A few months ago, as I embarked on a plane to Port Louis, more than 3,000 miles away from Indian shores, I thought I would be “away” for the next one week. But within a day of landing there I realised that when in Mauritius, one can never quite leave India behind.
After a ceremonial welcome with sandalwood tilak and orchid flowers by our tour guide at the airport, I headed to the hotel in a sedan, looking out at sugarcane fields as far as my eyes could see. I also noticed small temple-like structures in the compound of many houses, or the odd bust of Ganesha at the entrance.
As if on cue, our guide for the trip, Anerood Koomar, said, “Two years ago, when your prime minister (Narendra Modi) visited Mauritius, he called it Chhota Bharat (Little India). Your earlier Prime Minister, that graceful lady (Indira Gandhi), also called it Little India during her visit in the 1970s.” I soaked in the trivia. As he dropped us off to our hotel, Koomar said, “If you want to know where it all started, wait till tomorrow morning.”
The next morning, he was there at 9 am sharp, dressed in a dhoti-kurta, and, carrying some Banarasi paan for us to start the journey on a sweet note. We figured it was going to be an India-special day.
Koomar (he would have been Anirudh Kumar if his forefathers had remained in Bihar’s Chhapra) took us to the Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis, the iconic immigration depot building complex, for us to understand the umbilical link that Mauritius shares with India.
The signages on the grey stone walls of this Unesco-designated World Heritage Site held out clues to the story. In 1834, the British selected Mauritius to be the first site for what it called “the great experiment” in the use of “free” labour to replace slaves. Between 1834 and 1920, almost half a million indentured labourers arrived from India at the depot to work in the sugar plantations of Mauritius. Alternatively, they could also be transferred to Reunion Island in Australia, southern and eastern Africa or the Caribbean. The labourers who migrated here at the time came, mostly, from states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha.
It reminded me of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, where a ship called The Ibis brings Bihari bonded labourers to Mauritius. But Koomar disrupted my reverie and instructed me to follow him instead, down a narrow stone staircase leading to an open, stone platform overlooking the sea. He told us how this was the point from where the Indians — his ancestors — stepped onto this land for the first time. As I looked back at the wall adjoining the staircase, there were portraits of 12 Indians who were aboard that first ship to hit Mauritian shores from India.
As I headed back upstairs towards the barracks, I felt like I was retracing some great historical journey. The words I had just read on a signage below flashed before my eyes: “When immigrants arrived in Mauritius, they climbed up these steps to start a new life in the colony”. The steps represented the arrival of 4,62,000 people between 1830s and 1920s.
At present, less than half of the depot area as it existed at the time, survives. However, original structural components still stand. These include the remains of the sheds for the housing of the immigrants, kitchens, lavatories, a building used as a hospital block and the symbolical flight of 14 steps which every immigrant had to walk up before entering the immigration depot.
“The Indo-Mauritius people constitute 70 per cent of the population today. Out of this, more than 30 per cent are from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, with Bhojpuri as their mother tongue. All Mauritian prime ministers so far, barring two, have been from Bihar,” said Koomar with practised ease. In 2006, the Aapravasi Ghat was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site for the indelible mark it has left on the history, culture and society of Mauritius. The 1,640 sq m site is now owned by the Ministry of Arts and Culture, and protected as a national heritage.
When one exits the Aapravasi Ghat and leaves Mauritius, it is inevitable to wonder if a trip to this small island nation is just a reminder of the spirit and resilience of India.