A young man’s journey of self-discovery illuminates the heart-wrenching history of the Chagos Archipelago, a little-known part of the world.
Coming-of-age in Mauritius, Désiré has always felt like an outsider. After all, he traces his ancestry back to Diego Garcia, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. But why does his birth certificate claim he was born in Seychelles? And why is his pet name also the name of a boat? The answers lie in the history of Diego Garcia, a tranquil island in the Chagos Archipelago that found itself in the crosshairs of the Cold War. The island, which was part of the British Empire for decades, eventually became part of Mauritius after that island nation won independence. But in some convoluted international maneuvering, the United States requested that Diego Garcia be handed over, uninhabited, for use as a strategic military base. The result: a forced evacuation of thousands of citizens in just an hour in 1968; natives were eventually displaced to Seychelles or Mauritius. Désiré and his mother Raymonde’s story is set against this tragic backdrop. A pregnant Raymonde is forced to evacuate but gives birth while at sea. The infant Désiré is hastily given papers at Seychelles before being packed along to Mauritius. Patel, a Mauritian journalist, uses her cast of characters to narrate a keenly observed story, translated from French, about displacement. “Memory is a hook that sinks into your skin. The harder you pull, the more it tears your flesh, the deeper it sinks. There is no way to get it out without ripping your skin apart,” one of the characters points out. If at times the story reads like a thinly veiled history lesson and the nonlinear narrative feels gimmicky, it nevertheless serves an important function: to inform readers about the unseen collateral damage of geopolitical games of Risk. The bullies on the playground dictate the terms since they know the weaker players have no currency they can truly leverage.
A fierce and evocative telling of the strangled arc of a peace-loving people.