(Ranjeet Panchalay, B.Com. from Bareilly University, U.P. India, is the author of ‘Underground Netaji Subaschandra Bose’ in Hindi. He has contributed nearly 300 articles in renowned Indian papers. He has come to Mauritius to attend the 11th World Hindi Conference and to collect materials to pen Pahlad Ramsurrun’s biography.) Mauritius, the Island state of Indian Ocean was occupied by the French from 1715 to 1810, the year when Britain took possession of it. But in spite of British rule and administration, the influence of French language and culture prevailed.
The property owned by the French remained in their hands. And to make the Mauritian land cultivable for the production of sugar canes, the British introduced workers from India from 1834 to 1923. Those Indians were identified as ‘Girmeetiyas’. These ‘Girmeetiyas’ (Indentured workers) had to bear innumerable hardships in ship-travels and on their arrival, they were compelled to lead a miserable life due to ill treatment of the white (French and British) masters on the sugar estates. However, although living under such trying situations, they were able to keep and preserve their language and culture. By the beginning of the twentieth century, through the introduction of the Arya Samaj Movement, an awakening was noted among the Indians and from then onwards they started dreaming of acquiring their freedom.
The short novel ‘Namaste’ written three years (in 1965) prior to the Independence of Mauritius, is the first novel, portraying and describing the lives of the Indians by a Francophone-Mauritian littérateur, Marcel Cabon. After its publication, the novel attracted the notice of dozens of Mauritian intellectuals and they wrote their comments on it, but in a few years (due to unknown reasons) its importance was lost in the mist of time. However, recently Pahlad Ramsurrun, the well-known Hindi enthusiast, has edited the Hindi version of ‘Namaste’ and it is published by the Hindi Book Centre of New Delhi, India. [ Under the supervision of the editor, the book has been translated by Dr Vidur Dilchand and Dr Brij Bhusan Paliwal]. It is prefaced by the famous Indian littérateur, Dr. Kamal Kishore Goinka, who has said among others; “The French writer, Marcel Cabon has lived in the beautiful and peaceful village of Vallée des Prêtres, and he has described the touching story of the folk life of the Indians. As such, ‘Namasté’ has not only enriched Mauritian but also Indian literature as well”. In his editorial, Pahlad Ramsurrun has stressed upon the fact that Marcel Cabon, has started the novel with a quote from the philosophical book, the ‘Satyartha Prakash’, the magnum opus of Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj Movement in 1875 in Bombay, India.
In the quote, it is said that during pregnancy, great care should be taken of the mother and the child. When the mother and the baby are bathed in warm water, and the house is properly cleaned, the ‘Homa’ rite should be performed. The father should utter in the ear of the baby – Your name is Veda. After that, the father with a golden pennib, dipped in ghee and honey writes ‘AUM’ on the tongue of the baby. The baby will lick the pennib soaked in ghee and honey for sometime, after which, the baby is handed to the mother. As far back as 1965, a writer of French expression wrote ‘Namasté’, when the country was still under colonial rule. The fact that, he, in the beginning of the book , cited the above quote from chapter three of Swami Dayanand’s magnum opus (Satyartha Prakash), is in itself unprecedented and extraordinary. It is beyond comprehension that such a strong element of Hinduism in Marcel Cabon’s novel ‘Namasté’ has remained uncommented (apart from Indradhanush’s special issue on Marcel Cabon in 2003) upon up so far because up till now, no Mauritian intellectual, either Indian or non-Indian, has deemed it fit to give any credentials to it.
The plot of ‘Namasté’ is very simple. It’s hero is Ram, who has come from Bras D’eau village to Vallée des Prêtres. He has inherited the property of his uncle Shiv, namely four acres of land situated in between the road and the hill, a cow, two goats, and the money buried under the ashes of the oven. He is a hard working and lettered young man. He becomes an example to the village people with his occupations. He turns his uncultivable plot into cultivable land by bringing the soil from the river-bank and filling the uneven holes. At first he is shunned by the village people. But due to his willingness to help others all the time, the young man wins the friendship of the villagers, specially when a cyclone strikes the country. Besides, Ram’s ideal daily salutation, ‘Namasté’, has greatly contributed to bridge the gap between him and the villages and bring closeness in their relationship. Moreover, with his innovative measures, Ram creates new avenues of familiarity among the village people. On witnessing the way he has made his pond, Kissoon, the villager, imitates him and digs a similar pond on his land. Ram also lights the lamp of education in his village, and in the surrounding villages. He teaches them the ‘Sandhiya’ (morning- evening prayer). He gets married to a beautiful young woman, named Oumawtee from Belle-Terre village. Everything changes in the life of Ram after his marriage.
The pricks and pranks, the deep love, the momentary anger and carefree behaviour of Ram and Oumawtee, increases the entertaining aspects of the novel for a very short time. But one day, a severe cyclone overwhelms the country and the village is nearly destroyed. There are torrential rains. All vegetables, fruits trees and comestible ingredients are destroyed. Huts are blown down, and animals get drowned or swept away. The cyclone takes everything from the life of Ram. His pregnant wife, Oumawtee, meets her death. His animals are dead or lost. This sudden calamity breaks Ram’s life into bits. Witnessing his irreparable loss, he, in a way, loses his mind. Before the calamity, he had dreamt of a guest (the baby on which he would perform the ‘Homa’ rite in the house. Now, his dreams are shattered after the untimely death of his beloved pregnant wife) and his life becomes miserable and unbearable.
On a fateful day and in his madness, he runs away with the infant of a young woman of the village. Intense searches are conducted by the village people. But Ram and the child are neither traced nor found. Several days later the child is found dead. The story takes a pathetic and bad turning. Quite later in the novel, the distracted Ram is seen in Long Mountain Village, serving as a helper to a milkman. His life is still unbalanced, and some time later, in this way, he meets his death and his remains are found beside the well of a broken -abandoned mill at Bois-Toinette in Long Mountain. It’s a pity that such an enterprising and daring man like Ram dies in such a piteous way, and this disappoints the reader in the end. The beginning of the novel is presented in an excellent way, but it seems that the end of the story is rendered rather weak by the author. But, in spite of this flaw, the gist of the novel is exceptional as it has been written by a non-Indian writer of French expression, who has lived, experienced and studied the life of the Indians, and he has described their thoughts, their culture and their history in the most perfect way.
Although Marcel Cabon was a Francophone writer of Malagassy origin, he has dared to portray faithfully the atrocities perpetrated by the whites on the Indian workers on the sugar estates. At one place he writes: “At the beginning of the indenture system in Mauritius, the life of the Indian-workers was disgraceful and full of suffering. It was hard to live in a foreign country where they had to cultivate sugar canes, and in reward, they were getting only a handful of rice. Besides, they had to bear hunger, thirst and cold. Ram had heard it from his grand-father that one of his friends had committed suicide by throwing himself in the mill-furnace, because the great master had given him a big kick”.(page 35) Marcel Cabon was a poet.
As such, his prose too has become poetic in the novel. Besides, the use of an abundance of similes and metaphors, and the beauty of the language, keep the readers’ interest till the end of the book. Because of its captivating subject matter, its apt expression, its flowing style, the novel ‘Namasté’ has become an invaluable gift which has enriched Mauritian literature in general.