By Dr. Somdat Mahabir
Dr. Dhanpaul Narine reminds the public that the late Dharamacharya Pandit Ramlall was an iconic figure in our community. He taught many persons in Guyana, including our own Dr. Somdat Mahabir, and a number of others. Pandit Ramlall was a freedom fighter. He was jailed by the British at Sibley Hall, and some of his companions were C.V Nunes, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, and others. This was during the fight for Guyana’s independence. Pandit Ramlall helped to set up the Arya Spiritual Center in New York, and was a much loved figure. On June 27, the City of New York will co-name a street in his honor. All are invited. Below Dr. Somdat gives an account of his encounters with Pandit Ramlall.
Thanks for sharing, and thanks to you all in the committe for the work done in the “Pandit Rāmlāll Way” project. Indeed, as you mentioned, Pandit Rāmlāll taught Hindi to me and others at Tagore High School – Hindi was a formal subject and we sat supervised external examinations and several of us earned junior and senior-level certificates in Hindi. He was the first to formally teach me the Devanāgari script which was the basis of my curiosity and my introduction to Sanskrit and study of Bhagavad Gītā, first, under well-known Hindu scholar Pūjya Swamī Aksharānanda who would later establish SVN, a high school of excellence in Guyana. It is the blessings that I received from Pt. Rāmlāll and Swamī Jī and other teachers including Prof. Vishwās Kulkarni that I have acquired some language skills to teach Gītā as a seva activity for several years now, including to a few students of Pt Rāmlāll from our Tagore High School days.
Early in his career, Pt. Rāmlall was influenced by ārya samāj āchāryas from India who visited Guyana. They include Ayodhyā Prasād Jī, Bhāskaranand Jī, Nārayan Dutta Jī, Shrimati Janki Devi Jī, Bhesh Pati Sinha Jī and Pandit Usharbudh (who left ārya samāj and later became Swamī Veda Bhārati).
Rāmlāll Jī got a big opportunity in 1974 when he was awarded a Government of India scholarship and pursued studies at the Kendriya Hindi Sansthan in New Delhi until 1976.
Pt Rāmlāll knew my family history and we maintained very close and cordial relations. I was inspired by the fluent speaking in Hindi between him and Swamī Aksharānanda in my home were they met a few times and had lengthy discussions – today, and at that time, very people have the ability to speak and understand Hindi. After my high school education, when I lived in Bel Air, Greater Georgetown, many times I rode my bicycle along the street where Dr. Cheddi Jagan lived, and whom I saw a few times, including in his Russian-made “Lada” car, but I never had the opportunity to speak to him. When Cheddi arrived in Richmond Hill (I think in 1988 or 1989) and Pt Rāmlall indicated to me that he was going to Chair that meeting, I asked him to call on me to ask Jagan a question – I positioned myself at the front and Pt Rāmlāll, as promised, called on me to ask the question. Dr. Jagan showed his displeasure with my question, and later, Pt Rāmlāll called and scolded me, but when I explined after taking my scolding from him, he was satisifed with my point of view – so it was Pt Rāmlāll who gave me my only opportunity to communicate directly with the iconic Cheddi Jagan. I remember going with Pt Rāmlāll to a WPA meeting (possibly in 1990) in Queens and he made some strong comments in support of the WPA and it angered some of the PPP folks and an argument ensued – there was also a feisty side to him – I held his hands and led him out of the hall and we both drove home. I had a reasonable abount of personal interactions with Pt Rāmlāll who shared a lot of historical information with me, including things pertinent to the PPP, Holi/Phagwa paradae, Pandits, historical figures on the Courentyne coast, etc. Time-permitting, I may pen my recollections of some of those conversations we had. One amazing thing about Pt Rāmlāll, even towards the end, was his sharp memory – he would enquire about the welfare of people, including his former students. I also disagreed with him on a few rare occasions and we spoke about those, but that never affected my respect for him, and the same from him.
There was a lovely program on Sunday, February 23, 2014 where the Arya Spiritual Center and Former Tagore High School students of Pt. Rāmlāll celebrated his birthday. I was the guest speaker. Here excerpts of my tribute to him:
“Mānaniiya Pt. Rāmlāll Jī, fellow students who studied Hindi under Pt Rāmlāll at Tagore High School, respected former teachers from Tagore, parents, friends and members of the Arya Spiritual Center. Acknowledgement of education received from teachers is a cherished value of our Hindu culture, to such an extent that we equate our teachers with divinity. A well-known, popular Sanskrit mahāvākya captures this thinking – āchāryā deva bhāvah – we salute our teachers as deva (divinity). As a formal student of Pt Rāmlāll, having studied Hindi under him at Tagore HS on the Courentyne Coast of Berbice, Guyana, I cherish this opportunity to offer this tribute to him.”
“Pandit Jī, you have inspired many. Speaking for myself, I was touched and motivated by your brilliance and fluency in Hindi even when I was a naïve student at Tagore HS. Hindi was my favorite subject and I used it in an attempt to raise my overall score across all other subjects to balance out with the brighter students in the class such as my good friend, Rishideo Pooran Jī, who is here today. I remember copying lines of conversational Hindi from your class and took them home to practice conversations with my grandparents to show-off that I was better at the language than they were. It was a long time ago at Tagore, but so powerful was your impact that I can still remember certain things you taught us. You used to teach us selected dohas and chowpais from Rāmāyana. A doha that remained in my memory all these years is: Tulsī kāyā khet hai, man hai bhai kisaan; paap aur punya do bīja hai, bowai salunai nidhan.”
“We are indeed blessed to have passed through your hands as our teacher. All we can do is to acknowledge your impact in stimulating our minds to go further in our quest for learning, teaching and service to others. Our iconic Hindu texts are filled with examples of the virtues of education. In the Gītā, for example, Krishna tells Arjuna, budhāu sharanam anviccha – seek refuge in intelligence. So, we thank you for being our teacher and for the inspiration you have given us.”
On another occasion, several of his Tagore High School students honored him and I was again honored to get the opportunity to do that and share some pictures below where I presented him with a symbolic shawl, flowers, and a textbook I co-edited (pictures also attached).