Kalpana Sunder discovers how everything from culture to cuisine in this island has an Indian connect

Between the heady incense from the dashboard and the driver called Amar who speaks Bhojpuri and plays ‘Munni Badnaam Hui’ on FM radio, it’s hard to remember in which country I am… Four centuries of colonialisation has resulted in a rich textured tapestry of cultures on this island nation. The French and English colonists brought in slaves and indentured workers from India, Madagascar and China to work on their sugarcane plantations. I whiz past bougainvillea bushes in a thousand shades, groves of coconut palms, and acres of sugarcane to my hotel that sits under the brooding shadow of Morne Mountain, a UNESCO world heritage site. At the hotel, the buggy driver says his ancestors are from Andhra Pradesh.

One of the first places I visit in Port Louis, the crowded capital of Mauritius, is the poignant Aapravasi Ghat, now in the throes of renovation. It’s the most tangible symbol of the historical connection between the two countries and the course of events that changed the demography of this nation.

The simple building of rough stone was the immigration depot where the first indentured labourers or girmityas from Bihar arrived, packed like sardines in coolie ships. They climbed the 14 steps of the wharf to reach the depot where they stayed for three days before being sent to the sugar fields.

Between 1834 and 1920, more than half-a-million Indian workers were contracted to work for Rs. 5 a month for five years. Most were from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; some from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. For many Indians fleeing their villages, it seemed an escape from poverty and the indignities of oppressive social conditions. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea Of Poppies tells the tale of the sea journey of indentured labourers during the 1830s.

I imagine the first brave immigrants — how they congregated, battled loneliness, cooked, and preserved their culture and festivals. In the late 1980s, interest in preserving the arrival depot began, and it was finally declared a UNESCO site in 2006. More than 70 per cent of Mauritians are of Indian origin.

The cuisine of the island country is a melting pot like the country itself, with Creole flavours and Indian spices coming together in a piquant medley. The ubiquitous meal-on-the-run all over the island is Dholl Puri served from glass cases mounted on bicycles — a mix of curried bean, tomato chutney, spicy pickled vegetables, wrapped in a crepe-like chappati with a liberal dash of green chilli sauce. Then there are the familiar dishes, but with Creole names — Gateau Bringele is eggplant pakora and Piment Farci is stuffed, batter-fried green chillies. Everyone speaks Creole, a version of French with African syntax; many speak Hindi and Bhojpuri.

To delve deeper into the Indian connection, I drive to Ganga Talao or Grand Bassin in the south of the island where a 108-ft bronze statue of Siva (the world’s second tallest) towers over a natural crater lake.

Locals believe that when Lord Siva carried the Ganges in his hair, a few drops fell here. As I look at the techni-colour glow of the Indian gods and the women in festive saris and vermilion-streaked hair, Amar says, “Did you know that Maha Shivaratri is a national holiday in Mauritius?” The smells of incense and flowers mingle as I gaze across the lake.

Over the next few days, the Indian umbilical cord surfaces almost everywhere: the popularity of Bollywood movies, the Indian TV serials, and the big fat Indian weddings. In fact, Mauritius is fast emerging as a big spot for destination weddings for mainland Indians.

The Indian restaurants across the island have names such as Happy Rajah and Salaam Bombay. The local sega music with its African roots fuses with Bhojpuri lyrics. In the old Victorian market in Port Louis that dates back to 1844, the air is redolent with the smell of chillies, over-ripe pineapples and familiar foods. Only, the samosas are samoussas and the intriguing alouda, with milk, jelly and mouthfuls of chopped agar-agar and crunchy seeds, is nothing but our own falooda.