Growing up in the forties and fifties
and my introduction to painful ethnic biases
— Paramanund Soobarah
If you read about the living conditions of Indo-Mauritians prior to, say, 1960, you will probably conclude that they had very harsh lives. But I did not myself feel it that way, at least when I was in Primary School. I was brought up in a large joint family, where the grandmother was the head of the household, lording it over her four sons and their wives and their children with a firm hand. I was perhaps a little privileged, being the eldest child of the eldest son. I had a great time playing with my numerous cousins and also, I must confess, enjoying not a little the right to instil some discipline among them – wasn’t I the eldest?
My grandfather, who died when I was about five (and on whose shoulders I learnt Bhojpuri, the version that is replete with terms of respect for others, and that I still practise today whenever I speak Bhojpuri), had left us with a largish plot of land on which the sons had their separate houses, and fruits trees so numerous and so diverse that even many of the richest people of today can’t afford (four large letchi trees, half a dozen longane trees, upwards of a dozen mango trees of different varieties, five of six jack-fruit trees, two large fruits de cythères trees, pomegranate plants, passion fruit creepers, both of large and small varieties, etc., etc. We children had a great time, of the sort that most of us can’t give to our children today.
We also had goats and cows – what did it matter if milk was nearly all sold to the neighbour who was a milkman (and “Chacha” to us children). The houses and the sheds were all covered with straw and that our mothers had to plaster the mud floors with a mixture of cow dung and red earth every other week or so, and to collect fodder for the cattle in the neighbouring fields for a good part of the day every single day? It did not occur to us that there was any hardship in going to school barefoot with vacoas bags containing our slates and food boxes with the staple fare of the time – manioc, sweet potatoes or maize; it was wartime, Japanese submarines were prowling in seas around us, so that rice and flour could not be imported.
All the children of the school (at Palma, in my case) were more or less in similar circumstances; there was no superior and no inferior, whether we were Hindus, Muslims, Chinese or Creoles. While at home we spoke our various languages (Bhojpuri in my case), at school we all spoke Creole, and were taught mostly in Creole. (I had a very successful academic education and career subsequently, and now realise that that was due to my having grown up as a bilingual child; it is an established fact that children who are bilingual in early life systematically outdo monolingual ones in later life.)
Race discrimination at RCC
This idyllic life came to an abrupt end in January 1947 when I joined the Royal College, Curepipe (RCC) to start secondary education in Form I. While officially all children were equal, in practice some were more equal than others. There were more whites than non-whites in the school; my class was the first in the school that had more non-whites than whites – perhaps because the English rector, Mr TB Barnes, was away on leave, and Mr André Glover was acting in his place.
Mr Barnes, who had come to the school as a teacher 1922, had been elevated to the position of Rector in 1929. Assisted by his ushers Steele and Hawkins, both colonial Englishmen like him, he practised a rigorous system of race discrimination in his administration. Part of schoolyard was set aside for white boys to play, and coloured children could not join them. Occasionally, there would be football matches between whites and non-whites, which the latter always systematically won. In class the white boys sat huddled together and never mixed with non-whites; they spoke French among themselves while the rest of us spoke Creole. Of course, if the need ever arose, we had to address them in French, which made some of us uneasy, because we could never rival them in fluency.
Surprisingly, there were many “non-whites”, who to us seemed as white as the official whites if not even whiter, and who also spoke French among themselves, but who were not part of the official whites. The sad part is that they would not mix with the darker Creoles, who spoke both French and Creole with equal ease. Then there were the rest of us, mainly Hindus and Muslims.
Academically, I can say without blushing that I did well; I was classed first at the end of my first term in Form I, and throughout my stay at the RCC, was always among the first five in my class. My father’s ambition was that I should join the Civil Service; he had made it clear to me that I could not go abroad for higher studies – there was no university in the country in those days. I met his wishes in full, and will speak no more about my studies. But I must add that rector Barnes was replaced by Dr Anthony Constant, a totally different Englishman. The proportion of white boys started decreasing, and by the time my brother, six years younger than myself, joined, there was not a single white boy in his class.
It was in Form I in 1947 that I started realising my exact social condition, and began to feel “poor”. I also realised that I and those like me were despised. I occasionally suffered the pangs of hunger; there were evident signs of malnutrition on my body, to the extent that the Rector wrote to my father about it. The plot of land my grandfather had left behind produced no income; my father and uncles had indifferent jobs with very low wages.
My father, who had won an islandwide competition and won a mechanical engineering scholarship to the Railway Workshop at Plaine Lauzun, and had become a very competent metal-worker, had been turned away at the end of his apprenticeship because he was not of the right religion. My uncles, qualified to start as Grade IV primary school teachers, were not admitted into the profession because they would not agree to convert. Because of their low wages, the milk that was produced by our cows had to be sold.
Battle for dignity
It was then that I started to feel like an underdog, and realised that even the adults shared those feelings. That was why all the talk at home among them was about politics. All my relatives were part of Pandit Bissoondoyal’s Jan Undolan movement, there would be regular meetings at home in our large yard of sympathisers of that and other similar movements – for instance, those of Pandits Ramnarain, Baboolall and others.
On one occasion, these activists together with my father tried, in protest against the scarcity of fodder, to lead a procession of cow owners with their cows from Palma to Réduit; but they were stopped by the Police at Louise with the help of the military hardware like tanks and machine guns of the unit of the King’s African Rifles stationed at Vacoas. The “ringleaders”, inclusive of my father, were later sentenced to pay heavy fines.
Fighting for subsistence was not enough. We were made to realise that a battle also had to be waged for dignity – man does not live by bread alone. We heard of Anquetil and Rozemont, and of the battle they were leading for the improvement of our material conditions. It was also explained to us that the battle of the Bissoondoyal brothers was more for securing our dignity and self-respect. Around this time we also heard of the name of a fiery young fighter named Beekrumsingh Ramlallah, who had set up an organisation called the Sewa Samittee for the upliftment of the Hindus. Somehow this organisation was taken over by the Jan Undolan and extended countrywide.
Other things also started happening – India became independent in August 1947 and we had the “tryst with destiny speech” and there were celebrations all around the country; and this gave a great fillip to our movements in our fight for dignity and self-respect. A few months later general elections were held on the basis of an extended suffrage, and our political leaders were all elected to the Legislative Council – Ramgoolam, Beejadhur and Vaghjee in the North, Bissoondoyal and Roy in the South, Balgobin in the East, Luckeenarain in Plaine Wilhems/Black River and Seeneevassen in Port Louis. The fight for dignity and justice and for the improvement of our material conditions had begun in earnest.
The print media also played their part; the Cernéen and to a large extent the Mauricien fought for haves, and Dr Ramgoolam’s Advance and Dr Millien’s L’Oeuvre for the have-nots. The four papers mentioned so far were all mainly in French. I must also mention the Zamana, one half in French and the other in Hindi, of the Undolan Movement, but it was not very widely circulated. Sadly also, the Zamana and Advance spent a good deal of their energies fighting each other.
Indo-Mauritians were becoming more and more literate, and rightly or wrongly seemed to prefer English to French, not only for reading but also for writing. Mr JN Roy, one of the great stalwarts of those days, for instance, invariably wrote in English. The need for a mainly English paper began to be keenly felt. It was then that Mr Beekrumsingh Ramlallah re-entered the public stage – at least as I saw it. I first heard about him in an “Opinion du jour” by Le Cernéen director Noël Marier d’Unienville (N.M.U.). He had received an offensive letter, he said, from an upstart named B. Ramlallah with a request for publication, and he had consigned it to the place it deserved, namely the “poubelle”. If anything was offensive, I thought, it was what he had done to the letter and the way he boasted about it. That was not the end of Ramlallah but the real beginning.
Later in that year Ramlallah appeared in person, like Beethoven in last movement of Fifth Symphony, and with a singly blow of bugle, blew the devil away. The bugle was the Mauritius Times paper. I never saw it myself; the year was 1954 and I was in my last year at school, and the family did not have much money for buying papers. But the unilateral kicking of the Hindu community came to an end. After, every blow received to our dignity was paid back with a more powerful blow. Mr N.M.U. and his paper have all disappeared into the dustbins of history, while the Mauritius Times is still there, like Johnny Walker, still going strong.
Early in 1955 I fulfilled my father’s dream and joined the Civil Service; he immediately, Indian-fashion, made arrangements for my wedding. In the Civil Service I was posted in the Medical Headquarters, where I came across Titan, aka as Kher Jagatsingh, a close collaborator of Shree Beekrumsingh Ramlallah. We became close friends and I also fell under his political influence, gaining a lot from his vast knowledge about the human condition, about Indian culture and about great fighters for the rights of the downtrodden.
I was a frequent visitor to the MT head office, where I had the great privilege of meeting the great man himself. I had begun to learn English (after realising that I had not learnt enough of the language in my eight years at the RCC) and I was impressed with Mr Ramlallah’s style of writing – short crisp sentences – which put his meaning across like so many hammer blows. It was on his desk that I first saw Roget’s Thesaurus, a book I had heard about but never seen before. I did acquire it some time later – it was my first acquisition of a book outside my school syllabus, and the beginning of a very long journey. Even so I have never been able to imitate Mr Ramlallah’s crisp sentences.
In 1956 I was transferred to the Department of Agriculture but still had the occasional opportunity of going to Port Louis for an occasional meeting with Kher. In 1960 I was transferred to the Civil Aviation department, where I came face to face with “Malbar pas oulé”, three years before the policy was actually enunciated by the Parti Mauricien. Furthermore, the airport was so dangerous that on several occasions, I found myself kneeling on the floor to thank God Almighty that an accident had not happened. That is another story but it explains why I could no longer afford to put time into social activities and take a more active in say, the activities of Mauritius Times. That remains a sorrow.