‘Vendères cotomili’ also have a dignity

Mindlessly, we allow ourselves to become the echo-chambers of the very people who won’t allow the downtrodden to improve their lives, to become part of the mainstream… — By TP Saran

In an interview given to this paper last week, Satish Mahadeo states: ‘It hurts me that we are becoming a society where we notice a deficit of compassion and a crisis of empathy, where just because some people have different views, we are bent upon stripping them of every layer of their humanity and reduce them to a label such as a ‘vendère cotomili’. I do not know Mrs Nandini Soornack, nor am I concerned about her trials and tribulations, but every Sunday when I go to the market, I do come across a young lady, with subdued eyes, as if carrying the burden of her suffering, who sells me coriander which gives so much taste to my food. Where have we come as a nation when we demonise and vilify a ‘vendère cotomili’, forgetting that every ‘vendère cotomili’ in every corner of the island is worthy of respect? By heaping so much scorn and abuse on defenceless human beings, we are abasing ourselves, especially when we are ourselves descendants of labourers, small planters and slaves.’

We could say that again, indeed, in this post-cyclone period when our plantations have been all but devastated and vegetables have to be imported. That will not include cotomili, a favourite and quasi-essential herb in many Mauritian dishes, not to speak of the several chutney combinations and variations in which it is present. As is the case with Satish Mahadeo, this author also does not know Mrs Soornack, nor is concerned with her personal issues. But to denigrate a person because of her occupation, forgetting the adage that all work is noble however apparently ‘lowly’ this may be viewed, is totally unacceptable, even condemnable. Because such an attitude denigrates all occupations. What is preferable, the robbers on the highways of the corporate world or the hard worker who is earning an honest but modest living in an occupation which does not have a high social profile – but which, for all we know, is even more essential to human existence. After all, it is about feeding ourselves, without which we are dead.

On the other hand, shouldn’t it be a matter of pride and deserving of kudos if someone rises himself/herself from a lower to a higher position through sheer acumen and business flair? Further, Mrs Soornack is not the first nor the last person in business to have leveraged her high-level contacts, and we will refrain from any further comments. However, in the same line as the ‘vendere cotomili’ label, we also condemn the derogatory twist of her name to the vulgar ‘soonook’ which is again a form of debasing a person that prevailed in feudal and colonial times. One would have thought that we have matured beyond these base instincts, and would focus instead on the faults committed – to be established by law – instead of attacking the person as a person or, as happens all too frequently in other cases, her ethnicity, skin colour, religion etc. In this respect, more telling are the concluding lines cited above, which bear repeating: ‘By heaping so much scorn and abuse on defenceless human beings, we are abasing ourselves, especially when we are ourselves descendants of labourers, small planters and slaves’ (italics added).

In fact, the phenomenon of social media helping, we the descendants just take up these labels and without giving any thought to their connotations and implications, just repeat them parrot-like and laugh among ourselves not at the label but at the very person, adding our own bits and pieces and giving actuality and life to such denigration. Shouldn’t we be ashamed of ourselves? But no, we aren’t – to be politically correct, we simply turn into beating drums for the initiators of the insults. They become the controllers of our minds and we become their willing accomplices in this unwarranted humiliation of a human being simply because of her occupation or her name which does not please.

This is nothing less than a form of cultural imperialism, which we do not even care to understand, nor its pervasive ramifications. As a letter in a recent issue of The Economist underlines (though the subject is about China’s ‘soft power’), ‘we should not assume that soft power is benign by definition’. And cultural imperialism is nothing less than soft power. The author goes on to point out that ‘soft power is far from non-coercive and non-threatening. In fact soft power can be more insidious than hard power precisely because it can be embedded and hidden within cultural products and aims to influence thoughts and behaviour’ (italics added).

Can we deny that we have allowed our thoughts and behaviour to be influenced by the crushing distortion of the name and the humiliating reference to an otherwise decent occupation of an individual, and in so doing vilified all people who pursue a down-to-earth honest living? Mindlessly, we allow ourselves to become the echo-chambers of the very people who won’t allow the downtrodden to improve their lives, to make progress and to become part of the mainstream.

And as Satish Mahadeo notes further, ‘In what way is this different from a Donald Trump who abuses immigrants from Africa as coming from “S….hole” countries? Is it because notions of social class and gender and ethnicity are involved? I am here reminded of the flowing words of Martin Luther King – who is being celebrated these days in the USA during the Black History month – when he talked of repentance. “We have to repent in this day and age not just for the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people but the appalling silence and inaction of good people”.’

For heaven’s sake let us learn to respect the dignity of all human beings, starting with our own. And before we become mere instruments in the hands of manipulators, let us use our commonsense and reason to look deeper beneath the surface so as to discover the real intention behind such labelling.


* Published in print edition on 26 January 2018

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