Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR), who turns 120 today, needs no introduction. I use the present tense, as his presence can still be felt amongst us, thanks to the indelible imprint he has left on so many facets of our country: education, health, agriculture, public infrastructure and key institutions. However hard they try, nobody will ever be able to wipe off SSR from the slates of our history. This article is about my interactions with SSR from childhood to manhood.
The School Boy
I had heard about SSR ever since I could remember. My father Somdath, and my uncle Satcam Boolell, a senior Minister in his Cabinet, were both very close to him. In the months preceding our country’s independence in 1968, whilst I was in fourth standard at the Champ de Lort Government School, our teacher, the elegant Miss Bholanath, who rode her ‘bicyclette mamzelle’ (ladies bicycle) to school, explained to us the meaning of independence and how SSR would now be taking over the country from the British. We were taught to sing the new national anthem. The lyrics that struck me the most were: ‘As one people (pronounced ‘pipoul’ by the whole school in unison) as one nation’.
On Independence Day, we walked from our school to the Champ de Mars, with our Miss and other teachers leading the pack. We managed to catch a glimpse of the ceremony from afar, behind barriers, under the scorching sun, with our feet in the mud, as it had rained heavily on the eve. At noon, when the Union Jack gave way to our national flag, we sang as the police band played the national anthem. This is when I saw SSR for the first time. The towering Governor General, dressed in white and crowned with a plume hat, dwarfed him. But, as I grew up, SSR grew to become a giant in my eyes.
The College Days
During my teenage years at the Royal College of Port Louis (RCPL), SSR received mixed reviews from my fellow students. Many of them were lured by the revolutionary ideas of the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM). There was the students’ strike of May 1975. SSR managed to assuage the expectations of the youth by lowering the majority, and hence voting, age from 21 to 18. He also granted free secondary education to one and all. At the general elections of 1976, SSR’s Labour Party narrowly scraped through by allying itself with the Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD). In 1977, SSR once came home to pay a visit to my father, who was unwell. He took time to speak to my sisters and I, and showed an interest in our studies. I was struck by how soft spoken and gentle he was. I later understood how his charm and affability would easily disarm even his staunchest opponents.
In 1979, the RCPL celebrated its 50th anniversary with grand pomp. In the course of the official ceremony, SSR delivered the keynote address. He emphasised the importance of making the most of the fine education bestowed upon us at this historic institution; and how crucial it was for the younger generation to break the mould of our island’s insularity. In the picture accompanying this article, I can be seen delivering my speech as Head Boy of the College. From left to right behind me, were: the MMM Lord Mayor of Port Louis Lloyd Baligadoo, SSR, the Governor General Sir Dayendranath & Lady Burrenchobay, the Minister of Education Sir Kher Jagatsingh. In my address, I spoke about the students’ aspirations and the need to render university education more accessible. After the ceremony, SSR commended me for fearlessly upholding my ideals, and urged me to keep up with public speaking.
In the following year, I was accepted by the London School of Economics (LSE) to study law. Prior to my departure, my father took me to pay a courtesy call on SSR at the Prime Minister’s Office. SSR spoke lengthily about the LSE, its history and its founding values of Fabian Socialism, which had shaped his political thoughts. He told us he attended economics lectures at the LSE, whilst studying medicine at the University College London (UCL). He reiterated what he had told me the previous year about the art of public speaking, a key tool for a lawyer. He also insisted on the need to be well read and to embrace a general culture. Having himself lived for 14 years in London, he shared some useful tips about the museums, arts and theatre. Last but not least, unsolicited, he asked his secretary to issue me with a letter of reference, just in case it might come in handy some day. Coming out of the meeting, I was mesmerised by SSR’s generosity. So was my father.
The University Student
On 26 September 1980, I left Mauritius for my studies. And guess what: SSR was on the same flight to London. We met in the VIP Lounge with my parents. Judge Victor Glover and his son, Gavin, who was also leaving for his studies, were there too. During the flight, SSR called on both Gavin and myself to come and meet him. He wanted to ensure that we were being well looked after. He asked me to come and visit him at his hotel, as he was going to be in London for a few days. I gladly obliged. On the very day of our arrival, I dutifully did so, accompanied by my cousin Arvin Boolell, who was visiting from Dublin, where he was studying medicine. SSR treated us to tea in his suite at the Strand Palace Hotel, a short walk from the LSE. He had some useful tips to offer about the LSE: he suggested that I should not confine myself to law, but should attend lectures on other subjects like economics and politics. I must say that I did heed his advice, which has had the benefit of exposing me to the finest academic brains worldwide.
In 1981, whilst on a visit to London, my uncle Satcam took me to dinner to the residence of Rohit Boolaky, of the Mauritius High Commission. SSR and Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo (SVR), then Minister of Finance, were there too. I felt somewhat daunted by the presence of these three stalwarts. But they soon made me feel at ease. SSB and SVR had also studied law at the LSE some thirty years earlier. Needless to say, the conversation touched on the LSE, as they were all keen to know how the institution had evolved over one generation. I was glad to report that it had kept its critical and socialist edge. I saw SSR in a different light that evening. He was jovial and was cracking jokes; but when he spoke about the forthcoming general elections of 1982, I could sense melancholy at the thought that his political career might soon be drawing to a close. SSR was human after all, and that is what made him so likeable. And it was his deep feelings and sensibility that made him a man of the people.
Upon my return to the country as a barrister in August 1984, my father took me to see SSR, who had, by then, been unseated as Prime Minister in 1982, and appointed Governor General in 1983. The meeting took place at the State House, Réduit. His health had started to deteriorate, but certainly not his mind. He was extremely glad that I had followed into the footsteps of my father as a barrister. He impressed upon me that there was no substitute for hard work, and to keep up to date with the latest developments in the law, as he still did for medicine.
He remembered our previous meetings. He urged me to continue to read and to be, first and foremost, a man of culture, like my father. He was humble enough not to add that he was one such man too. When we left him, little was I to know that this was our last meeting. I could not help reflecting on how dignified and impeccably well dressed and spoken SSR was, despite his advanced age. He still exuded the same aura and charisma, and commanded the same respect. Such were the hallmarks of a true statesman.
A year later, SSR passed away. I attended his funeral at the Pamplemousses Botanical Garden, together with my father and uncle Satcam. Once the funeral pyre was set ablaze, I could not hold back my tears, thinking of the warm, generous and hearty advice he had tendered to me over the years. To date, I still value and cherish them. Such was the story of ‘SSR and I’.