PORTRAIT OF A PRINCIPAL, PATRIOT AND POLITICIAN --
His life's work should be honoured
Posted July 26th. 2003 - by Moses V. Nagamootoo
I received a terse emailed: "Mr.Rudra Nath died in Florida." It was from an old student of Corentyne Comprehensive School, where I taught when Rudra Nath was the Principal.
Since then, my mind has been traveling back in time, reviewing when and how I knew Rudra Nath, reflecting on his pioneering work as an educationist, the years we shared together as political activists and how his philosophy of life influenced me. When the news of Rudra Nath's death reached me last month I was about to travel for the United States, so I promised myself that as soon as I could do so, I would write a tribute to his work and memory. However, in New York I was invited to meet socially with a Guyanese gathering and I grabbed the opportunity to talk about the life and example of Rudra Nath.
Two coincidences stood out at that meeting: firstly, the organizer was Joe Kanhai, who was introduced to me by Rudra Nath sometime in 1963 as a PPP militant from Port Mourant; and secondly, Mr. Persaud, a former headmaster, reminded me that Rudra Nath was born in his home village of Vergenoegen on the West Coast of Demerara. Rudra, he disclosed, had started his career as a bicycles repairman.
How did he come to the Corentyne? That is a long and interesting story, the exact beginning I do not know first-hand. I learned that he and his parents re-located in Rose Hall sometime in 1960 or there about, and that Rudra Nath had opened a high school in an unlikely building I knew only as "Rock Diamond", formerly a hotel. Soon after, he started a public campaign to build a school in the swampy, crab-grass area close to the Rose Hall reef or foreshore, to be known as Rose Hall High School.
ROSE HALL SWAMP
I enrolled at that "swamp" school in September 1962 when the building was still under construction and students were giving voluntary labour towards its completion. I still picture senior students like Baythoo Nandalall, Soman Lall and Premchand Dass pushing around wheel-barrows and fetching buckets of sand and cement at the site. I remember meeting Mr. Nath in the unfinished staff room, and asking him to admit me as I had made much sacrifice to get $18 for the first term's fees. Fees, he retorted, were not important. What was important to him, he added softly, is that the children of the poor should have an education, and that he would make sure that they do, at least in the Berbice area. Those words were to be, since then, a source of great inspiration to me in all that I did and was to become.
Rudra Nath kept faith with his promise. After my first term he gave me "accelerated promotion" from the second to the fourth form, and six months later he posted me to the fifth form, with the "big league" then preparing for the General Certificate of Education (London) examinations.
Rudra Nath was out to promote talent when he recognized it in any student. He had boasted excellent results in previous exams at the Senior Cambridge levels in students like Miss Rai, Hardutt Punwassie, Mohanlall Birbahadur, Basil Jaggernath and Rajdhanie, to name only a few "A" students. Nath's "swamp" school was rivaling the long-established Corentyne High School.
He had good teachers, all dedicated to Nath's purpose. Among the early ones were Yassin Sankar and Yassin Ben, both of whom taught Literature; William Rawana, my Latin master; Vernon Asregadoo, as well as Ramkissoon, Ramnarine and Ramkeerat (we used to pronounce the first syllable in the last three names,"Rum"), Hariprashad, Chandoo Narine, Miss Prema, Naidu and Sanichar. Sooner, he added a team of his "A" students to his staff of competent teachers. By June 1964 I was writing GCE and, before results were out, Rudra Nath appointed me a junior English teacher.
STRIVE FOR EXCELLENCE
If Rudra Nath's politics were Gandhian non-violence, his philosophy on education was that of Rabindranath Tagore. He felt that one should strive for excellence even if one were to be educated under a tree. So it was not surprising that Nath's school became a melting pot of talent from children who were born and raised literally in the cane and rice fields.
It was Nath's school that incubated singers like Roopdai Etwaroo and Tajewattie Singh; first-class athletes like Alvin Kallicharran (cricket) and Anand Sookram (table tennis). It was at that school that I was to make acquaintance with Premchand Dass and Michael Dutchin, who were to become forefront PPP activists for Guyana's independence and later, the restoration of democracy. But Nath's idealism and altruism were not shared by every one. Whilst I was in Form 4 his Board of Governors threw Nath out of the school he had built. When he walked, he took with him all of his students and re-started school at the Port Mourant Race Course. We were huddled in several forms in the two grand pavilions and, as my memory raced back to that time, I can still smell the dust, stale dung, and the dank sweat of horses, as I did while being prepared for exams in the "stables". Nath later moved his students to the old Port Mourant factory compound, where there was an existing school, and merged to form what is today the Corentyne Comprehensive School.
Rudra Nath was an exceptionally determined person. I remember him traveling around on bicycle, then on motor-cycle and later in a "match-box" Volkswagon carrying the message that children of the poor must have an education. His fees were small, and his encouragement was always great. He organized countrywide fundraisers for his school building project. As a student, I was given my first break on stage when I played my own guitar and sang calypsoes and country western at the fundraisers. I began teaching at Comprehensive High, but I was sacked from the school in early 1967 for advocating "Marxism" and teaching, as I now recall, a single class Darwin's theory on Evolution. It was not Rudra Nath's doing. The Board was taken over by conservatives who were concerned that too many teachers, including Rudra, were associated with the PPP, then in opposition to the creeping Burnham dictatorship.
Rudra was also a great disciplinarian. I vividly remember when someone threw a bench at a teacher, while his back was turned to the blackboard. No one would confess. So Rudra summoned Indal Persaud, his beloved nephew, who was living with him at the time. He pulled Indal over the bench and gave him six lashes with a cane. Nath broke the cane thereafter, and he was almost in tears as he told us this story: a boy was walking on the road; he saw a piece of wood with a nail sticking out from it. He stepped on the wood, and his foot was pierced. Another boy was also walking on the road; he did not see the nail on the wood, but stepped on it, and was pierced. "What was common is that whether one does something by accident or by design, one feels the pain." Indal had to feel pain by accident or design in not disclosing who threw the bench at Yassin Sankar!
I did not see Rudra very much after 1973 or so. He visited me at my house in Georgetown sometime in 2000 when I was still a Government Minister. When I saw him I ran as quickly as I could, bare-footed and in shorts, to open the gate for my old headmaster and mentor. Over tea at my bottom-house, he told me of his plan to build a college in Berbice. I promised to help in whatever ways I could. I volunteered to contact Punwassie, an old student/teacher who had become a successful engineer, about designing the edifice and supervising its construction. I assured him that "B", as he knew Punwassie, would gladly do this for him free of cost!
As he was leaving he told me that he was proud that I had remained at the side of Cheddi Jagan, and had seen the struggle through to victory. He looked at my bare feet, and he said: "You didn't have to open the gate for me." He smiled, still looking down, and added: "But, then, I am not disappointed. It's good to know that you remain humble as I have taught my students to be."
Rudra Nath was also at Cheddi's side, for many years. In 1964 he was the Chairman of the No 3 Constituency (Dr Jagan's area) spanning Port Mourant to Black Bush Polder. I was to succeed him in that position the following year, which he didn't take kindly, but we worked together for the party tooth and nail, and he was seen as the guru in our circle comprising Pandit Tiwari, Sydney Joseph, Hazrat Insanally, Joe Kanhai, Dandy Baichan, Beckles, Paloo and others.
He did a lot more that earned him tremendous respect. His presence anywhere commanded attention. Once, when Dara Singh, the Indian wrestler and actor, came to Guyana for exhibition bouts, there was a near riot at the Port Mourant cricket ground. There were so many people all crashing against the fence that separated them from the wrestling ring that the stage almost collapsed. The agitated crowd would listen to no one. Then the just-above-five feet, diminutive, bespectacled Rudra Nath stepped on the stage. In a soft voice, he asked for calm and for reason, and he got it.
So popular was he becoming on the Corentyne that folks had started to whisper that he could be a suitable successor for Cheddi Jagan. But Rudra's ascendancy to the higher echelon of the PPP was anything but dramatic. It became a great disappointment for him that, though he tried at several congresses to get elected to the PPP General Council, he failed on each of his bids - the last, as I remember, was in the late 60s when Congress was held at Anna Regina. I suspect that though popular, his strident pro-Indian stance was not acceptable in a Marxist-Leninist party that represented and wanted to woo African support.
His politics apart, Rudra Nath's greatest achievements were his pioneering work as an educationist, which must not be forgotten. For a start, I believe consideration ought to be given to rename a suitable school in his honour, the "Rudra Nath Memorial High".
(The writer, a former student and teacher at the high school founded by Rudra Nath, is presently an Attorney