Dr Boodhun Teelock: Of Medicine, Roots and MT

In Memoriam

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

We have learned with sadness the demise, this week, of Dr Boodhun Teelock, former Mauritian High Commissioner in London, who had earlier served in the Ministry of Health and later held duties at WHO office in Brazzaville as Regional Adviser. Dr Teelock had been a sincere and consistent supporter of the Mauritius Times since the days when this paper had been launched to support the struggle for Independence. In a spontaneous gesture of solidarity, he came forward in 1984 to make available to our founding editor, Beekrumsing Ramlallah, financial support to pay for the surety that the then government decided to claim from the press in the wake of an amendment that it had proposed to bring to the Newspaper and Periodicals Act.

During the summer break of 1970, when I was in final year MBBS, I visited a friend in Bokaro, the new township which had sprung up around the Bokaro Steel Plant built with Russian aid. To reach there I took a train to Dhanbad, situated in the coal-mining belt of Bihar, and his father sent the car to pick me up from the railway station for the hour-long drive to their residence.

One day we decided to go trekking around the Damodar river valley. Biji (my friend’s mother) packed sandwiches and other stuff, and we set off in the early morning with our sling bags containing our precious ware slung over our shoulders. We roamed about in gay abandon in the midst of the undulating landscape, along paths travelled and untravelled, crossing fields and streams here and there, with hardly a being in sight. Our bags gradually emptied, and at about three in the afternoon, with the sun bearing down on us, we suddenly realized that we did not quite know where we were and how to reach back home from there. And we were hot, hungry and thirsty.

As we wandered ahead trying to figure out what to do, we came upon a narrow footpath leading up from the banks of a dried-up rivulet. We decided to follow it, and luckily it led to a tiny village where to our great relief we found a tinier tabagie – we had to bend our heads to get in – situated on the main kaccha thoroughfare. My friend asked the man behind the counter, “Do you sell tea?” “No,” he replied, “I don’t.” We therefore settled for some water and a few snacks. We asked for and got indications of where to take a bus for our return journey. After about fifteen minutes we paid up and, thanking the vendor, we made for the door.

“Wait,” he said, “where are you going?”

“Oh, but we should be getting on,” my friend told him.

“But you asked for tea, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but you said you did not sell tea.”

“I said I did not sell tea, but I never said you could not have tea. Wait,” he repeated, “tea is coming.” It was almost a command.

As he completed his sentence, a lady – his wife, we presumed – hiding her face behind her horni, called out and handed him a tray holding two cups of fuming tea. We sipped it quietly and, handing back the cups, my friend put some money on the counter. Pushing back the note, our host reiterated, “I do not sell tea.”

* * *

This brand of Bihari rural hospitality must have been very far from the mind of Dr Boodhun Teelock when he left – in a manner of speaking! – the Ministry of Health in 1969 to join the WHO office in Brazzaville as Regional Adviser. He had come back to the country in 1952 to start the School Health Service. He had qualified from Edinburgh and was doing a House Officer job in Yorkshire when his boss drew his attention to an advertisement in the British Medical Journal for three posts as Colonial Service Medical Officer in Mauritius. He applied, and after being selected following an interview at the Colonial Office in London, he underwent four months of training at the London County Council before being posted to the island.

He was the only doctor, and was assisted by three nurses, one of whom is apparently still around at eighty-four years of age. Before team, priority, efficiency and so on became buzzwords in the management world, the new School Health doctor organized his nurses to cover the schools of the island in three zones. Because of the staff shortage, it would be impossible to examine all schoolchildren. So they concentrated on the entrants and leavers, and the areas where the pail system of sewage collection prevailed (such as Eau Coulee and Camp Diable) were given priority because of the high rate of infestation with intestinal worms.

The nurses were trained to recognize the common conditions affecting children. They obtained the willing cooperation of teachers who were also given lectures for this purpose by Dr Teelock while they were studying at the Teachers’ Training College in Barkly. Those of us who were schoolchildren in those days remember lining up in the schoolyard in the morning for inspection by the teachers. We stuck out our hands for our nails to be checked, our hair was inspected for lice, we had to show our handkerchiefs and our footwear too was examined. Skin, eye and ear problems were reported upon, and there was a stock of sulphur ointment and of the antiseptic gentian violet kept in a first-aid cabinet under the supervision of the head-teacher.

Pending more precise diagnosis, Dr Teelock advised teachers to seat in the first row children who showed signs of subnormality, on the grounds that they possibly had visual and/or hearing defects. Those who required spectacles were subsequently referred to either of the two eye specialists then available. The nurses prepared reports which were submitted to Dr Teelock, and the school inspector would then follow up with the head-teacher for appropriate actions to be taken on joint medical-nursing advice.

After completing his DPH in 1959, Dr Teelock moved to the Department of Health (later the Ministry) to take charge of Preventive Medicine before he assumed duties at WHO. There followed a posting as High Commissioner in London, where he met his Indian counterpart Dr LM Singhvi. The latter was of great help to him when he decided to look for the village of his grandfather, Immigrant Teelock 299705 who arrived in Mauritius in August 1863 on the ship Earl of Clare. The long search took him to village Burraree in the Siwan district of Bihar. Inevitably, oeil professionel oblige, he saw the lack of medical facilities there. He decided to make up for this, and in 2001 he made a donation of 16,000 Pounds Sterling (amounting to over one million Indian rupees) to the village for the construction of a health care centre and a multipurpose community centre to be available to all irrespective of caste, creed or religion. The money was duly channelled through the Ministry of External Affairs in India, and a monitoring committee under the supervision of the District Magistrate was set up to oversee the completion of the works and manage the fund. The buildings have been completed and are already operational, a modest but proud contribution by someone who chose not to forget his humble origins in spite of a fruitful career so far away from his roots in terms of both geography and time.

He has been a consistent supporter of the Mauritius Times (MT), espousing its commitment to the struggle for Independence and befriending B. Ramlallah (BR), the founding editor-in-chief whose devotion to the cause and moral absolutism were the stuff of legend. When, in 1984, the government decided to claim from the press a hefty sum (Rs 500,000) as security, BR was in the forefront of the vanguard to oppose this measure. As a result, the Working Committee set up by government finally ruled it out, but the proposal could have been fatal for papers with limited means such as the MT.

In a spontaneous gesture of solidarity, Dr Teelock offered to pay up the guarantee for MT if necessary. And BR gratefully acknowledged his benefactor in a letter to the latter dated 14 June 1984, from which I quote: “I will wait for the recommendation of the Working Committee and the reaction of the government to take a decision. Even if I will not have to provide the guarantee or choose to close it (MT) down, I will forever be indebted to you for having so generously and so spontaneously offered the surety of such a huge sum in order not to allow the MT to die an untimely death… in these times of trial, I am discovering my true friends, and you are on top of the list.”

When there are genuine friends around, the voice of truth and freedom can never be suppressed.

* Published in print edition on 25 May 2012

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