Tomorrow we celebrate Independence Day in Trinidad and Tobago. Unlike previous years since the establishment of a system of National Awards, the awards this year would be presented on Republic Day, September 24th instead of tomorrow evening as has been customary. This is but just another change in the evolution of a system of awards to citizens of our nation.
During our colonial period, awards were presented to nationals based upon the British honour system. One recipient of the MBE under the British system was the late Doon Pandit who hailed from Las Lomas but was based in Arima for the latter years of life. In 1949 he was honoured for his social work at the leprosarium at Chacachacare. Some people including the late Roy Joseph (a former Minister of Education and the recipient of an OBE) called him the “Mystic Boy of the Empire” and there is much reason to believe that The Mystic Masseur by V.S. Naipaul was in some way influenced by the life of Doon Pandit. But I would not go into that now.
I have been thinking a lot about Doon Pandit over the past couple days since I read about the controversy over the failure of Pastor Joel Osteen to open his church building to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston until only after such time as a twitter storm developed on the issue.
Doon Pandit’s son (now deceased) Ramsewak Doon Pandit once recounted with me a story about the disposition of his late father: “In 1939 the Tacarigua Hindu Community had thrown out my father because the Muslims were worshipping in their temple. The roof of the Cane Farm Mosque fell down on a Thursday. The learned Moulvi there was a boyhood friend of Doon Pandit. He told Doon Pandit that on the Friday they would worship in the Tacarigua Savannah. Doon Pandit said “No. I would clear out my things from where they are in the temple. I would create enough space for your all to use there.” He cleared everything, all the murtis, the entire shebang. My mother physically helped him. It was his own temple that he had built. He told them that the God that you serve is the same God that we serve. We just call him by different names.”
“As a consequence of that a big panchayite was held in the Tacarigua CM School. The Hindus there were hostile to him for his decision. He left and he came here and he then got this land from the Buena Vista Estate.”
His son also recounted that “In Tacarigua, the roof of the Mosque had been blown off by a freak breeze. When he cleared the temple and the Tacarigua Hindus chased him away the building remained in the hands of the Muslims.”
Tacarigua’s loss was Arima’s gain as Doon Pandit established a temple at what is now known as Temple Street.
“What you give to the poor you lend to God” was one of his favourite expressions”. So I have been told. I have also been informed that those words were inscribed on his tombstone. In some respects Doon Pandit’s expression mirrored the most commonplace interpretations of the words of the Christ in Matthew 25:31–46.
Of course, there are theological debates about those words of the Bible, especially since they bring to the fore differing perspectives about being saved through works as compared to being saved through Grace.
I do not intend to get into any debates here about that scripture or about the actions of Pastor Osteen.
I find it very interesting however to note that although Doon Pandit passed on August 28th 1958, his very life embodied the watchword of “tolerance” which, was one of three selected upon our attainment of independence. His very life also embodied the one sentence that can be found twice in our National Anthem.
As we reflect upon what Independence means to us may we continually strive towards making our national watchwords and the words of our National Anthem words that we live by.
Footnote by Frank Christo: he had Ramsewak, Tito, Partap (I think) and Kumar. Also at least two daughters Marla and an older one. He also founded what is now Arima Hindu School at the corner of Temple St and Guanapo St. That was the first school that I attended. The school was next to a small temple. He lived in a house at the back of the school. The house overlooked the Arima river valley in what is now known as Orange Flats. That area was once a huge orange field.