Remembering SSR – His early years

‘The child is father to the man’ – so runs this saying taken from a poem of William Wordsworth. In reflecting on the life of the man who later became the Father of the Nation, the early years of Seewoosagur Ramgoolam hold a fascination for both historians and educationists.

These formative years are fascinating because of the unexpected trajectory of a child from Belle Rive to Royal College Curepipe, and thereafter to University College London, and also perhaps because one hopes to discover some ingredients in that success which may contribute towards the education of the Mauritian child.

However one has to lament that we still lack detailed information about those years of young Seewoosagur spent in both Mauritius and Britain. We hope that students of History will some day explore in greater depth his early education and, as regards his years in London, delve into the intelligence reports of the British government regarding students’ activities in Britain in the 1930s. This will help to enlighten future generations on the making of SSR.

For the moment, we have to rely on what his biographers Anand Mulloo and Sydney Selvon have written and the various articles written by a number of his contemporaries. Only very rarely does an anecdote pop up from an unexpected quarter and that adds a beam of light on his childhood days. One person recounted an incident when her mother who went to the same school at Bel Air was hit by a pebble which had been thrown acccidentally by Kewal. Kewal not only apologized to the young girl but gave a small gift by way of reparation.

The well-known story of the self-willed young boy who followed some children to a Roman Catholic school in Olivia and was welcomed by Mrs Siris is interesting in itself. Unexpectedly, not only did Mrs Siris welcome and accept Kewal to join her class but his parents also accepted this fait accompli and allowed him to continue his education at Bel Air R.C.A. In those days most Indian parents of the rural areas fought shy of western education for fear of losing their children’ souls. Why did his parents succumb to the wishes of this unconventional child? Was it the outcome of a small boy’s determination and his magnificent self-assurance? Or could it be that the school administration had probably discerned some precocious qualities of character which they did not want to smother? One of these qualities was certainly his determination, which even the loss of one eye in an accident could not turn him blind to the enchanted landscape of his village or to the world of knowledge that was then opened for him.

Furthermore, what could have impelled Kewal’s parents to send him to Curepipe to live at his relatives’ place to allow him to complete his primary studies, and possibly to take private tuition so as to join the Royal College? Such a decision must have come from both his parents and his relatives. It is difficult to imagine such a wish coming from young Kewal unless that he had earlier, during one of his visits to his relatives at Curepipe Road, seen and been impressed by the imposing structure of the Royal College building, like so many children before him and ever since.

Royal College might not have been the alienating social environment one could have expected. There were already some Indian boys there. His own relative Seewoodary Buguth had been a student there and had stood as a candidate in the 1906 elections for the district of Plaines Wilhems. Royal College turned him into a budding intellectual who revelled in English language and literature. Many of the teachers and rectors of the Royal College were from Oxford and Cambridge and they nurtured in their pupils that broad classical education which indirectly was copied from the public schools in England. That shaped their outlook as well as their behaviour in matters of courtesy and elegance. Only a decade earlier, one such rector, Charles Bruce, who was a professor of Sanskrit, had received Gandhi.

Kewal completed his studies in 1920; some of his classmates who sat for the Cambridge Examination were AL Nairac, AR Osman, LJM Piat, LA Pitchen, WAE Rai, JR Raffray, AM Rajabally and P Randabel. Later, on his way to his studies in England, he stopped in Paris and visited the Sorbonne and the various bookstores where he presumably bought a few books.

In Britain, while he was studying medicine at University College London, he could not resist the academic and political effervescence in the capital. London was then, that is in the 1930s, the centre of a socialist revolution which was to spread throughout the world. He spent a lot of his time listening to the great lectures, which were held every week in the London universities. He regularly attended the May Day meetings at Hyde Park corner. It was in the company of Renganaden Seeneevassen that he listened in religious silence to the speeches on socialism given by leaders not only from European countries but also from India, Japan, Russia and the Unites States.

Very few Mauritian students are known to have played an active role in student politics as he did in those days. Seeneevasen was one such student-activist, who was an active member of the India League with Krishna Menon and a few others. In 1924 Ramgoolam chaired the London Branch of the Indian National Congress, which had as secretary Vithalbbhai Patel, the elder brother of Sardar Valabhai Patel. Through Patel, he came into contact with Gandhi, Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and Subhas Chandra Bose.

Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was also an active member of the Indian Students Association and played an equally active role in managing the reception committee set up to welcome Gandhi who was attending the Round Table Conference in 1931. His contacts with the then Indian leadership extended to Subhas Chandra Bose, who later sought his help for proofreading his manuscript of ‘The Great Indian Struggle’. Bose later sent him an autographed copy when it came out.

Seewoosagur Ramgoolam also befriended a number of African students, namely Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya and Kenneth Kaunda who were to play leading roles in the decolonization of Africa. He joined the Fabian society and became acquainted with a number of British socialists of the Fabian society and the British Labour Party, but also many of the great writers of the time. When the world plunged into depression and he was himself facing dire financial straits, he turned to journalism and wrote articles in The Times, the Daily Herald and the Morning Post.

It is clear that the young Ramgolam was a budding young intellectual who would have shone in a world of letters. As a doctor his vocation was to attenuate human suffering and save lives. His passionate interest in politics and human affairs impelled him to listen to the cries and woes of his countrymen and to undo the evils of a social and political system responsible for untold sufferings and hardships.

When he came back in 1935, the first function he attended was at the Arya Samaj. He had not yet decided to join active politics but anybody who knew him at that time was certain that he would leave a deep imprint on society and since, many of the great minds of our times, friends as well as adversaries rightly consider that Mauritius was lucky to have had a person like SSR during those critical moments in our country’s history.

 

  • Published in print edition on 11 September 2015

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