Dabeedeen Reetoo: Visionary and Man of many parts
— Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
Official versions of history often relegate important actors in national life to footnotes, and some do not even get a footnote. But there must be countless examples of people who have served, and served well, sincerely and with purpose, and who deserve to be remembered and honoured. One such person was Dabeedeen Reetoo of St Julien, who unfortunately died too young, in 1933, at the age of 45, and was tragically followed shortly afterwards by his wife. However, in his short span of life, he rose to become one of the important notables of Mauritian society, and could be said to have been a torch-bearer both for his community and for the nation when one considers the achievements of the Reetoo family by the early 1930s, amongst other things
- Construction of Reetoo School at St Julien village;
- Construction of four classrooms at Brisee Verdière Government School;
- Construction of a shivala at Lallmatie;
- Construction of two wells, at Lallmatie and St Julien respectively;
- Donation of land to Siva Soopramanien Tamil Temple Society at St Julien d’Hotman;
- Donation of land for cemetery;
- For many years, provision of free lunch and dinner at St Julien Hospice on Sundays;
- Campaign against alcoholism, with the closure of ‘tavernes’ throughout the island;
- Promotion of Hindi through encouraging the creation of baithkas;
- Employing a pandit trained in India for the teaching of Hindi, and performing religious and spiritual activities in the community;
- Paying funeral expenses for the needy, and taking charge of marriage expenses for his workers and relatives;
- Feeding the poor;
- Sponsoring the visit of doctors from India to look after workers’ health;
- Serving on the District Board of Flacq.
Some of these were highlighted by his grandson Munoranjan (Muno for intimates) on Sunday last at the launching of the book that he has written, titled ‘150 years of the Reetoo family in Mauritius,’ at Domaine Reet’s in St Julien d’Hotman. In fact it was Dabeedeen’s grandfather Reetoo and his wife Mooneea, both hailing from the village Sumauny in the district of Gauzeepore in Uttar Pradesh, who sailed to Mauritius from Calcutta aboard the ship Zemindar in the first week of May 1859, reaching on 19 July 1859. They took up employment at Constance sugar estate where, in September 1859, Dabeedeen’s father Kissoon Reetoo was born.
Kissoon went to school at Flacq from the age of six, and in 1883 he started working as a livery stable keeper on Constance estate after a stint as agricultural worker. Although wages were meager, Reetoo and his son Kissoon managed to save enough to purchase land. After their father passed away in September 1888, Kissoon and his brother Ramheet started the business of wood selling, and by the beginning of the 20th century Kissoon was the owner of 100 acres of land at St Julien village, where he had settled with the whole family in 1888, completing his house there in 1904.
The emotion was visible in Muno as he narrated some details of his quest for, literally, discovering a Dada that none of the latter’s grandchildren have, alas, known as he had already died before anyone of them was born. Muno’s search and researches took him from the archives at the MGI to, eventually, the village Sumauny of his great great-grandfather. This has kept him busy for the best part of 15 years, starting in 1994, and B. Burrun has assisted him in chronicling the march of the Reetoo family in articles published in Weekend, and which are reproduced in the book.
We learn that Dabeedeen Reetoo was the only son of Kissoon Reetoo, and was born on 13 October 1888. He became manager of the vast domain known as ‘St Julien & Desfontaines S.E.’ which he inherited from his father and which, by 1915, consisted of 1350 acres of land, of which 700 acres were under sugarcane cultivation. 125 acres were converted into residential plots for the benefit of immigrants of modest means, leaving 1250 acres which comprised land at both St Julien d’Hotman and St Julien village. It is in the latter locality, to quote B. Burrun, ‘que se trouve la résidence des Reetoo, lieu béni où Dabeedeen Reetoo laissera parler son coeur en faveur des démunis et réfléchira sur les moyens les plus aptes à les aider à sortir de leur misère. Les affaires marcheront si bien pour lui au cours des années 1920 qu’il sera en mesure de financer d’ambitieux projets scolaires et socioculturels tout au long de cette décennie, en faveur à la fois de ses compatriotes et de ses correligionaires. Sa réputation d’homme généreux et d’homme d’honneur fera bientôt le tour de l’île,’ (italics ours).
Dabeedeen consolidated the good relations that his father had developed with eminent members of the Franco-Mauritian community, amongst others Pierre Montocchio and JA Duclos – which certainly demonstrates that a modus operandi of harmonious coexistence between different communities was already in place between people who were willing to do so, working for their own economic interests at the same time as promoting those of their communities within the larger context of the country’s development. It may therefore come as no surprise that JA Duclos, who was an elected member for Flacq, recommended in 1921 the nomination of Dabeedeen Reetoo to the Flacq District Board. This event, along with the nomination of Ramkhelawon Boodhun at the Legislative Council, was celebrated at the Taher Bagh in Port Louis during a reception held in the afternoon of Saturday 21 May 1921.
It is again JA Duclos who takes up cause for Debeedeen Reetoo on behalf of workers. Following the report of Dr Balfour, which drew attention to the high death rate amongst workers because of malaria and worm infestations of the gut and recommended that there was a need to recruit more medical personnel to help out, there was resistance on the part of the local medical profession. Dabeedeen convinced his friend Duclos of the need for additional doctors, and the latter in turn took the matter to the Legislative Council, successfully arguing his case. In July 1921, six Indian doctors, selected by Dr Hassen Sakir who was in India at that time, came to work in Mauritius. Two of them were posted to the Eastern Dispensary, and one, Dr MC Roy, used to visit Dabeedeen during his free time to read the works of Rabindranath Tagore. Along the same line of concern for the welfare and health of workers, Dabeedeen Reetoo led a campaign against alcoholism which was emerging as a major social evil.
A strong believer in the value of education as a force for social mobility, Dabeedeen Reetoo spends the then fabulous sum of Rs 40000 to establish the ‘St Julien Modern Indian School’ (also known as Reetoo School) which opens its doors on 3 October 1922. M. Pritipaul is appointed as the first head-teacher, and during the inauguration by governor Sir Edward Brand it is underlined that ‘Mr Dabeedeen Reetoo the great philanthropist of St Julien village has established (the school) for the welfare both moral and intellectual of the new generation of the locality.’ Along with teaching the traditional academic subjects, Hindi is also taught, and Pandit Ramlagun who had just returned after studies in India is recruited in 1925 to do so. It is noteworthy that two Mauritians who will subsequently mark the history of the country also taught there: Basdeo Bissoondoyal and Soogrim Bissoondoyal, and in books written by the former the name of Dabeedeen Reetoo never fails to be mentioned.
An important event that takes place at the Reetoo School in 1925 is a reception given in honour of Sir Kunwar Maharaj Singh, who had come to Mauritius to enquire into the working conditions of the Indian immigrants. About 3000 guests were present, and the master of ceremonies was RK Boodhun. One week earlier, Sir Kunwar was the guest of honour at the anniversary celebrations of a Hindi school in the south of the island, built by another stalwart of the community, Dookhee Gungah, who was equally active in promoting education and the teaching of Hindi. Dabeedeen Reetoo gets another school constructed at Brisée Verdière, putting it under the responsibility of Pierre Donat, so that it becomes known as ‘l’ecole Pierre.’ In 1930, the Church of England takes over the running of the school, with Georges Donat as the headmaster.
Apart from his philanthropy, educational ventures and looking after his sugarcane plantations, Dabeedeen Reetoo was also a businessman. He was owner of a building at l’Eglise Street in Port-Louis, where his office was situated. He possessed a ship which travelled between India, Mauritius and England. He also had a shop at the junction of the main road and the branch road leading to Camp Thorel. Goods were transported from Quartier Militaire to the shop in his ‘Hapmobile’ which had a capacity of one ton.
Dabeedeen was the first Mauritian in the east to possess a car, in fact he had two, a Morris Cowley and (possibly) an Austin. The other car owner in the east was Dr Lamberty, who had a Ford. Dabeedeen also had two carriages and three horses, in addition to 20 ox-carts which were used to transport sugarcane, wood, and goods destined for his shop.
However, sadly misfortune overtook him following what looks in retrospect like a political miscalculation, when the candidate he had backed in the 1926 general elections, Pierre Montocchio, lost against Rajcoomar Gujadhur. He had staked a lot of money, and subsequently he had to sell almost the totality of his lands to pay off debts. Whether it was this decline that led to his premature death may perhaps never be known, but it is nevertheless clear that his legacy was immense. Fortunately, his brother-in-law, Ragoobeer Kisto, married to his sister Rajwanteea, took entire responsibility to bring up his children, and by dint of effort was able to buy back a total of about 100 acres of the sugarcane plantations.
Notwithstanding this scaling down in terms of land holdings, the Reetoo’s have continued to be a strong presence in St Julien. Save for a few absences, the extended Reetoo clan down to the sixth generation was present at the launching on Sunday last, with one son of Muno, Akshay, acting very ably as the master of ceremonies, welcoming the guests who counted among others elders of the region who had been students at Reetoo school, such as Kurreemum and Khadaroo among others. The Chief Guest was Minister Bachoo, who emphasised the values of hard work, generosity and accent on education that had driven Dabeedeen Reetoo towards good actions for society at large.
The lamp lighting ceremony was led by the surviving daughter of Dabeedeen, Yamawantee. A lamp dance was executed superbly by Reetoo girls: Sadhvi, Tashina, Krutika and Subhangi, and the Muno’s wife and sisters-in-law, accompanied his son Vashish in the rendering of the folk song ‘Calcutta se chootal dahaj,’ with Akshay on the violin. This cultural display by the Reetoo’s is quite in line with their strong preservation of their cultural roots, which includes their tradition of conducting Ramayana satsangs in-house, which have been going on ever since I can remember at least. One of his nieces presented a vote of thanks to their ‘ever-smiling Chacha Muno.’
Copies of the book were presented to several personalities who were present. The icing on the cake was the response of Vreeti Reetoo, MCB Laureate 2008-2009, currently studying in Warwick and here on holidays. She was presented with a shield, and made a short thank you speech in excellent Hindi, a superb rounding-up for a ceremony in the memory of one of their founding fathers who not only they, but all of us can be proud of. At the end, Muno made a plea for learning from the legacy of his dear Dada, and acting in accordance with the values and principles he lived by to make his family and community progress. I am sure that the message will have been heard.