Who Are We? Where do we belong?

By Sarita Boodhoo

Last week I attended a Hindu wedding in a village in the east. It was an inter-caste marriage and there were no hitches in the parents sorting out and making the preparations for the grand day. At the haldi dinner, were seated at my table a Minister, his wife. And his driver. And pêle-mêle were guests belonging to all social classes and probably ‘castes’. I did not know, nor does one ask « to which caste do you belong before sitting together for food sharing ». The food was being served hot and much appreciated – the hot « tipuris » disappeared in less than no time with much appetite.

This was a typical example of inter-dining which some 50 years ago would have been practised but in a few socially avant-garde families only. But with education and elimination of social restrictions and with that much social mobility, things have changed rapidly. Unlike some upper class elite groups where such socialisation would not even take place. Not to speak of tight compartmentalised boardroom operations. One reads of reports of some clubs and restaurants on the coastal regions which are heavily guarded by security guards and « bouncers » and access restricted to only a few, where one would think that colour bar is still practised and that too not in South Africa but in Mauritius! Even if one were well-dressed – following the “smart casual” dress code – for the occasion and had the money to jingle in one’s pockets or to shine as master cards and were « socially correct », Mauritians have no access. A sort of apartheid is being practised under our very nose. Would you believe that!

The MGI Indian Immigration Museum and Archives: The Beginning

At this juncture when debate is raging, it would be good to recall here how some four decades ago, the registers of indentured Indian immigrants and many of the immigrant depot’s artefacts, utensils, etc., were left in a state of sheer abandon and neglect at the Place Immigration which housed the Department of Public Assistance. Mr B. Ramlallah showed me, then in my salad days the despicable conditions in which they were dumped in a corner left to the vagaries of weather, cyclone and vandalism. Nobody would write: Who Cares? It was in consultation with Mr R. Ramsaha of the Social Welfare Department, Mr Jomadhar and Dr Kissoonsingh Hazareesingh that arrangements were made to house the documents and artefacts temporarily at the Sunray Hotel from where the National Archives too were temporarily operational.

It should be reminded that the Archives were at one time located in a rented building on Old Moka Street, very much unsuited to archiving! One remembers in what conditions the documents were kept at the Sunray Hotel. Nor did the Sunray Hotel have proper infrastructural archival support. Who cared? Even the Aapravasi Ghat, then Place l’Immigration was in a state of total neglect, a sheer desolate wilderness. There was no awareness and concern regarding the historicity of the place.

When the Mahatma Gandhi Institute came into being in 1971, it was itself in its early phases and had no building. It had to operate from a small rental at the LIC Building in Port Louis. It was on the 6th March 1976 that the vital documents were moved to the newly operational MGI building in Moka. Dr K. Hazareesingh, the visionary and pragmatic director with academic depth and great public administration experience proposed to set up a culture and heritage department in line with the MGI’s statement of mission and vision – to foster culture in general and in particular the cultural and linguistic heritage of the descendants of the indentured immigrants.

I remember very well, for having been closely associated with the MGI’s activities, for having been a member of the Board of Directors from 1976 till 1985, how the Indian Immigration Museum slowly took shape. Mrs Saloni Deerpalsingh, recruited as Education Officer in the early seventies, was seconded for duty to look after the library and the archives. She was appointed Curator of the Indian Immigration Museum in 1982 and since then her fate was sealed with that of the Indian Immigration Museum and Archives for decades. Its slow but sure development had many obstacles to surmount in terms of lack of staff, lack of understanding for such matters in the right quarters, meagre facilities and little financial support. Rome was not built in a day. She did a patient and skilful travail. Ms Suchita Ramdin, who headed the library and became the first Curator of the Museum, later became Head of the Department of Bhojpuri and Oral Traditions and Mauritian Studies.

The Directors had much vision, finesse and savoir faire. One cannot obliterate the enormous academic inputs and cultural moulding given by Mr Uttama Bissoondoyal who had the guts to defend his Institute and its policies without fear or let nor curried for favours. He called a spade a spade. It is unfortunate that Mrs Surya Gayan, a lady of great finesse and culture, remarkable tact and savvy, knowledgeable and skilful in handling sensitive matters and issues both academic and of general concern had to leave her post. The newly appointed Director Dr Mrs Vidotma Dalmond Koonjal is young and willing to handle the complexities of a complex institution bearing the name of a simple and great Mahatma. She has miles to go, but will learn with all the potentialities she has and her youthfulness.

For that matter, it is a pity that Mrs Saloni Deerpalsing should have been allowed to go after her retirement with all that wealth of knowledge at her disposal having been acquired after decades of patient and painstaking documentation, learning, research and cataloguing with limited funds. Today, Viswanaden Govinden, quiet and silent worker, who prefers to keep a low profile, carries on with aplomb. The Indentured Immigrants’ documents and artefacts fare well at the MGI and they are secure from neglect, dust and unscrupulous practices. These documents have for a century over suffered the same fate and neglect as the records of people long gone they hold within their pages for humanity. As for the question of the indentured immigrants’ occupational appurtenance they declared on landing being made open to public scrutiny that is matter for debate and understanding. And should be handled with tact, diplomacy and farsightedness.

The tendency is towards harmonising and healing wounds, not opening them and sprinkling them with salt. The matter should be handled with care and esteem for the memories of those departed and their descendants. They are not goods and chattels. Who suffered so much of social injustice, humiliation and held in derision. Which derision was passed on to their descendants and which they continue to bear. As Swami Dayanand Saraswati who brought the Vedas and Sanskrit prayers to the common masses and especially the empowerment of women, taught the descendants of indentures throughout the diaspora to stand for truth and illumined knowledge and to be noble in all their endeavours. Let his teachings illumine one and all.

Swami Vivekananda of the Ramakrishna Mission said to the millions of underdogs in India, “Do not be weak. Arise. Awake. Stop not till the goal is reached. Let all become Brahmins.” He exhorted people to dare to be, to roar like lions and to be positive and confident and have faith in their inherent qualities. The great Subramaniam Bharati, another great poet and patriot from the South exhorted people to rise to the occasion and sing the song of life with harmony. Tiruvaluvar and Adi Shankaracharya were other giants who propelled the commoners to great heights and pinnacles through faith in themselves. Who can forget the great Gautama Buddha’s teachings of a casteless society? Swami Krishnanand Saraswati, created a vast movement in Mauritius by setting up Dharmic Seva Shivir which helped to wipe out social cleavages and superstitious beliefs.

In Search of Roots and Identities

Many indentured immigrants and their descendants have over the years been living the life of exclusion. Many of them have been absorbed in the Creole community and have adopted the Christian religion. There is still lurking in their hearts and soul the urge to know about their other roots that feed and nurture their psyche. Their Indianity. Several of them come to see me. Thousands of these descendants, though given the appellation of Creole or Afro-Mauritians have about 90% or some degree of Indian blood in them. This Indianness must not be denied. They must be allowed to assume it with love and openheartedly.

Many come to see me to help them trace their roots in India or have a PIO card. Some prominent Creole personalities have indeed even sought and obtained their PIO cards. They like the Indian food, way of life, culture and even pray and fast with the Hindus despite being Christians. They would like their children to marry within the Indo-Mauritian fold and follow the Hindu way of life. Last year for the 2nd November celebrations at Aapravasi Ghat, I gave the example of Yogesh, a yogi. A Mauritian settled in Reunion. His birth name is Sylvain Noël Bonne and his mother Mrs Paul Sylvie Bonne (Miss Doongoor Johnson) is a fourth generation PIO whose great grandparents were Hindus and came on board the “Tasmania” in 1859 and on board the “Blue Jacket” in 1857 from Gazeepore. She has applied for the PIO card. Yogesh’s great grand father Ramneehur Doongoor born in Mauritius in 1873 was married to Miss Marie Ursule Chasseur. Thousands of Creoles bear Hindu surnames whether of North Indian origin or from Madras, Pondicherry or Andhra Pradesh. In the years to come this will be the next great search for roots. It is the next great revolution to take place in Mauritius as it is doing in Reunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique. For in today’s globalised world, we are talking of multiple identities.

* Published in print edition on 1 July 2011

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