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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Some years ago I wrote, “driving back to the beach house, after reading the ‘morning papers,’ the elderly gentleman from Preysal seated next to me, looked out at the lush, green fields, sighed and said quietly, ‘Look at that, nuh! Allyuh ever see anything so pretty.’ He knew the value of green fields, of sunsets over the Gulf, and of small brown birds that sing for joy.”

That gentleman died in 2008. His second daughter, Laila Baksh Kayum, has just written a short story of his life which fleshes out my observations and reads like a personal history of the East Indian community.

Murtuza Baksh was born in Preysal in 1923 and lived there all his life except for some years when he studied in the UK and Australia. Before I met the Bakshs, all I knew about Preysal was that it was somewhere in Central and everyone there played cricket well. Among one of Mr Baksh’s accomplishments is that he was the principal organiser and first captain of the Preysal cricket team.

He came from a large family, eight boys and one girl and when his father died, his mother, Dardee, took care of another four children from his father’s first marriage, no mean feat for a poor, uneducated 35-year-old widow. Mr Baksh’s mother, seemingly unintentionally, comes through as a heroine, an early feminist of sorts and her genes no doubt have contributed to the success and independence of so many of the Baksh women.

Life was hard. They lived in a small wooden structure that leaked whenever it rained. There was little money. Food was basic: roti and vegetables from the family garden where all the children helped.

The Presbyterian Church had established a primary school in the area. Dardee insisted that her children attend, barefooted, and sat up with them studying at night, by the light of a flambeau, and later, a kerosene lamp.

Murtuza showed his potential early on because on graduation from the Preysal Canadian Mission Primary School he was assigned the duties of School Monitor at a salary of three dollars a month. The Americans had landed and the first economic boom caused by the high salaries they paid, was on. Eight dollars a month. Murtuza was tempted. Dardee said no way. Her focus was a better future for her children through education.

The trend was set. Education was to be the key to success and from then on nothing was allowed to stand in his way. In 1946, two years after getting married to Feroza Sadeek, he achieved the highest mark in T&T in the Provisional Examination and entered Government Teacher’s College. In 1953 when the Trinidad Muslim League (TML) opened its first school the San Fernando TML Primary School, he became its first principal.

After the first day he informed his wife that the institution would be closed because of low enrolment, 37 seven students. He was wrong. Under his leadership the school thrived. After four years he moved on to be the first principal of the St Joseph TML Primary and kept moving up the ladder. When he retired in 1983 he was appointed to the Teaching Service Commission and in 2007 was awarded the Public Service Medal of Merit.

Murtuza was not only interested in academics (he was once described as “strict, with a well oiled leather strap always draped on his shoulder”) but he was into holistic education before there was holistic anything. He believed that parents should be involved in their children’s education. He wrote plays and produced them.

Possessed of a “green thumb” (he managed to grow strawberries in the school garden), he eagerly entered the St Joseph TML school in the Government School Garden Competitions and won the Agricultural Shield on four occasions.

He is gone now. His memory remains in the writings and sayings and doings of those he taught and met. Me including. May the grass always be green under your feet, sir.


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