By Nivriti Sewtohul
In the history of education in Mauritius, Maheshwarnath Government School, situated at Eighth Mile, Triolet, occupies pride of place. Its origins and accomplishments are exceptional in many a sense.
The British colonial governors strove over decades to bring to school the children of Indian old immigrants whose periods of indenture were over and of those still under contract, with a view to create ‘brown Englishmen’ along the same lines that the writings of Lord Macaulay proposed in India. The dread of losing their identity urged those targeted to resist and even turn down the offer, till leaders in their own community came up with an educational plan that would not make them lose their indianness. Manilal Doctor, the envoy of MK Gandhi, helped to realize that possibility by asking the rich and learned Indians to launch schools where children would acquire knowledge that would help them earn their living, stand on their own feet and hold their heads high in the country of their adoption.
That clarion call fell on the ears of two stalwarts in Triolet, Adnath Chicooree and Pandit Shivprasad Ramlal Tiwari (Ramloll). They were members of Maheshwarnath Institute responsible for administering the Maheshwarnath Temple, with the latter as president, appointed by Manilal Doctor in March 1911 at Maheshwarnath Baithka. He was an intellectual running a newspaper, ‘The Oriental Gazette’, and soon an attorney-at-law and a candidate in the Legislative Council Elections of 1921. Adnath Chicooree was a rich landowner, a temple-builder and a respectable social worker. He gave his land and the house thereon for starting Maheshwarnath Pathshala (School) which was inaugurated on 23 September 1911, in the presence of Honourable Sauzier, representing Pamplemousses district in the Legislative Council; Emtage, the Director of Education; Boodhun Lallah, attorney-at-law; Dr Hassen Sakir; Kistanen Narainsamy and others. All of them spoke about the importance of education for children and praised the efforts of the promoters of the project. Pandit Ramlal Tiwari or Pandit Shivprasad Ramloll, as he was known, presided over the function. The news was published in all the current newspapers for days before and after the event, ‘Le Radical’ giving large coverage.
The motivation to start a school offering western education came from living examples of the time, both at home and abroad. Amongst others, Gandhi, Nehru (father and son) and Gokhale in India, and Lallah, Bhagat, Hawaldar in Mauritius were achieving name and fame because of the British education they had acquired. The Franco-Mauritians highly appreciated any Indian, such as Boodhun Lallah, who expressed himself in French. Slowly but surely, the leaders came to realize that their culture and religion wedded to western science would open the doors of progress in every field of life, for Hindi and Tamil alone could not help them fill their bellies. Their white employers would not deign to learn the languages of their workers, but the latter could rise to the level of the former, and through the master’s language gain an understanding of his psychology. As it is, the employers were already at grips with Creole to understand another grade of employees.
The first primary school where English and French were taught together with Hindi was Maheshwarnath School. The first headteacher was Mr Boyjonauth.
During the first two years of its existence, Adnath Chicooree and Shivprasad Ramlal Tiwari spent Rs 3000 to pay the salaries of teachers and for amenities for the school, the former bearing the lion’s share of the cost. A government grant-in-aid system existed since 1856. The schools run by the Christians were the main beneficiaries and they were administered by their churches. Maheshwarnath became an Aided school in 1913. A board of managers was set up with Raghoobeer Ramloll, the brother of Shivprasad, as Chairman. He stayed in that position for twenty years. Dr Jhugroo Seegobind succeeded him thereafter.
During the first half century of its existence, the school had as some of its headteachers: Esther, Hennequin, Sahadeo Ajodha, Madho Gopaul, but the one who really stood out was Gopichand Chuttur from Queen Victoria, Flacq. He came to live in Triolet near the school in the yard of the Taposseeahs where he gave free private tuition to students of every community under a mango tree. The labour laws of 1908 had raised the employable age of children from ten to thirteen years. Still, parents were reluctant to send their sons to school as they did not want to lose the pittance they received as wages. The employers, too, did not want to lose their workers. Chuttur master, as he was known, often accompanied by his daughter, Vidyawatee, went from house to house and field to field convincing the parents to send their children to his school. He would slowly win over both parties when he told them that he would return their hands as educated workers.
A few teachers of that glorious past were Miss Celine, Miss Sonahee, Esther, Hennequin, Ordonnateur, Adnath, Taposseeah, Bootun, Beekrumsing Ramlallah, Chicoree. Khemraj Ramdeehul is the only one of the lot still alive today at the age of ninety. Apart from teaching, the staff were heavily involved in social activities. They ran the Civil Status Office in the school premises, became village councillors, operated a branch of the Sewa Samiti, a non-military club as they said but it was involved in raising political awareness. B.Ramlallah would leave teaching for active politics in 1953, and founded the Mauritius Times weekly.
Among the first students to attend Maheshwarnath School was the first Mauritian Governor-General, Sir Abdool Raman Osman, who then lived at Morcellement St Andre, a village some two kilometres from the school as the crow flies. Children walked long distances to attend school, barefoot along beaten tracks and tarred roads. At times, they had free rides in ox-carts. Many former students have made a name for themselves and their country. The Goriah brothers from Bon Air joined the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and became doctors later, just like Dr Lutchmeeparsad Nundlall today, one of their classmates. The first doctor of Triolet was Kishorelal Adnath. Hundreds of others have gone their own way keeping up the good name of their alma mater.
The school has given the country a Governor- General, Sir Raman Abdool Osman, and a writer of national and international repute, especially in the world of Hindi, who holds the torch high for the school that has meant so much to him as a student and, later, as a teacher. He is no less than the well-known writer-artist, Abhimanyu Unnuth, upon whom prizes, honours, titles have been showered by the dozen, and whose works have served as the basis of PhD theses by research students.
Maheshwarnath Government School has been a pioneer in the field of education. It has been exceptional in many ways. Its centenary is an opportune occasion to bring back to our minds the original contributions made by its founders towards building our secular society. The brain behind the school was Pandit Shivprasad Ramloll who blazed the trail for the type of education that children of his village as well as those of the whole country should have, in order to coexist in the new society evolving before their eyes. The whole of Mauritius had to be one family, and education was to be its lifeblood. A century ago, Triolet set the ball rolling
Fern roof of Maheswarnath Aided School in the background with Parushram Naeck in the middle and Lall Dinassingh on his extreme right in 1942-43
* Published in print edition on 23 September 2011