“My Story” Chapter 01

“My Story” – by Randall Butisingh.

(Reminiscences during my life beginning 1913)

CHAPTER ONE

I was born on December 1, 1912 in Alexanderville, a little suburban village near the city of Georgetown, the capital and chief port of British Guiana, a colony of Great Britain.    However I lived from childhood in a village called Buxton on the East Coast of Demerara, about 12 miles from the city of Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, then British Guiana.   British Guiana was the only English speaking country in he whole of South America. It was flanked by Dutch Guiana on the East, (now called Suriname); Venezuela, a Spanish speaking country on the West, Brazil on the South and West which is a large Portuguese speaking Republic, and to its North was the Atlantic Ocean.

British Guiana was one of the most beautiful countries among its neighbours in the Caribbean. Although not geographically part of the Caribbean, it shares cultural and economic times with the English-speaking Caribbean due to common British colonial relationships. It enjoyed, for most of the year, the refreshing Trade Winds of the Atlantic, lush green vegetation on the coastlands, extensive forests with valuable hardwoods, among which was the Greenheart, the most durable of all woods, and many rivers with beautiful water falls and cataracts.  The Kaieteur Falls on the Potaro River is one of the most magnificent in the world and a great tourist attraction.

Apart from floods in some areas on the coastlands, which have many lands below sea level at high tides, it enjoyed freedom from natural disasters.  Foreigners who visited enjoyed its equable and salubrious climate.  It was no wonder that many who visited its shores called it the Magnificent Province.  Georgetown, its Capital and chief port was known as the Garden City.  In it were avenues of Saman trees on both sides to give shade to the pedestrian and to afford him safety from the traffic.   Then, the streets were then not macadamized as they are today, but were built with burnt earth, rolled flat and constantly watered by water carts to keep down the dust.

In the early 1900, there was a network of electrical cars or tramways as they were called, and the main transport was the horse and buggy, which used to take passengers from the railway station to the commercial areas of the city.  The Stabroek Market or “Big Market” as it was called by the Creoles was the chief attraction, as it was more than a Supermarket.  It was a conglomerate of shops and stores with every conceivable item required by the consumer.  It even carried parlours and eating shops, called cook shops, where the consumer could, for a small sum, get refreshment on spot.

But for us children, what was most exciting was the candy being sold in all shapes, colours and flavours, chiefly made by African women.    I liked the one shaped like a rooster.  It had the hard midrib of the coconut leaf stuck through it which we could hold while we sucked.    It was hard and so the sucking, to our enjoyment, lasted long. At the end of the shopping, my mother would buy a few pennies worth of delicacies for us to take home.

We were taken now and again to the museum where we saw exotic animals and birds in a setting resembling their natural habitat.  These, although they were stuffed appeared real to us children.  We were awed by the fierce appearance of the lion and the Bengal tiger.    Other places of interest were the Botanic Gardens, a multi-acred garden, at the eastern end of the City, which had a Zoo and many types of trees. In the middle of the City was the Promenade Gardens, a smaller one cultivated with various tropical flowers.

British Guiana, at that time too, had one of the best musical bands in the world.    It was called the Militia Band – the Police Band.  I listened to it several times under the batons of  Captain Fawcett, an Englishman and Captain Henwood a local African policeman.  The former relinquished his post when the country became independent and the name of the band was changed to the Police Band.

As noted earlier, I was born in Alexanderville, a little suburban village near the city of Georgetown, the capital and chief port of British Guiana, a colony of Great Britain.  At that time Great Britain possessed colonies in all the continents, including India, her largest possession and greatest source of her wealth.    It was in India where the largest diamond in the world was found – the Koh-I-Nur (Light of the cave) – which was cut and set in the crown of the British sovereign.

It was from India my grandparents came in the latter part of the nineteenth century as indentured labourers to work in the sugar-cane fields of British Guiana for white planters at a backbreaking compulsory task for a pittance.  It was with the hope for a better life that they came, but they met conditions that were harsh. These were basically the same conditions under which the African slaves toiled before they achieved freedom in the late 1830’s.

They toiled long in the fields under the burning tropical sun, ate foods which were mainly carbohydrates as many Indians did not eat flesh; and they lived in appalling housing conditions. It was said that the mules used for pulling the punts in the sugar estate canals were housed in better conditions.    Workers were housed in barrack-like structures made of zinc sheets with very little ventilation and the earth for floor.    There was hardly any furniture except for a low stool and perhaps a bed with a wooden frame strung with fine rope.

Their one consolation in a setting so harsh and uncomfortable was their religion, which they brought with them.  In the evening after a hard day’s work, they would on occasions, meet at some place and someone would read from the holy books with the flickering lights of diyas (improvised earthen lamps with ghee or coconut oil and cotton wicks).    They were delighted to hear the Ramayan, the story of Lord Rama who came to fight and annihilate the demons who molested the worshippers of God.   They also rejoiced in the exploits of Hanuman, the monkey god and greatest devotee of Lord Rama.   Many of these people were illiterate, they spoke a Hindi dialect, but their knowledge of the scriptures was profound.   Many of them could have recited long passages from the Ramayan, the whole of the Hanuman Chalisa and the Danlila, a poetic rendition of Sri Krishna, their beloved Deity when he was a child.

They also brought with them their customs and tradition.  They observed their feast days and enjoyed them in whatever way they could with their family and friends.  One of these was Divali which means a string of lights and symbolises the return of  Lord Rama from exile in the jungle to His throne in Ayodhya.  Hindus  also prayed for favours from Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity.    Divali falls on the last day of the dark half otf the month of Kartika (October November).  On twilight on Divali diyas or earthen oil lamps are lit in the houses of Hindus.  The diya has a special significance.  The ghee or the oil symbolises our Vasanas or negative tendencies and the wick the ego.   When lit by spiritual knowledge, The Vasanas get exhausted and the ego perishes.  A single diya can light hundreds more, just as one enlightened person can give knowledge to many.

Another  popular festival is Holi (Phagwah).  It is a Spring festival.  It commences ten days before the full moon in the month of  Phalgun and observed  on the last three days concluding with the full moon.      The beauty of the Spring season with its manifold colours and sweetness proclaim the glory of and everlasting beauty of Ishwara (God).  The story of Holi is connected with Prahalad a devotee of Lord Naaraayana and his escape from death at the hands of Holika.  Prahalad’s father Hiranya Kashipu punished him in a variety of ways to change his devotional mind and make him worldly minded,but he failed.  At last he ordered his sister Hilika who had a boon to remain fireproof to take Prahalad on her lap and enter the fire.  Holika did as she was told; she was consumed and Prahalad came out of the fire singing the praise of God.

In the West Indies, Hindus observed Holi by burning Holika on the full moon night of Phalgun and celebrate Holi the next two days.  Hindus pour  coloured waterr and powder on any one, rich or poor.  There is no restriction on the day of Holi.  They also visit homes to play Phagwah, exchange sweets and good wishes.

Holi means sacrifice.  The burning symbolises the burning the impurities of the mind such as egoism, anger, greed lust and the like by  the fire of devotion and spiritual knowledge .  In the spirit of Holi one should ignite cosmic love, mercy generosoty, truthfulness and purity through the fire of Yogic practicee.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Indian Indentureship was from1838 to 1917.   Most contracts were for five years and were renewable, or workers could return home to India. They came from various castes and from various parts of India. However, as they made the long journey in sailing ships, many close relationships were formed.  Strangers became welded in a close fraternity, which went deeper than Jahaji (shipmates).   It was so deep that the son of one shipmate could not marry the daughter of another. There was another brotherly commitment when, in a ceremony called Rakhi, a young lady ties a sacred cord round the wrist of a young man, binding him with brotherly love and protection.    There could be no marriage between the two.

I have given you an account of the working conditions of my grandparents, their religion and customs.   It is not the purpose of this story to delve deeper into their character, but we know that from so stark and forbidding an environment, within a few decades our forefathers were able through thrift, frugality and personal sacrifice to amass wealth, educate their children who became doctors, lawyers, big businessmen, entrepreneurs, rice farmers and millers.  They have now become the backbone of the economy which was based on sugar rice, and agricultural crops.

After Indentureship many of the Indians left the estate and went to live in the villages, bought by and established by the freed Africans, starting in 1840.   About two hundred came to live at Buxton, among them, my grandparents.   My father was born in Buxton, and my mother in the neighbouring estate, Annandale. The Indians had little means and could not have afforded the luxury of wooden houses.   They were given lands on the uninhabited coastal border, north of the village, for which they paid an annual rental.   My parents moved there around 1915, and paid one dollar for a year’s rental. There, they built their houses of mud, which were roofed with straw, raised their children and prepared for the future.

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5 Comments »

  1. Thakur Hergash said,

    Dear Mr. Butisingh:

    Did the tying of Rakhi come with the indentured workers or was it adopted later?

    I know the Indian movie “Choti Bahen” made it popular around the late 1950s or early 1960s.

    • randallbutisingh said,

      Thakur, I believe it was a custom that obtained in India, because I read it where a Rani tied it in the wrist of a rival Raja and bound him to protect her. Th immigrants brought the custom here.

  2. Abhijit said,

    Rakhi or Rakshabandhan is still a traditional festival in India. It is true that it started with a rani tying the Rakhi to a rival king , in the state of Rajasthan.
    I thoroughly enjoy reading your blogs. Remarkable chronicle!
    Abhijit Chaudhury from India.

  3. J Manders said,

    Dear Randall Butisingh you Sir are almost 100 years of age. Are you still well and in good health? I know this is the time of the second coming of the Lord and I am hoping you will still be strong on that day. I know this because I have been given information about judgement. Having read scripture I wonder what the damage will be upon this Earth our Eternal Father has given us before that day. I pray for the protection of the innocent who are the ones made to suffer the most. May the blessings of God be with you!


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