Out of the cultural melting pot

Touria Prayag

Diverse cultures from five continents are represented in these remote and small islands, and their interplay creates unique effects.

A ‘rainbow nation’ is how Mauritians like to think of themselves – and the medley of races, religions and ethnic groups is truly striking. The linguistic diversity adds anoth­er dimension to an already complex culture. While the unwary foreigner may find it hard to understand the intricacies of this culture, the Mauritian learns instinctively how to cope. That is part of his or her identity.

Between the moment a Mauritian baby is born until that baby is placed in its hospital cot, it has had time to cross the five conti­nents. When she (let’s assume she is girl) opens her eyes, and sees the nurses, the doctors and the patients, the newborn has a foretaste of how diverse the world’s (and Mauritius’s) population is. As she learns to utter her first words, relationship titles come spontaneously. She knows who to call Mon­sieur (‘Sir’ in French), Bhayya (‘Big broth­er’ in Hindi), Chacha (‘Uncle’ in Hindi) or ‘Uncle’. She knows who she would offend with the name Tantine (‘Aunt’ in Creole) and who would accept it endearingly.

She intuitively learns what language to speak to whom. To some she will use Cre­ole, to some French and to some Hindi or English. By the time she begins to socialise, she has mastered the art of greeting – which hands to shake, which cheeks to kiss and what body language to use from a distance. When she starts entertaining guests, she has no problem dealing with religious dietary restrictions. And best of all, she knows which colleague has a good kalia (a Mau­ritian dish) recipe and which one will show her how to make a mean ti-puri (a Mauri­tian type of bread) or a sumptuous mee foon (a Chinese dish made of eggs and prawns).

This is a lot of knowledge, a lot of culture and a tremendous start in life. It is a leg up over so many children who are not fortunate enough to have been born in such diversity.

At the same time, she will also grow up in relative insularity, unthreatened by any­one. Having no foes from outside, she can become highly competitive with her peers. Equally her sense of self-preservation can prevent her from opening up to others. An­other temptation in Mauritius is to be more interested in making a show of religion than in grasping the principles behind it, and the practice of religion is likely to be centred on rituals rather than the essence of it.

A Mauritian’s sense of family values is strong but so is her sense of belonging to her community. She sees herself first as a member of a community and then as a Mauritian. The fact that discrimination can outweigh tolerance of others may indeed be considered a shortcoming, and yet the level of tolerance achieved here is often higher than many countries have managed.

Given the multidimensionality of the identity matrix, what makes the Mauritian factor so unique is the way a Mauritian juggles her identities without a hitch, with­out any contradiction. She does not fit one mould. She belongs to her community first, but that does not decrease her love for and loyalty to her country or the pride she feels in belonging to it. Don’t ask her to choose. She is happy the way things are. The Mau­ritian way.

About the author:

Touria Prayag is Editor of L'express Weekly


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