I’ll start by some shameless name-dropping. The President and First lady of Mauritius Sir and Lady Jugnauth waited for me to get out of my make-up after the first night; somehow I don’t think they do this too often. They wanted to ask me the question; how did I know Mauritius so well? How did I know it well enough to write about the complexity of the ethnic divides which bubble under the surface largely unspoken and unacknowledged. Certain Characters in Curry Tales seemed to reflect the schisms that appear within apparent racial harmony and through metaphor expressed that, which they dare not address, the thorny issue of identity.
And the honest answer to that was I didn’t know. All I tried to do when I wrote Curry Tales was to try and make sense of my own diverse background, that writing about my own “otherness” ironically aligns me with similar lives and communities. A kind of cultural passport.
Talking of passports, it started at the airport; a very smart-looking immigration official beckons me in Creole, seeing my blank look he tries again in English. I’m in the wrong queue he says. I should not be in the visitors queue because Mauritians don’t have to queue. Even before I wave my passport or open my mouth to speak, I am taken for a Mauritian. I have started to confound people. More was to come.
The best thing about a British Council tour is the range of activities that are organised to go with the artistic package and this is when I had the greatest insight into the real Mauritius and why my work was to have powerful resonances here. Usually the add-ons like workshops/talks have little or no bearing on the main event. In this case, one added to the other or was a comment on the other.
The workshops; drama workshops that took me back to my South East Asian roots, cultural and racial harmony comes with self-consciousness and the need to hide our true selves. Living in Britain I had forgotten that, the masks that are necessary to assuage old hurts and painful history. Language was the main manifestation of this. English, even French stifled their tongues, subdued their spirit and western theatre stiffened their limbs. My carefully prepared workshop had to be abandoned. After half an hour of trying to fake it, I said, do it in Creole. And then they let rip…they were not doing it for me, the school teacher/censor/authority figure in charge but they were doing it for themselves. 95% Mauritians spoke Creole. A language that evolved out of necessity but also out of the need for African slaves, Indian coolies and their French colonial masters to find a common language. Today Creole has no real written form, there is a great debate whether to give it grammatical structure and have a formalised written form rather than a phonetic one. Creole therefore has no official status but people only really communicate when they speak Creole. Younger Mauritians are now choosing to only learn French which sits uncomfortably with the older generation. They are also learning what they refer to as Oriental languages like Telugu and Tamil and Chinese. Why I wonder? It seems to be about a very feeble attempt to keep a sense of themselves of their ancestry even though the languages are hardly going to be useful on a practical level. And after several generations of life in Mauritius, surely this is more a political decision to assert one’s identity rather than a real need to communicate. Without doubt language is an emotive issue.
It came up again in the creative writing workshops. They wrote in English and even when expressing intimate feelings, it was in the most stilted style. After several attempts I said again, write in Creole. They could not express themselves on paper in Creole. A language that is a living thriving entity in their everyday lives becomes diminished and self-consciously mannered in written form. It all reminded me of my early writing in Manglish (Malaysian) and Singlish (Singapore English), self-conscious at first but in time, I was able to communicate truth and complex ideas in it. I performed the Mrs Wong character in Curry Tales. Have I given these writers a glimmer of hope, confidence perhaps?
The BC in Mauritius do a whole range of great outreach programmes, and talks for specific groups were very popular. Mine was to mainly women activists, 30-50 were expected, there were close to 100 people, men and young people included. I thought I would share with them a very personal account of my diverse background growing up in a Sri Lankan Tamil community in Malaysia, then educated in Singapore and now living in Britain. I entitled the talk “Who do you think you are?” and I wanted to share my idea of what I call “Fluid identity”, that is, the way in which my unique cultural DNA enables me to embrace and appropriate identities through my writing and my work in ways that are different and unexpected. That my diversity is liberating, not stifling. Little did I know that my story would create such an outpouring of heartfelt anecdotes? Had touched a very raw nerve. A local playwright did an impromptu performance of one of his Creole plays, got everyone to sing a sega (named after Mauritian dance rhythm) song as if to say ”we know who we are” It went on for hours, heated discussion, confessions, outspoken views about ethnic rifts.
In a land where every skin colour is represented, there are also distinct divisions loosely based on who came here first, all the issues that have touched and continue to touch my life of caste, colour, creed and politics on racial grounds are all here and I knew Curry Tales will be more than an entertaining distraction for the friends of the British Council, which from my past experiences are the only people that sometimes make up the audience. Not in Mauritius. I salute the British Council for facilitating a unique experience all round.
The most powerful case for the importance of international touring is when a work conceived and nurtured in Britain finds audiences who not only respond to the work as art but to also make powerful connections that seem to transcend one national culture meeting another. On the most superficial level, Curry Tales in Mauritius or South Africa or USA should appeal on an entertainment level at best to connoisseurs of South Asian culture, perhaps even British Asian culture with an audience largely made up of the South Asian Diaspora. At worst it might be the only South Asian connection the audience has, a love of curry (but not too spicy). In fact what Curry Tales achieves is what Peter Brook calls “the culture of links”. This is the unique way in which this kind of theatre can discover connections between people and cultures that have been submerged or hidden or lost. So in Curry Tales when Rosemary from Trinidad, talks about her ancestry of slaves and coolies, there was a frisson in the audience where early unions between Africans and Tamils is a chapter of history that I was told in the writing workshops too painful to remember much less write about. Mauritian society has a very defined racial sub-grouping where people of South Asian descents are divided into Indians, Hindus and Tamils. There was a palpable silence when Mrs Wong refers to the race riots and racial tension in Malaysian society.
Performing Curry tales, I was momentarily one of them. I was embodying the notion of fluid identities. They cheered me on. I was not an outsider.