wonderful island with its salade palmiste and venison curry is here for the taking.
All in all a lot of folks will tell me ‘la vie douce ici’, whatever that means, does douce means mediocre, faced with a mediocre press that does not challenge thought, and a growing wealthy middle class that does not want to move an iota to bring change and is happy to shop of Winners and Jumbo and increase their blood sugar content. One falls in great despair. What is it to be called a Mauritian? So we are back to square one.
In the end, the ray of hope is clearly the courageous youth of Mauritius. This is what Saleem sees and admires in the country. In a visit at a new industrial park, he is impressed by the new graduates who have now fully ‘returned’ from western universities because as one says to him ‘I just did not want to be another immigrant in a cruel west’. They look confident, beautiful and shiny and, most importantly, irreverent and not connected to the old guards.
This sounds like music to his ear, as he leaves for the US, a coward with no guts to stay back because the west continues to throw good money at Saleem. So then he reads further about the Le Chaland incident, and is amazed by the dedication of some pressure groups but he departs reluctantly still not knowing the meaning of ‘Mauritius’, the aim of his life.
- Published in print edition on 21 August 2015