The Devotional and Relentless Ramlakhan
By Janet A. Naidu
One of the most remarkable experiences of Indian migration to the Caribbean is the significant impact they made upon the social and cultural transformation of the region. By the end of the twentieth century, descendants of indentured laborers formed a large percentage of the population in countries like Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname. While they have adapted to their new homelands, many have maintained their cultural traditions and values, whether they are Hindus, Muslims or Christians. It is important to recognize that the greater percentage of Indians who arrived in the Caribbean was Hindus and undoubtedly they were most influential in the struggle to retain their ancestral heritage in countries that were colonized by European rulers.
Unlike Indians who migrated to other places such as East Africa, Fiji or Mauritius, those who went to the Caribbean endured a great distance from their mother country India, and this posed many challenges in sustaining their cultural traditions. These complexities are well-documented in the history of Indian migration, particularly by such scholars as Hugh Tinker, Dwarka Nath, Peter Ruhomon, Basdeo Mangru, Brian Moore, Robert Moore, David Chandrabali, Frank Birbalsingh, Chandra Jayawardena, Tota Mangar, Clem Seecharan, Tyran Ramnarine, Moses Seenarine, Arnold Thomas, Rhoda Reddock, Keith Laurence, Mahin Gosine, Isaak Dookhan, Bridget Brereton, Kusha Haraksingh, Brinsley Samaroo, Gerad Tekasingh, Wally Look Lai, Verene Shepherd, P.C. Emmer, and others. Nevertheless, to understand the immigrant experience, one must also look into the lives of their descendants. With this exploration, Mr. Dhanukdhary Ramlakhan represents a symbol of the tireless dedication and participation in community and national life, not only because of his family tradition, but also because of his ingenuity and persistence to improve lifes conditions. Mr. Ramlakhan was a symbol of progress, and he remains an enduring figure in Guyanas social and economic development.
Dhanukdhary Ramlakhan was born on May 12, 1914 in a logie situated (in those days) on David Street at Windsor Forest, West Coast Demerara. His paternal grandparents, Ujodhea and Busowty, as well as his maternal grandparents, Hanuman and Budhia, were shipped to Guyana as indentured laborers from the state of Bihar, India. Very little is known of the dates of their arrival which are most likely hidden in the Guyana Archives. The very nature of unrecorded history surrounding many indentured laborers forces one to rely on oral history. His parents, Dhanukdhary and Dookhia were born in Guyana. His father (who also had the name Dhanukdhary) was born in Windsor Forest in 1881. His mother, Dookhia, was born on October 27, 1884 in Anna Catherina. They were blessed with 12 children of whom three died at birth (their first baby and as well as their twin babies who were born later). Like many Indian families who married their children at a young age, Dhanukdhary and Dookhia were still in their teenage years when they became parents; he around age 18 or 19 and she was around age 15 or 16.
Amidst the hardship of plantation life, their surviving children, Biphni (b.1901), Hansraj (b.1905), Bansraj (b.1907), Sanichary (b.1909), Ramlakhan (b.1914), Beharry (b.1916), Sahadai (b.1920 and now deceased), Sudya (Kousila) (b.1925), and Dindial were all born at Windosr Forest. Sadly, Dindial died when he was only 14 years of age. Like other workers on the plantation, Dhanukdhary and Dookhia worked until the Sea Defense Dam at Windsor Forest was broken and which caused the village to be flooded. As a result, the sugar estate was closed down in 1908, after which the Colonial Government took control of the village, as well as the adjoining village, La Jalousie. In spite of this, Dhanukdhary and Dookhia continued to live at Windsor Forest where they not only reared milch cows and other livestock, but also Dhanukdhary worked as a laborer to help the family out with additional expenses for food and clothes. Although Ramlakhan carried his fathers name Dhanukdhary, he preferred Ramlakhan. He remembered his parents working very hard and particularly how difficult the working conditions were in those days. He said, At that time, sugar was known as King Sugar. My father worked at Windsor Forest as a mule boy for 5 cents per day and my mother worked in the Creole Gang at Anna Catherina for 3 cents per day. With such low wages it was difficult for them to make ends meet. There is no doubt that hard work makes one develop a great deal of patience, courage and the desire to improve ones condition. This is the heart of Ramlakhans life. As in the oral tradition, he wanted to pass on memories of his family life to his children and grandchildren, and he began to write his biography.
In coming to know Mr. Ramlakhan through one of his children, the younger son, Dave Ramlakhan, and through Mr. Ramlakhans documented biography, it is easy to know what a remarkable person he was, not only through his professional occupation, his roles in various organizations, boards and committees, but also as a stronger believer of Vedic Dharma (Arya Samaj) tradition of Hinduism which was passed on by his parents and grandparents. There is no question that Hinduism has survived in Guyana and the Caribbean in many ways as informed in India by religious texts such as the Vedas, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Ramlakhans parents and grandparents were strong Hindus and instilled the qualities of this ancient tradition in their children. Because of their influence, Ramlakhan not only embraced the teachings of the Vedas but also passed the values on to his children and grandchildren.
For many generations, unknown to many people, the Vedas were orally passed on and were first written in an early form of Sanskrit. (While the Vedas were being written by Aryans between 1,300 and 1000 B.C., during the Aryan migrations to India, they were already being developed around 2000 B.C. It was not until around 300 B.C. that the Vedas were written down in the form as we know them today. ) With the knowledge revealed in the Four Vedas, Mr. Ramlakhan learned of the duty of mankind. Through this foundation, his values and lifestyle formed his dedication to family and community service. In his honor, these words are surely reminiscent of a man whose strong faith meant the world to him and his family:
Om Krinvanto Vishvam Aryam
Make the Universe Noble.
God is the Primary cause of all
that is known through physical and spiritual sciences
Mr. Ramlakhan passed way in Toronto on November 4, 2003 at the age of 89. In all his years of living in Guyana and Canada (since 1975), though his wealth of knowledge and full life is yet to be shared perhaps in full biographical form, this glimpse into his celebrated life speaks volumes about his love for Guyana, his passion to impart his knowledge of Vedic traditions to those around him through religious forums, and most significantly to share the values and qualities of goodness in his occupational and community activities. He served on various Organizations, Boards, and Committees in many capacities for over 30 years on a voluntary basis, constantly looking at new ways to improve community life and, as Mr. Ramlakhan said, I feel a great sense of satisfaction and pride to be able to serve the people in my village and the rice producers of Guyana. He was always proud to acknowledge that, without the support of his family, he could not have accomplished his desires to help out in his various activities.
In 1912 Mr. Ramlakhans parents obtained a 99-year contract of the backlands at Windsor Forest and La Jalousie for agricultural purposes when the government was offering it to the settlers to encourage them to remain there. They also obtained 51/2 acres at $6.00 per acre per annum, which they established as rice land at field # 12 on the Easter section of Windsor Forest. As he proudly said, they worked with forks and shovels," that represented the "blood, sweat, toils and tears" on abandoned land that they turned into rice land. He remembered that other settlers had also broken cane lands and made it into rice lands. His parents also rented a one-acre land near the old railway line at the eastern section of Windsor Forest half of which they cultivated rice, and grew vegetables and provisions on the other half. They acquired other lands and continued to expand their cultivation.
Having a large family also meant that they would eventually contribute to the necessary work to maintain progress. Ramlakhans siblings began to help out either in the home or in the field. Generally, the girls, as in his elder sister Biphnis case, helped not only to look after the younger children, but also to do housework. As part of Indian tradition, arranged marriage took place for their children and once the older child got married, the next one in line took over the duties. This was the case with Biphni when she got married to Amar Singh and moved to his home in Grove village, East Bank Demerara. Biphnis younger sister took over the duties.
Mr. Ramlakhans parents ensured that their children receive English education, but also insisted in their learning of Hindi during the evening. Ramlakhans elder brothers Hansraj and Bansraj as well as his sister Sanichary helped their parents work in the rice field and looked after the oxen, milch cows and did other work. When they got married, his two brothers moved to work at Houston estate on the East Bank Demerara. When my two brothers left to work in Berbice, I was still going to school. Many days I had to leave school to help my parents work in the rice field and look after the ploughing oxen. Even though he helped out greatly in the rice fields, his parents wanted to make sure he received a good education.
As a young boy, Mr. Ramlakhan attended Kindergarten school at the bottom flat of the Manager's house at Martha and Menzies Streets at Windsor Forest. He also attended Reverend J. Cropper School and St. Anthony's Anglican School. He too learned Hindi at nights. He wanted to improve his education and he decided to take overseas courses in English, Constitution and Economics. Evidently, he had a penchant for learning. While attending Accabre College on the East Bank of Demerara and reading many political books, his knowledge served him greatly as he became involved in the rice industry.
His parents were industrious and in 1928 purchased seven acres of abandoned, but fertile transported land as far as Captain Coglan at the back land of north Klien Pouderoyen. While they paid laborers to weed the bushes, cut the vines and fell the trees with axes on about three and a half acres of bushy land, Mr. Ramlakhan and his brother, ages 14 and 12, helped their father burn the bushes and clear the land. As Mr. Ramlakhan remembered, We also had to heap the half-burnt woods, branches and vines on the huge tree roots and burn the bushes and tree roots as well. They also employed laborers to fork the beds and dig out tree roots. It must have been extremely difficult for them to manually farm the land with plantain and banana suckers, digging and maintaining the drains to provide adequate drainage. But Ramlakhan remembered those days well when he said, We had to dig young plantain, dwarf banana and kayan banana suckers and fetch them to give the workers to plant. They planted many other vegetables such as pumpkin, watermelon, cucumbers, corn, cassava and peppers. Of course, one can imagine their abundant harvest as they supplied the hucksters; further, leftover produce were sold at the market in front of their house.
Rice cultivation was a large part of their enterprise. He cultivated 9 1/2 acres rice land and the 7 acres of transported land which his parents had purchased at North Klien Pouderoyen. Mr. Ramlakhan learned to be a goldsmith and made jewels at their bottom house. In 1933, along with his brothers Hansraj, Bansraj and Paul Beharry, they went to the gold field near Kurupung to mine gold. They carried their bags on their shoulders with iron barrels, spades, shovels, mattocks, pick-ax and other tools. Later, two of his brothers became so industrious that they opened a salt goods shop in the gold field and sold goods to pork-knockers who paid them in raw gold. With the shoulder bag full of raw gold, Ramlakhan would take it to Bartica where he would overnight and then travel to Georgetown to sell the gold for cash. He would then purchase goods and post them to his brothers in the gold field in the Interior. His parents were worried of course and did not like their children work in the interior. Because of this, they stopped working in the gold field.
It was time for Mr. Ramlakhan to start his own family and in March 1937, he got married to Chandrowty Ramsaran. He was 23 and she was 17. She was born on July 16, 1920 in Kitty and attended Pollard School. Her father, Mr. Ramsaran, also known as Doctor, passed away when he was 50 years of age and her mother, Resmie Ramsaran, lived on to a glorious age of 103. As was typical of Indian tradition, her parents arranged a match wedding. Mrs. Ramlakhan remembers that she even though her future husband came to their house after their marriage proposal was confirmed, she never spoke to him as it would not have been proper. We girls never talked to boys in those days. Even when we went to school, the girls were in front and the boys at the back, and from school, we just run home. We have a lot of work to help out in the home. Only school and come back home. Home life was the nature of the day. When they got married under a bamboo maro, they were dressed in traditional Hindu attire, with him in the kurta and she in a yellow sari. On the second Sunday after the wedding, she joined her new family in Windsor Forest wearing a vibrant peach sari decorated with printed flowers and silver thread.
Ramlakhan and Chandrowty were blessed with 12 children: Chandrouti (Chandra), Ramlochan (Loch), Takurnauth (Charlie twin) and Takurdai (Dolly twin), Jainarine (Rupert), Krishnawatti (Kay), Indrouti (Indra), Sita, Savitri (Bibi), Shanty, Devanand and Parmanand. They have 32 grand children and 10 great grands. Sadly, their daughter Krishnawatti died in Guyana when she was only 13 years of age and their eldest daughter Chandrouti died in Canada when she was 54 years of age. Like their parents, Ramlakhan and Chandrowty worked very hard to raise their children and give them a good education. When their children were grown up, while they all received good education, the girls also learned other skills such as sewing, shorthand and typewriting or hairdressing.
While working in the rice field, Mrs. Ramlakhan was often in mud and water, sun, and rain for a greater part of the day. She would cut grass, look after the milch cows and also work in the kitchen and garden. Mr. Ramlakhan said, Although she had to work under miserable conditions, she was able to stick with me in good times and bad times. They were both industrious. They purchased 50 acres of transported land at Orangestein on the East Bank of Essequibo, near Parika. Sometimes they would reap about 300 bags of paddy and transport them by the railway truck from Orangestein to Windsor Forest Rice Mills. They would process the paddy and mill it into rice which they sold to the Guyana Rice Marketing Board.
Mr. Ramlakhan was involved in a wide varied of causes, be it social, occupational, religious or political. As early as in the 1940s be became a financial member of the Windsor Forest Arya Samaj and gave over 30 years of dedicated and voluntary services while serving in various capacities including President. He was a delegate to the American Aryan League in Durban Street, Georgetown, a member of Executive Committee of the American Aryan League and President of the West Demerara Central Samaj.
He was always interested in the upliftment of the working class and it was no surprise to learn that from 1940s he not only became an ardent supporter of the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP), but he was also elected on the Party's Central Committee and gave over 30 years of dedicated service to the PPP and its cause of political independence and democracy.
Although he worked for the Rice Producers Association and later held a leadership role in the Rice Marketing Board, he achieved these positions through his hard work and reputation for being a highly knowledgeable person in the rice industry. Having been elected President of the Rice Producers Association, he served for many years on the committee at District No. 8 which commenced from La Jalousie, West Coast Demerara to La Grange on the West Bank Demerara. By 1962 he was elected President of the Association for 7 consecutive terms (2 years each). During this period, he was appointed Vice Chairman of Guyana Rice Marketing Board in 1957 and held this position for several years. He also served on the Executive Committee and Rice Appeal's and other Committees. In these capacities, he attended several Rice Conferences in Georgetown and the Caribbean and, because of his active involvement in the rice industry, the government appointed him Director of the Mahaicony-Abary Rice Development Company. After the elections of 1964 with the PNC-UF Government which lasted until the 1968 elections, they reorganized all the Boards and Committees and they appointed their own people. However, Mr. Ramlakhan remained with the Rice Producers Association because of the great respect he had achieved in the industry until 1966.
Mr. Ramlakhan humbly and proudly stated that from the inception of his involvement with the Rice Producers Association, he along with other members carried out a strong campaign to bring awareness to rice farmers on all aspects of the rice industry. They held public meetings at the rice-producing districts throughout the country to organize and mobilize the rice farmers, rice millers and landlords to rally around the association. The rice producers had given full cooperation and loyal support and the majority of them and paid their membership fees to become financial members of the association. As a result, the association became a strong and vibrant organization and it was a force to reckon with. He remembered that, during the 90-day strike amidst racial disturbances in the country, he traveled almost every day from Windsor Forest to Georgetown to look after rice producers problems. During the strike, he and other members of the Association made arrangements with several stops to go to Berbice to purchase many drums of dieseline and gasoline from the bulk storage to help rice farmers plow and cultivate their rice lands and plant their rice crops.
Rice farmers had blazed the trail. Ramlakhan recalled how the quality of rice production improved. He proudly stated, It was a time when the acreage doubled, production trebled and mechanization replaced manual labor. Farmers were conscious of the use of pure line seeds, fertilizers, the control of water, pests, diseases and weeds. Even rice millers had improved their rice mills and other facilities with the installation of more multi-stage mills. The rice industry was in its "golden days" and rice farmers were happy. In 1956, he was appointed by the government to serve on the West Demerara Rice Assessment Committee Zone #8 and, for 16 years he helped to settle disputes between tenant rice farmer and landlords. In addition, he served on the Committee of the Windsor Forest Cooperative Thrift and Credit Society for many years and was elected Chairman of the Society.
It is a great tribute to remember Mr. Ramlakhan who saw the rice industry as one of the biggest native industries in Guyana. As he recalled, It was built by those pioneer rice farmers who had broken cane land, abandoned land, forest and jungle lands representing blood, sweat, and tears to make it into rice land. Even though the farmers did not have sufficient equipment, they were inventive. In the early days, they used many tools such as forks, shovels, cutlasses, scythes, hoes, grass knives and pestles (dhaki) as their only implements. In those days, oxen were used to plow and cultivate the land. With tremendous pride, Mr. Ramlakhan lived to see the rice industry develop to become, as he said, a Giant Golden Grain, highly mechanized mega industry. It became not only a source of employment for thousands of families, but also for every farmer who engages in the rice field. Employment was provided for five persons in other services such as shipping, banking, insurance, and other businesses, thus pouring millions of dollars to the economy. He really enjoyed giving of his time to serving community needs. He served on the Committee of the Windsor Forest Cooperative Thrift and Credit Society for many years and was also elected Chairman. He served on the Windsor Forest Parents-Teachers Association.
After all his years of dedication in voluntary work, it is not surprising to learn that in 1966 he was awarded the Membership of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. What is insightful to learn about Mr. Ramlakhan is that he knew the plights of colonization and felt no glory in being given this award. Given his selfless nature, he was not a man who needed an award and so, in the same year, on September 23, 1966, he renounced the M.B.E. Award. It is easy to observe that he was no colonial stooge. His grandparents had migrated from India and brought with them not only their ability to work hard and make progressive strides in a new land, but they also brought their values of Vedic dharma to guide them in their uncertain environment where it was easy to be overshadowed by western values.
In 1950 he was elected a member of the Windsor Forest/La Jalousie Settlers Advisory Committee. When the Government withdrew its administration from the house lots area in 1964, the committee was changed to Windsor Forest La Jalousie Settlers Committee Report which he continued to serve on until it was declared a local government in 1971. Ramlakhan remembered that during the 90-day strike in 1963, he was elected Secretary of Windsor Forest Peace Committee which he served in helping to foster peaceful relations amidst the racial tension among people during this period. He recognized that some disunity and racial disturbance still existed in the village, but it was primarily due to political and racial motivation. During this period, many Guyanese were leaving to go to England, Canada, U.S.A. and other parts of the world. In 1961, Ramlochan and Dolly went to England and soon after Indroutie immigrated there to join her husband who was already in England. Once one member of a Guyanese family started to leave Guyana in those days, it was not unusual for other members of the family to do the same. In 1968, three other siblings Sita, Chandroutie and Jainarine went to Canada. Mr. Ramlakhans two younger sons, Dave and Par, were able to help in the garden and do other work. After many years of rice cultivation, Mr. and Mrs. Ramlakhan sold their land and also migrated to Canada. In 1976, Mr. Ramlakhan joined his wife and other children sons, Dave and Par and daughters, Savitri and Shanti who had already immigrated in Canada during 1974 and 1975. Being a man who always wanted to learn and develop new skills, soon after his arrival in Canada, Mr. Ramlakhan studied Real Estate and received his Real Estate license. He performed well in this field, and he received a plaque from the company in recognition of his service. He did not retire from the real estate work until 1998 when he was age 84!
Throughout his life, Mr. Ramlakhan kept his faith in the Vedic Dharma. He imported the four Vedas that were translated into English and made arrangements to teach his children, grand children, great grand children the values of these scriptures. He always engaged his family in performing the meditation worship (sadhna) of havan (purification rites). He believes that service to one's parents, the elderly and righteous persons are all part of the great traditions of his ancestral heritage of the ancient Vedic culture.
In retracing Mr. Ramlakhans journey, one cannot help but be placed back in time, to that place in Windsor Forest where his grandparents first settled and to the adjoining villages that they trailed in the course of their struggle to settle far away from their motherland. He wanted to pass on to their children and grandchildren the value of labor, family life and community service. In coming to know of the many roles that Mr. Ramlakhan played in his life, one comes face to face with a man who not only contested Village Elections, Rice Elections and General Elections and even served as President of the Windsor Forest Cricket Board for one year, but most importantly, also a man who gave selflessly to Guyana.
Many who knew him, including his wife Chandrowty who lives in Toronto, remember that he was a man who not only dedicated his life to his family but was also a champion of many causes, especially in the lives of the farmers in Guyana. As was ardently expressed at his passing in Toronto, he was a symbol of the ordinary man.
Oh father of our village
Your ash we laid to rest
Among the peoples champions
You sure have been the best
Extract from a poem by Nazir Khan (Tally)