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  • Writer's pictureAmrita Maharaj-Dube

Raviji, the Chiseler

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

A tribute to one of my mentors

The North Coast Road. In my opinion, one of Trinidad's most daring engineering feats. A 31 km narrow, winding road chiselled along treacherous terrain. It connects us to the stunning beauty of Trinidad's northern coastline. The drive, however, is nauseating. The sharp bends make my neck cringe with tension every time I hit the brake peddle. The uncertainty of bare hillsides threatening to release loosened earth. The heart palpitations from the many near accidents. I confess- I don't always enjoy the journey. I often ask myself "why didn't I just head to Manzanilla instead? It's a much easier drive."

But the journey does offer peace. Sometimes my husband and I turn off the radio, send the windows down and just listen to nature. The birds. Waterfalls gently gliding along with the lush vegetation. Inhaling fresh, cool air. There isn't much time in this hectic life to pause and allow nature to control your senses. The destinations along the North Coast Road heal even the most bruised of hearts. The entrance to Maracas Bay itself feels grand. The way the road curves as you enter the main stretch of beach was perhaps intentional, as though the engineers knew the effect they wanted to create. For those consumed with wanderlust, this is the ideal drive.

The North Coast Road reminds me of one of the most influential mentors in my life, Raviji.

Apart from my parents, no one has ever pushed me to pursue an inward journey. To chisel away at my muddled thoughts and find clarity. The path of self-discovery can be frightening. Many times, I wanted to give up. But Raviji, whether consciously or subconsciously, pressed me to carve a narrow, often confusing road to my atma (soul). And I'm proud that I did.

Born in the quaint village of Caparo, Trinidad, Ravindranath Maharaj has become one of the Caribbean’s most prolific scholars on Hinduism. He is a gifted architect- building communities whose children are culturally awakened. I admire his ability to recognise and celebrate the sisterhood between Hindus and the Orisha. A true intellectual kshatriya (warrior), Raviji's calm, humble demeanour can be deceiving. The flame that burns within him is strong, even at his age.

Raviji is a visionary.

He conceptualised an institution, the Hindu Prachaar Kendra, that is anything but your regular mandir (Hindu place of worship). It is an institute of learning, a sanctuary for children and adults yearning for a different kind of educational experience; one that our academic system is not ready to embrace. I remembered chatting with him about Baal Ramdilla (children's Ramleela) and its true purpose. Building a child's character through scriptwriting, narrating, acting, dancing, and the other disciplines offered through the Heritage Vacation Course. This experience was never exclusive to Hindus only. Raviji taught everyone, and he never made you feel inadequate for not knowing something.

I began attending the Kendra in my early teens, a rather challenging time in my life. I was a Hindu, curly-haired girl attending a catholic secondary school. I mention my hair texture because it was the subject of many bouts of discrimination, mainly from fellow East Indians. At school, I didn't exactly 'fit in'. Many laughed when they heard I came from "Raghunanan Road" (one classmate unapologetically asked if this was an actual place in Trinidad). I wasn’t particularly proud of my heritage. I had never read the Ramcharitmanas (Hindu holy text). Never did yoga. Didn't know Hindi. Raviji changed everything.

My first real interaction with Raviji was at the Kendra's first-ever Baal Ramdilla Heritage Camp. I did some writing on the Ramcharitmanas, and Raviji took notice. I remembered creating the script on Shree Rama's mournful departure from Ayodhya. I included Hemant Kumar's song, 'Chhod Chale' from the film 'Ayodhyapati-56' to make Shree Rama's exit more dramatic. He asked why. I couldn't offer him an explanation. I just knew that it was the song often played by hearses when transporting bodies to the cremation site. I didn't even know the song's meaning. It just sounded mournful, and when Shree Rama left Ayodhya, it felt like the city's soul went with him. That was it.

This is the first lesson that I learnt from Raviji. The lesson of articulation. Expressing what is coming from within in a succinct way. This was one of many experiences that I shared with him. He encouraged me to write even more, and I did, often with much reluctance. I am sure he often sensed it, but a true mentor is persistent.

Sometimes I'd be on the receiving end of his "buffs" (reprimand). When Raviji 'corrected' errant behaviour or inaccurate statements, his wisdom was so commanding that it made your insides quiver with fear. He could make you cry without even shouting.

There was also the time when I wrote a play for Holika Dahan. I used the Cinderella fairy tale and gave it a Prahalad twist. It became the tale of Prahalad, his two ill-mannered siblings, and evil father King Hiranyakashipu from Raghunanan Road. It began with the evil trio heading to a maticoor leaving Prahalad all alone at home. As with any Disney movie, there is that one magical symbol. A Fairy Godmother. Magic carpet. For me, I saw the Orhni (head shawl). And Holika. The perfect twist for my Disney 'remake'.

Raviji thought it was brilliant. I remembered him having an intense discussion with the late Ken Parmasad (another brilliant mind) about this marriage of ideas. Again, he prodded me to share my thought process. My justification. I didn't really feel like I had written anything special. But Ji helped me to acknowledge my own creativity. He saw potential when I didn't. That was lesson number two.

Lesson number three came on the morning of one of Kendra's Vasant Panchami Programmes. Ji had appointed me as the Programme's Junior Coordinator. I guess he knew that event management will become part of my career and he was honing my skills. There weren't as many flowers as there should have been. The incense didn't emit the right concentration of fragrance. The aesthetic was, well, sub-standard. After the programme, he shared his post-event evaluation. I had never listened to someone speak so eloquently about flowers, their purpose and the power they hold. Now, whenever I join in the annual programme, his words resonate deeply with me. Flowers, fragrance, and fraternity.

I fast forward to my adult years. Raviji went from being the mentor I was semi-afraid of, to an older family member whom I still respected and admired.

The discussion of marriage followed. Raviji filling a key role at the Vivaah Sanskaar. It was only when I saw my wedding photos, I understood one of Raviji's many lessons. He was part of the Baraat, greeting my father and the pundit at the entrance of my home. Then there was another photo of him sitting and eating Kheer ( rice pudding) next to my husband during the 'Khichri'.

Raviji, in a subtle way, taught me a lesson on community. The value of one's presence. Showing up. Standing next to someone especially during those life-altering moments. I often question whether us millennials will ever understand the true meaning of this word, "community".

I am now alert. I pay closer attention to signs from the universe. I am proud of my "Indianness", curly hair and all. And I love writing. It's therapeutic, and I may have never ventured into producing my own blog had I not overcome those insecurities I had as a teenager. Writing has taken me on a journey of self-discovery, and I have to thank Raviji for his gentle and not-so-gentle nudges.

I don't know who or where I would have been today without his intervention. Who knows how many other 'North Coast roads' Raviji has helped to build.

To Ji, Dhanyavaad.

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