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A nation where women in salwar kameezes and mangalsutras only speak French, what you didn’t know about Mauritius and its people could amaze you.
Mauritius is a funny country. Not because there are stand-up comics by the dozen, but because 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. It feels like you haven’t flown across the ocean at all. Imagine walking past a woman on the road. This ‘auntyji’ looks like your neighbour, is wearing a salwar kameez (or maybe a sari), sports a bindi, a mangalsutra and yes, even the streak of sindoor on the parting of her hair. From the looks of it, 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.
You could get used to the French, but her English is accented, and not with Bhojpuri or any Indian language but with French. This auntyji struggled over my name, like a foreigner would, saying it with a French lisp that is out of keeping with her image. I was confused. It felt like my brain was mixing up all the signals of recognition that it had acquired over time. Those skills that helped me box people into countries, states, origins and culture. That skill which was always on high alert in a foreign country was now useless. I had no clue whom I was talking to, a tourist, a local, a migrant?
It felt like my brain was mixing up all the signals of recognition that it had acquired over time. Those skills that helped me box people into countries, states, origins and culture. That skill which was always on high alert in a foreign country was now useless. I had no clue whom I was talking to, a tourist, a local, a migrant?
Two men in the market – we could be anywhere in India!
Then I saw a man with pronounced African features. You know the higher cheek bones, taut glowing dark skin, and thick lips. His origins? He traces it back to India. His mother’s side has connections to India and his father’s side from Africa. Later on I came across what I would call a typical European. Are you French? Brit? I asked. “Mais non,” she corrected me. Mauritian and proud to be so. During the trip, at a dance party in my hotel, two people with Chinese features were having a gala time. I thought, “Ah Chinese tourists. They are after all the world’s largest community of tourists.” Mid-way, when the Mauritian singer Stephanie belted out a Creole song (Creole is the local language, which is a mix of French, Afrikaans and other influences) 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. Wow! And they were surprised that I was not. They claim they hardly know Haka, their mother tongue and one of the languages of China. They speak in Creole at home. Their children don’t speak it at all, they shake their head regretfully.
I met Fifi the next morning at breakfast. We both look like we haven’t slept enough, and we hadn’t.
And that is Mauritius. This exotic blend of Indian, European, African and Chinese — all of whom look like they belong elsewhere, but all of them speaking French, Creole, and bound by this tiny country they call their permanent home. As Laurent, a European looking gentleman and the manager at Maradiva Hotel, replied to my question of whether he was French, “No, I am 100% Mauritian. I have French, Indian and African blood, the only one I don’t have is Chinese. I am truly from here.”
The Arabs 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 and Chinese immigrants sought 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 labourers 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, out of a population of 12 lakhs (1.2 million), around 60%-70% are of Indian origin and only around 15,000 are European (Franco Mauritians, Anglo Mauritians). Around 40% follow Hinduism, and then there is Christianity, Islam and a small percentage of Buddhism. It is a true mix, of culture, religion and ethnicity, and one that every local is proud of. This eclectic potpourri is what defines Mauritius. Everything seems like this perfectly well-tuned mix, with no sore thumbs sticking out, but is it truly picture perfect? Maybe that’s material for another conversation!
Natacha Mudho with roots that go right to Bihar, India.
I must say, never have I seen a prouder race in my limited travels. They all call themselves Mauritian, and refuse to belong to any other country. That is most unlike us Indians who seem most happy to abdicate our country the minute we can find a way out.
All this talk about intermingling races and mixed ethnicity got me thinking about my ancestors. Humans have always migrated, in search of water, food, better resources, a different life. Many centuries ago the Aryans came to India, and the Dravidians, the so-called native population of this area, were pushed further to the South. Some say, all the Dravidians went to Sri Lanka, others say, South Indian are Dravidians. But reports, the ones which I believe, say racial mixing did take place, and by that logic, I am a mix of Aryan and Dravidian blood, although anyone looking at my features, colour and curly hair would say I have more Dravidian blood. That is just one bit of the mixed pie. Later we had the Mughals who came by and they churned it around a bit too. Racial mixing took place right here in my own country, so it isn’t anything unique or new.
The difference lies in the fact that I cannot trace my ancestors to a few generations and say that one came from Persia, and that one from X, or Y or Z.
The difference lies in the fact that I cannot trace my ancestors to a few generations and say that one came from Persia, and that one from X, or Y or Z. It is just too far back in the past. What makes Mauritius interesting is the recency of this intermingling, where everyone can trace their origins back to another country, another culture, and it’s just a few generations earlier. Therein lies my fascination with the people and culture of the country. It’s a live feed, you could say!
What makes Mauritius interesting is the recency of this intermingling, where everyone can trace their origins back to another country, another culture, and it’s just a few generations earlier. Therein lies my fascination with the people and culture of the country. It’s a live feed, you could say!
Adding to this is the fact that wherever you are from in the world, you almost never stand out like a tourist in Mauritius. You could be Mauritian, because that is the wide diaspora present there… I, for one, blended right in, and everyone spoke to me in French, and was surprised when I said I wasn’t Mauritian. My persistent refrain? Je ne sais pas le Français… parle en Anglais, sil vous plait! (I don’t know French, speak in English please!)
At the roadside pineapple stall, the vendor tunes his radio to a music station playing old Hindi Cinema songs as our group from India stands around, eats pineapple and chats in Hindi.
Cover Image via Shutterstock
bhavani is an independent fiction and non-fiction writer.
She has crafted over 20 heritage
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