By Ananya Dutta Gupta
Mauritius resists imagination. One must literally land there from air or sea to realize that this live picture postcard actually exists. Il Maurice, as its Francophone name goes, presents to the first-time visitor a jaw-dropping pageant of land- and seascapes. The pristine beauty of this island seems to defy the direst presaging of climate change and its imminent, if not already irreversible, spoils. As you wind your way in one of their cars or pick-up trucks of Western make along near-First-World-condition roads, you are met with swathes of densely clustered sugarcane pastures in various stages of ripening that flank the paved roads right up to the kerb. In the background, as in Cezanne’s Monte Saint-Victoire, mountains loom. Ever so brief, refreshing showers vie with the radiant yet placid summer sun to change the mountains’ façade from light to dark and back. On the horizontal axis, the lush, well-sunned plantations quietly make way for vistas of the surrounding ocean. The beaches present an unexpected variety of colour and form – from chalky white and golden sand to green moss and grass to black boulders.
In short, Mauritius ticks all the right boxes that qualify it for the distinction of a pristine paradeisos in Greek or paradisus in Latin, meaning an enclosed park and nearly synonymous with the hortus conclusus. One sees just enough people to be assured of the island’s habitability, yet never so many as to abandon the wish to come and settle down, away from the madding crowds of the teeming continents to its east, west and north. I did not see any wildlife. I mentioned sharks only to be categorically disabused. The Dodo is supposed to have been hunted out of existence by the Dutch and exists only on fridge magnets as a mythic reminder of a pre-plantation Mauritius. There are chirpy, sprightly clean sparrows all around – slightly bigger than those in India – and one does not have the heart to shoo them away when they come to pick crumbs from the breakfast table. Interestingly for a sea-bound land, there are no gulls in sight even though fishing is a major industry. Crickets buzz and bugs crawl about without looking threatening. No-one mentioned mosquitoes.
Optimality, then, is nature’s choicest gift to the Mauritian topography – its lowlands undulating enough not to be monotonously flat, its mountains imposing enough to make the horizon look invitingly sublime, and, not least, its waters a shade of blue alternating with turquoise or aquamarine with a fleeting touch of the grey that stands for the un-definable in all coloration and experience. In a visitor’s gaze, optimality, which connotes manageable adequacy of all contributing factors rather than the pre-eminence of any, is the mark of Mauritian life too. No excesses. Geniality without raucousness, prosperity tucked away unostentatiously behind quiet streets and lanes, visible abundance of traditional livelihoods without any visible stigma of industrial underdevelopment. Like the mountains, valleys and the waters, like the well-defined roads and the green teasing them from the flank, like the seven-coloured earth on the dunes at the eastern village of Chamarel, life on this island gives the impression of peaceable civility and accommodativeness, combined with a warmth of manner that cannot but be a gift from the mostly salubrious climate. It is tempting to speculate upon the geopolitical origins of this social texture. Perhaps it is a European Enlightenment legacy filtered through colonial rule, mingled with elements from the Indian social temper.
I ought to add the disclaimer that my status as an institutional guest and the time of the year when I sojourned must have contributed implicitly to the favourable impression left by both ecology and demography upon my mind. However, I was ready to play Doubting Thomas, having tutored myself to look out for anomalies, irksome details and potential sore thumbs. Sir Thomas More, to whom we owe that enduring neologism ‘utopia’ with its tricky pun on good place and no place, also set for us the precedent of probing and prodding relentlessly under the veneer of utopian perfection. I for one was advised against coming back in autumn when the island finds itself buffeted by cyclonic gusts. People at the institute seemed a little apologetic about the leisurely pace of work, even as all I saw was a healthy work culture founded on cooperation, professionalism and care.
Mauritius is an island small enough to be covered in a cross-country drive of under twelve hours’ duration; indeed, small enough to have been a big city. Surrounded by the Indian Ocean, it seems to reside in what strikes a visitor as delightful insularity, barring the influx of industrial workers in textile and packaging and the outflow of students towards France for higher education. It nevertheless manages to present an impressively functional confluence of three continents – Asia, Europe and Africa – in that order: Asians, chiefly people of Indian origin, constitute the vast majority of the resident population. Then Europe because it has been ruled by the French and the British by turn long enough in its pre-Independence history to have retained strong cultural and linguistic liaison with the former and political and economic ties with the latter. Lastly, there is Africa, to which it stands closest geographically and from which it continues to receive and absorb settlers constituting, as I was told, the economically weakest group. One of the things that vaguely piqued me was the mild undercurrent of disapprobation – typical among segments of older settlers – towards recent migrants. Our guide, the very picture of balanced suaveness and ambassador for all things Mauritian, was just a little critical of his African compatriots.
This little island on the Indian Ocean courts and is courted back by India as part of a projected Greater India conglomerate. I can recall early days of Doordarshan showing long-term former President Anerood Jugnauth greeted at India’s Republic and Independence Day parades. Not surprisingly, his son and current Prime Minister, Pravind Jugnauth, was a guest at Narendra Modi’s oath-taking on 30 May this year. There is something very heady in the idea of a Greater India and, going by an eponymous essay of his, the charm was not lost even on Tagore. Wealthy Hindu Mauritius seemed eager to celebrate its Indian connection and the striking resemblance between colourful modern temple architecture in millennial India and those I saw in the capital Port Louis may well be an expression of this filial friendship on the ascendant.
On the other hand, Mauritius is neighbours with Réunion Island which is directly under French governance. It also forms part of the continent of Africa and can rightfully claim to be one of Africa’s strongest developing economies with an impressive ‘human development’ index. Statistics apart, empirical evidence vouches for good roads, sturdy elegant architecture (stately Dutch bungalows for one and others not too different from residences in New Delhi perhaps), happy looking citizens presenting a range of complexions and physiognomies, a steady stream of tourists, especially water-sports enthusiasts from developed countries and of revenue therewith, and a putatively low crime and theft rate. [Mauritians at the institute were quick to point out their disapproval of the then incumbent President for financial misdemeanour that subsequently forced her resignation]. Last and best of all, I could see a dignity of labour comparable with what one witnesses in First World countries.
What strikes one as most utopian about Mauritian society is its perceptible cohesiveness. Again, the historical origin of this cohesiveness is open to speculation. It could have been cemented by a common history of arrival, shared survival in hard labour and quintessentially diasporic, rose-tinted nostalgia for the home left behind. In a sense, the section of Mauritian society I had occasion to move around in presented an infectious classlessness across professional rungs and faith denominations. It is difficult, indeed it ought to be difficult, to say whether this perceived conviviality is a French legacy or an import from closely knit rural Indian community feeling, but I was impressed by the unselfconsciously routine friendliness with which the head of the institution I was visiting pulled the leg of one of the young new blue collar recruits about his betrothed back in the village. Having said that, I appeared to generate silent discomfiture when I went to the dining hall and sat next to local diners at the Casa Florida resort in the upmarket northern village of Grand Baie where the Institute had arranged for me to stay. Despite the unfailing courtesy, the conscious distancing did not seem to be about the language barrier alone. I could have been one of them. Yet I never would be one of them. However much we try, it is always an iron game of will between the walls pulled down by the traffic of humankind beyond borders natural and political and the walls continuously being shored up by opposing forces of political history.
National pride was evident to me in the way in which many houses fly the national quadricolour. Mauritius’s shared history of suffering, collective pride in livelihood earned with labour and loss of homeland, cultural liberation earned through resistance and struggle, and commitment to memorializing this history of becoming in the form of meticulously curated archives and permanent exhibitions together make up an interesting array of historical dividends. This is evident both at Aapravasi Ghat, the heritage site where indentured labourers used to disembark and register with colonial officials of the Immigration Bureau and at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, a centre set up in 1970 for the promotion of bilateral cultural ties. In this may be seen a parallel not with India’s war of independence and its blighted legacy of schism and partition but rather with the developing self-perception of another small country, namely Bangladesh. This gritty millennial neighbour of India differs only in its incandescent monolingualism and brimming density of population.
Shared privations perhaps help cement community bonds more lasting than those forged even by shared enjoyment. At the entrance to the Museum at Aapravasi Ghat, where indentured labourers from across Asia, Africa and Central America would have stepped off the ships – as Amitav Ghosh vividly describes in The Sea of Poppies and early on in The River of Smoke – stands a cabinet of chopped logwood on which the young and the old of present-day Mauritius have inscribed spontaneous and humbling tributes to their shared ‘coolie’ ancestry. Camaraderie is also palpable in the gastronomy. Dhalpuris (chapattis stuffed with mashed lentils), pickles and a range of mouth-watering pakoras (interestingly called gateaux – French for cakes) are a staple at home, the office cafeteria, roadside eateries and restaurants alike.
The Mauritius I found myself in felt like a country with two mothers – France and India and if one dare add, a redoubtable colonial British father. The outcome of this broadly tripartite cultural genealogy is an intriguing trilingualism comparable with the socio-linguistic vagaries of postcolonial India. Everyone in the Mauritius I saw speaks Creole with everyone else – everyone from Shila to Marie to Kenny Baloo to Kishanji. Yet most have been educated in French and use English at reasonable ease for social, formal and official communication. The principal bus transportation Company is called Vanaspatee, while a much-frequented temple, close to a towering statue of Lord Shiva, is consecrated to Mauriteswarnath and was enshrined by a certain Gussayne (‘Goswami’ in French, like ‘Bhujaharry’ for ‘Bhajahari’). Most of those I met looked indistinguishable from the average Indian like myself. Working women, except those under the floodlights on account of their institutional ties with India, seemed to be wearing Western attire consisting of blouse and skirt. Girls of apparently mixed or non-Indian origin dye their hair blond and wear lovely summer dresses. The songs playing on the car radio as institute officials drove me over to my accommodation from the airport were all mainland French, even though Bollywood music is reported to be very popular. Bhojpuri music is a staple, and the Secretary of the Bhojpuri association is reportedly at the helm of a project to archive not just the oral history of the island’s Bhojpuri-speaking population but also their craft and lyric tradition. On the other hand, classical Indian music and dance are practised and performed with devotion and assurance.
The most arrestingly complex impression left in my mind by social interactions in the mostly Hindu Indian-origin segment of Mauritian society is its highly accomplished and educated women. They appeared to share effortless camaraderie with their husbands and male colleagues, so much so that the ambience at social occasions seemed a delightful cross between social conversations in Western tea-rooms to this day and among their upper-middle-class metropolitan Indian peers. There is no gender segregation of free-wheeling conversation and no apparent divergence of interest between the congregating men and their wives. On the other hand, judging by the unguarded naturalness with which the conversation veered towards the home and children, family values are attached utmost priority – in acknowledged deference to traditional Indian social practices. In fact, one of the first questions I was asked upon being received at the airport was how many children I had. I am not sure if my admission of being monoparous went down well.
I could not but relate the vocal presence of confident, powerful women in the workforce and at social meets to the robust role historically played by indentured women labourers or accompanying wives in consolidating the community around them. Aapravasi Ghat has recreated the venue for what were known as Baithaks – gatherings in a mud hut under the aegis of a matriarch – like Amitav Ghosh’s Deeti, who would read or narrate stories from the Ramayana and help encourage the spread of literacy among the young in the process. Whether the Ramayana is the ‘go-to’ text for instilling respect for female individuality is a debatable question. Yet reading the Ramayana in their leisure and looking to it to inspire respect for traditional values associated with the family as an institution has been customary among a wide section of Hindu women since the nineteenth century and is arguably still in place. Sita’s acquiescence in two trials by fire following fourteen years of exile, abduction and captivity and followed by banishment to single motherhood cannot but have made her a bright role model of feminine resilience among women similarly exiled by hunger and the need to feed their young in an India, if Shashi Tharoor is to be believed, severely impoverished by colonial plunder.
There is a slightly ungrammatical, facile sobriquet for Mauritius in circulation on the internet – the Island of Emotion – inspired, I realise, by an eponymous song. In a way, the Sesame Street song, sung by Tyrone Davis, recalls the cloistered ennui of Happy Valley in Sir Samuel Johnson’s allegorical fable Rasselas (1759), i.e. a place so perfect, as to afford no scope for philosophical and affective growth. The song’s creator fashions for its consumer the trajectory of carpe diem revelry that all must leave behind when they “finally say our goodbyes/ To the Island of Emotion”. The lyrics, as does the lifelong Londoner and urbanite Samuel Johnson’s tale, reek of urban condescension towards the countryside – the place you come to have fun in and then leave with a delectable nostalgia savoured because of the gratification it affords in absentia – as in Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’:
On the Island of Emotion
Surrounded by the ocean
Feelings are filling the air
Come on, let me show you what’s there
Look at the smiles at Happy Harbour
Pelicans sing a giggly song
Sailboats are skipping on the water
Seagulls are laughing all night long
Let’s have a cry at Weeping River
That’s where to lose your misery
Cry all your sadness in the river
Wash all your troubles out to sea
On the Island of Emotion
Come on with me
Down at the Love Lagoon is lovely
Everyone strolling hand in hand
See how the breeze is blowing kisses
See how the waves all hug the sand
Anyone fond of big surprises
Visits the famous woods of Yow
Behind every tree a new surprise is
Waiting for you, here comes one now
Sadness and happiness
Love and surprise
Now we must finally
Say our goodbyes
To the Island of Emotion (Source: here)
Somewhere down the road, the steady rise of the city may have helped construct and pastoralise the countryside for us, as Raymond Williams suggests in The Country and the City (1973). Somewhere down that same road, though, the usurpation by the city of all that is concocted into the tonic of immediacy or “happeningness” skewed the human eye away from the slower, deeper, relatively lower-octane drama of ecological experiences. Fundamentally, then, like the Garden of Eden or the plentiful Land of Cockayne, the visitor is conditioned to see Mauritius as nature’s paradise that is best left behind with an uplifting sigh once the tourist has reached their personal ceiling of admissible ocular and sensory satiation. Unrelieved beauty is deemed boring. Perhaps it is. Like unadulterated goodness. It is a threat to the scepticism that is seen to be the mark of urban knowingness. At the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation, where I was interviewed for a Hindi language show, the makeup artist kept gushing about the India she has glimpsed in course of her shopping trips to Mumbai. On my part, I could see nothing wrong with the Bagatelle Mall in Port Louis. Another lovely ‘Eleanor Rigby’, with large dreamy, lonesome eyes kept returning to the Institute for a draught from the phial called authentic Indian culture, all the while that I set about pluralising and problematising the monolith called India. One is left reflecting on the changeable notion of the Promised Land. For the first migrant workers, Mauritius must have been the Promised Land. It is also the honeymooners’ Promised Land today. Yet for those of Indian origin who live there, as also for the descendants of Indian indentured workers in Trinidad and Tobago and in the Fiji Islands, promise is likely to lie with their erstwhile colonisers’ lands in the Global North, while the quest for roots lies with India.
Mauritius then presents itself as a combination of the two most inviting civilisational paradigms: earthly paradise as a largely retrogressive ecological trope and utopia, which is primarily a teleological model of social and political reconstruction.
Needless to say, in the case of an actual functioning spatial site and political entity, the viability of these two labels cannot be explored unless one acknowledges that it is impossible to remain a paradise in the new millennium without being something of an ideal socio-political community. Conversely, the contributions of nature’s bounty must be recognised in allowing or catalysing such a community’s sustenance and growth. Hypothetically speaking, part of the incentive for maintaining the natural beauty of a place intact clearly comes from the necessity of selling it to the tourist-consumer. I am sure therefore that upmarket tourism helps sustain Mauritius’s idyllic environment even as it sells it to the tourist. Secondly, it becomes important for a tourism-worthy site to market itself as a harmonious, cosmopolitan, hospitable space with the right admixture of quaint exoticism and millennial relatability. I am not contending that Mauritius is either a paradise or a utopia. Or that it is pretentiously marketing itself to the naïve traveller as the one or the other. Yet if a place is one, it becomes incumbent upon it to be the other as well. In today’s world, being a bit of both is a necessity of self-preservation for a small island-state with a richly muddled and mangled history.
The author, who teaches at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, visited Mauritius for a week in June 2018 in the capacity of resource person nominated to conduct a four-day workshop on Tagore’s Life and Works at the Rabindranath Tagore Institute there.
Ananya Dutta Gupta has been teaching at the Department of English & Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, for over sixteen years now. In 1999, she was awarded a Felix Scholarship to pursue an M.Phil. in English Literature, 1500-1660 at the University of Oxford. She was awarded the degree of M.Phil., in part, for a dissertation on the philosophy of war and peace in Renaissance European and English Writings. In January 2014, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, awarded her a Ph.D. degree for her dissertation on Renaissance English representations of the city under siege. Her revised Orient Blackswan Annotated edition of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I (2012) is currently in worldwide circulation and she has several other scholarly articles published in national and international journals to her credit. She was Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Cambridge, in 2015. She has also published book reviews and translations of essays, poetry and short stories. Her occasional forays into creative non-fiction may be found online at Pratilipi, Cafe Dissensus, Muse India, Caesurae and Coldnoon Travel Poetics. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Rohingya Refugees: Identity, Citizenship, and Human Rights”, edited by Chapparban Sajaudeen, Central University of Gujarat, India.