(For Susan Bard and Françoise Lionnet)
©Institut Cardinal Jean Margeot (ICJM), 1, Celicourt Antelme street, Rose Hill, Mauritius.
According to official papers, I was born on March 16, 1942, in Quartier Militaire, in the district of Moka. Why Quartier Militaire? Simply because of a tradition whereby the first born of a woman should see the light of day in the house of her father. Gouna, my mother, (her official name was Damiyantee Pyndiah) was a Quartier Militaire girl, married to Ramdass (Appanah Virah Sawmy) a Goodlands boy.
I grew up in Goodlands and in 1945, at the age of three – Did I catch polio or did polio catch me? – I lost the use of my left arm completely. In those days, physical and other handicaps were considered as a curse, some form of divine punishment and in my village, there was a long list of terms used to describe and laugh at handicaps: pagla, bayra, langra, kannwa … I was called ‘moyon’. Have we changed much? I doubt it. Much later, when I chose political activism, my opponents would refer to me as “Ti-Lame” (little hand).
But there was a silver lining. My handicap helped me to understand that I should not look for compassion and had to prove that, in fact, I was better than those who had fun mocking me. When we played football, I chose to be goalkeeper; volleyball became a passion for some time and my smash was dreaded. Learning to swim or ride a bicycle was painful and yet I did it successfully.
I quickly also realised that showing that my disability was not a sign of inferiority was not enough. I had to shine in other domains. I took to painting, singing and song writing (in English, if you don’t mind) but was never very good.
At school, I was average partly because I was bored and also because I spent a lot of time on extra-curricular activities which did infuriate my father. I was also a cinema addict (enn nam sinema) who used to imitate his film idols specially James Dean and Elvis Presley.
When the School Certificate results (O levels) came and I found myself among the 10 best of my very prestigious college (St Joseph’s) something went ‘ting’ in my mind. I discovered the power of drama through Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ and GB Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ and wanted to know more. It became clear to me that the right path would be H.S.C and a university degree in English and French. As I was not very happy at St Joseph’s where I was constantly reminded that I was a ‘malbar’, a ‘payen’ (a pagan) and a ‘moyon’, I used my good S.C results to be admitted into Port Louis Royal College where I obtained a reasonably good H.S.C grade and was accepted by Edinburgh University.
Between H.S.C results and the trip to Edinburgh, I taught English, French and fine art; was sacked twice for insubordination; fell in love with Loga; managed to be accepted by Loga’s parents; chose to travel by ship to Europe when flying was the thing to do.
A year later, Loga came to meet me as previously arranged. We got married (August 1964); Loga joined Skerry’s College for secretarial studies; I went into year 2; a year later Loga got a good job at the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce. After 2 years of sacrifice, working hard and saving to make ends meet, we could live more decently. Both of us fully enjoyed Edinburgh social, cultural and artistic life. We had some very good friends.
Edinburgh University taught me, inter alia, 3 important things:
• Creole is a language, not broken French;
• Literary criticism;
• The power and significance of plays from Shakespeare to Harold Pinter.
In Edinburgh, I had politically-minded friends and I joined them in a small group which believed in “Home Rule for Scotland”. Some were Marxists, others were anarchists but they were all convinced that changes were inevitable. Listening to them made me realise that the boy from Goodlands, brought up in a family which gave full support to the Mauritius Labour Party, had a lot to learn.
When I had completed my studies in 1967, both Loga and I were in a hurry to return home for the campaign for independence was in full swing. We found a country split into two, with Hindus on one side and Creoles and Muslims on the other.
It quickly occurred to me that the main issue would soon be nation building. Independence alone was vastly insufficient. A handful of people controlling the economy, political power being determined by sectarian ethnic lobbies, blind allegiance to ancestral values were decisive toxic ingredients to ignite political dynamites.
An alternative had to be created by starting political activities along new lines. Equally indispensable was the need to build supra-ethnic values.
Years of praxis have taught me the following:
• Mauritius is a Creole island as defined by Megan Vaughan in her book CREATING THE CREOLE ISLAND, (Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Mauritius), DUKE University Press. It will never be “La Petite France” or “Little India”;
• Political slogans such as “unity in diversity” or “enn sel lepep, enn sel nasion” are empty because they are based on a static notion and fail to understand the dialectical movement between centrifugal and centripetal forces. Trying to wipe out differences will make matters worse and may generate cultural genocide. What is needed is a policy that respects differences while at the same time it promotes supra-ethnic values.
• Mauritians are of different origins. We are from Africa, Europe and Asia but we are also the products of biological and cultural miscegenation (metisaz).
• We have a common history. We are all immigrants, free or bound.
• We have a common culture: a common national language, two Creole languages (Mauritian and English), our own music and dance, and a special cuisine made of borrowings, creations and adaptations. They can provide us with a strong foundation to reach for the sky if the will exists.
Political activities have so far failed to produce the right effects and the last 50 years have made matters worse to such an extent that mainstream political parties are quite prepared to join the racist and fascist banquet.
Age and sickness now force me to concentrate on what I’m not too bad at: creative writing. Verse and prose on the one hand and translation of lay and religious literature on the other are what I can still offer.
The glorious and heroic days are over and as my sun is preparing to set, I cannot help thinking that I must have made mistakes which have retarded the growth of a supra-ethnic culture. My apology to one and all.
In my search for ‘truth’, I have wandered far and wide. Atheism, agnosticism? I’ve tasted their bitter fruits. I have also known friendly hands which have helped me from drowning.
Yet I’m happy that in the 60’s, I discovered Marxism and have since tried to use it to understand the reality in which I live, with some success. While cupidity threatens our existence, we now have a pope, Pope Francis, who does not mince his words to denounce our evil ways. Spiritual leaders must join him to tell economic and political leaders to stop worshipping mammon. We must stop our war with Nature. We are fighting a losing battle.
My personal battle goes on. Knowing who I am is now my main preoccupation. When I was born, I was given 2 Hindu names: Dev and Narendraj. Later I was told that I was a Hindu. That meant nothing to me. The best part of my education was done in Christian institutions locally and abroad. My best friends are mostly Christian.
And yet, now some fundamental Hindu concepts invite me to new thoughts. They have nothing to do with rituals or the reading of the Vedas or the Upanishads.
These concepts are:
1. There is ONE God who has 3 facets: creation, preservation and destruction. Creation is a dynamic ongoing process which necessitates destruction to bring about new creation. We are very far away from the old Testament’s view of creation.
2. God is NOT masculine-singular. He is powerless without His Shakti. God is Father-Mother in the universe.
3. Reincarnation makes life meaningful for heaven and hell are here and not elsewhere. It means that the soul has a body until Moksha when rebirth stops and the individual atma fuses into MAHATMA.
4. Moreover, there is the concept of “AVATAR” which means that God does take a human shape at times to lead humanity’s chariot which is what Krishna did in the Bhagavad Gita. For me Jesus was an Avatar. So is Pope Francis.
I do not want to persuade anybody. I am only sharing an intuition.
Because of the four concepts described above, I think I am a Hindu who has faith but is not religious.