Once upon a time, (rest assured, we are not dealing with fiction but it is simply our way of stating that it was a long time ago and by now people must have almost forgotten about it) education had to be paid for and that, the hard way too. The form of payment was known as school fees. We speak of the ‘hard way’ to lay emphasis on the fact that it was with much difficulty that the money was handed over monthly to the institution, namely the private school. Money in those days was very scarce.
As a result education was accessible to only a few. Children attended Primary, which was free but many were those who, despite having passed their Sixth Standard (now replaced by the CPE), were unable to join Secondary owing to financial constraints. Boys were given priority over girls. Unjust as the idea may seem to us now, the patriarchal legacy was very intense. Still, at times, when it was question of two brothers attending school at the same time, one was often sacrificed at the altar. The reasons were not always justified; at times they were sadly whimsical.
Now, those who were fortunate or rather blessed enough to go to school, were only too aware that there was to be no messing around. Their life had a purpose and an objective. They really struggled against all odds, even at times swimming against the tide but still making it to the shore in the long run. Short of passing with flying colours, they left school with a certificate. Then they gladly forgot the mortifying days when they were mercilessly dragged out of the class and made to stand outside, heads bowed shamefully. It was not that they had misbehaved or skipped the homework. It was the parents who had not been able to pay the monthly school fees. Until and unless the same had been duly settled, the ward was denied access to the classroom.
‘Drop out’, was not a word which one heard much in those days. As for the ‘lesser mortals’, they were put to work, apprenticed somewhere and they were no doubt of some help in the family revenue. Still, money remained as scant as ever because these blue-collar jobs did not fetch much. As a result, life remained full of hardships. People toiled and slogged but even then, they could not keep the wolf from the door. The situation created a chain of frustration, instability, domestic violence and even promiscuity.
On her part, Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India, asserted that, ‘education is a liberating force, and in our age it is also a democratising force, cutting across the barriers of caste and class, smoothing out inequalities imposed by birth and other circumstances.’ In short, education is a decisive factor in eliminating poverty. Indeed education allows the son of a beggar to become the equal of a lawyer’s son. It is for this reason that governments of all countries make it one of their priorities to invest heavily in education.
It is now going on to forty years that Secondary Education is free in Mauritius. We shall not deny and still less refute that the purpose was essentially an electoral bribe. Nevertheless it has served its end. Free Education has given the opportunity to an unlimited number of children to be educated. Otherwise they would have been sent to work and a career would have no doubt gone to waste. We can never be grateful enough to the Father of the Nation for such a bonus
Unfortunately however, many are those who simply fail to appreciate the goodness of the act. It is a pity that when things do not have to be paid for, they are taken for granted. Nowadays many students attend school for the mere sake of having a good time there. The idea that a certificate is as good as a valid passport requiring no visa is too remote for them. Therefore disturbance during explanation becomes their motto. Disturbance comes in varying modes and degrees. These include non-stop chatting, teasing their friends, making all kinds of sounds, tearing good pages from copybooks in order to make airplanes. These are then thrown at friends who make it a point of honour to throw back the missile.
When the teacher (who unfortunately is not endowed with eyes in his back) is writing on the board, the situation becomes worse. Excitement is in the air and one would think that preparations for Christmas are underway. These students have no qualms to speak in a raised tone to teachers when they are taken to task. Without any doubt, they are only too aware of their rights. They must be given their due respect and the Child Development Unit is ever present to ensure that their rights are not baffled. Yet speak to them about their duties and we shall be made to understand that the word is totally alien to them.
What we may consider as bad unfortunately becomes worse to eventually turn into the worst. These ‘drop outs’, as we may call them, leave alone the fact that they are the architects of their doom, will not allow others to study. ‘Ils crachent dans la soupe’, as we put it in French, not only in theirs, but in everybody’s, so that no one benefits from anything. How sad indeed to burn the bridge before the very journey itself has been undertaken.
Grim, very grim is the picture that looms ahead if nothing is done but it would seem that nothing can be done at all. It appears that perhaps all we are left to do is to pray.
* * *
Using ridicule to expose human follies
‘He came from Chagos’ by Jean Lindsay Dookhit is a socio-political satire published in 2014 under President’s Fund for Creative Writing by the Ministry of Arts and Culture.
Joseph, 5, with his mother and other Chagos natives are expelled by men whose skins are “as white as sand” and are sent to Mauritius where life won’t be easy. Following his mother’s death, he continues toiling. One December, while all lychee trees are fruitless, his tree is the only one to bear fruits. Overnight, this solitary man becomes the centre of attention. He is later falsely and wilfully accused of malevolence and jailed.
Strictly speaking, this novel isn’t about the plight of Chagossians, their adaptation problems, their trials to survive. It’s about a Chagossian caught in spite of himself in a series of farcical events and the awkward reaction of a number of people concerning his lychees. These range from policemen and businessmen to the Prime Minister and the public. It’s not about exile or dispossession as such, it’s about an outsider used as a means to mirror the unpleasant aspects of some people from his adopted land.
Prejudice comes in several ways. The headmaster demands proof of catchment area to admit the boy in school and when the mother can’t, she is humiliated for being “full of monkey tricks”. Somebody plants gandia in their garden, it’s the mother who is jailed for drug-trafficking. The magistrate even looked at her with “lips curled up as if in distaste”. Joseph is mercilessly teased about his accent by urchins. And the white girl with whom Joseph had an affair confesses that “giving birth to a child with matted hair was the reason why she had left for France”.
The overladen lychee tree takes a new significance. We see it from multiple perspectives: the businessman, who is offended at Joseph’s refusal to sell the fruits, reacts with “Doesn’t he know who I am?” (it’s typical of certain politicians, their agents and those who have connections with those in high places to have an inflated opinion of themselves), the media who misrepresent facts and go for sensationalism, and a sociologist who invites cybernauts to denounce the old man (Joseph is now 70) without really knowing the truth. And there is the public’s point of view. We have the policemen using electric shock to discover how the tree happens to be giving fruits.
It’s a lot of fuss over a trivial matter.
An engagement is arranged between businessman Mr Tim’s son and the Minister of Internal Affairs’ daughter. Some start fretting about not being invited: two female bank managers are seen tugging each other’s hair; two lawyers start pelting tomatoes at each other in Port Louis market. At the extravagant party, bats begin attacking. The blame is put on Joseph for possessing supernatural powers.
Ridicule is effectively handled to show the degradation of institutions as well as human behaviour. We tend to have explicit faith in our politicians and set them on a high pedestal because of the power they wield. However, the author reverses our expectations and makes us regard them in their funny and unflattering moments.
To arrest Joseph, the Prime Minister passes a Malevolence Bill. Heated discussion ensues. This suggests waste of time over banal things to the detriment of essential ones. The idea that comes across is that parliamentarians are not doing the job they are paid to do.
Characters behave ludicrously, irrationally. If satire uses humour to entertain, it also provokes thinking. We question their ideas and attitudes. This opens our eyes and we grow in maturity by learning at least something about human nature. Transformation begins here.
The author takes a dig at intellectuals: the sociologist who is trying to discover Joseph’s mysterious power from her hideout and fearing that some professor might steal her idea.
The novel is about gullibility, jumping to conclusions, incriminating an innocent man, and rumour-mongering. We have people saying and doing horrible things in response to a basically unimportant matter. Through satire, the author makes everyone coming into contact with Joseph a laughing stock.
In Wole Soyinka’s ‘The Trials of Brother Jero’, a satire about a fake prophet, we fondly recall the satirical element in the play and also the painstaking characterisation of Chume and Amope, the husband-wife victims of the charlatan. In ‘He came from Chagos’, nearly everything revolves around the gimmicks of a set of characters. Psychological and emotional dimensions aren’t there. We don’t see them from inside. Interest in the novel can therefore be said to be limited.
* * * Remembering Jhummungeer Gossagne
Rameshwarnath Temple Association of Bois Pignolet is celebrating the 150th anniversary of their temple in 2016. Proud of having had the initiator of the pilgrimage to Grand Bassin among its first priests, Jhummungeer Gossagne Napal, it is out to make this event a memorable one. According to the current president, Mr Benny Chatoory, the association will launch a commemorative magazine on Maha Shivaratri this year and hold several activities for the occasion.
Rameshwarnath Mandir is one of the first two temples, the other one being in Gokhoolah, dedicated to Lord Shiva to be built in Mauritius in the same year, 1866. Following the teachings of Shankaracharya, Hindus placed stones under trees in the open and worshipped them as idols. When they started building temples, they felt the need for sacred water to pour on their Shivlings. In the meantime, Gossagne was already in Mauritius in 1860 and had left Argy in Flacq where he had been indentured and came to settle in Bois Pignolet to be nearer to Port Louis, and to be the officiating priest at Rameshwarnath Mandir. He would marry in the Mishra family of Creve Coeur. Hindu priests were very rare in those days. Jhummungeer was a trained and professional Brahmin priest.
Shipped away from the banks of the Ganga River in India at the age of fifteen, he hankered after his beloved river constantly. He worried about the Hindus dying outside India because their souls could not transmigrate. His sensibilities taught him that somewhere in the country flowed a river or a lake that had links with the Ganges. He had a prophetic dream of such a place existing in the uplands among mists. He went out in search with two of his friends.
During one of their attempts, they reached Grand Bassin. His dream came alive before his eyes. Grand Bassin Peak was Kailash to him, the lake at its foot had the shape of the map of India and was Ganga, and the thick mists that lay over the water and the forests around could be but the home of fairies. Very few countries in the world can boast of the presence of fairies, Mauritius being one of them. Women still go to worship Parimayi there, and offer her sindoor. Gossagne felt the specific geological emissions of the ground around. No wonder, the water from deep down the crater was springing from Jhanvi, and Gossagne could now vouch that Ganga flowed in Mauritius.
He sanctified the place by holding a prayer at the water edge. Decades of developments have overlooked the spot. A few volunteers of the Gossagne clan, the direct descendants of the fountainhead, have put up a small covered temple over the spot this year.
The news of the existence of Ganga spread like wild fire in the country. Hindus started going there as pilgrims. Many of them used to lose their way. Some were victims of wild pigs. A Ghorah Baba shrine was built to protect them from straying. Gossagne informed Pandit Sajeewon, the founder of Maheshwarnath Institute of Triolet, about his discovery. In 1898, the first official pilgrimage was led by the Saint of Triolet with Gossagne as priest. An annual pass issued on the national plane by the British governor in the name of Pandit Sajeewon gave Hindus four days’ leave on plantations to proceed to Pari Talao and celebrate Maha Shivaratri.
Gossagne struggled to stop the practice of blood shedding at Pari Talao. This would become a reality in 1962 when Beekrumsing Ramlallah, then President of the Hindu Maha Sabha, sought the help of Satcam Boolell, then Minister of Agriculture, to get the H.M. Sabha secure a lease to service the place. Gossagne continued to work at Bois Pignolet. He built his own temple when the first one constructed of rough stones broke down, and inaugurated it in 1902. He went through a lot of pains to realize his project. He was helped by Pandit Shivprasad Ramlal (Ramloll) Tiwari, Nundoochand, and others. Before he died in 1914, he left the temple and the land to the Association.
President Chatoory and his team have made it a point to revive the good name of Gossagne during 2016. His temple and bronze shivling still stand. A hall has been built. His statue stands under its verandah. Religious and cultural activities are organized regularly. A sense of pride pervades the village for having helped to start the greatest pilgrimage of Hindus outside India. Pari Talao is the meeting place of Hindus of all linguistic groups. It has even attracted international visitors and calls for a new form of management.
* * *
The Tiruvasakam – Sacred Utterances
One of the most beautiful poems in the Tamil Language is the Tiruvasakam, a book in praise of Lord Shiva, the Lord of creation, preservation, destruction and re-creation of the universe. The author of this book is Saint Manikkavasagar, whose intelligence was boundless. He mastered all the Hindu scriptures and was a man of such great intelligence that the king of the Pandhya Kingdom appointed him as his prime minister. He lived in the ninth century. Manikkavasagar’s devotion to Lord Shiva was so intense that he relinquished his job as prime minister and devoted all his life to praising the greatness of the Lord. His Tiruvasakam, written in excellent verse, captured the hearts of millions of people across the globe.
If we are in a position to understand and appreciate the 51 poems of the Tiruvasakam, it is thanks to an English Catholic priest, George Uglow Pope. He spent 42 years in South India, learning Tamil and preaching the Catholic doctrine to the Tamil people. He was so impressed by the religious poems of the Tiruvasakam that he translated it into English to make it understandable by everybody.
His love for Tamil knew no bounds. Before he died, he expressed the wish that on his tomb be written the words: “I am a Tamil student”.
The Tiruvasakam opens up with a salutation in praise of Lord Shiva in the following terms:
“Hail the five letters NAMASHIVAYA, Hail, foot of the Lord!
Hail, foot of Him who not for an instant quits my heart!
Victory to the foot of the king, who soothed my soul’s unrest, and made me His!
Victory to the flower feet of Him, who severs continuity of birth…”
Later on, the saint salutes the Lord thus;-
“O spotless One! O master of the bull!
Thou art the heat, and thou art the cold!
Tthe Master thou, O spotless One!
Brightness of full blown flower!
O teacher! Honied ambrosia…”
Manikkavasagar, addressing Lord Shiva, said:
“My frame before thy fragrant feet is quivering like an opening bud.
My hands above my head I raise while tears pour down…”
Saint Manikkavasagar was a lover of birds. So, in the chapter Kuyil Pattu he calls upon the cuckoo to join him in the praises of his master, thus:
“O dulcet-voiced cuckoo!
If asked where the feet twain of our Lord are,
they are beyond the seven nether worlds!
If again asked where His effulgent and gemmy crown is,
Lo, it is of ineffable pre-primordiaity.
Call Him to come.
O cuckoo, I will cause you to rejoice. He is the abode of love.
He confers nectar and springs from within as the blissful One.
He rode on an excellent charger shining like gold inlaid with rubies.
Call the Lord of the universe to come.”
One of the passages that has struck me most is the following, regarding the author’s boundless devotion towards Lord Shiva. I call it the apotheosis of devotional poetry:
“O my treasure! O great Shiva!
Oh You, who are very much more solicitous than a mother who mindfully suckles her child, melting this sinner’s flesh and increasing
the inner light, squirted the never-drying up honey of bliss into my mouth and trailed after me from place to place,
I have now followed You and caught You firmly.
Henceforth, where will You, at your pleasure, go?”
The hymns enshrined in the Tiruvasakam are actually being sung in temples in Mauritius and elsewhere in the world. G U Pope’s faith in Lord Shiva was unique. In one of his books on culture, we can find written in the opening page, the following words: “Shiva is never appealed to in vain.”
Let us surrender ourselves at the feet of the DIVINE.
Associate – Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, London