A dose of humility and much understanding, vast openness of mind, and a cavernous heart are required for the symphony of Mauritianism to reverberate across all divides
By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
As expected the two protest marches that have taken place recently have received widespread media coverage as being representative of true Mauritianism or a revival thereof. Without doubt they flagged some critical national issues that have become a matter of serious concern to all citizens, but from there to extrapolate that they depicted ‘true Mauritianism’ is, to my mind, a skewed interpretation.
The attempts to define let alone catch that will-o’-the-wisp called Mauritianism go back to many years ago. Given its elusiveness, we really do not need to have a precise academic definition of Mauritianism to be Mauritians. But it is all right for academics and others to have interesting discussions about it, and it would not matter in the least if they never managed to come up with such a definition which… by definition, would most likely circumscribe the notion or concept. Or it would need to be so long to encompass all that it means to be Mauritian that it would cease to fall under the category ‘definition.’
All genuine Mauritians know what it means to be one. Not only, however, do they know, but they live and experience it fully and daily, whether it is in Mauritius or abroad – in fact, it would seem especially so when they are abroad. Being a Mauritian has evolved as a mix of the diversities of beliefs, practices and behaviours that were brought in with the different cultures of the peoples that came to inhabit the island. To use a current terminology, it has now become part of our DNA – but meme, not gene.
By a process of sharing, borrowing, copying, exchanging and observing in matters of dress, food habits, language, down the generations we have created so to speak a unique blend that consists of openness of hearts and minds, acceptance of differences which provided a fertile ground for cultural infusions and fusions, mutual respect and adjustment, an élan of spontaneous help and solidarity in times of difficulty – cyclones or bereavement for example – and a bonhomie and camaraderie which is probably unique in the world. All of us who have travelled – which nowadays means a lot of us – know this for a fact. And the best we can do is to continue to live it in our daily interactions, especially in the manner that we do so when we are away from Mauritius. Why not practise ‘extra-territorial Mauritianism’ in Mauritius?
All of us have multiple identities which are lived simultaneously – social, religious, cultural, professional where this applies, and which particular identity comes to the fore depends on context and circumstance without, in any way, affecting the others. For example, in professional activities, cultural and religious identities are secondary, and are relevant only as so far as they may have any bearing on the matter at hand as in medical practice, where a particular belief or a food custom may be relevant, such as Jehovah’s witnesses not accepting blood transfusions. Where others are battling false demons, we are quite happy with one another in many ways, and not least among these are what we share both on a daily basis – the varied food fare on our tables – and in particular on special occasions and festivals. Divali, Kung Shee Fat Choy, and Eid come to mind – when friends or neighbours send sweetmeats around.
Should that food commonality surprise us? Not if we realize that food is our fundamental need, what keeps us alive – and by extension, without stretching the imagination too far, I would venture to say that it also infuses our Mauritianism with liveliness. Not for nothing that we speak about the ‘cultural life’ of a nation. Some people lament that we are not a nation, because we tend to accentuate the differences. I beg to disagree, because I think we have moved a long way on the path of nationhood.
But I would also say that, if any of us find that there are negative things that are preventing us from making faster progress, then we must take the responsibility as educated and concerned adults to try and address them, especially where, because of our positions whether by virtue of the benefit of education, community, religion, profession or social network, we are better placed than our other compatriots to bring pressure to bear and exert influence for the better on our peers.
This debate on Mauritianism dates back, as far as my memory goes, to the pre-Independence period. I remember that the term ‘entité mauricienne’ was in vogue, and many intellectuals of the time, among whom some teachers at the Royal College Curepipe, gave their views in various forums. Why this subject came up around that time would no doubt constitute a rich field of research for historians, but subsequently the notion of entité (entity) seems to have morphed into métissage (interbreeding) and Mauricianisme. These surface from time to time, and as we have said, let the academic play go on for fun or the sake of seriousness (need to be published: publish or perish…) but we, Mauritians, have other things to do and need to get on with our lives.
What is more important for us to make the next leap in our Mauritian commons (akin to the global commons) is to see how we can further enrich our living space, not the physical space but our moral, psychological and cultural space. For this we have to turn inwards, and start putting order in our own house: we must consciously examine what is it in our customs and practices that, for example, may disturb our neighbours, and apply what lawyers call the test of reasonableness. Each community or religious entity must do that, and remember that reasonableness depends a lot on common sense, both of which go into creating that essential ingredient (amongst other things) of a vital commons, namely civic sense. We will soon enough discover that if we are comfortable in our own skins, then aggressive assertions of identity are neither necessary nor fruitful, and will ill-serve the future generations of Mauritians for whom we all bear – must bear – collective responsibility.
This discussion could go on interminably, but we must choose to be practical and to focus our energies on how best to serve the country and the people in all aspects of our lived daily experiences. A dose of humility and much understanding, vast openness of mind, and a cavernous heart are required for the symphony of Mauritianism to reverberate across all divides.
That is why, much as I have acknowledged the disciplined manner in which these marches were conducted, I consider that as responsible elders it is our responsibility to sound a note of caution for the benefit of the organizers and participants, and help them to channelize their enthusiasm and energy in the direction of ‘unitedness’ rather than divisiveness. For this reason, I am not as pepped up as many others are by the slogan ‘b… li dehors’ which is vulgar, offensive and connotes aggressiveness.
Ask ourselves: will we use this language in our family setting, in front of children whom we must groom for their future in this country – or elsewhere for that matter?
I may sound archaic, but I cannot help myself from reiterating that we of the generation that has been witness to the vitriol and violence of the pre-independence period – which those crowds have had no experience of — have a collective duty and responsibility to never allow the conditions of those times to prevail again. I am genuinely afraid that such slogans as alluded to can potentially give rise to these conditions and create a backlash of violence. And we all know that violence can easily spiral out of control as it breeds more violence. Is that what we want for our children?
I too like others have followed the protest marches happening elsewhere – France, Hong Kong, Belarus, the US, etc – but loud and assertive as they were, the language used to calumny leaders and regimes was measured. All of us are agreed that the country needs a radical transformation in the manner of governing or of dealing with opponents, and in our institutions as they tackle the various ills that are plaguing us. The protest marches have sent in the strongest way possible the message that large swathes of Mauritians are asking for change – but we need not articulate this message in a language that belongs to the street. Those who choose otherwise will have to answer to the court of history as to which type of Mauritianism they have left as a legacy – one of peace and harmony, or one of violence and discord.
* Published in print edition on 18 September 2020