By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
I write in honor of Cheddi Jagan’s mother, Bachaoni. Virtually nothing has been written on this great soul who produced a great son who went on to become leader of Indians and the country. This is a period of Pitri Paksh when people pay tribute to the ancestors. This woman deserves the highest praises for the life she lived. She was a role model for all mothers.
Not much attention was focused on the contribution of hard working women like Jagan’s mother in the plantations and the important role they played in raising children while laboring in the fields. Bachaoni played a significant role in community development.
I was raised in Ankerville, Port Mourant, just three short streets from where the Jagan’s lived – Bachaoni with Cheddi and the other siblings and their father Jagan (who had only one name which was very common among Indians in India and places where they were taken as indentured slaves). I used to play bumper ball cricket right near their home and behind their yard was a large play ground for hard ball cricket. It was this hard ball ground that I scored my hundred in youth cricket and emaciated opponents with my fast bowling. (Yes, I played cricket). This was also the ground where famous cricketers during the post indentureship period played before moving on to the Ankerville cricket ground, Port Mourant Cricket ground, and others nearby. From the ground behind the Jagan’s, which had no stand or pavilion or stand pipes, one can see all the fruit trees in the family compound – geniup, mango, sugar apple, sapodilla, cherry, among others. The old lady was generous in sharing fruits. She also grew lots of vegetables or greens. The family would allow players to pass through the yard as a short cut to the ground. Later, the ground was abandoned and occupied for rice cultivation. I believe sugar workers now occupy the ground carving out house lots as squatters as the youths stop playing cricket at the ground. Spectators used to gather under sankoka trees to watch cricket.
I remember the Jagan’s home and the old lady well because I used to visit occasionally delivering groceries from my aunt’s store. I was happy to go because you get a ‘lil frek’ (tips) and she allows you to pick fruits. In those days if you get a cent or a gil you could buy a lot of sweets and or a buns. She had a habit of “ouchaying” (giving blessings to religious people and Brahmins). As a kurmi, an agricultural caste, she had enormous respect for higher caste Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Several had their foreheads or feet touched by her for blessings as was the custom in those days.
The old lady was never called by name. Aunty Bachaoni was inappropriate. I never heard anyone called her as such. Older women were called aji, nanni or mai. Jagan’s mother was aji or nanni among the youths and mai or mousie or poa or didi among the older folks. Cheddi and brothers Derek and Oudit and my father were around the same age and they knew each other well as they grew up on nearby lojies on the estate. Cheddi’s father and my aja knew each other well and they socialized in Hindi. Oudit and my father worked at the backdam together like kins. So referring to Bachaoni as aji was most appropriate. She would call the younger one like us beta (son) or beti (daughter).
Bachaoni would visit Aunty Bethlyn shop near The Kresh in Ankerville aside the main road, next to he masjid. It was my job to deliver the goods. I Bachaoni likes to come to Aunty Bethlyn, my father’s first cousin, because she spoke Bhojpuri at which Bachaoni was very fluent. It gave her opportunities to socialize in her mother’s tongue. Bachaoni was born in India (Uttar Pradesh) and came to Guyana with her mother when she was not even two years old surviving that treacherous three months journey aboard the ship in rough seas. Oudit’s wife, Aunty Janey, also shopped at Bethlyn’s and sometimes I would also deliver her goods. Janey and Oudit had three daughters, Rita, Doreen and a younger one whose the goods. Aunty Janey was from Belvedere marrying into the Jagan’s. It was a match wedding as all marriages were at the time. Bachaoni, Janey, and the girls were very warm, kind, and friendly to visitors and when I delivered goods.
Whenever I saw Bachaoni at home, she was always dressed in white. It could be because she was a widow. And in Hindus customs, widows don’t dress in very colorful clothing. She was also a very religious lady. People wore white when worshipping. She had a kutiya (small temple for home worshipping) and was very often seen offering prayers clad in beautiful spotless white and orni. She would also worship regularly at Port Mourant Shivala temple. Aunty Janey also patronized the temple. Bachaoni and daughter in law never missed a major religious service at the Shivala.
When Bachaoni passed away in the mid 1970s, it was a huge funeral, the largest perhaps on the Corentyne prior to Cheddie’s in 1997. There was bhajan singing and nightly wake till the completion of the 13 day prayers. Blackout was a norm. At the time of the Bachaoni’s death, electricity was supplied by a private company a street away. But gas and hand lamp was the norm for wakes as electricity was not reliable. The tents were packed every evening as people came to listen to religious discourse and or play cards and dominoes as was the custom at wakes. Christian, Muslim, and Hindu wakes last for weeks among Indians. Bachaoni’s wake and shraad attracted people of all religious background. Oudit performed the rituals and did the shraad or “dead wuk”. Mourners came from afar. Many knew Bachaoni because she lived in Albion and Port Mourant and came to pay last respects. Port Mourant people moved to other locations on the Corentyne between 1940s and 1960s and came for the funeral rites. Being Jagan’s mother also drew a crowd at the funeral. The old lady was well known especially in religious circles as she patronized every Bhagwat and Ramayana in the area. I don’t think anyone from Ankerville and neighboring Boundyard and Free Yard missed that funeral. Forbes Burnham also came to the funeral and referred to her as “maa”, an honor of respect. Burnham knew Bachaoni during the early days of the freedom struggle when Cheddi and Burnham were allies. For the one year Shraad, when Dhal was very scarce during the early 1970s, Burnham redirected dhal from Linden to Uncle Oudit’s home. The dahl was delivered by two of Burnham’s civil servants who made a special trip from town. The entire estate of Ankerville and neighboring villages were invited for the puja. It was a community affair with neighbors coming together to make preparation for the final one year prayer service for the soul of Bachaoni Aji.
I do not know if Pitri Puja was performed for Bachaoni or Cheddi’s father. With Janey being a religious woman, she would have insisted that Oudit perform Pitri for them. But after Oudit’s passing, there was probably no one around to pay ancestral tribute to Bachaoni and her husband as all her sons have passed on.
She was an amazing woman who labored perhaps even harder than her husband. She worked in the backdam, on the estates, planted a garden, and took care of her children earning and saving to send Cheddi to Queens College and thence to USA to become a doctor (dentist) to help the others as was the custom. Cheddi did not fail; he helped his siblings to attend college. And later, he assisted his cousins with scholarships to study in East bloc countries and Cuba.