The Importance of Being Mauritian

Bhavani discusses what makes the people of this unique country so special

Published: 10th September 2015 05:31 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th September 2015 05:31 AM   |  A+A-

I was in Mauritius recently. And like all social media addicts, I bombarded my accounts with photographs and status updates. Now that I am back, and have the luxury of longer posts,  I hope to take you on a trip around Mauritius, introduce you to the people, the culture and all things that are 100 per cent Mauritian.

importa.jpgMauritius is a funny country. Not because there are stand-up comics by the dozen over here but because of the way it can throw you off balance. It definitely threw me off. As an Indian, when you enter the country, most of the people look familiar. You might not have flown the distance across the ocean at all. Imagine walking past a woman on the road who looks like your neighbour, is wearing a salwar kameez (or maybe a sari), a bindi, a mangalsutra and yes, even the streak of sindoor on the parting of her hair.

You could be somewhere in North India. It is when you speak to her that all perceptions are thrown right out of the window. She only speaks French and accented English, sometimes even just a smattering of it. You could get used to the French, but her English is accented, and not with Bhojpuri or any Indian language but with French. This lady  struggled over my name, like a foreigner would, saying it with a French lisp. I was confused. Those skills that helped me box people into countries, states, origins and culture, failed me here. I had no clue who I was talking to, a tourist, a local, a migrant.

Then I saw a man with pronounced African features. His origins? He has roots in India. Later on I came across someone I would call a typical European. Was she French? Mais non, she corrected me. Mauritian and proud to be so. Later during the trip, at a dance party in my hotel, two people with Oriental features were having a gala time. Ah, Chinese tourists, I thought. Mid-way, when the Mauritian singer Stephanie belted out a Creole song (Creole is the local language which is a version of French) the Chinese couple burst out singing. The elderly gentleman knew all the words. Once the party is over, I walked over, introduced myself. Pierre and his wife Fifi are Mauritian, too. And that is Mauritius. This exotic blend of Indian, European, African and Chinese roots, of folks who look like they belong elsewhere, but all of them bound to this tiny country that they call their forever home.

The Arabs had discovered this island first, but didn’t do much with it. The Dutch arrived on an uninhabited island in the 1500s, then the French followed, and by the 1800s, the British had won over this territory. Mauritius was a great place to refuel on the long journey across the ocean to the East, and everyone wanted to own it. Initially, Africans came over as slaves, and when slavery was abolished, the British ‘sourced’ cheap labour from all over the world. Freed African slaves from America, Chinese seeking better opportunities, and in the 1850s, during an economic depression in India just after the 1857 revolt, shiploads of Indians began arriving at these shores in search for a better life. They came here as indentured labour holding onto the promise of a brighter future, but many reports claim that life was no better than that of a slave. It is this mixed group of people who rose, and eventually fought for freedom. They formed the muscle, the foundation and the fabric of Mauritius.

Today, of a population of 12 lakhs (1.2 million), around 60 to 70 per cent are of Indian origin and just around 15000 are European (Franco Mauritians, Anglo Mauritians). Around 40 per cent follow Hinduism, and then there is Christianity, Islam and a small percentage of Buddhism. This eclectic potpourri is what defines Mauritius.

Bhavani blogs at http://merrytogoaround.com

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