From Exodus to Exile
As with all her previous pieces, Mona Babajee’s “Down Memory Lane – I Won the Lottery Big Time” (Mauritius Times, 6 Sep 13) was a delightful read.
For those of us born in the baby boomer years (mid-1940s to mid-1960s), it brought out memories that are at the same time both bitter and sweet.
Devoid of the means of communication — telephone, unaffordable newspaper, radio, television, and the cellular phone and Internet in the far distance — ours was mostly an ignorant generation. And if ignorance is indeed bliss, then we were ignorantly blissful. However, there was a kind of innocence that manifested itself in spontaneous laughter, neighbourliness and community — alas fast disappearing with globalisation and the maddening, indecent rush to get rich quick, and by any means.
Thus “moralité pa rempli ventre” seems to have become the mantra of the present generation. Anyone who is prepared to abandon his/her good Sanskaar and dally with the powerful can aspire to become a multi-millionaire. Yet others think up all kind of dubious Ponzi schemes to cheat gullible people — in search of a higher rate of return than the pittance offered by the banks — of their hard-earned cash by offering interest rates that defy all logic.
Of course, people also wanted to make money back then but, in spite of its Laxmi moniker, they never made Pecunia the Goddess that she has become in the 21st century. For them, the only way to make money was by working for it. Theirs was the Age of Innocence; one hardly heard about the kind of atrocious crimes, shameless scams, impropriety in public life, moral decadence, and worse that scream out daily from the headlines of every newspaper, radio, TV and social media.
In a land where we are still frowning and giving offensive names to inter-communal and inter-caste marriage, I find the gay relationship/marriage agenda à la européenne highly suspect and questionable, not to say totally objectionable. Our friend Max, watching from his garden deckchair on planet Mars, would think it was Sodom and Gomorrah revisited.
Anyway, if those born in the second half of the baby boomer years stayed behind — because of their younger age — to see the Quadricolour fly for the first time over the Champ de Mars on 12 March 1968, many of those born before it left the dark squalor of the thatched/tinned-roofed huts for the greener pastures of Europe, mainly the UK and France.
In the first instance, we left to find a job. But having arrived and eventually seen the possibilities, we reached out to the better life and lifestyle on offer and ended up staying on for the rest of our lives in a land that, at best, tolerated our presence. On the other hand, having led a life of utter deprivation back home, it was not at all easy to leave the affluence of the newly-acquired Western way of life. If we add to that the monthly remittance expected by elderly parents back home, the return journey became even more difficult. And, further, what chance of securing a decent job upon return in a society that was still rife with nepotism, caste, ethnicity, and clannish protectionism?
Yet, back in the 1960s and 1970s, fellow expatriates used to think me mad whenever I told them that we were all like refugees — neither quite wanted in our own land nor particularly welcome in our adopted country. But miraculously, my friend Keshraj and I are two of the (lucky?!) few who managed to break free and come back home; but the return has not been without its costs.
However it was not all doom and gloom for the emigrant. As Ms Babajee puts it, by emigrating, we did win a Lottery and, in some ways, hit it big time! In the 1960-70s, a lot of us took the opening offered by the UK and applied to follow a nursing course that paid a stipend large enough to sustain ourselves. Most of us stayed on in that particular field and did very well, thank you — some achieving the rank of matron, lecturer or administrator in the NHS. But, opportunities allowing, a fair number also left to follow other careers.
Indeed, we could not believe the opportunities that were on offer, particularly in the UK. It is only now that Mauritius is slowly waking up to the possibilities but, in ER2’s (Elizabeth II’s) country, it was already possible to work during the day and study at night school for one’s O and A levels. Having achieved those whilst at the same time paying taxes for at least 3 years, one could apply for a grant that enabled the recipient to go on to University and read the subject of his choice.
If there were any constraints which prevented fulltime study, one could always opt for any of the several part-time degree courses offered by some colleges including the Open University (OU). The advantage with the OU is that there is no need for any formal qualification; instead one has to show ability by getting through its Foundation courses.
Obsessed as we Mauritians are with education – part-time or full-time — many of us chose to go for higher studies. I know of people who, encouraged by the incentives offered by the UK authorities, are even at a late age studying for a first/second degree just for the sake of acquiring knowledge!! When is Mauritius going to encourage such enterprise is a question that the Ministry of Tertiary Education must some day answer satisfactorily.
Empowered by the free education and the remunerated training, the emigrants ended up in jobs that paid well enough to spur them on to contract a home loan and move on from lessee to owner/occupier. The houses that they bought for £10k back then are now worth £400k++! If they ever sell up and return, it is not hard to imagine the lifestyle they can lead with the nest egg from the sales proceeds. Now, imagine the size of the financial assets of those who went into the lucrative business of nursing and other homes!
But our emigrant has not only been working all those years; he has also been at play. Apart from frequent visits to the homeland, he has travelled to several other countries, and learnt from the experience. The luckier ones have gone round the world on leisurely cruises! Yet others have been seconded by their employers to work in several other countries, gaining rich, invaluable experience.
If travel broadens the mind, then one would expect that our expatriate has indeed ended up with a broader mind than his counterpart back home. Yet, very few have been given the opportunity to put their vast experience to the benefit of their country. Indeed, there seems to exist a kind of occult mechanism that operates against any such possibility. This has been amply demonstrated by the hundreds of returnees who, having tried and failed, have had to go back to Blighty.
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the (forced) emigration venture has proved to be a glittering success. But where the expatriates have really hit it big time is in the opportunity that they have been able to give their offspring.
In the span of just one generation, many of them have got children working in professions as diverse as medicine, ICT, high finance, engineering, management and many other important fields. When we consider that it is only 40-45 years since the parents arrived in a cold, foreign land with a few pound notes and a dream in their pockets, the achievement of these children has been phenomenal.
It is, in Mona Babjee’s words, Lottery Big Time!
* Published in print edition on 4 October 2013