It is with deep sadness that I learnt that our Guyanese author, educator, journalist, community activist, playwright, pandit and dear friend Shri Churaumanie Bissundyal passed away. Guyana, the Caribbean and the diaspora have lost an icon of literature and creativity, a true trailblazer who broke down barriers for other writers. He would be remembered as one of the most important writers in the Indo-Caribbean diaspora because of the subjects he chose and for remaining faithful to them.
Bissundyal-ji was also a scholar in Hinduism, very fluent in Hindi and Sanskrit. He trained many Guyanese and Trinis to become pandits. He also he taught Sanskrit to several pandits to enable them to better understand the Hindu scriptures.
Dr Churaumanie Bissundyal went through a lot in his 68 years on earth. He lived a fulfilling life but not without its ups and downs. He expressed his disappointments especially with politics in Guyana and particularly the reluctance of those (in the PPP, as he opened up to me) who he helped to install in government (in 1992) to assist him when requested. He wrote for the Mirror newspaper, the organ of the PPP.
Only those familiar with aspects of his life know what a long, arduous road Dr Bissundyal trod to reach the pinnacle of his achievement as an outstanding literary figure (poet, novelist, playwright) and professor. He confided only in a handful of us who he considered as genuine friends and who made a sincere effort to guide and help him on his way to become an accomplished writer and professor. It was indeed a privilege and honour to know and work with him over the last couple of decades on various issues pertaining to Guyana, the Guyanese diaspora in New York and his own rise as a writer and educator.
Bissundyal was unquestionably a treasured author who produced a magnificent body of work that enriched Guyanese and Caribbean literature and writing in general. His writings gave voice to every aspect of life including family, birth, marriage, fatherhood, motherhood, death, joy, pain (physical and emotional), violence, hope, democracy, political injustice and much more.
He had a multifaceted personality ‒ journalist, writer, editor, historian, publisher, political commentator, actor, coach, pandit, tutor, mentor, playwright, actor, and scriptwriter for movies. He was among Guyana’s finest writers, poets, novelists, playwrights, and teachers. And not surprisingly, heartfelt tributes were paid by friends and fellow writers to this outstanding personality at the wake and viewing held for him in Hollis and Jamaica. His fiction and non-fiction works were praised.
Prof Bissundyal was also a champion of democracy in Guyana contributing significantly in the struggle for free and fair elections. And when one talks about the field of journalism during the Burnham era, Churaumanie’s name figures prominently. He became, like so many of us, a victim of Burnhamism. He was sent on punishing assignments to far corners of the country for advocating democracy and for being a loyalist soldier to Jagan’s PPP. This helped him to master Guyana’s physical terrain.
After the restoration of democracy in 1992, when the PPP failed to utilize his vast talent, he migrated to the US a very dejected person, and he confided to me and a handful of others about his ill-treatment at the hands of some elements in the PPP. He found these elements ungrateful given that he did so much for the party to return to office, but these figures did not even lift a finger to help him achieve his objectives. He would often tell me, “they think with their belly and bank accounts, not their brain”. He would sarcastically add, “Have you noticed how their belly is growing and their brain shrinking”.
In New York, Bissundyal pursued higher education part time while working full time and at odd jobs. He eventually completed a PhD in literary writing; his achievement was celebrated by the community. Several grass roots activists travelled out of state to attend the commencement ceremony where he was granted his doctorate.
Dr Bissundyal wanted to return home and serve his country. He applied for a teaching position at UG and even offered his services to the Ministry of Education; all were turned down. He became very sour because the party he fought for when in opposition did not lift a finger to help him. He told me he sought the assistance of prominent individuals in the PPP to assist him but virtually no one bothered with him. He did not have nice things to say about some individuals in the PPP and some of the figures at UG that he helped to climb in their academic career. He sought my intervention with government officials to help with a lecture position at UG. I tried but was not successful. I asked a PPP female member on the UG Council why Churaumanie was not hired. She said she tried to assist but the Council and party leadership were not encouraging. Bissundyal dismissed that account pointing out no effort was made to assist him. He claimed several PPP appointees on the Council were hostile towards him because he penned a few critical remarks about the behaviour of some in government.
I tried with letters of recommendation at UWI, UTT, Fiji, Mauritius and other places for Dr Bissundyal to work as a lecturer. Eventually, he landed a position as a Professor of English in Fiji where he taught for several years. He never stopped praising me for my using contacts to help him to get the position. In Fiji, he received accolades for his work; he was described as a workaholic. And he was warned that he was maintaining too rigorous a work schedule for his health, but he did not let up. While in Fiji, we kept in touch on a regular basis. He often spoke on the phone and communicated in emails about how much he enjoyed teaching there and how he was disappointed with the politics of Guyana.
Prof Bissundyal did have a few regrets. I remember one article in which Bissundyal attacked Ravi Dev, Baytoram Ramharack, and myself to defend the PPP against our critical appraisals of it. But his comments were taken in good spirit and we remained friends. We knew Bissundyal meant well for his party, and we recognized he was not mean spirited against us or against anyone. And he was also quite apologetic for his comments about us. When his own party abandoned him, he naturally turned to us for help. And despite his ill-treatment by the party, to the end of his life he remained a supporter of the PPP. He also spoke of his disappointment with Moses Nagamootoo and Khemraj Ramjattan for fraternizing with those who had persecuted them and for not speaking out against the wrongs of the coalition government and the ill-treatment of sugar workers and farmers.
Dr Bissundyal’s generous nature and literary talents will be missed by all those who were familiar with his work and/or were privileged to have known him or be mentored by him. The world today seems a duller, lesser place with Churaumanie no longer around. My thoughts are with his family at this sad time.