Sarita Boodhoo


The Baithka: A role to play in today’s Mauritius? 

— Sarita Boodhoo 

Mauritius is being crippled by an increase in crimes of all types including white-collar ones. Domestic violence and the rate of divorce have reached alarming proportions. Drug peddling and abuse, aids, thefts, etc., are other disturbing elements that menace the fabric of society and a healthy living. Indiscipline of children at home, in school premises as well as in public places is another cause for concern. Teenagers are unable to check their youthful bubbling passion and want instant sexual gratification, thus falling an easy prey to predators. Parental authority is defied. These are all so many agonizing aspects of modern living. And we seem to be mere watchers, impotent, unable to bring a remedy. We are overwhelmed, baffled and exasperated. Talks, seminars and workshops are being conducted throughout the year. Kathas and other religious gatherings and activities are not lacking. Not that evil forces did not exist before: they have followed man since the dawn of life.

The scriptures and Gurus keep warning us and provide methods of checks and balances on how to prevent ourselves from falling a prey to the lurking demoniac forces inside us. The Mahabharata, the Ramayana and other holy scriptures are all there to prove that reality and to teach us how to combat these weaknesses and germs of wickedness. The Manu Smriti and Tirukural have laid down codes of conduct for a disciplined and regulated daily life. Every sloka of the Bhagvad Gita is a warning against the pitfalls of desires and basic instincts lurking within our hearts. The battlefield of Kurukshetra is not out there in the hoary past but very much present in our own daily lives.

Sabhas and socio-cultural organisations are proliferating. Preachers and gurus alight in Mauritius from every plane. Yet, it would seem that nothing is working. Society is sick and burdened. And we are groaning under its weight. Thus in disenchantment and with a saddened desolate heart we look back with nostalgia to those days when, in spite of the hardships that prevailed, our forefathers set up the baithka that stood as a veritable anchor that bound society together, acted as a regulator to illicit and unlicensed conduct.

What role for the baithka?

Some people argue that the schools and colleges have replaced the baithkas. We have today beautiful buildings and institutions where teachings are taking place. But what is amiss? In today’s rat race the focus is on competitive living, and the structures of formal schooling do not give enough latitude, space and time for value education to be tackled properly and to seep in. The other day I went to the Ramakrishna Mission for some books for the Nalanda Bookshop. The serenity of the whole space was enthralling. Magnificent buildings stood erect with spacious sprawling lawns. I had some words with Swami Rupanandji, head of the mission. He told me classes in value education, yoga are given – all free, just as in the days of the baitka but few children turn up. Why? Because they are all following private tuition.

So, even if baithkas are opened, do we have such dedicated volunteers with the right mindset as in the old days to run and teach at the baithkas? And who will follow the classes? Will their parents consider it worthwhile or time-consuming? The day financial support was doled out to volunteers to teach in the existing baithkas/Hindi pathshalas by way of encouragement, the rot started to settle in. On the other hand, if financial support is removed, teachers would lack the motivation to conduct the classes, and you may end up with the existing schools being closed down.

The baithka set up by the indentured immigrants and their descendants was a veritable socio-cultural hub, a gathering place, where the migrants interacted with each other. The word baithka orginates from baithna — to sit together. The modern lounge – our « salon » is a baithak where the family sits together. But in today’s home-baithak, drinks are served in abundance and the TV dishes out all types of unbelievable serials. The children are hooked to the social sites on the Net and video games.

It is true that the baithka was the nerve centre of the community in the old days. It was in the baithka that they would teach their children the vernacular and inculcate religious and moral values. This was done every afternoon or twice or thrice a week. « Ram Gatti Dehu Sumati » — the path of Ram leads to wisdom. The language used as a medium of instruction was Bhojpuri, mixed with some Hindi, developing in India at that time as Khadi Boli. On Thursdays, the day of the Guru (Guruvaar), a ceremony was held in honour of the Guru. This was known as Pati Puja (Puja of the Slate). In Hindu ethos, learning is venerated; Saraswati, the Goddess of learning is invoked by even the illiterate masses to provide Vidya – knowledge. On the occasion of the Pati Puja, a copy of Ram Charit Manas, carefully wrapped up in a piece of cloth, as is done to this day, as well as pupils’ slates were laid on an improvised altar.

Pupils offered prasaad. The Guru who taught the verses of Ramayana and Hanuman Chalisa would be smartly dressed in his dhoti with a tika on his forehead carrying his cane in one hand. The pupils would prostrate in front of the Guru and he would touch their back symbolically with the cane as a blessing which was known as Chhari Vardaan. Today the Chhari is banished and outlawed. Many individuals conducted pathshalas (Hindi schools) free of charge in their homes. The children would chant and recite the verses that they had learnt. Appreciation would be shown to them. The advanced students would teach the juniors. This process of learning from each other led to a proliferation of Ramayanis. It is from this tradition that even present-day Hindi teachers in the primary government schools as well as in the evening Hindi pathshalas are still addressed with the revered term Guruji and lady teachers as Behenji.

The baithka continued to exert great influence on the social, cultural, political and economic life of the Indentured labourers and their descendants. It was the seat of the Panchayat (village community/committee) where disputes would be settled, the welfare of the community discussed, villagers’ hardship problems solved, marriages settled and community support exhorted.

In short, it was a meeting place where everything concerned with the community would be discussed. Eventually it became the pivot of political awakening. It was the hub of social redress and community uplift. There were also baithkas where caste affiliations were considered. Bhojpuri served as the vehicle of expression and communication. The baithka was run on a voluntary basis and expenses were met by the community. Festivals like Holi (Phagwa), Sankranti, Divali, Maha Shivaratri were occasions of joy, celebration and sharing. The baithka continued to play a very important role in Mauritius up to the sixties and was instrumental in fuelling the liberation movements of the country that would lead to independence.

Now, when we are so nostalgic about the baithka as a cure for the maladies of the modern-day sick Mauritian society, what is it that we really are aspiring for? The baithka as a socio-educational structure has been replaced by many present-day institutions. But it is the invaluable teaching of values imparted at the baithkas by dedicated self-respected individuals who acted as role models that we would like to be reinstituted.

In today’s rat race where practically everyone is driven by norms of the consumer society and wants the best of material benefits for himself and his family, and is therefore under pressure to rake in the greatest amount of money every month, it is important that leaders of opinion, particularly those occupying positions of responsibility in religious organisations, should reflect on how to bring back the core values of our religion into practice in our society.

According a higher importance to these values in our daily lives and keeping the family in a religious frame of mind will go a long way towards keeping our children away from the vices and other habits that can lead to crime. Gathering children of broadly similar age-groups in baithka-style reunions at social venues in every village or town suburb every weekend for interaction/discussions on religious, linguistic and general knowledge under the leadership of dedicated individuals who can serve as role-models and teachers at the same time will be the cherry on the cake. May some villages show the way! 

Sarita Boodhoo

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