As Mauritius Times completes its 60th year of existence today, I feel very happy to have been associated with it for nearly 25 of those 60 years.
I am not too keen on palm-reading and such things to know about the future, my own in particular, although I was told of an episode of palm reading in Kolkata (by a Muslim friend who said that from that day – which involved him and his friend: who died – he stopped decrying the genuine practitioners of the art, sadhus, who don’t charge any money) at the Howrah station which turned out to be, literally and within minutes of the reading, deadly true.
But a couple of years before I became a regular contributor to this paper, a friend who used to walk with us in the woods and who had, let’s say, a strong spiritual bent, and who did palm reading only for close ones, took turns to look at the palms of some of us. When he studied mine, ‘someday you will change your profession’ he said. What would that be he did not say, but he was fairly certain that I would turn towards something other than practising medicine.
Well I have not exactly given up my orthopaedic activities, but over the years I have certainly reduced them considerably, and more of my time now is definitely spent with reading and writing in relation to the Mauritius Times. I was in HSC (UVI 3) when I sent my first article – if my memory serves me right, it was about science in general – to a daily, and it was never published. Thus it was that when I took my pen again many years later, that’s about 25 years ago, and my article was in English, I opted for the Mauritius Times, which published it. The rest is, as the saying goes, history – my story with the paper, which continues…
The truth be told, I did not know much about MT when I was at primary school (till 1956) and Royal College Curepipe. Growing up in those years of the 1950s and 1960s, until I left for my medical studies in 1965, of course we had attended political meetings being held by the different parties especially in the 1960s, when we gained a slightly better understanding about the movement for independence. I remember in particular rallies organized by the Ralliement Mauricien passing through the Royal Road near where Patisserie Suisse now stands – a pharmacy occupied that space then – and a well-attended meeting on the railway platform adjoining the taxi-stand at Curepipe Road on a Sunday morning, where Guy de Labauve d’Arifat was sparring with Phillipe Le Breton who was my teacher at RCC.
It was much later that political awareness dawned upon me, and I came to know what these meetings and rallies were all about: to wit, the protagonists of democracy through Constitutional reform, with independence to follow, pitted against the antagonists who were opposing independence on what were, essentially, communal grounds. And that this struggle was being reflected and debated in the columns of the Mauritius Times. I had the opportunity to see its editor, Beekrumsing Ramlallah, taking part in the debate on the Balogh Commission Report in the Parliament when as HSC students we were allowed to visit Parliament through arrangements made by our Rector, Mr Bullen. The other speaker that I remember who intervened on that day was Mr Maurice Paturau.
It took me nearly three decades before I met Beekrumsingji, at his house in Wellington Street, Port Louis, and we immediately struck a chord. By then he had published a few of my articles, and he was as frank in his appreciation as in his encouragement that I should continue to write for the paper, because he felt that there was potential interest in my type of writing. Frankly, I did not know what that was, and he did not elaborate. But I trusted his own vast experience and insight, and I followed his advice, never looking back since, especially as over the years I developed a warm personal relationship of mutual regard not only with him but with his family too and he became to me, simply and fondly, Chacha.
As I was at Jeetoo Hospital, I would slip out at lunchtime as often as I could, or when he would send a message, to go and meet him to talk about many an issue. He was a very thorough and inquisitive person, and for having been a Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Health at one time, he was very interested in health matters and used to quiz me about several aspects of the health services. By the same token, he was very health conscious, and he is the only layman that I have come across who had a textbook of medicine at hand, that he delved in quite regularly as I understood. That was the voluminous Price’s Textbook of the Practice of Medicine, an English publication which was very popular with medical students at that time. The very technical portions aside, there were definitely some parts of a general nature which an interested layman could understand – but would need a doctor to be able to properly appreciate. I was happy to fulfill that role vis-à-vis Chacha, though quite a few times I had to ‘play away’ as it were, when he became too probing and I was at a loss to simplify any further. Still, his curiosity and persistence amazed me.
Others who have known him and the paper in the initial and early years of struggle will be in a better position to give a more accurate and comprehensive account of the political dimensions of his engagement, especially in those crucial years of quasi-tectonic confrontation of emerging socio-political systems against each other. One of those who was an active collaborator to MT in the pre-independence years was Hossenjee Edoo, and through him I came to get a little more of the sense of engagement, and the spirit that animated those who unconditionally supported the cause that the paper was fighting for.
It was in Calcutta (as it was then called) that I met him when I joined the medical college there in 1965. He was doing his MA in English, and was staying at the International Students’ House where I was lucky enough to get a room. Osman Gendoo too, who was then doing his Master’s in Geography, was in the same hostel, and we often met in Edoo’s room to tease him about taking life too seriously – but also to seek him out to speak about his favourite topic: politics. Calcutta had a Communist government, and almost all people being educated there were imbued with leftist ideas.
Bhai Ajam – as we nicknamed Edoo – had his bookshelves full of Lenin’s works, and of course there was Das Kapital too. To write, one must read extensively, and that is what Bhai Ajam spent his time doing, going through the opinion and political magazines whence, among others, he culled for his own articles to the Mauritius Times. They included Seminar, Mainstream and Encounter, which I would flip through too myself as he would get going with his writing – in long hand, on airmail paper, and with an ink fountain pen as was the practice in those days. And would impatiently await the postman to bring the copy of the paper, that would come with about two weeks of delay, given the speed of communication then, and that Calcutta was way out on the eastern side of India! And of course we would also read it after he had finished.
I started similarly, writing in long hand for a number of years, then came the first small computers with a green screen, and the first printouts. But they still had to be hand-delivered, with Nalanda library serving as my intermediary as I would stop there and leave the envelope on my way to work. Then came the email era, and that made it possible to send my articles even when I was abroad. And also to keep up with the paper every Friday, through its website.
It is only through the response of readers that one can have a true idea of how the paper is doing. And I have had hundreds of encounters which have shown me how Mauritius Times has truly been instrumental in transforming the lives of many Mauritians of a certain generation – those for whom the paper meant access to and improvement of their English language skills. One such person came to me as a patient over ten years ago, a diabetic with a foot ulcer, who had retired as an accounts clerk in a government department and lived at Bonne Mere.
On learning that I was the same person, his treating doctor, who wrote in the Mauritius Times, he narrated to me how after completing his GCE O level, he had no means to pursue A level, but was very interested in English and Shakespeare. So as he took up this job he continued to read MT ‘à cause so Anglais’, which besides was very affordable for those like him. As a result he had become a faithful and a regular, eagerly awaiting Friday to come so as to delve into his favourite reading, just as several others in his locality do.
The reputation of the paper on this score has been sustained over the years; I know at first hand with what meticulousness editing has been done from the paper’s very inception to make sure that the English was of the highest standard – inevitable as its editor was a trained teacher -, a responsibility which is rigorously assumed to this day.
The perception that the Mauritius Times is a highbrow, intellectual paper is certainly wrong. Indeed, from office attendants to the highest professionals and cadres in all walks of life, I have come across many known and unknown people who have expressed their appreciation of the paper, and a number of them at times have even referred to an article of mine that they would have read a while back, and that I myself would have forgotten about!
It is for readers to enjoy their weekly copy of the Mauritius Times, to dig their teeth in the heavier articles, to expand their knowledge and be inspired by many an insightful article about future trends and possibilities in for example health or science at the frontiers, to laugh at the jokes laid out for them so that, after the serious fare, they can feel that lightness of being so necessary to strike a balance in their minds.
As for me, the journey goes on as my tribute to the veritable institution that Chacha has left behind and that I consider it is my duty to serve.
* Published in print edition on 14 August 2014