The death of a beloved grandparent is often accompanied by a sense of intense loss. We grieve the passing of an era, the connections, the laughs, the memories. One loss that I had not anticipated mourning for though was the loss of language. Daadi’s demise brought home the realisation that, with her gone, my connection to Mauritian Bhojpuri was finally snapping.

This article is a reflection on what caused my severance with the language that I grew up with: a syncretic, locally-birthed language tied to plantation and rural communities and shared across the boundaries of ethnicity, religion and caste. Over the years, it has been arrogated by a growing Hindu nationalist rhetoric, which has taken the language further and further away from the community that actually spoke it.

Mauritian Bhojpuri is called “kalkatiya boli” in that very language, referring to the language of the Indian migrant who would have boarded the ship for Mauritius from Calcutta.

It is different from its subcontinental varieties spoken in parts of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal, where the dialects vary within themselves too, as well as the Bhojpuri spoken in South Africa, Guyana, Fiji and Trinidad and Tobago – those other former European colonies that were populated by Indian indentured laborers, who transported Bhojpuri overseas and are responsible for the introduction of the language in the local linguistic ecosystems where they got creolised, and took on different lives.

Like its Bihari ancestor, whose association with a relatively economically impoverished state and primarily working-class speakers has meant that it has consistently suffered the stigma of class, Mauritian Bhojpuri too has primarily been relegated to the realms of the rural and uneducated.

To date, Bhojpuri is not considered a bona fide Indian language, but often referred to as a “dialect” (it is not one of India’s 22 “scheduled languages”) – and this, despite over five million people listing Bhojpuri as their mother-tongue, the thriving cultural industry of films, music and writing that subsists on it, and the existence of literary texts that were written as far back as the fifteenth century.

Mauritian Bhojpuri faces the same prejudice, both as a lingering vestige of its origins, and for reasons that are anchored in local dynamics. There are contentions around the lack of standardisation in the language, which solidified the perception of Bhojpuri as primarily an oral, and therefore non-powerful, language. There is also its association with low-income communities and its situatedness in the rural settings.

A painting depicting Indians of Trinidad and Tobago origin on an estate. Credit: Gutenberg text via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, the rootedness of the language in agricultural, rural settings is indeed reflected in its very construction. Mauritian Bhojpuri expressions are redolent with images of sheer physical work, fields, and grittiness. Consider these two expressions, for example:

1. Jahan sui nai jaala, huaan sooa jala (Where the needle does not go, there the awl goes).

2. Baithal baniya kaa kari, hiyaan ke dhaan huaan, huaan ke dhaan hiyaan (What will an idle merchant do? He will move grains from here to there, and from there to here).

The first expression points to the centrality of manual work and labour in the world of Bhojpuri speakers, while the reference to grains shows the context of the speakers as belonging primarily to a lower social stratum. This sense of physicality of the language is, of course, indicative of class – made manifest in the “poorer rural”/ “richer urban” divide.

But Bhojpuri was also a language of inheritance that pointed beyond class – and, without being explained or articulated, some of these associations became clear to my sister Aradhna and I, as we grew up. While Bhojpuri was the language that we would speak to Daadi and the elderly women who she socialised with – many of them manual labourers and women who got pulled out of schools as girls – we were equally conscious (I think) that not everyone who spoke Bhojpuri was uneducated.

A painting depicting Indian labourers reaching Mauritius in 1834. Credit: Oderuth, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

It was the language in which ancestral recipes, rituals and wisdom were explained by presenters on television programmes. It was the language in which people spoke of their forefathers’ jahaj voyages. It was the language that was spoken by the wise-looking person who sang out the Ramayana and performed Bhagwad Geeta paaths at village gatherings. It was the language in which people would express their condolences and speak respectfully of the departed at mayyats at the demise of the elders in the village. It was also the language that was spoken when my Daada’s yajmaans would come to have their panchaang read.

To them, we would speak Bhojpuri by following the cue of my parents. Here, Bhojpuri seemed to connote a certain privileged access to the knowledge being imparted, and by speaking Bhojpuri, we were giving proof of being part of that in-crowd. Though switching between languages was what we did all the time, I have vivid memories of my father getting cross when my sister and I would switch to Kreol or English during a prayer ceremony. Recalling us to get back to Bhojpuri was his way of bringing us back to the sanctity of the moment. Here, Bhojpuri was our inheritance – one that had a specific usage, in that specific moment.

Arad and I therefore grew up with the tacit understanding that Bhojpuri could be both of these things: a language to make ourselves understood to those who did not speak our educated “Anglais-Français” (these two colonial languages have always been bunched together as the languages of education) – but also a language to make ourselves “worthy” of our cultural background, that made us sound erudite, and connected us to our “roots” (even if I hardly think we had any consciousness of what those said roots were).


Yet, over the years, it was only with my grandmother that I had chosen to maintain the ties of Bhojpuri. She was the only person to whom I exclusively spoke it when I called home from England, where my Bengali student, once over-hearing me say konchi hol? (“what happened?”) to my Daadi on the phone, chortled and said: “Omg! You speak Bhojpuri? My driver in Calcutta speaks Bhojpuri!”

I have spent a lot of my life being fiercely defensive of Mauritian Bhojpuri, of fighting stereotypes against it, of making my pride in the language known to whoever would listen. So, what provokes my current discomfort with the language? Why had I let it go?

My discomfort arises from my inability to protect the language from its current associations with ethno-fundamentalist politics that seeks to tie Bhojpuri to Hindi, and Hindi to India, and Hinduism. Bhojpuri is being fashioned by Mauritian nationalist Hindu forces as a touchstone of Hindu identity in Mauritius, through the presentation of Bhojpuri as a little sibling or offspring of Hindi.

This mirrors the way in which Mauritius itself is often presented as a miniature version of India, following former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s usage of the term “Chota Bharat” (Little India) to refer to the island on a state visit in 1970, and repeated by current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in recent times.

The Mauritian counterparts enthusiastically embrace this appellation, with the current Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth making these linkages between nation, diaspora and language explicit through speeches such as the following which he gave at the 2015 inauguration of the World Hindi Secretariat in Mauritius: “Chota Bharat (Mauritius) ka Bharat Mata ko pranaam. [Little India greets mother India]...In our fight for Independence, we also fought for the right to protect our languages (referring specifically to Bhojpuri and how it anchors the relationship between Mauritius and India)“.

At the concluding session of the 11th World Hindi Conference held in Mauritius in 2018, former Mauritian Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth echoed similar thoughts, while stating his support for the recognition of Hindi as an official United Nations language in the following terms: “India is the mother of Mauritius and as a son, the country would do its best to support the recognition of Hindi as an official language of the United Nations.”

This deliberate presentation (on both sides) of Mauritius as the little India – via the medium of language – is more than a diplomatic tool, when we consider that Mauritius is following India’s lead in a number of other ways too, including in terms of the reimagination of the ethos and ideology of the state.

Mauritius enjoys a number of bilateral agreements and understandings with India, in the areas of maritime security, trade agreement, medical aid, and lately, the development of the Agalega Island as a military base. More recently though, these relationships have become a bit more politically-aligned, with Mauritius molding itself in the image of “Bharat Mata”.

While the current Indian government seeks to sanction Hindu nationalism as the state ideology, the Mauritian-majority population (through the support of various socio-cultural institutions and the Hindu-majority government) is playing dress-up in the saffronised robes of the Hindutva ideologues too.
Language plays a key role in this project for both countries. Current India uses language (in this case, Hindi) as part of a larger agenda to project India as an authentically Hindu space. The Bhojpuri project in Mauritius is not dissimilar. Here, the attempt is to conflate Bhojpuri and Hindi, and, in the process, urge the majority population to brandish the language in order to claim a more autochthonous Hindu identity that affirms the diaspora’s “return” to the nation-state.

Never mind that this process of Indianising and Hinduising Bhojpuri does disservice to the living, breathing language that Mauritian Bhojpuri was: a vibrant language of ethnic and non-ethnic solidarities that was tied to plantation and rural communities, and transcended its association with India or Hindi.

My valediction to Mauritian Bhojpuri is motivated by the fact that I can no longer claim the language as my own. It has become increasingly unfamiliar and removed from the secular and accepting language that I have known, loved and cherished. As I thought of a good way to bid goodbye to Mauritian Bhojpuri, I recalled my original connection to the language, via Daadi.

The day following Daadi’s cremation was designated as the day when we would scatter her ashes. Following the Mauritian Hindu tradition, the ashes would be immersed in a body of water. I went with my parents, the thakur (the village barber who plays a key role in overseeing funerals and weddings) and Arad to scatter Daadi’s ashes at the same point that marked the landing of the Dutch (the first settlers on the island) in 1598. After a brief ritual, the thakur instructed my father to upturn the earthen urn that bore Daadi’s ashes and toss them over the sea.

As I looked at the ashes flying out of the urn in the wind, I tried to think of a fitting way of saying goodbye to Daadi. Jo Daadi, dambore dambore, nimman se jaiyye (Go Daadi, keep to periphery, carefully) I said, echoing the same advice that she would give Arad and I daily, as we walked to school and she stood at the gate and watched us go until we were out of her sight. With a plop – Daadi was gone, as Papa dropped the earthen urn into the water.

As we walked away, the thakur gave us strict instructions to not turn around and look back. Yet, from the corner of my eye, I could see the earthen pot following us. The water was calm and the tide was low, and Daadi’s ashes were floating very close to the shore. Dambore Dambore – like she used to caution us. Unlike the language that Daadi spoke which was riding the populist tides of nationalism that were quite alien to me, I sent a silent prayer that Daadi reaches her final destination by treading a path which was familiar, comforting, and accepting of her.

Vedita Cowaloosur is a language teacher and translator, currently residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about the intersection of language and culture.