By Sarita Boodhoo
There is matter for jubilation. At long last, with the setting up of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union, Bhojpuri is gaining official recognition. As of writing, the Bill has reached the floor of National Assembly. The setting up of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union will give more space, visibility and status to a language that was a lingua franca of the country and a mother tongue/home language to hundreds of thousands of Mauritians.
One would be surprised at the number of non-Bhojpuri speaking people who have a smattering knowledge of Bhojpuri. And they love it. Recently, I met a skipper at Grand Bay. His name is Franco and he was amazing in his ability to sing not only English, French and sega, but also Hindi and Bhojpuri songs. And he even conversed with me in Bhojpuri and was proud to speak and sing in Bhojpuri.
On the other hand I met a vegetable seller on a Port Louis pavement and I asked him “Bhojpuri bole-la?” And he said “Oui”. Upon further coaxing, he told me he knows it but he is in town and there are other communities and so he cannot speak it. But I told him at least he could address me in Bhojpuri and he looked right and left and around furtively before he answered me in chaste Bhojpuri!
He told me he was from Chitrakoot and that this is the language he speaks at home. Thousands like him have been inferiorised. Not to speak of school going children. Why this inferiority? It is still thought to be the “langaz” of “bitasion”, “la campagne”. Well the setting up of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union will indeed break this inferiorisation and give Bhojpuri an institutional glow and status.
Quite a few people and institutions are now coming forward to champion the cause of Bhojpuri. This is a welcome initiative. Why should Bhojpuri not be promoted? Who is against it and for what shady motives? In the European Union everyone is enjoined to know at least four or five languages. The UNESCO itself upholds the necessity of saving the world’s languages. But Bhojpuri is not dead or dying. It is being deliberately pushed to the backwaters of Mauritian culture. There is nothing new in this. After all the struggles that have been undertaken, at long last, Asian languages have gained esteem in the formal school curriculum. Now the time has come for Bhojpuri which is linked to the soil, toil and moil of the country for 175 years to gain recognition.
Recently a workshop was organized by the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund in collaboration with the University of Mauritius, the Mahatma Gandhi Institute and the Rabindranath Tagore Institute to review the position that Bhojpuri holds in the country, identify factors that act as impediments to its learning, teaching and to create a proper framework for its promotion and dissemination. It must not be forgotten that when the Aapravasi Ghat was listed as a World Heritage Site on UNESCO’s list in 2006 it was on criteria 6 of its guidelines that it was granted this world distinction – that is the immense intangible heritage associated with the day-to-day life of the indentures and their descendants. These people came with their voice, know-how, knowledge, folk art and literature, food habits, customs and traditions and language. All these are interconnected and the Bhojpuri language has shown its vibrancy, its resilience and ability to share and loan words and sayings to and from Creole as well as from other languages. All these aspects are well-preserved and practised and there is a remarkable continuity throughout our history.
Bhojpuri came to Mauritius with hundreds of thousands of indentures from the Bhojpuri Belt of the North Eastern Provinces of India. It marched up the 16 steps of the Aapravasi Ghat to go to the various sugar estates as from 2 November 1834. It suffered the humiliation, oppression and negation together with the indentures and their descendants. And it still bears the same suffocation in disguised forms.
After decades of inferiorization vis-à-vis other dominant languages, Bhojpuri sadly enough is still being pushed back and given a mere “footnote” validity even 40 years after independence. The initiative of the Aapravasi Ghat and its collaborators is therefore laudable and commendable in that it gives Bhojpuri the pride of place in academia as well as at grassroots. It has now entered the portals of the University of Mauritius.
To understand Mauritian culture we need to understand the multi-cultural matrix of our society. There needs to be serious studies on what Bhojpuri has given to the country, to Creole and vice-versa. This sharing of loan words, expressions goes further deep in our psyche of sharing of sufferings, trials and tribulations, prejudices and denial. Now the time of acceptance has come. If people are feeling shy and are inferiorized to speak Bhojpuri, it does not mean the language is dead or dying. It is choked and lying deep in a wounded psyche. It is stuck down the gullet. It has to be liberated. As a geographer I can vouch that our country is not an extinct volcano but a dormant one. Then whatever is dormant can always wake up, erupt. Then, let us wake up the dormant linguistic heritage in us and assert our multi culturalism with pride and respect. In a globalised world, the idea of single identity is giving way to multiple identities. Being a Mauritian does not deny our background. All the specificities of our culture are alive.
We must see to it that measures to preserve our entire heritage including its linguistic and intangible aspects are set up on a thorough scientific basis. This is prescribed by UNESCO guidelines. That Bhojpuri gains its rightful place at all levels in education and at national level is a much desired and perfectly legitimate aspiration.
* Published in print edition on 6 August 2010