On my first day in Mauritius, my local guide, Mooniar, asked me a riddle as we were finishing lunch. “The British stir the sugar into their tea this way,” he said, stirring clockwise. “The French stir it this way,” he continued, going anti-clockwise. “But we Mauritians stir it this way,” he said, describing a zig-zag in his cup. “Why? No? Give up?” I conceded defeat. “To make it tasty!” beamed Mooniar, delighted by his own punchline.
It’s a good line to remember, and apt for the tiny Indian Ocean Island, 850 km off the coast of Madagascar, which has been stirred by the zigzag cross-currents of history so as to impart to it its unique savour. The visitor gets a taste of this special flavour after arrival at the Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam International Airport in Plaisance. Driving through the morning streets you see roadside kiosks selling an intriguing combination of baguettes and pakoras. The shop signs present an equally unusual cultural mélange: mostly French or English, with a sprinkling of Chinese interspersed with the Hindu symbol ‘Om’.
In the countryside, the vegetation is as variegated as the hoardings. The silk-smooth highway, comparable with roads in Western Europe, unspools through a gently rolling landscape cloaked with feathery sugarcane fields like the green wings of a giant bird outspread across the land. At times you feel you could be driving through Normandy, with cane plantations having replaced pastures. A bend in the road, and you are engulfed in lush tropical vegetation. A crest, and suddenly between two jagged volcanic peaks on the horizon, the Indian Ocean greets you with a wink of startling, aquamarine blue.
Set in the sea like a grain of the sugar which continues to be the mainstay of its economy, Mauritius has been like a tea cup in the stormy tides of change. The Dutch, who came in 1598, were the first settlers, naming Mauritius after Maurice of Nassau. They cut down the ebony forests, introduced sugarcane, brought in Malagasy slaves and drove the dodo into extinction. The Dutch abandoned the island in 1710, and were replaced by the French. Following the Napoleonic wars, the British took over Mauritius, abolished slavery and imported indentured Indian labour to work the cane plantations. Mauritius gained independence in 1968 and in 1979 embarked on an ambitious programme of industrial and commercial development.
Today Mauritius is a Republic and is set to prove its credentials as Africa’s first economic tiger. A lot of change to be crammed into so small an island, measuring only 1,865 sq km in area and with a population of little over a million. The compression of cross-cultural time and space holds many surprises for the visitor, who often feels that he is watching a cavalcade of tableaux from three continents parading past in the blink of an eye. This dance to the rhythm of time finds an apt expression in the Sega, the Mauritian version of folk disco.
The Sega traces its origins to the era of slavery, when plantation workers would gather in the evening to recreate in song and dance half-remembered memories of their lost African homeland. Today the Sega—an ebullient admixture of calypso, Moorish flamenco and Polynesian hula—is a tourist attraction. Sega bands perform in the five-star beach hotels, the Creole dancers in their swirling skirts coaxing guests to join in the hip-sprung, up-tempo beat. Few of the participating visitors realise that what they are celebrating is, in effect, a liberation from chains.
But for those willing to make the translation from tourist to traveller, there is another Mauritius beyond the glossy wrapping of a package holiday. In its own way, this other Mauritius is equally imbued with fantasy, a landscape of imaginary homelands revealed through random encounters which the visitor takes back in the form of vivid mental snapshots. The language of religion affords many ambiguities in Mauritius. Visiting Ganga Talav, to which thousands of Hindu devotees flock on the night of Mahashivaratri, I climbed the hill to the statue of Hanuman, presented by Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he had been India’s external affairs minister. A Mauritian family was offering prayers to the image. The Sangh Parivar’s visions of Akhand Bharat would have gained a new perspective to hear Hanuman being worshipped in chaste French.
On my last night in Mauritius I went to the bar of the Sand ‘N’ Dory to have a farewell beer with Mario, the Creole barman. Mario said he had wanted to marry a Hindu girl called Premila. Premila’s parents had objected, because he was a Creole, and had sent Premila to India, where she had never been before. Mario began to sing softly. He stopped and took a sip of beer. That was Premila’s favourite song, he said. She had taught him to sing it. But he couldn’t understand ‘Indian’.
Would I tell him what the song meant? He began to sing again, slowly, waiting for me to translate:
“Janay woh kaise, log thay jinke, Pyar ko pyar mila.
Humne toh jab kaliyan mangi, Kaanto ka haar mila.”
(Who knows who they were, whose love was returned with love./When I asked for flowers I got a garland of thorns.)
Stir it which way you like, Mauritius has an unforgettable flavour.