New Internationalist

The Neighbourhood

Issue 401

Lindsey Collen feels uneasy about classifying her neighbours.

ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH JOHN
ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH JOHN

Last weekend my husband Ram and I sat under the thick-leaved atemoya tree, its fruit already ripening, and mulled over a request from a European ethnologist. ‘She’s studying what she calls mixed marriages,’ Ram explained. ‘An anthropologist of some sort.’ Ram had asked whether by ‘mixed marriages’ she meant marriages between a man and woman, but she didn’t have much sense of humour. She wanted to know whether among our neighbours there was ‘a Hindu’ married to ‘a Creole’, or ‘a Muslim’ to ‘a Chinese’, or ‘a Tamil’ to ‘a white’, and so on. ‘All the perceived communities,’ as she had put it. By ‘community’, she didn’t mean the neighbourhood, but ethno-religious divides within it. Ram hedged. He said he would let her know. Then he and I started laughing, as we remembered years ago someone asking us what it was like to be in a ‘mixed marriage’, and we had realized the idea had never crossed our minds.

Eventually Ram had to respond to the researcher. She would want to know if he would introduce her to our neighbours.

The image of a bull in a china shop immediately came to mind. I shuddered at the thought of my beloved neighbours being exposed to the crude intellectual tools used for studying the natives of foreign lands.

Neither we nor our neighbours in the village would dream of inquiring whether the researcher from Europe and her partner, for example, were ‘a Catholic’ and ‘a person of mixed race’, ‘a Protestant’ or ‘a Jew’, of ‘noble blood’ or ‘peasant stock’. Nor would it be too easy for her to go around classifying her neighbours in her own country. She would need to tread carefully.

So that was how one day, sitting under the atemoya tree, Ram and I came to be looking at our neighbours, for the first time ever, as if each were a specimen from a different ‘community’. We chose just the neighbours who border us, to consider whether we could be involved in exposing them to this researcher.

Across the road, there is a welder, Farouk, who is on the village Mosque Committee, which has a fund for helping the needy, regardless of religion or community. He’s married to his childhood sweetheart, Parvedee, whose family (a house or two along) are Tamil, which in Mauritius has become a religious category as well as a language one. Their three children are all just about grown up now. They feed our dogs whenever we’re late or away.

Next door on the left, there’s an extended family of Hindu faith, most of them working in factories. One son fell in love with and married a Muslim girl, who came to live with them, but after a few years, it didn’t work out. The old granny there is in charge of ‘choosing’ dates for parties and weddings because she’s like a computer at throwing up problems with dates: that’s a religious festival, there’s already a wedding that day, it would be better outside cane-cutting time.

Over the back fence, you can hear Claude, a sugar-cane labourer, who would consider himself a Creole, practising singing his sa-re-ga-ma Indian music scales. He’s married to a free-zone factory worker, Prabawtee, sister of our next-door neighbour, Leelawat, on the right-hand side. They and their daughters follow both religions, Christian and Hindu. The sisters, whose father’s land we had bought a bit of, are of Hindu faith. Leelawat, a widow caring for her adult disabled daughter, was married to a Tamil man. She and her family are involved in Shiwala activities and walking on fire – Tamil festivities. She gives us farathas when she cooks them.

Our neighbours live calm, dignified, happy lives. The researcher would certainly consider us ‘mixed’. But we are all knitted together into a neighbourhood, through a myriad of relationships. You can’t really separate us and our families into ‘groups’ that we supposedly belong to. In some areas there is relative geographical separation, for the historical reasons of original settlement or as a result of the 1968 ‘race wars’, triggered by politicians against Independence. This legacy serves to remind us of the dangers of irrational divisions. And we wonder if divisions are perhaps not engendered by perpetual classification.

Our neighbours’ relationships, like our own, are precious things, sensitive and in a delicate balance.

‘No,’ Ram concluded, ‘I love my neighbour as myself. I wouldn’t like to be the one to bring an ethnographer or whatever into their lives.’

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist.

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