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from the May 2012 issue

Traces of Our Fathers

Writer, journalist, and filmmaker Alain Gordon Gentil has recently finished shooting four documentaries that retrace the great Indian, African, French, and Chinese adventure of immigration to the Mauritian land.  The series is titled “Venus d’ailleurs” [“They Came from Elsewhere”].


Memories from the set.

I have never celebrated the past, but my childhood has had a way of hanging on.

And when it has you in its grip, it conjures images that can only be understood later, much later, to have founded your future life, images that dig furrows into you that never disappear.

Finding the trace of our fathers, finding France, Africa, India, and China.  Seeing oneself again in the eyes of the other.  Seeing faces—far off, but so near.

In Calcutta, life resembles death so much that nary a morning knows what to expect.  The dust in the air is so thick, so sticky, that the sun must sweat blood to show itself to mankind.

And yet here we are.  Looking for I don’t know what in the tears of dirty children and in the eyes of the dying, who call for the dark night to come quickly.  We are here, looking for the traces of steps that may be lost forever.  Yet steps we know to have crossed the black sea, black death, to get to an island where honey flowed from faucets and where money could be found under any stone.

This morning, at dawn, we began filming in the streets of Calcutta.  To see the sun rise on the shantytowns of Calcutta is to see more than the end of a world, it is to see the end of the world.  In the acrid smoke of burning trash, a crow is perched on the head of a dead dog and is pulling out what remains from its last meal.  The children have long sticks and as they walk, they search the mountains of refuse for something to quell their hunger.

In the middle of these juices of death, a white pearl comes forward, soft, elegant, with a peaceful step, she unceasingly holds up a white veil with sky-blue piping.  A missionary from the Sisters of Charity.  A sister from Mother Theresa’s congregation.  As she walks through this field of despair, she appears not to be touching the ground.  There is a kind of grace, a tenderness.  She smiles and I see childhood again.  The monk in Tintin in Tibet, the one with the blissful smile, who levitates, to the great displeasure of Captain Haddock.

We are on roads where death roams, and yet we are looking for the traces of lives.  Those of the ancestors who tore themselves from this land to stow themselves to another.

Though they mostly came from Bihar, Mauritians of Indian origin traveled through the port of Calcutta, where they boarded ships for Mauritius.  Witnesses encountered randomly in the streets tell us about the crossing of the Indian Ocean.  The Kala Pani.  The black water.  Six thousand miles.  Others tell us what their parents themselves heard from the grandparents.  Speech is an Ariadne’s thread.  It makes stand up swaths of history that would otherwise crumble.  Not history with a capital H, which fills book after book, but history, their history, which snatched away aunts, uncles.  History that speaks of their loved ones.

India is dangerous.  It sucks the blood out of indignation, lulls vigilance to sleep.  Life in Indian land makes healthy anger evaporate.  Quickly, very quickly, pain, misery, injustice seem to go without saying, take the shape of a distressing banality, abolish the borders between life and death.

The camera is filming.  Here a face born of pain, there another easy-going, beaming.  Here again a face without expression.  Blankly awaiting the passage of time in which nothing comes to pass.

We are here to bring back images, voices, places.  Life stopped here in the north-east of India, the state of Jharkand, in the nineteenth century.  Here we are discovering villages whence undoubtedly left the first hired workers for Mauritius.  A man, sitting in front of his hut made of cow dung and covered with straw, speaks with his eyes fixed on the fawn-colored earth.  According to him, it has been a long time, a very long time, since the story first started circulating in the village of how those who lived over yonder, by the well, left for a country where life must have been better.

On the road to Fort Dauphin, the sea snores like a tired sleeper.  Men and women sitting on parapets look at it as though it had just appeared.  We have arrived in the second land of our ancestors.  The earth is red, our eyes too.  There is the dust.  There is the emotion.  The Malagasy land whence we come carries a strange magic.  Music slips from the house of the village chief.  Seems like déjà vu.  Seems like the village of Morne is just next door and has heard everything.  In Tamatave, in Foulpointe, in Tana, and in Fort Dauphin, we feel as though we are following a trail of white pebbles thrown by black Little Thumbs, from whom we get out dark skin.  

We cross a river.  Our truck is set on a ferry that can barely float.  A little speedboat roars its heart out to make this mass of metal move.  On board, we laugh at this boat.  We are in Mogambo.  We imagine Clark Gable tasting the warm flesh of Ava Gardner on the shore, where the thick brush watches us.  But our quest pushes us elsewhere.

The coast of Mozambique.  Here is the Fort of Sao Sebastio.  It is imposing.  Tall, thick walls surround a massive space where slaves were once kept before being sent across the world.  If silence is a language, it draws its words from here.  Every inch of wall, each puff of dust, tells the life of those who passed through these walls.

As the wind rushes into the ramparts of Saint-Malo and the seagulls, whose cries vanish in the gray skies, fly above our heads, we look at the old stones.  They also tell us about ourselves.  About the reddish faces that welcome us and speak with nostalgia of this remote island, which they still consider in some way their own.  Two hundred years later and beyond the sea, language still unites us.  The prairies of Brittany have sugarcane in their memory.  To watch the sea leave the coast of Saint-Malo, wrapped in sea spray, is already to divine the sunny coasts and turquoise waters of the Bay of Mahebourg.  

The sea is nourishing.  It brought us distant men who could have continued on their way, but destiny decided otherwise.

In Mexian, Hakka territory in the south of China, storms, winds, rains are so violent that trees rear up like angry beasts.  In a massive house set in a rice paddy of phosphorescent green, faces that look like those in the neighborhoods of Port-Louis tell us of their ancestors who left one day for an unknown piece of island.

On Pearl River, the old boat that takes us away from the city tells what must have been the great Sino-Mauritian journey to the sea.  A river, the giant sea, forty days on the deck, and, in the end, the land that had promised nothing.

A historian explains to us, and anonymous faces look at us.  Our filming is like a journey to the center of our earths.

Earths that have fed our seeds.

We have come from all four corners of the world.

We have built a nation.

Brel would have said:  we are men returning from outward bound.

© Alain Gordon Gentil. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Antoine Bargel and Alexis Pernsteiner. All rights reserved.

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