“The same names and dynasties continue to dominate politics and business today as when I left Mauritius in 1970”

Encounter — Vinod Busjeet

* ‘A better level of dialogue isn’t enough to improve intercommunal relations.
Dialogue will be viewed as empty if it is not accompanied by concrete steps by the public and private sectors to reduce economic disparities’

Vinod Busjeet left Mauritius in 1970 to study at the Université de Madagascar, followed by further studies at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, and New York University and finally at Harvard University Business School where he earned his PhD in Business Administration. He ended up working for the International Finance Corporation), the private sector affiliate of World Bank, where he focused on developing economies.

After his retirement he has devoted himself to writing. His novel Silent Winds, Dry Seas, is about ‘identity and place, and the legacies of colonialism, of tradition, modernity, and emigration, and of what a family will sacrifice for its children to thrive.’ It came out recently in the US and has received positive reviews from a number of publications, including the National Public Radio, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and the prestigious The Paris Review. In his review of the book, Edward P. Jones, Pulitzer Prize winning author of ‘The Known World’, writes: “The beauty of Busjeet’s splendid, often breathtaking book is, like the best stories of journeys to young adulthood, the precious and well-observed and heartbreaking details of day-to-day life.”

* Your journey started off at Mahebourg, and it brought you to the World Bank and its private sector affiliate, the International Finance Corporation in Washington, D.C. What happened in between that inspired you to write your debut novel Silent Winds, Dry Seas’ at the age of 71?

Throughout the years I’ve lived in the US, it was clear that most people had never heard of Mauritius. In writing that novel, I had an ambitious goal: help put my native country on the American literary map. Not the island paradise of tourist brochures, but the complex reality of a multiracial country with its challenges. When I retired, I also decided to take stock of my life. To accomplish these twin goals, I wondered whether I should write a memoir or fiction, and I settled finally for a mix, which may be called autofiction.

Fiction enables you to invent characters and events, manipulate memories and their sequence, compress events that occur over a period of months or years in a few days to create dramatic intensity (most evident in the novel’s chapter set during Cyclone Carol), fuse multiple cousins into one, pay homage in a creative way to some of your favourite writers and artists (e.g., Baudelaire, Chekhov, Carlos Santana).

* speaking to Parul Kapur Hinzen in an interview for The Paris Review, you said that Silent Winds…’ is a “novel about family conflict — honor, khandan — and political conflict”. What do you remember about those most trying times for your family and all those who had to eke out a living working in the fields or as artisans in the factories?

I remember the thatched house (lakaz lapaille) in Plaine Magnien and my mother mixing cow dung with water to make a paste that would become the floor of the house; going shoeless to school in klas bilo. The situation improved when my father asked my mother to come back to his house. My cousin in Rivière des Créoles cut sugarcane and loaded his ox-cart till he died. The Creole fishermen in Mahebourg and their families endured a much tougher life, faced with uncertain sea and weather.

The economic deprivation of those days can be illustrated by the fact that an orange was considered a luxury in our house, even though my father was a primary school teacher. Imagine the situation in the home of a cane cutter or fisherman.The contrast with the lifestyle of the sugar magnates in the sugar estates and the campements was stark.

Silent Winds, Dry Seas is set in the colonial plantation economy amidst the struggles of working people and small planters. The novel also explores how concepts of family honour are part of repressive cultural and moral norms that stifle the individual; norms that reflect a patriarchy characterized by arranged marriages, the brutalization of women driving them to suicide. The novel deals with subjects considered taboo: sexual repression and prostitution. Admittedly these last two themes are treated from a male perspective which is bound to be a limited one.

The novel’s final chapter takes the narrator to the US: after overcoming obstacles back home, he is confronted with an environment where the profit motive is king, but also one that is culturally and intellectually stimulating.

* What did you learn about yourself when you travelled back to your childhood when writing the book?

I was shy, an introvert. While my classmates played, I observed people my age and older. Witnessing the horrible final hours of a young woman neighbour forced into a marriage to a much older man left an indelible impression on me; looking back, I realize that this episode shaped my negative views on our society’s treatment of women; it resulted in the chapter “All the Same Sauce”.

In my adolescence, I began questioning all religions, and to my father’s credit, he did not punish me for that. He made sure I read the Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, as well as the Bible and the Koran, but never insisted that I go to the shivala or pray, though he prayed daily.

I also realized that admission to the Royal College, Curepipe, was a defining moment of my life. The long-term impact of the teachers went far beyond what they imparted to us on their specific academic subjects. What set them apart was their willingness to share intellectual experiences outside of the textbooks, communicate their observations on life, and transmit wisdom as well as witticisms.

By tolerating the intellectually adventurous students who constantly tried to veer class discussions away from the set texts, they encouraged the development of a spirit of enquiry. And this spirit was fostered further by the clubs that thrived during the sixties under the aegisof those teachers — The Indian Cultural Society, the French Cultural Society, The Debating Society, The Philosophical Society, The Classical Society. This spirit led me to question social and religious orthodoxies

* Has time and personal accomplishments helped to heal the wounds of the past?

“Without a wound, there is no author,” said the acclaimed Israeli writer, Amos Oz. The fact that I wrote an autofiction would suggest that not all the wounds have been healed, or that wounds have been healed only partially.

It is significant that the chapter I wrote first was the political corruption chapter “Six Pounds of Fish”, though it occurs toward the end of the novel: the wounds that rankle most call for immediate attention. I must point out that though the themes of the book are dark, I inject humour in the novel.

 * The reviews of your book have generally been quite favourable, although some like Kawai Strong Washburn have pointed to the absence of “deeper insights into humanity and its heterogeneity”. How do you react to such responses to your book?

It is impossible to please everyone.

The reviews have been positive, except for two publications, one of which is the New York Times(NYT) review by Kawai Strong Washburn. The positive ones include National Public Radio(NPR), Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and the prestigious The Paris Review.

It is every writer’s dream to appear in The Paris Review and in NYT. Between 500,000 to 1,000,000 books are published annually in the US, of which half are self-published. A tiny percentage gets reviewed by the New York Times, and I am thankful to its editors for the honour of having my novel selected for review.

To address Washburn’s review requires a whole article, and I don’t think an author should embark in such an exercise, at least not so soon after publication; I leave it to others, the general reader and other critics, to decide. Suffice it to say that I aim at writing that makes readers think but that also provides an emotional experience.

The proof of the pudding in the eating: the ultimate arbiter is the reader.

* ‘Tamasha’ is a riveting chapter about the road to independence. You write about the 1965 and 1968 riots, reminding us how tensions between communities flared up during that time. It ends on a note of optimism with Tonton George, wearing a dhoti, coming to the Bhushans’ household, greeting them with a ‘Namaste’ and celebrating the independence of the country. Do tell us about your personal experience of those years.

That chapter conveys to a large degree my personal experience. Tonton George, Kalipa and Fringant are based on real people and events, hard as it may be to believe. There is inventive fiction, such as Kalipa and Fringant expounding on Mauritian history, but the tense atmosphere of those days and the confrontation of the brothers are a recreation of reality on the page.

It is important to read the end of the chapter bearing in mind the actions of Uncle Ram in an earlier chapter: in the 1940s, he defies the norms of his Hindu community by refusing to wear the dhoti at his wedding, flings it on the floor, and threatens to walk out if he can’t wear a European style suit. Similarly, at a time when the dhoti had become a politically charged symbol of Hindu hegemony, Tonton George defies his community by putting on a dhoti.

Sometimes defying the norms of the community is necessary to make a larger point: Uncle Ram does it to affirm the right of the individual vis-à-vis the community, Tonton George to expose the fallacious and divisive rhetoric of some politicians backed by powerful economic interests. Uncle Ram and Tonton George are individuals bigger than their respective worlds.

* You said to The Paris Review interview that you realised, during one of your every-18-month visits back home, that “there were parts of Mauritian history, namely the events leading to independence, that the younger generation is not familiar with. I would even say there is a desire to avoid confronting the ethnic riots that took place in 1965 and 1968… There’s a fear of reopening old wounds…” Don’t you think it would be better to let sleeping dogs lie more than 50 years after independence, or would it serve as a catharsis to free us from the shackles of the past?

Shouldn’t Mauritians heed the Biblical saying (John 8:32): “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”? I can understand that for the sake of peace and the need to move forward with nation-building, political accommodations were made, and the perpetrators were not brought to justice.

Nonetheless, we need to draw lessons from that experience if we don’t want history to repeat itself. What will prevent a group (political, economic, communal) from fomenting trouble next time if it feels it won’t be held to account?

If there are academics who have researched the subject, I’m not aware of it. So far, I’ve read bits of information on the internet and the account of Alain Gordon-Gentil in Légère approche de la haine, published in 2009.

* What does your last visit to Mauritius inform you about the state of intercommunal relations in the island? Do you perceive a better level of dialogue or is the bigotry of the past still there deep own?

I used to visit regularly until 2013. In view of my eight years’ absence, I’m reluctant to answer that question.

Based on what I see in the social media and what I read, there are hopeful signs among intellectuals and youth. But that has always been the case among these groups. What matters is what happens to the rest of the country and how politicians manipulate voters during election season.

A better level of dialogue isn’t enough to improve intercommunal relations. Dialogue will be viewed as empty if it is not accompanied by concrete steps by the public and private sectors to reduce economic disparities between the various ethnic groups.

* Whatever our views about the mauritius’ melting pot society and its creative potential, it’s a fact that the country has done much better than most of the developing economies, which were your areas of focus during your stint at the International Finance Corporation. Why did that happen, and could we have done better?

Since I retired and started writing fiction and poetry, I’ve avoided commenting on economic issues. With that caveat, I’ll focus on what remains to be done, notably:
a)the same names and dynasties continue to dominate politics and business today as when I left Mauritius in 1970. Economic concentration in and among the top business families remains an issue.
b)skewed distribution of the benefits of growth among the different ethnic groups on the island, with the Creole community left behind, and
c)the challenge of climate change – an issue that requires an international approach.

 * We understand that your next book – ‘The Black Code’ -, will be a novel about a slave rebellion in Ile de France. Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

I also have a poetry collection and a memoir (not a novel) about my daughter. I’m not sure what will be completed first. Since they will all be informed by my worldview and values, there will inevitably be common themes. It’s hard however to speculate on the precise nature of the connections.

* Published in print edition on 7 September 2021

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