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Friday, 11 January 2013 12:00

Amit Bhoonah – With a targeted approach and micro-marketing, books can be a great business in Mauritius

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The history buffs among you will know that the announcement for the falling of the Berlin Wall was made on August 23, 1990. The very same night, Amit Bhoonah was born.
Years later, he took the symbolic date as inspiration to write a book on the Second World War. Based mainly on personal interviews, the book relates the trying times experienced by Mauritians during the Second World War, both as soldiers in the army and as citizens. News on Sunday talks to the author, who sheds light on what prompted a 22-year old to delve into history and write about one of its main events.

  • Date of birth: 23/08/1990 l Profession: Student
  • My passion: History l My talent: Cooking
  • Childhood memories: Reading Asterix & Obelix
  • An inspiring personality: Zinedine Zidane
  • Favourite quote: Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero
  • My definition of happiness: Fun
  • My biggest achievement: Mauritians in the Second World War
  • Dream Destination: Tibet
  • Biggest nail biting moment: Ghana vs Uruguay, World Cup 2010
  • A fictional character I identify with: Dr House
  • For 24 hours, I would like to swap places with: Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert; I love their shows!
  • Favourite way to kill time: Facebook
  • Prized possession: Historical documents found when researching for Mauritians in the Second World War

Tell us about your book and why you felt the need to write it.  How was the experience?
‘Mauritians in the Second World War’ retraces the major events that have marked Mauritian History from 1939 to 1945. It tells the story of Mauritians who participated in the North African and Italian campaigns, mainly as Pioneers and Artisans. A small number even fought for the Free French Forces of General de Gaulle, and their stories are included in the book. I have also dedicated a big chunk of the book to the miseries faced by the local population during those years, mainly acute food shortages. Then there are stories of 1600 or so Jewish refugees who interned at the Beau Bassin Prison during World War II, some German Navy prisoners of war who stayed at Rose Hill, and Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was exiled to Mauritius after being dethroned as Iran’s monarch.

My motivation came mainly from stories I heard from my parents and grandmother about the war. Details like Mauritians eating rats to survive intrigued me and I had always wanted to do it. It has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life!

What motivates you to write?
In all honesty, I do not consider myself a “writer” in the sense that I do not write as a hobby. My main aim was to discover that period of history and share it with others; writing just happened to be a part of it.

In spite of being very young, you took interest in a far away past. Can you tell us the reasons for it? What is it that makes you particularly interested in World War II?
Other than stories from my parents and grandmother, I think the other major interest I draw into World War II comes from my date of birth: I happened to have been born on the day it was announced that the Berlin Wall would fall and East and West Germany would unite. The wall being intricately linked to World War II, the former has fostered my interest in the latter amongst other things. I think the entire 1900s is a fascinating century to study historically, starting from World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia to the overthrow of the Tsar monarchy and finally the pre-war decade that saw the rise of nationalism across Europe. These are times I love to read about.

What is your target audience?
In all honesty again, I did not have an audience in mind when writing the book. However, I believe that people who are more interested in reading about historical details, facts and figures embellished with personal accounts and anecdotes will appreciate the book better. People who wanted mainly an analysis of historical events will be disappointed because I have purposely provided none; my aim was to merely tell the story of the war in Mauritius.

Do you feel the Mauritian context make space for a full time writer?
I think we have the misguided perception that books do not sell in Mauritius. Well, the problem with all publishers is that they just publish books and then dump them into bookshops without doing any significant marketing. I believe that with a targeted approach and micro-marketing, books can be a great business in Mauritius. For example, instead of dumping works of non-fiction (especially concerning history) on library shelves, publishers and authors should together adopt a different marketing strategy: do presentations at the University of Mauritius, colleges, and various other institutions where people might be interested to purchase the books. I think that being an author can be a full-time job, but, as for all jobs, it has to be done properly: and that involves much more than writing a book.

You must have done extensive research for the book. How did you go about with it?
I had the great privilege of being helped by Prof. Marc Serge Rivière, who guided me and gave structure to my research. I first started with Newspaper Archives, then went to the Ex-Servicemen Association where Mr Armoogum, Mrs Mudhoo and Mrs Jacqueline were extremely helpful: they put me in touch with A LOT of veterans. When I spoke to one, he would tell me about his friend who experienced something else I was interested in and I would try to get in touch with that person. So, I went from veteran to veteran getting useful information for my research. Then there are one or two really interesting books by the Lieutenant Domingo and Mr Gustave Lenoir in particular that were full of information.

Some might see library research as the least interesting part. How did you find it?
It was definitely boring to stay in a library and scrutinise five years’ worth of newspapers for little bits and pieces of information about World War II. It required patience that I did not have at first, but I guess the boredom of library work was complemented by fieldwork, which in my case was interviewing veterans.

Did your research on the period change your views on these subjects?

I purposefully did not include any personal views or analysis in my work because it would have been unwise of me to claim to know why 30 000 Mauritians went to war based on 18 interviews. I would say before this research I had absolutely no idea about these subjects during those times, so my research formed rather than changed my views on the matter.

Do you feel that thinking about the Second World War can shed light on what goes on in the world today?

Definitely! As a concrete example, during World War II, a Naval Base was set up in Diego Garcia. After World War II, with the Cold War between the then USSR and USA, that Naval Base was strategically a prized possession of the UK/USA alliance in the Indian Ocean, where Soviet presence was not significant. Hence, one can say that the roots of the Chagos issue lie deep in World War II.  

Also, a lot of today’s global geopolitical situations are consequences of World War II. Perhaps the biggest example is the Israel/Palestine conflict.

How long did it take you to write Mauritians in the Second World War?

Approximately a year and a half.

What were the reactions of people in the publishing industry when they read you work?

Osman Publishing has been very encouraging, especially Mr Ramesh Ramdoyal who reviewed my book. He was very enthusiastic and provided excellent feedback.
Mumtaz Soogund

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