Discovering Mauritius

Radjin Thakoerdin
[ 5 november 2023 ]

Beach with filao trees.

Around me, I often heard from family and friends that they had been to Mauritius on holiday. It didn’t do much for me. ‘What am I going to do there on a small island. I’ll be bored within two days,’ I thought. Yes, Mauritius is a small island in the Indian Ocean, slightly larger than the province of Utrecht, about a 12-hour flight from the Netherlands. Then I’d rather go to India, Thailand or Malaysia. In 2000, Rabin Baldewsingh had written a travel report on Mauritius in the first issue of the bi-monthly magazine Hindorama that I edited. A few things from that had stuck with me. As a lover of Sarnámi (the Surinamese language related to Bhojpuri), he went to Mauritius full of enthusiasm, expecting to find a lively Bhojpuri-speaking community there. In this he was disappointed. Furthermore, the island had just been hit by a cyclone and made a rather desolate impression. Moreover, I had once heard from a relative, “Huá kuch na bá, kháli bajár gaili.” (There is nothing there, I just went to the market).

Ganga Talao

So it remained for years that I had no interest in going to Mauritius, until in 2022 Vinod Busjeet brought his book Silent Winds, Dry Seas to my attention. Born and raised in Mauritius and living in the US, he had written a novel largely set in Mauritius in the 1950s to early 1970s. Through our mutual friend Raj Mohan, he had heard about me and the website Hindorama. He wondered if I would give attention to his book, as he believed the story would trigger a sense of recognition among many Indians in the diaspora. I thought that was a good idea. Then I was introduced to the idea of a Dutch translation by writer and poet Walter Palm, who had written a review of the novel. After some consideration, I thought, ‘Why not.’ Especially in view of the 150th anniversary of Hindustani immigration to Suriname and the focus on the slavery and wider colonial past. There, more familiarity with other multiracial societies as a result of western colonial policies fitted in well (Mauritius was colonised successively by the Netherlands, France and England). Moreover, due to its white beaches, clear blue sea, unique flora and fauna as well as pleasant temperatures throughout the year, Mauritius is a paradise holiday destination for the Dutch born. Of course, knowing more about the background of such a country and its people is never a bad thing.

Multicoloured earth in Chamarel.

I came across recognisable characters and events in the book and it was clear to me that I would want to get to know the country up close. This summer, I spent two weeks there with my wife and son. It was winter in Mauritius, with a temperature of around 25 degrees, which was exquisite for me. It was not hurricane season and I met many people with whom I could talk Bhojpuri. Many found it immensely gratifying to be able to do so with a ‘foreigner’. History is treasured with the Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis, where Indian indentured labourers first set foot, as they disembarked from their ships. A UNESCO World Heritage site, as is Le Morne Brabant in the south where you can feel the harsh fate of the enslaved. Grand Bassin or Ganga Talao looks like a piece of India. The multi-coloured earth in Black River and Chamarel is a piece of national pride and symbolises, as it were, the connection and love of all ethnic groups to the Mauritian soil. And then there is the internationally renowned SSR botanical garden, named after Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the political leader who led the country to independence in 1968 and was its first prime minister (the airport and several other institutions are also named after him). In this garden, there is a huge variety of indigenous tropical plants. With a friend of Vinod Busjeet, we visited a number of places described in the book with funny names like Madame Lolo and Trois Boutiques. But also bigger places like Mahébourg, Curepipe and Quatres Bornes.

Procession on the road causes traffic jams.
Farata can be bought anywhere in Mauritius.

In the 1950s/60s in which most of the story of Silent Winds, Dry Seas is set, there were few cars; now the sometimes narrow roads are packed and you can hardly get ahead. And especially not when orthodox followers of Shiva hold a procession, pulling a huge statue of their deity on a cart. And to the annoyance of many, this no longer happens once or twice a year, but weekly in some parts of the island, supported by local politicians looking to secure re-election. People also talk a lot about corrupt politicians. And about pandits (some call them bandits) who fool believers and only go for the money. When setting a date for a wedding, the horoscopes are supposedly consulted; in reality, the date is chosen based on maximizing the pandit’s schedule. Worse is the story of a pandit who owns a chain of hardware shops and who keeps telling believers that he needs stuff for ceremonies that can only be bought there. After the ceremony, he takes the items back for sale in his shops. According to some, more and more Hindus are switching to Christianity.

Sugar cane fields
Museum at Beau Plan Sugar Estate.

Gujarati-Tamil Wedding.

We got to witness a Hindu wedding of a Gujrati-Tamil couple. From 10am-12pm on a Friday morning (which was the time that probably emerged as most appropriate from the horoscope). It was very similar to wedding as we know them, but much shorter (two hours was basically already long). Remarkably, the pandits did the rituals in Sanskrit and Hindi and then addressed the couple and attendees in Creole (the French-based common language in Mauritius, in addition to the official languages of French and English). Lunch was served on artificial banana leaves.

Eating on banana leaves is a nostalgic thing for Mauritians. If at all possible, they do it. The many sugar cane fields still intact throughout the country, also give a strong sense of connection to the past. How long this will continue is the question. We heard from several people that, if it is up to the government, the entire country will be built up to accommodate tourists and expats. An offshore banking sector has developed where many South Africans work. It also seems that many white South Africans are now settling in Mauritius because they no longer feel safe in South Africa. We heard that, with the white Franco-Mauritian population, they own the most beautiful places on the island.

SSR Botanical Garden

Tamil temple
Conversation in Bhojpuri

There was plenty to do and experience, and certainly not just the market! By the way, the bazaars in Port Louis and Grand Baie were definitely worth a visit. So were the beaches of Grand Baie, Mont Choisy, Perybere and Trou aux Biche and, last but not least, the many places to eat. My son quickly discovered the best restaurants in Grand Baie, where we stayed, and we enjoyed delicious seafood, curry, Creole and Chinese cuisine. And we could watch a fisherman on a moped deliver his just-caught tuna to the seafood joint where we were sitting (in a converted garage, it seemed). From Indian cuisine, we had dal puri and farata (types of roti), the street food dishes for which people queue in long lines. Also tasty and recognisable were the gateaux piments (chilli cakes), basically just our phlauri. It was funny to see that these are also made in the shape of our baras.

Gateaux piments (chilli cakes)
Delivering tuna to a restaurant.

Le Morne Brabant
Trip to another island of Mauritius.

Whereas Mauritius didn’t interest me before, I am thinking of going back to immerse myself even more in life there. The people are hospitable and I made new friendships there. I couldn’t avoid making comparisons with Suriname all the time. They are two very different countries, but with a similar colonial history that led to a multi-ethnic society. To Mauritius, the largest group of Indian indentured labourers was shipped at the time (about half a million). These came from different parts of India. Of the now more than a million inhabitants, their descendants make up almost two-thirds, including many South Indians. Creoles (descendants of enslaved people from Mozambique and Madagascar in particular) make up about a quarter of the population and the rest is made up of Chinese and descendants of French settlers.

The novel Silent Winds, Dry Seas is not only the story of the main character growing up in Mauritius, but also the story of the country, its strugle for independence, and corruption and nepotism in post-independence Mauritius. Sounds that still resonate, but so far Mauritius is counted as one of the most successful countries of the Global South. The book launch on 9 November in Amsterdam will feature more on the history of the country and its people and anecdotes showing similarities and differences with Suriname.

Photos: Radjin Thakoerdin