Books

Joining the dots, Mauritius style

PAILLES

The entrance to the Confluences
The entrance to the Confluences 2014

A book festival in Mauritius. The mind immediately strays to tropical seas, balmy beaches, a hammock, a pina colada and a book! While that may be as close to heaven as possible, The International Confluences Book Fair, in its second edition this year, turned out to be far more ambitious affair.

This festival, held at the Swami Vivekananda auditorium in Pailles, a town south east of capital Port Louis, is part of the Mauritian Prime Minister Minister Navin Ramgoolam’s initiative on important cultural projects for the nation.

Ramgoolam, inaugurating the four day festival, said, “Confluences 2014 provides book lovers with a forum to create cultural encounters while bringing together writers from different countries in Mauritius”. He hoped that the festival would be a forum to create cultural encounters while bringing together writers from different countries in Mauritius. He also expressed hope about exchanges of ideas – Mauritians coming up close to and meeting international authors and vice versa.

Lots of books were on offer at Confluences
Lots of books were on offer at Confluences

The nation, at a crossroads of not just history but also geography as it sits on the edge of Africa, and among a number of regional Francophone nations, is also increasingly looking east at the Indian Ocean region, not the least of which is India. An estimated half to three quarters of the population is of Indian descent, and the Indian idiom – whether temples or cuisine or customs or even Bollywood, is omnipresent. That the country also leads African nations in most socio-economic parameters indicates the nation also wants a lead culturally, make its voice heard on global fora.

The book fair fits in well, aiming to set up a regional platform to diffuse global literature, to contribute to the growth of publications by Mauritian and regional authors, to facilitate exchange between regional and international publishers. Indeed this fair is the biggest fair of its kind in the region, drawing participants from far flung continents and the neighbouring region – South Africa, Madagascar, Reunion, Maurice, Comoros, Rodrigues – to interact in multiple languages.

That there is a great mix of cultures is evident everywhere. “Mauritius is a land of confluences,” stressed Géraldine Hennequin-Joulia, Festival Curator, explaining that people here have roots in different parts of the world. “The first edition was more of a trial, and had less activities,” she said. “We did not know how many people would attend!”

The tree at Make A Wish Foundation was popular
The tree at Make A Wish Foundation was popular

Well this edition is teeming with schoolchildren crowding colourful stalls. “An aim was to connect young schoolchildren to books,” stressed Hennequin-Joulia. Schoolchildren had fun too, often running into each other, giving the occasional adult a bump as well, but it was all in good humour as stall owners peddled their wares. And it’s not just novels that were selling, though they are by far the main attraction – there’s also beautiful notebooks, art work, fancy stationery – including tiny reading lamps, colourful paper crafts, cook books, travel guides, even curios, a tree from Make A Wish Foundation… Some authors had to stand long hours as the promise of a signed copy was lucrative to many buyers. One suspected the authors were quite happy with the brisk sales, and more chairs and sofas could have kept them there longer! They all framed the stage in the middle where authors held forth in their sessions.

South African ANC leader and poet Wally Serote provided gravitas to the festival.
South African ANC leader and poet Wally Serote provided gravitas to the festival.

Many prominent authors made their presence felt. South African ANC leader Wally Serote voiced his concerns on the future of Africa. “We must try not to be capitalist, we have seen what consumerism can do.” Anandi Devi, a Mauritian author based in Paris, spoke of the richness and complexity of urban life. Other well known attendees included Alain Gordon-Gentil, Marie-Thérèse Humbert, Kangni Alem, Edwy Plenel and Ségolène Royal.

The festival saw nearly two dozen seminars in French and English, drew nearly 60 authors, from both the region, besides many from Africa, Europe and Asia.
Getting to the venue wasn’t the easiest Cabs did not frequent the venue, and getting one meant sharing in the spirit of commonly shared situations. Finally, people discovered a bus from Victoria Station, a main bus terminus at Port Louis, which ferried people for free!

Is it English or French?

Author Stephen, equally at home in French and English, provided a humourous look to the dfference between the two languages
Author Stephen Clarke, equally at home in French and English, provided a humorous look to the difference between the two languages

That the English and the French have not been friends historically would be an understatement of global history. Their current more pacific equations are more due to European compulsions and they are in constant threat of rupture. For an Anglophone person, arguably the most challenging nation linguistically in western Europe is France, and traditionally the French have upheld their cultural ‘superiority’ to cock a snook at island where language was more for ‘commerce’. What happens when they have to coexist?

Mauritius, where they do, is a rare place indeed. Sunkissed and tropical, and unlike the two mother nations, it was a British colony, and its official language is English. Yet the language of conversation is French, or something approximating very closely to it indeed, with a sprinkling of Creole and Bhojpuri mixed in for the French ruled earlier, and lots of indentured labour came from India and Africa. Most inhabitants are at least bilingual, having studied both languages since childhood. And yet the literatures of the two languages are near strangers to each other, a gap Confluence hopes to bridge.

Authors had their own ways of approaching the issue though! Author and diplomat Amal Sewtohul said French literature is seen as intellectual and affected, an image it would do well to leave behind. Author Kunal Basu said the world needed to get over its Franco-Anglo philia and discover a much wider world! Author Stephen Clarke, an Englishman settled in Paris and equally at home on both sides of the channel, admitted that French as a language was losing ground in current times. “Young people in Paris speak French, the most popular restaurant is Burger King,” he says. “French is an unchanging, old fashioned language with distinct anchors in elite culture,” says the author of 1,000 Years of Annoying the French.

A session in progress
A session in progress at the festival

More changes are afoot in the island nation as many young Mauritians seek a future elsewhere. Sewtohul said the country itself was changing as many Mauritians immigrated away, and wondered what would be left behind. He also stressed that he saw Mauritians as ‘tropical’ people, to be compared with Creole cultures elsewhere.

58 exhibitors, which included publishing houses, book shops and museums, also participated. The UNESCO listed Apravasi Ghat had a stall, as did the National Library. Children were a big target, with special photography exhibitions, workshops and public readings for them being a big part of the festival. A vast majority of the sessions were in French, the local lingua franca, though there were a few sessions in English as well.

India on the horizon

There were a few Indian stalls too
There were a few Indian stalls too

That India is a significant part of how Mauritian establishment sees its future is also indicated by the number of Indian authors at the festival, which included Kunal Basu, Amruta Patil, Anuradha Roy and Chinmoy Guha. India is also involved in two other projects – a film festival later this year and the restoration of the oldest building in the capital, which will be transformed into a national gallery for the country.

“India has a great role to play in Mauritius,” says Savita Boodhoo, Chairperson Bhojpuri Speaking Union, pointing to the number of heritage projects that are being taken to preserve the country’s traditions, many of which have roots in India. She mentioned the long struggle Mauritians of Indian descent had to wage to get equal rights in Mauritius, and said India needed to play a significant role in the country. She mentioned important visits by Indian leaders to Mauritius. Gandhi in 1901, when he encouraged Indians to educate their children and join politics. Indira Gandhi came in 1970 and called it ‘Chhota Bharat’, a ‘great little country’.

Guha, a professor of literature in Kolkata University and an expert of the French language, pointed to the high standards of literature and culture flourishing in Mauritius, which he said could be a gateway for many Indians into the vast world of French literature.

India, which also had both the English and the French ruling and left massive impact on its society, though not in equal measure, may be able to have a more meaningful dialogue with Mauritius, whose Indian communities have eked out a fairly peaceful and occasionally prosperous coexistence post colonial times.

SUMAN TARAFDAR

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