Mauritius Times – 60 Years
By L. Seetanah
I have spent an aggregate period of ten years abroad — in Egypt, Libya, Cyprus and England, and have been on short visits to places like Denmark and France and several others at which the ships I travelled in had called on their way, and about which I wrote very briefly in my last article. During those ten years, I have had the chance of coming back home twice, but I could not honestly say that the country showed signs of progress; I went away rather disappointed with the general conditions here.
In England I learnt much more about Mauritius than what I was taught at school about it; and it is not surprising that I could not sleep a wink on the last night at sea, being much too excited to catch even the first faint glimpse of this ‘‘paradise island set in the shimmering waters of the Indian Ocean.” I had heard the crew referring to Mauritius as “une très belle île”, and in fact both the crew and the passengers were excited. Indeed, what a gorgeous and enchanting sight! None of the other countries I had visited so enthralled me at the first sight. The dark blue masses of finely-hewn and huge rocks arouse the artist in one. The rising sun playing from behind the thin clouds seem to throw out, in varying colours and shapes, the magnificent views that caught the eyes as one surveys the whole picture from one end to the other.
The deck is crowded with Mauritians. After the first flush of amazement and sights, there is silence. One feels so elated, so elevated and so charged with patriotic emotions. These suddenly burst out in music and one starts singing. “Oh island in the sun, yield to me by my father’s hand”!
The feeling wears out somehow and everyone gets busy dressing and dolling up to land… Though it was a bright and hot morning. I noticed that almost all Mauritians had worn, winter clothes, i.e.,woollen ones, with ties “to look more respectable”. It was obvious that we dressed not for comfort but for show here. This is the first impression I had. Dressing up is considered to give dignity to one, and most of us seem to judge people by their looks. It seems to be an epidemic here, for the intellectuals and even that class we call the élite, seem to be affected by his affectation of “dignity.” I remember how one reporter, who was sent to Mauritius to cover the visit of PrincessMargaret, ridiculed Mauritians for dressing up too loudly: one lady had gone so far as to wear a fur coat on an obviously very warm day!
Many have asked me: “How does it feel to be at home after all these years?” Well, there are things one gets re-acclimatized to pretty quickly, and others that one does not feel satisfied with. One easily fits into the pattern of life. There is, indeed, a general feeling of relief, a sense of security and freedom. At least one is not continually being interfered with. When you hire a flat, you are not pestered by continual “visits” of the landlord. You are free to do as you like. You feel you have a home and not a hotel to go to after work. You throw open all your doors and windows as and when you like. You feel you have space enough to move about in. There are no more inhibitions. You express yourself freely. Society does not make so many demands on you. You don’t feel stinted and isolated. People are more tolerant, more sympathetic and less selfish socially. One is pleased to note a few new buildings in Port Louis and elsewhere and also an improvement in some of the main roads. Physically a gradual change is perceptible, but mentally and morally we have lagged behind.
One cannot understand the sometime inhuman behaviour of a certain class towards another. You feel very distinctly the class discrimination. The so-called educated and cultured too are infected with the disease. At Barclays Bank, I noticed the haughty manners of some petty clerks who would throw your cheque book and your passport at you instead of politely — as one expects educated people to behave — handing these to the owners. If you happen to be a white man, you are served first, and you don’t queue up. “Last in, first served’ seems to be the guiding principle in such cases. People go by your polished outside just as children would go for cheap and colourful toys. In fact, they dress and doll up to impress their friends. If you spoke in Creole, you are considered low, as if that language is not a vehicle through which you express yourself, as you do through any other languages.
Some civil servants and some policemen obviously seem to think that they are occupying such positions to work againstthe public instead of for them, who are actually and virtually their employer. They show all the indications that they would, if they were allowed to, sooner write “your master by right” instead of “your obedient servant ” which is normally appended in correspondence with the public — Drivers have often complained to me that they get pinched by the police for excess speed in 30 mph. areas, remarking that there seem to be two separate sets of laws about driving in these areas. The other, applicable to whites only, whereby policemen seem to wink at those contravening such laws.
Away abroad, I had kept in touch with the “Mother” through correspondence, newspapers and official and other reports. These last gave me the impression that we had no problems at all. There were illustrations in them of new buildings, new houses for labourers in the sugar estates, new colleges, etc. But to my disappointment, shacks and hovels unfit for human habitation are still to be seen in the villages. One wonders why our reports do not show our “backwardness” and poverty in illustrations as well which would at least present the problems we yet have to solve as they are to people overseas.
It pains me to see Port Louis so frightfully dirty, so neglected and so pathetically in need of re-construction. I am aware that the public has to take its share of the blame, but then how else can an uneducated public behave when civics is not taught at school and when there is no compulsory education? There are so many old houses in Port Louis that would have long been pulled down in England, being too dangerous to be lived in. Public conveniences are in an appalling condition, and are too few and far between, anyway, to be kept clean. The stench exuding from the canal near the harbour is really horrible and unhealthy. We cannot expect tourists to visit a country whose capital is unclean and repulsive. The first impression of Mauritius on the visitor is bound psychologically to have a bad effect on his stay in the island. For tourism to flourish, the “window dressing” of the capital is of paramount importance.
That apart, the capital in any country is supposed to have the pick of all that can be had. Here our new Director of Medical Services has a difficult task before him, but there is no doubt that those who want to be proud of their Capital — and they are many — will give him their wholehearted support.
I must now come to the people of Mauritius generally. Perhaps many will disagree with me, but we have to be frank with ourselves in our introspection. We are on the whole a snobbish lot. The English are known to be snobbish, but I think we beat them hollow here – to our own detriment. It is obvious that we are a people without any palpable character. This is not surprising when we have left every one of our problems in the hands of people who have no attachment and no feeling for the country. We have not bothered to stop and question what we have so long and so far, been made to do. We are inclined to let life run its easy course — a course thrust on and apathetically accepted by us. We just have to take stock of our beliefs and conceptions to realise on what unsteady ground we are treading.
We have a false conception of the civilization which we so anxiously want to show and haunt in order to be recognized as civilized and educated people. We don’t want to be civilized: we want to show that we are civilized without much understanding what civilization is or should be.
We play a game of self-deception. We want to dress gaudily, to imitate blindly the actors and actresses in the films we have seen, without much realising that there is a vast gulf between fiction and real life. Many of us believe that travelling in a car of our own; being able to speak French and English; knowing and using a more difficult word instead of a common one understood by all; carrying an attaché case instead of a shopping bag; having degrees and diplomas; being rich; having a sedentary job instead of a menial one and the rest of a serious of what I call “demonstrabilities”, are tantamount to being civilized and great. We also believe that in being masters of men and slavedrivers, we are “great”. We have so long been grooved into the belief that these are the hallmarks and criteria of civilization that we cannot get out of it. Because our parents and elder believed in them, we conclude that they are good for us too. In our day, because of this misconception, we have young people who would sooner take a sedentary job for less than a labourer’s salary than be seen doing some other jobs “below their dignity”.
It is this canker of misconception in our society that has given rise to so many of our problems and especially to the conceit we so often see in one young brothers and sisters freshly out of colleges and universities with a certificate or degree which they wave at those further down the ladder, as testimony to their intellectuality and “greatness”. They come out to us, those whom we call the élite, with all their dependent beliefs— those they have taken, perhaps without questioning, in the course of their studies from their professors, and those also which have been passed down to them by their parents and which they have never questioned, and impose themselves on what we, in derogation to human dignity, call the masses. For, is there any society of independent and free thinkers who are ready to dissociate themselves with the small groups in which they were born and brought up, and think of themselves just as plain human with no attachment to or affinity with any creed here? I don’t know of any of the erudite elite having formed such schools of independent thoughts here.
And these are the masters, the example, with all its defects, that the younger generations and the class that goes by it, have to copy. The mould cannot but turn out a replica of the folds within it. And so, we are driven to pose the question: “Wither wilt thou lead us, Mother? ”
6th Year – No 237
Friday 27th February, 1959
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