Epitomized Feminine Grace and the Glow of Academia
The sad demise of Mokshda Kistoe West has left everyone who knew her – relatives, friends, pupils, colleagues and the general public – much aggrieved.
Life is an uncertainty in a world of flux and constant change. But when death strikes, the agony of the loss of a dear one becomes unbearable. Mokshda died at the age of 85 at her home in Floreal on Thursday 16th last and was cremated at Phoenix the next day.
Pandit Cashinath Kistoe
Daughter of the great Arya Samajist missionary-preacher the erudite Pandit Cashinath Kistoe and Radhika ( herself the daughter of one of the founder members of the Arya Samaj movement in Mauritius, Gurupersad Duljeetlall), Mokshda grew up in a dynamic Vedic environment. Her intrepid activist father trained in Vedic literature at the DAV College in Lahore (now in Pakistan) preached for some time in Baluchistan after obtaining his degree (1910-1915) until he was sent back to Mauritius in 1916. Pandit Cashinath left no stone unturned for the uplift and education of the downtrodden. He was known to be a strong advocate for the education of girls. Mokshda and her brother Bhupendranath, later a research scientist at Imperial College, London, grew up in that atmosphere and imbibed not only healthy human values but a strong appetite for sheer erudition.
In her closely knit family Mokshda was treated as equal to a boy, contrary to the prevailing social conditions of those days when girls were confined to the home. Mokshda thus benefited from the equal treatment of a reformist avant-garde father, a strong advocate of equal opportunities for all.
Though as a child, Mokshda “like all little girls” as she wrote herself in an article “My Father as I Knew Him” (Femme des Iles, October 1984) had her dolls, “I was never stopped from playing marbles or spinning tops with my brother.”
Books as gifts
Since her childhood she received more books than toys as gifts. And it is this habit which nurtured in her the restless energy for reading, the arts and literature. She also learnt to sing bhajans from her father. She won a gold wrist watch from Pandit Rishi Ram of South Africa for her recitation of the Bhagavad Gita. In her salad days, Mokshda keenly observed her father’s militancy for the advancement and liberation of women of the Hindu community.
In fact it was with a handful of 10 students that Pandit Cashinath Kistoe opened the Aryan Vedic (Vidyalaye) School on 1st August 1918 in Vacoas, which today bears his name. Mokshda’s mother too had a benign influence on her growing years, for Mokshda joined Standard II at age four only and skipped First Standard. Her father encouraged her with the words “you must always try to stand on your own feet”, and this advice stood her in good stead.
In 1943 Mokshda won the “petite bourse”. She was the second Hindu girl to do so after Roheenee Rughoo (later Mrs Jay Narain Roy). She was entitled to a well-merited seat in the nearest girls’ College – the Loreto Convent of Quatre Bornes. Unfortunately those were the days of social prejudice. She was denied a seat. Her father tried his best to get her admitted, but in vain.
“It’s because she is not a Christian”, Mr Ward, Director of Education, told her father. She had to wait for two weeks at home in January 1944 before she could eventually join secondary school. She was given a Christian name Myriam! But Mother Martha of the Loreto Convent Quatre Bornes was nice to her, loved and sheltered her, when she was turned to ridicule by classmates.
Laureate in 1952
Mokshda climbed the ladder of learning and knowledge until she obtained her School Certificate. She was then enrolled for Higher School Certificate at Loreto Convent Curepipe. On 11th March 1952 she would be one of the eleven girls of the island to have successfully and brilliantly passed her HSC. On Wednesday 19th March 1952, laureates were proclaimed and Mokshda Kistoe was among the only three girls to have won the English Scholarship! She was the second Hindu girl to have succeeded so brilliantly the first one being Jayamanee Venkatasamy (later Mrs Ramphul) also from Loreto Convent Curepipe in 1951. It was a rare feat in those days.
Despite her brilliant achievement, Mokshda had time nonetheless for social activities. She was Secretary of the Girls Section of the famous Vacoas House of Debaters.
After her HSC, Mokshda taught for two years at Hindu Girls’ College before she embarked for Newham College, a woman-only constituent college of Cambridge University, second only college to admit women.
Pupil of Mokshda Kistoe
I was in Form IV at Queen Elizabeth College when Mokshda Kistoe came to teach us English language and literature. We girls were awed by her quiet wisdom, her frail but firm persona and her short curly hair. She always wore a sari, ever so elegantly with her sleeveless “kimono” choli. She never wore jazzy, dazzling saris. They were sobre in pastel colours pink, orange or “saumoné”.
Besides the love for English Language and literature – especially Shakespeare – she inculcated in us the sense of research, discovery, the techniques and skills of essay writing for our General Paper later in HSC. Along with academic studies, she instilled in us values, a sense of civism, herself having ingrained since her tender age Aryan Vedic culture, and ethics and later on British academia and competency and excellence. She taught English in English.
Mokshda always bore a soft smile on her unpainted lips. Thus she was an attractive petite presence to have around and exuded grace and a certain learned aura. She was a great, polished intellectual, had class, with courteous polite manners but always humble, never arrogant. Later on she would do her MA and PhD. She was above all always well maintained and well-groomed, suave as well as dignified.
After my HSC I won a Government of India Cultural Scholarship and went to study Geography Honours at Calcutta University. When I came back, I did a stint at Mauritius College and then joined the Civil Service through the PSC. I taught first at Royal College Curepipe and then came back to QEC in 1969, this time as an Education Officer. Mokshda was by now Headmistress of this prestigious college, which was opened in 1950 as Indo-Mauritian girls were denied access to education elsewhere.
Mrs Beatrice Flashman recruited by (advertisement in the press) from UK was in fact the second headmistress of QEC after Mr Pouzet – the first “headmistress”! In 1967 when Mrs Flashman retired, after a short period by Mrs Myriam Albertas headmistress who eventually left for Australia, Mokshda became the first Indo-Mauritian lady to assume headship of this college for girls. It is today decried so much as an elite school, when in actual truth, these girls were denied access to other schools where all doors were closed to Indo-Mauritian girls!
Having been her pupil, I now had the privilege and honour of being a colleague of Mokshda. Her running of the huge sprawling, expanding school for girls was admirable. She enthused love for studies in her pupils. She had a strong code of discipline, having regular morning assemblies, when she gave chosen messages to shape and mould the growing girls. She was hardworking and committed in her responsibility.
I have never heard her raise her voice. The difference between Mrs Flashman and Mokshda was that while the former one had that stern strict discipline, Mokshda had a humanitarian approach to discipline. If she would be unhappy with something she would utter in low tone her disagreement or disapproval in between her teeth! That’s all. She had that steely softness! A sternness and force of authority that she discharged with calm.
Later on, I was on the Board of MIE Council and a Member of the Appointments Committee. I was surprised once to have her in front of me as a candidate for a job at the MIE as Registrar! She did not mind. One remembers Wordsworth which she had taught me as a young pupil – “The child is father of the man!”
Her love for cats is legendary. She would pick stray cats from all over and pamper and feed and love them. At one time she had 23! Mokshda was married to Dr David West in 1970. She was a role model. To her relatives, especially the Duljeetlall family and to her friends, we offer our deeply felt condolences.