Indradhanush Sanskritic Parishad
Space constraints have not allowed us to pay earlier homage to Professor Ram Prakash whose pioneering contribution, as from the late 1940s and for several decades thereafter, in the field of education and culture has been justly commemorated by a second edition in a special issue of Indradhanush – the trilingual magazine of the Indradhanush Sanskritic Parishad under the chairmanship of Pahlad Ramsurrun.
It was in 1949 that Professor Ram Prakash, then only 30 years old, came to Mauritius to promote education and culture at the request of the British colonial government. His mission was to help create an awareness of social and cultural rights, more especially among the migrants who had been uprooted from the Indian subcontinent. This increased the consciousness about civil and political rights which enabled Mauritians to shape their own destiny. The immense contribution of Prof Ram Prakash was to reinstil in the Indian diaspora the value of culture. He promoted the teaching of oriental languages in a colony where education had been centred on Western culture and civilization, said Justice Dheeraj Seetulsingh at the launch of the commemorative magazine last October.
We are reproducing below the moving homage of Meenakshi Seehulsingh, daughter of Prof Ram Prakash, first published in June 2002 in ‘Vasant’. She gives first hand accounts of his early days with his young and growing family in Mauritius, his involvement with the educational sector as he undertook the mission of disseminating Indian Culture, his encounters in the social space, as well as her own experiences of her visits to her relatives in India, especially Punjab. For Punjabis, ‘papaji’ is a very emotionally charged word. This homage by a daughter gives a loving insight…
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Papaji enjoyed going to the sea. When we were children, he would often take us to the beach where he would teach us to swim and then leave us playing in the sand, digging moats, building sandcastles, encrusting the sides with shells and tiny cones from the casuarinas trees. He would plunge into the water and go off for an hour at a time, fording his way through the waves and then come back walking along the seashore. Papaji had learnt to swim in the waterways of Punjab. The river Sutlej ran close to the city of Ferozepur where he was born and where he grew up, and there were plenty of reservoirs and lakes.
What I knew about India I learnt from him because I was born in Mauritius, a few weeks after he came here with his family in June 1949. I was four years old when I saw my grandparents for the first time. My grandfather was a tall man with a glowing face and piercing eyes. On his head there was a stiffly starched turban that made him look even taller. My grandmother much shorter. She had white hair, laughter-lines around the eyes and a warm hug. They lived in their three-storey mansion with the two younger brothers of Papaji. Both sons were married and my first impression of the house was of an inner courtyard with several children playing together.
We loved to hear Papaji reminisce about his childhood: flying kites with his friends, playing “gulli danda” and “kabaddi”; his teachers he remembered very fondly, how they were strict about studies and discipline, and knew how to control the waywardness of their students. Papaji was always an eloquent speaker and we would listen entranced to his memories of Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where he had gone as a young lecturer and the ten-fifteen mile hikes through the picturesque countryside. Papaji still walks very fast and many a young man may have had trouble keeping up with him.
He never took up jogging but there is no doubt he could run very fast. It must have been 1957. Kenya was still a British Colony and we had to stop over in Mombasa, on its East Coast, ten to twelve days at a time after getting off from the ship that brought us from Mauritius. We waited for the British India vessel that would take us from Mombasa to Bombay. While Papaji was on his way back from the travel agent one day, a pickpocket filched the gold Parker pen that he carried in his breast pocket. Papaji ran after him, caught him and took his pen back. Later, when he was telling us about it, I remember my mother remonstrating with him from taking such a risk in a foreign country.
In Bombay, Jugal Bhai Sahib used to be waiting when we came out from the Customs at the harbour. He would come forward and touch my parents’ feet and be clasped in a warm embrace. I was surprised to see tears in his eyes! Jugal Bhai Sahib was Papaji’s nephew and he worshipped my parents. He had left Ferozepur after Papaji left India and had come to Bombay. Over time he had set up his own business and done extremely well. He and his young wife would look after us during the few days we stayed in Bombay before we would take the train to Delhi. The four children would get admitted to the best schools and Papaji would use his holidays to attend exhibitions and cultural performances, he would arrange appointments to meet the leading intellectuals and once, in 1957, he also spent a lot of his time learning Tamil from a man who used to lead the Tamil Section of All India Radio in Delhi.
We were of course the lucky beneficiaries of these opportunities. On our visit to the Qutb Minar, he asked us to put our arms round the tall iron pillar that stands in the grounds and told us about Asoka. Riding on the tonga on the way to visit relatives in Punjab, he pointed out the Samadhi that had been built on a hillock among the green fields to honour the memory of Bhagat Singh, the martyr.
His conversations with us are an invaluable and integral part of the years during which I was growing up. In the mornings, my sister Vatsla and I would climb into the grey Morris Minor with the 8016 number plate that he drove and he would drop us off at school. All the teachers knew him. After class, we would wait for him to come and pick us up. He would come by at around five and then the school attendant who lived on the premises would lock up the door of the classroom in which we had been waiting for him behind us. In the car, Papaji would talk to us. His favourite subject was of course, India and Indian heritage – Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, the Indo-Aryan group of languages, Persian influence on India poetry, comparative literature. He shared his perceptions on the pragmatic strain in Punjabi psyche, the elegance of Lucknow and the lyricism of Bengal. His conversations would be interspersed with quotations from Sanskrit dramas, Urdu shayiri, Shakespeare, Tagore…
On occasion, we would tease him about the fact that although he had stayed in Mauritius all these years, he had not managed to learn Creole. He would tell us quite disarmingly that no one had been prepared to teach him! People would come up to him at the market, at a gathering or any social occasion and would always talk to him in French, English or the Indian language they wanted to practise. Our home language was Punjabi, which my parents spoke to each other. Papaji would keenly make the difference between religion and culture: one could belong to different religions as so many people in India did but share a common history and culture. He would cite Iqbal: “Hindi we are, and our country is Hindustan.”
I have worked within the educational sector and as head of the MCA for many years. Over the years I have come across many, many people who knew him. I have been the privileged beneficiary of the enormous goodwill and respect that all these persons have for him and their fond memories of him. Papaji spent the best years of his life working at the Teacher’s Training College, the Royal Colleges and the Ministry of Education. He came into contact with several generations of Mauritians with his classes on Indian Culture and his activities outside work. Ever so often, people will come up and ask about him and recall their memories of him to me: his courteousness, his enthusiasm, his laughter and his charismatic personality that inspired them to do better and better. The reception given to him on his infrequent visits to Mauritius after he left on 20 September 1978 are a poignant tribute of the regard with which he was and continues to be held.
* Published in print edition on 7 November 2014