Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Remembering Dev Virahsawmy

Shaun Chawdhary as Prospero &
Catherine Mobley as Kordelia in TOUFANN

The Mauritian playwright Dev Virahsawmy, who has died at the age of 81, was one of Border Crossings' 21 Faces, when we marked our 21st anniversary with a retrospective in 2016. He wrote then that our 1999 translation and production of Toufann, his fantasy piece loosely based on The Tempest, had helped him become known outside Mauritius, and had convinced his sceptical countrymen that writing in Morisien (his preferred term for the Kreol language) could lead to international recognition. But truly it was we who owed a debt to him. Dev was a true pathfinder in the thorny thickets of intercultural work, showing how language, theatre and culture can and must combine in the process of forging new, more just socio-political spaces for a decolonising world. He was my constant guide to the shifting fortunes of his island home, with his penetrating intelligence constantly placing the Mauritian experience in its global context. When we made our play on Mauritian history, The Great Experiment, it just had to be Dev whom we invited to be our interlocutor for the online discussion conducted during lockdown. 

That was three years ago. Looking back to that time, I realise that in May 2020 Dev also wrote us a "Guest Blog of Farewell", marking his retirement from public life. He knew then, of course, that he was ill, but he didn't really retire. Only in August, Nisha and I were able to visit him at his Rose-Hill home, where he told us about his excitement that Morisien was finally to be used as a key language for schooling, enabling Mauritian children to be taught in their mother tongue. It was a triumph that he had accomplished, with the help of some far-sighted Catholic bishops, after a lifetime of campaigning, and it was wonderful that he lived to see it. On the other hand, he also talked about the way in which Narendra Modi's populist India was becoming ever more dominant in the Mauritian economic and culture spheres, countering the entire de-colonial process with which he had been engaged throughout his life.

As he always did, Dev gave me copies of his latest books, mostly poetry, and inscribed them with very personalised and touching words. This time, however, Loga, Dev's wife of 59 years, gave me the book he had always refused to write, and which she had therefore taken on herself. Lotus Flower: A Conversation with Dev Virahsawmy is a biography, a dialogue and a love letter by the person who was closest to him, and it taught me a huge amount I didn't know about my friend. You can read it online - please do!  What Loga is able to show is what the various obits and Dev's Wikipedia page fail to understand. Dev was not a political activist who also wrote plays and poems, nor was he a language scholar who insisted on writing in the obscure dialect of a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. Rather, Dev's life project combined language campaigning with cultural activity and political activism as a single, unified project - you cannot understand any one part of his achievement without the others. Dev realised very early in his life that Morisien was a real, dynamic and poetic language, and was also the sole common cultural property of the Mauritian people. In the language, therefore, lay the potential for the emergence of a national culture, and in that lay the potential to escape the ongoing colonialism that continues to exploit the peoples of the global south. In his youth, Mauritius was a British colony, and retained close links to France (to this day there is a lobby that maintains, absurdly, that Morisien is actually just a bastardised French). He was 28 when Mauritius achieved independence, and he was active in the campaign to prevent the independent island going the way of other former colonies in the region. As Loga explains: "The sugar barons who had complete control over the economy of Mauritius were planning to set up apartheid in Mauritius with the help of apartheid South Africa and apartheid Northern Rhodesia under Ian Smith." After that threat was avoided, Dev's politics and writing were both focused on building an independent nation with its own language, fighting off the neo-colonial incursions of the superpowers. In his 1981 piece Zeneral Makbef, the battle is with the warring giants Yankidola and Rouspoutik. By the time he came to Toufann, he was already aware of the emerging Hindu hegemony in Mauritius, and the threat posed to the intercultural island by an alliance between that single ethnic group and an increasingly assertive Hindu nationalist movement in India. If Dev's Indian Prospero had managed to take revenge on the former coloniser Lerwa Lir (=King Lear, =Britain and France), then that did not in itself mean there would be any hope for the mixed-race Kreol Kalibann. By the 2020s, Dev's worst fears were being realised, and one of his last interviews is an extraordinary plea with the Mauritian people to resist this new colonisation. 

I said earlier that Dev knew in 2020 that he was ill. Actually, he had always been ill: he had childhood polio which left him without the use of one arm, and suffered from post-polio syndrome. What sustained him throughout his life was his total commitment to social justice, and the love of his family. I send my love and sympathy to Loga, Saskia, Anushka, and Dev's grandchildren Anastasia, Yann and Rachel. 

"Apres sa ena zist silense."

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