Culture and Our Identity

By S. Chidambaram

Only a strong sense of national cultural identity that takes into account our diversity will result in a deep attachment to the nation and a sense of
national achievement

We are a nation of immigrants and most likely we will remain a nation of immigrants. Immigrants past and present have always taken along with them their cultures and their personal identities, and one can expect that in the future new immigrants will follow the same path. These cultures and identities taken broadly together across the groups of people they represent, and rooted in Mauritian soil, constitute our sense of identity and our culture.

It is difficult to pin down what that culture is and to define what constitutes that identity. There is no need to be desperate about that failure to come up with a definition or to be precise about meanings. Many countries much older than Mauritius face the same difficulties. Civilisation societies like Japan, China, India or France face the same dilemma in the present world and even in many countries questions about what constitute Britishness or Frenchness or Americanness continue to be debated without any consensus reached or any answer given.

Yet each one of us has felt at one time or another bundles of emotions or individual experiences when one felt a sense of pride or a strong emotion about being a Mauritian. It did not necessarily happen when we were outside Mauritius where the sense of isolation or nostalgia or the deeply felt need to reconnect with home stirred this feeling deep inside us. It happens in Mauritius in many circumstances when we express our appreciation for a person or a group of persons outside our group of friends or families or our social group be it ethnic or otherwise. It could be for a work of art, a musical show, a song or an achievement or the commitment to a disadvantaged group or simply a professional job well done beyond pecuniary or personal interests.

All these people who achieve so many wonderful things with whom we share an identity and appreciate do not go on the rooftops to proclaim their patriotism. They do not feel any need either to subscribe to the many ideologies that are being peddled in the marketplace by false prophets or fake gurus to feel deeply for our country and for our fellow human beings. All these imported ideologies, or concepts like multiculturalism, intercultural, pluralism and a host of others on which academics thrive simply ignore that Mauritians, past and present, have embraced empirically and lived the fundamental values of our common humanity at all levels of societies for centuries. And that too they have done in a consistent manner in a most creative and in an original way unsurpassed by any other place on this planet and this in spite of the fact that we have lived through very dark periods of oppression and exploitation.

All these were achieved without the guidance or support of the colonial or post-colonial state or parties or political leaders or social leaders. Our sense of identity and culture grew out of our humanity and the humane values we inherited from our different cultures and which we planted on the Mauritian soil and which continue to grow and are ever growing. In developing this shared identity or common culture there was no need to separate religion from culture or language or politics or social service. We did not have to be schizophrenic lo leave our religions on the shelves and walk on the streets in the garb of ‘secularism’. None of our cultures or identities was lived as discrete entities.

We shared and borrowed many things out of necessity or simply out of habit, or more importantly out of common historical experience, which in turn became part of our natural selves. We have widened our gastronomic tastes just as we now feel at ease with all kinds of music. Was it the leftover dhal mixed with a faratha on the following day that gave us the Mauritian dholl puri?

Our music or musical instruments were improvised and forged in new circumstances from various continents. Are we offended by the hijab, the dhoti or the jeans or the turban? Do we call people with ash on their foreheads ‘dot Indians’? Not at all — except for the few fundamentalists who suffer from a wrong sense of values that are not Mauritian?

Yet some countries which claim to be liberal and modern find it impossible to accept differences in dress and are totalising in their approach towards other cultures. Mauritians find it natural for people to be different; they not only have a profound and genuine respect for differences, in real life they embrace them wholeheartedly.

It is along this road that the young generations will continue their journey into the third millennium. Let the young continue to embrace new cultures and take the best out of them irrespective of their sources. Young people are already doing that. They should not be dictated by the culture of the self-styled elite — for a country cannot be unified by mere concepts however subtle or refined they are.

Already in the interweaving of cultures, new identities are emerging for a creative, innovative and a modern national identity. That new culture and new identity are all embracing with diversity as its principal ingredient. It should continue to be non-elitist and non-statist. After all, the elite or the state have never created culture; at most they have identified the best in popular culture, embraced and perpetuated them for the benefit of the privileged just like the state can only help creative impulses to flourish.

On the 43rd anniversary of our independence, let us all make that special effort to nurture that sense of culture in ourselves, cultivate diversity, enhance our shared values and overlapping identities. All these could be achieved throughout all levels of education. Let us therefore strive to restore the magic of wonder, creativity and innovation for our young people and let them draw on the random materials of experience that constitute social knowledge.

The challenges facing the young are formidable. They will not only have to build the society from the legacy of the past but preserve it for themselves and for future generations. Only a strong sense of national cultural identity that takes into account our diversity will result in a deep attachment to the nation and a sense of national achievement.


* Published in print edition on 11 March 2011

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