Dale Bisnauth (1936-2013) was many things to many people

Dear Editor,

Rev Dr Dale Arlington Ramnauth Bisnauth was born on 30th December 1936 to Lionel and Phulmati Bisnauth at Plantation Better Success, Essequibo Coast. He was the second of six children and is survived by his elder sister Nandrani Kandhi, Kiri David, Roopnauth Bisnauth, Rookmin Bisnauth and Lilian Persaud.

He was married to Ivy Permansingh (deceased) who bore three children – Darlene Harris, George Bisnauth and Alfred Bisnauth.  Ivy’s daughter Elizabeth Mohamed was his foster daughter.

His marriage to Amy Persaud produced three more children – Janice Miller, Allison Campayne and Dahlia Stroud.  After his divorce he married Patricia Sheerattan and fathered Krysta Bisnauth ‒ in all seven children.  He was the proud grandfather of eleven.  His is also survived by a host of uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces too numerous to mention, but who are duly acknowledged here.

He would have had during the course of a long church and public service career, a large number of associates and colleagues but at the risk of being invidious one should mention his loyal and long-serving confidential secretary PhyllisTopin, and his trusty driver, Hope.

It is perhaps necessary to look back at his place of birth.  If the Essequibo Coast of the mid-twentieth century was a depressed economic zone with a small resource base then Better Success and the abandoned plantations north of Hampton Court were veritable backwaters – a literal area of darkness, constant floods and a mud track for a road fit for donkey carts, so Dr Bisnauth would tell in his own lucid style of walking to Charity Market every week with his mother and elder sister with hassa baskets on their heads to sell. These are many miles which you would find difficult to appreciate given the roads there now.

His parents had no rice lands so hassa season and crab season brought great relief.  Some who know him well would see he only had nine fingers; one was lost at sea, chopped off by his friend while pillikilling.

While his older sister, who it was rumoured was brighter than him (difficult to believe) left school at Standard Four (aged ten) to mind the younger siblings, Dale took to his books with the help of the flambeaux and lantern.

His father who drank quite a bit would leave on his regular forays in the “gold bush” without any evidence of success.

This bio-picture is important if one is to understand the Dale Bisnauth who would escape this stark poverty and make something of himself.  This he surely did as testified to by this massive funeral, the hundreds of glowing tributes to him and his work since his death last Thursday.  (On an aside he died on the same date, April 4th, as one of his heroes, Dr Martin Luther King.)

He attended the St Barnabas Anglican School at Dartmouth and was tutored by, among others, Dr Ptolemy Reid who would later become Prime Minister of Guyana and of whom Dale Bisnauth would speak with fond respect. (Later they would meet in different circumstances.)  He struck many lasting friendships at school in Dartmouth where he also played cricket starting a lasting love affair with the game.

By the tender age of fifteen he would have passed the Pupil Teachers Appointment  but could not be employed at St Barnabas because he refused to change his name from Ramnauth and become an Anglican.  He would later convert to Presbyterianism after meeting Rev McDonald, but when teased about changing his name he defended himself by saying that it was not done under pressure and in any event it takes more than a name change to become a Christian, perhaps fair enough at a time when others, mainly East Indians, who refused to convert for the purpose of teaching turned to business or if their parents could afford it and sacrificed enough, turned to law or medicine. The Essequibo had few such.  He was later to write in 1980 that “it was wrong to demand a change in name as a condition of employment in schools and it is equally wrong to demand a party identification card as a qualification for a job” (Catholic Standard, October 12 1980).  But the afore-mentioned Rev McDonald, a Canadian Presbyterian, saw the spark in Dale Bisnauth and inspired him in no small way.  Dale would study privately for both ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels.

It is apposite to note that he never attended secondary school but his private world was always full of books.

There were many influences and forces that shaped the young Bisnauth and put him together and prepared him for life.  It was from a young age that he developed the all too rare ability to understand our racial entrapment created by centuries of slavery, indentureship, plantation exploitation and colonial divide and rule strategies.

That he would eventually achieve a PhD in history is remarkable in itself, but he still found time to do research and publish books on Indian immigration, the history of the Presbyterian Church and a history of religion in the Caribbean.  He was working on a history of political thought in the Caribbean up to the time of his death.

But while he loved history it was the Church that was his calling and which he served faithfully up to his death. Sermonising, mentoring and counselling had great impact and this is evidenced by the loving reflections from his Church family at the wakes and tributes held in his honour.  Many in the Church community will miss him.

The Church would later also become his constituency, and his interaction especially in the 1970s and ’80s with Church leaders, his ecumenism and his embrace of forms of liberation theology; his internationalizing of the cause of Guyana, his work in Jamaica and later the Caribbean Council of Churches, his work with Caribbean Contact, the Catholic Standard, Mirror and with any paper at the time during a horrible period of fear and a climate of death – the murder of Father Darke in 1979 and Walter Rodney in 1980.  These engagements and experiences led him to quote the Doctor in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Foul Whisperings are abroad; unnatural Deeds do breed unnatural troubles, infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets; more needs she the divine than the physician” (Catholic Standard 1981).

He was faithful to the thesis that ‘Systems will remain unless persons question and change them,’ and his copious contribution to the literature of resistance, his personal role in the struggle for democracy and free and fair elections was buttressed by his association with the Church and his unique understanding of the things of Caesar and the things of God and the role of the Church and the role of the state.

That this contribution came at a time and in a milieu of tremendous pain and danger to personal safety attests to the steel in his character and his quiet fearlessness.  Over this period leading up to 1992 he would have written hundreds of pieces in various media and his sermons would inevitably reflect his feelings regarding the social and yes, political, condition of his country.  Some of these were later published in In A Few Words at the behest of Martin Carter and Bill Carr.

His work in the formation of a sort of alliance of various clergy was a critical development at that period of the worst excesses in our country, marked by food shortages, economic collapse and political murder.  Many were surprised by his gravitation to the world of politics.  Could this man of the cloth, this man of letters, this erudite intellectual, this teacher and quiet mentor survive in the arena of politics?

The spark that Rev MacDonald saw had by the time of his return to Guyana in 1977 and his writings prior to 1992, grown into a flame and he was persuaded by some, especially Dr Jagan to become part of the civic alliance with the PPP.

When many were migrating or silenced (sometimes forever) or became turncoats, he was writing about the danger of Cavortity with the Beast.  He wrote like a man possessed and added his voice to those men of similar ilk and passion in sustaining the attack against what was wrong in Guyana.

Dr Jagan made him a Minister of Education in the government in 1992.  As Minister of Education he gave leadership to the PEIP, SSRP and BEAMS projects.  Along with school buildings, he stressed equity of access and technical education.  One recalls how happy he was to have been chosen to this high office.  Poor country boy had at last done well enough to be recognized by persons he himself had respected and admired for so long.

He served as Minister of Education from 1992 to 2001 after which he moved to the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security where he continued to work with distinctly people-oriented emphasis.

By this time in his seventies he continued to work with the Board of Industrial Training which must be credited with the graduation of thousands of students who had, for one reason or another, failed to complete the secondary cycle and who would now become employable in industry having benefited from an alternative pathway. He refused to see people as failures and worked with BIT up to the time of his death.

The wheel has turned full circle and the moving finger having writ has moved on.

As we contemplate his life and mourn his passing and celebrate his rich legacy to his relatives, friends, church family and country, one last wish could be for the entire corpus of his writing – letters, articles, books, sermons, notes, unfinished manuscript, speeches in the National Assembly ‒ to be retrieved and reposed in a fit place for such things for posterity to know who he was and what he stood for.  He himself, in his normal self-effacing way would scoff at this but we know better and this could become a rewarding project.

This intensely private man who performed so well as a public person had his own foibles but lived a full life beset perhaps like all lives by trials and tribulations but emerging triumphant in the end that has now come.

Indeed, Dale Arlington Bisnauth was many things to many people and everything to some people; he was torchbearer, lighthouse and beacon and also moral compass to many.  He has left blueprints for life and set benchmarks in all spheres of his life but we must, in the order of things, let him go to a better place of peace and solace.  His work here is done. According of Seneca there is no cure for birth or death; it’s only the interval that matters.

We can conclude with these borrowed lines from Pablo Neruda: “I want you to know one thing… if little by little you stop loving me I shall stop loving you little by little.  If suddenly you forget me do not look for me; if you think it long and mad the wind of banners that passes through my life and decide to leave me at the shore of the heart where I have roots, remember that on that day, at that hour I shall lift my arms and my roots will set off to seek another land.”

Farewell Dale Bisnauth, Man of God and Man of the People and Friend of all.

May his soul rest in peace and eternal glory.

Yours faithfully,
Pulandar Kandhi

Around the Web

Comments