Vijay Coomar Joypaul: A man of integrity
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Vijay Coomar Joypaul: A man of integrity
My first encounter with Vijay Joypaul was in the mid 1950’s. We had in common our year of birth, our humble background and our love for the theatre. He had just joined the Royal College, Curepipe, while I was admitted to La School of Port Louis. The then British Council annual Drama and Public Speaking contests brought us, more than once, face to face, as friendly but fierce opponents defending our respective alma mater.
By a curious twist of fate, Vijay and I were to be cast as co-actors in “Amal et la Lettre du roi”, André Gide’s French translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s play entitled “The Post Office”. It was, if my memory serves me right, in the year 1958 during the Theatre Week organized by l’Union culturelle française (UCf). Vijay, in the lead role of the terminally ill 8 year-old boy, outshined everyone else. Marcel Cabon, then President of the UCf, would later describe Vijay as “un jeune homme de talent, un acteur de classe (et) un jeune Indo-Mauricien qui parlait un francais de premier ordre”.
This rare and probably unique experience during our youthful days allowed us, Vijay and me, to rub shoulders, even if for some brief instances, with one of the greatest Mauritian poets of all times, Marcel Cabon, and we discovered fortuitously what probably few people know about that great man’s idiosyncrasies. It was soon after the last performance of the play and we were all convened to a banquet/ dinner, with Marcel Cabon as the chief guest. As we were proceeding towards the table, we were all flabbergasted to hear him expressing loudly, for everyone to hear, that he was not prepared to sit at table with thirteen guests. Number 13 for Marcel Cabon was bad omen. “Il était superstitieux !” A solution was quickly found with one guest volunteering to forego his dinner. The rest of the evening was uneventful except for Marcel Cabon’s refined discourse that drew long rounds of applause. He was not, I was told, the only awe-inspiring writer and author who could be irrational and incredibly superstitious to the extent of being rude!
The early bond of friendship that started on the stage stood the test of time and would till his last, remain between Vijay and me remarkably strong, especially as occasions for our meetings, even socially, during those 60 odd years we knew each other, were relatively few and far between. We were moving in different worlds! Vijay would no doubt conjure up the Bard of Avon to provide an easy and obvious explanation for that improbably long relationship. I can almost hear him quoting Polonius in Hamlet: “those friends thou hast and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”
His eloquence in and mastery of both English and French languages as well as his love for literature were his hallmarks and it was real treat listening to his off-the-cuff declamations of the famous lines from well-known authors, including local poets and writers, or his prepared speeches always in perfect English and equally flawless French.
Vijay was the holder of a degree in Sociology from the Delhi University and later followed courses in diplomacy at Oxford University. He served as diplomat in Paris and Brussels and, with the same distinction, as Mauritius High Commissioner in London. He was a man of integrity and belonged to that breed of public functionaries that is today on the verge of extinction. His successful career as a diplomat and later as adviser to Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam, was the result of hard work coupled with a sharp mind and a vast knowledge of both local and international affairs. He was already an experienced and respected civil servant with high ambition and hailed for his professionalism, when he chose as his soul mate Sunita, daughter of the then country’s Prime Minister, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, whom he held in the highest esteem. The latter couldn’t find a more suitable boy for his unique daughter. The couple stood together through thick and thin until, plagued with a fatal illness, Vijay, at 75, departed this world on the 20th of October 2016, leaving his family and his friends dazed and distraught.
President of the Republic
of Mauritius (1992-2002)
Lettre à un ami
Dans la vie, il y a de ces personnes que l’on rencontre, avec qui on se sent en confiance. Et lorsqu’on a la chance de croiser le chemin de ce genre de personne, c’est une belle histoire d’amitié qui commence.
Nous nous sommes rencontrés pour la première fois en janvier 1967 à la MBC. Et pendant une année environ, nous avons co-animé une émission à la Radio – un «London Calling» à la mauricienne –, qui était diffusée les lundis à 21 h 30 après le bulletin en anglais.
Grâce à l’ambassade britannique, nous recevions des journaux qui arrivaient par la BOAC le même jour. À 18 h 45, nous étions dans le petit bureau du rédacteur en chef, attendant avec impatience l’arrivée des journaux. Pendant une demi-heure, nous avons partagé avec les auditeurs les grands titres de Times, The Sun, DailyTelegraph, Financial Times et Daily Mirror.
Pas si facile que ça, en deux heures environ, de choisir les sujets d’actualité qui allaient intéresser nos auditeurs : la guerre du Vietnam, la politique à Londres et en Europe, les analyses sur l’économie, en Afrique, la guerre civile au Nigeria, le naufrage du Torrey Canyon, l’assassinat de Malcolm X, l’accession au poste de PM d’Indira Gandhi, Moshe Dayan et la guerre des Six jours, la guerre entre la Chine et l’Inde. En musique, Procol Harum marque de son empreinte psychédélique avec A Whiter Shade of Pale, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band des Beatles ou le San Francisco de Scott McKenzie. Et la lecture des textes de Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, Pablo Neruda et autres.
Les souvenirs se pressent, en vrac. Tu étais là souvent avec ton cousin Harris qui te véhiculait. Nous parlions de tout et de rien. Nous avons passé des heures à bavarder, nous chicaner, rigoler et finir par nous lier d’une amitié très forte.
Tu avais des gestes de conteur quand tu évoquais ton enfance à Souillac, «où on ne fermait jamais une porte à clé», ta jeunesse chez les Balgobin et tes années au collège Royal de Curepipe, ta participation au festival de théâtre du collège, tes études en Inde…
Tu parlais toujours avec éloquence. Je crois bien qu’il n’y a pas eu une seule semaine sans que tu nous bluffes. Tu avais une mémoire extraordinaire qui allait t’aider dans ton travail car tu avais rejoint la fonction publique, affecté au cabinet du Premier ministre.
Tu avais aussi une impressionnante érudition. Tu nous fis découvrir davantage les écrivains que tu aimais. Tu récitais souvent des poèmes d’Omar Khayyam, des extraits de Shakespeare, de Voltaire, de Rabindranath Tagore, Malcolm de Chazal, Robert Edward Hart, Jean-Georges Prosper, Édouard Maunick, et autres.
Quand nous avons arrêté le magazine, faute de journaux, nous nous voyions peu, emportés dans le tourbillon de la vie. Mais je faisais souvent appel à toi quand je devais faire un reportage en direct. Et on se voyait parfois chez ma soeur Ruby car son mari était ton collègue.
Et en amitié, tu pratiquais, partout, à la manière fraternelle, affûtée, des mousquetaires du roi, la devise : «Un pour tous, tous pour un.» Je te revois encore à la Burns Unit de l’hôpital de Candos, assis à côté de Ruby. Nous savions tous les deux qu’elle allait mourir. Vous étiez tous les deux, ce jourlà, un manuel d’émotions. Vous avez fumé ensemble une dernière cigarette et vous récitiez ensemble des poèmes de Keats et Wordsworth. Et pour la première fois, tu avais les larmes aux yeux. Un épisode à jamais rangé dans le tiroir des souvenirs ?
Nous nous sommes revus à Paris quand j’étais en stage et tu étais à l’ambassade. Tu invitais régulièrement des amis, surtout des écrivains et des poètes, à venir prendre un verre de vin – ce vin que tu aimais tant. J’ai aussi découvert alors ton addiction à la cigarette, dont les volutes baroques rappelaient tellement les arabesques de ton style.
Et puis, en 1980, tu nous as annoncé que tu allais épouser Sunita, la fille de Sir Seewoosagur, et tu t’es marié en 1981. Sunita possédait les qualités que tu recherchais, surtout la discrétion. Elle partageait ton amour pour les animaux. Je vois encore la tête de nos amis quand tu nous as révélé qu’elle avait 19 chats ou plus et que tu connaissais chacun de leurs noms. Vous étiez aussi en quête de simplicité. Vous avez acheté une maison à Trou-aux-Biches – toi, te souvenant du paysage de Souillac qui avait eu une profonde influence sur toi, toi qui t’émerveillais devant la beauté de la nature. C’était surtout une maison qui vous a servi à apprivoiser le temps qui passe.
Pendant des années, je t’ai harcelé pour écrire tes mémoires et quelque temps avant ta mort, je t’ai rencontré à la clinique Darné et nous avons pris un café ensemble. Tu avais tellement maigri. Ce jour-là, tu m’as dit que tu ne pourrais jamais écrire tes mémoires car il y avait trop de vérités à ne pas dévoiler. Tu voulais continuer à garder ce silence diplomatique qui te caractérisait tant. «Je sens venir le moment ultime. J’ai fait mon deuil de ce que je n’ai pas fait, de ce que je n’ai pas écrit : ce sera pour une autre vie.»
Même ta détresse avait de l’insolence et du panache. «Tu vois, me dis-tu, le médecin vous dit que tout va très bien. Vous lui dites que vous allez sûrement mourir bientôt. Il ne veut pas le croire. Il y a vraiment des gens qui ne comprennent rien.» Effectivement, tu as rendu ton dernier souffle dans l’après-midi du jeudi 20 octobre 2016.
Tes amis mettront beaucoup de temps à faire le deuil de ce que tu étais… Dans ton parcours, il y avait les mots rencontre, dialogue, ensemble, échange, tolérance, différence et paix, bref, la conjugaison de la pluralité humaine.
De toi, je retiens vraiment la personne et sa philosophie de vie étonnante de générosité, de curiosité intellectuelle, d’empathie, d’enthousiasme, de travail et d’énergie.
A class of his own
Every so now and again in one’s life, there come moments when one is literally compelled to stop one’s routine and reflect, albeit in an abstract manner, on whether one’s actions, reactions, feelings and chosen path are worth it all, considering the finality of life itself. One such moment for me was the passing of Vijay, my namesake. As I looked at his mortal remains prior to his ultimate voyage to be turned into ash, that compelling moment of deep reflection enveloped me shaking off the mantle of cosmetic being and causing me to acknowledge, yet again, that, after all, no living being has any control on when that last knock would come.
The obvious reality then flashed… no one could possibly determine the duration of one’s earthly presence, though, being ordinary mortals, we quickly banish such thoughts and get on with our daily preoccupations and routine. These lines from Shakespeare’s “AsYou Like It” often bring me to the reality of life: “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…”
Vijay was one such man who indeed had many entrances and played a multitude of parts. If William Shakespeare was known as the Bard of Avon, Vijay was the Bard of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he had a distinguished career. He could easily quote lines and verses from renown poets and authors to fit any given circumstance. Vijay was a man of theatre in the larger sense of the term. His command of language and his wide repertoire of quotes made it a matter of course for him to turn any event, however mundane or even insignificant into a memory for a lifetime. Such was his mastery that he played whatever role that was assigned to him with commitment, conviction and a sincerity of purpose… be it on a theatrical stage or on life’s stage. After all, did he not land a minor role as a flamboyant tourist in the Hindustani film “Chandi aur Sona” shot in Mauritius? A role model he was to many…
Life was not always kind
Life indeed…. never a journey only of tranquility and peace of mind. The least foreseen and unexpected upheavals and obstacles that lie in one’s path can be depressing and cast a negative shadow on how one gets on from there. Or they arm one to face any challenge that are thrown in one’s path and turn them into opportunities. During his latter years, life was not always kind to Vijay. He had ailed for a while, starting from an unfortunate accident which made him turn to the succour of a walking stick, complaining occasionally, as a colleague reminds me, of something called “supraorbital nerve pain”. Vijay, true to his character, did not give up easily. The walking stick only added to his personality, making him appear even more as a character straight from a theatrical play. His was a very busy mind, intellectually sharp, always in quest of acquiring fresh knowledge. Books were his most prized possessions, constituting his treasure, his armoury… enabling him to deliver the best of himself in any given circumstance, however enormous the challenge.
Vijay would have excelled in whatever profession he would have embraced. Teacher, Actor, Author, Academician, Researcher… but he chose to be in the public service, more specifically in the Foreign service where I had the privilege to know and appreciate him from close quarters.
My first encounter with him was in 1961 when I was attending Form 1 classes at the Royal College of Port Louis. Vijay held a job as Assistant Librarian there. I believe he must have just completed his secondary schooling and like a few of his brilliant contemporaries got a temporary job at the Royal College. He surely must have been in his world, surrounded by books in the library and in the company of one Miss Martial who made the library period one that all students looked forward to. I was interested in books right from the start of my learning period. Vijay must have noticed that for, on the quiet, he would loan me books which were not meant for my grade. I have no doubt that that generous gesture of his encouraged and prodded me on to read even more as I progressed in life.
Our paths crossed again after I had come back from University when I joined the Rural Development Programme as a Village Development Officer. Vijay was then officiating in the Private Office of the Prime Minister under the able hands of Dr. K. Hazareesingh. In 1974, precisely on 23 August, we reported for duty at the Ministry of External Affairs, Tourism and Emigration, having been selected by the Public Service Commission as the first intake of Foreign Service Officers, after having gone through the rigours of written examinations and interviews. Vijay was already familiar with the establishment and fully at ease with the bureaucratic nature of our assignments, from the movement of whatever files came to us to minuting thereon for processing and eventual decision-making higher up the hierarchy. Others who were already at the Ministry were Education Officers who had been seconded there to constitute the core of the fledgling diplomatic cadre.
The poet of the Ministry
Initially, not much seemed to be happening in terms of substantive work. We shared a couple of large offices on the ground floor, the wooden structure part of Government House, with the statue of Queen Victoria in the fore. Vijay was often solicited by the Private Office to give a helping hand, especially during official visits of foreign dignitaries. His talent as a communicator and a worthy liaison official must have been recognised and acknowledged by the superiors of the day. After all, he had also excelled in analysing and commenting on the national radio station, the Mauritius Broadcasting Service as the MBC was then known, the recently held general elections in the U.K. which saw the emergence of a hung Parliament while Harold Wilson, the U.K. Labour Party leader, was Prime Minister.
I, personally, not only started getting the gist of all that entailed in framing policies, from analysis to writing briefs and other short notes on topics of interest for the Minister who happened to be the Prime Minister (Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam) himself, but learnt quite a few unwritten ropes from Vijay. How could I not recall our discussions under the huge Tamarind tree that was then by the old Establishment building, called the Secretariat, which also housed, in an adjacent building, the ILO local office, or our occasional visits to the local pub, the Rocking Boat on Sir William Newton Street opposite the Bank of Mauritius?
Vijay, at times felt, and probably rightly so, that he was paying the price of his competence and worldliness. One such occasion was when SSR assigned the Second Secretaries that we were to serve in our Missions abroad. While another colleague and I were sent on further training to Paris and Canberra respectively, the others were all posted to our Embassies in Brussels, Paris, London, Islamabad and New York. Vijay was not on the list and he felt very dejected by what he perceived as unfair. Following an appeal, he was subsequently posted to our High Commission in London where we were to work together briefly upon my posting there from Cairo. Vijay went on to Brussels for a short spell prior to being transferred to Paris in February, 1979 and where he served until early January 1982. He and I criss-crossed yet again, with his return to London and my transfer to Paris.
Our paths often met, albeit briefly during our years in the Foreign Service. I recall visiting him while he was on advanced diplomatic training at Elisabeth House in Oxford. We enjoyed our fellowship and exchanged experiences while having a pint at The Randolph.
Vijay was always ready and happy to help his friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Many a qualified lawyer, including Ramesh Seereekissoon who was a colleague posted to our Embassy in Paris and Jayen Cuttaree spent time in Vijay’s quarters near the High Commission whenever they had to appear for ‘dinners’ or prepare for exams.
The Prime Minister, SSR, often passed through London on official mission. Mauritius was then experiencing turbulences on the political and economic fronts. On one such visit, SSR informed us why he had had to annul an unusual appointment that had been made earlier concerning Vijay and myself. Sometime in 1981, we both (Vijay, in Paris and I, in London) had received letters of appointment as Supervising Officer of the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Youth and Sports respectively!
We found each other at Headquarters in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. By then, we had moved up in the hierarchy and in 1990 were both appointed Roving Ambassadors, Vijay with specific responsibility for China and Singapore while I was accredited to the Specialised Agencies of the United Nations and to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
The diplomatic cadre of the Ministry had for some time been fighting hard, within the Establishment, for the professionalisation of the Ministry and demanded that it be headed by a career diplomat. In 1993, when the position of Secretary for Foreign Affairs was finally created, we were all elated. Vijay and Parwiz Hossen (another colleague from our initial batch) to whom the position had been offered on my insistence at a meeting with the then Head of the Civil Service, declined. In 1995, motivated by presumed political gains, the then Prime Minister, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, succumbed to obscure pressure from certain so-called sociocultural organisations that thrive during election periods and abolished the position much to the dismay and anger of the diplomatic class. Vijay, never one to take such matters lying down, was among the first to sign a petition to try and resist this retrograde decision.
Vijay was the poet of the Ministry and he loved declaiming whenever occasions arose. He would find the exact quotes and deliver them enthusiastically. During the Summit of La Francophonie in 1993, he left a profound impression on the French delegation extolling the virtues of French poetry and literature. President Mitterrand was pleasantly surprised when Vijay, suddenly steered the conversation onto the richness of culture and quoted a poem written by the President himself. The effect on the surrounding audience was immediate and palpable.
He always encouraged others to move on. I recall the pride he expressed, eyes welled up with emotional tears when he attended, in Prime Minister Dr. Navin Ramgoolam’s delegation, the OAU Summit of Harare, Zimbabwe in 1997 at which, in my capacity as elected Deputy Secretary General of the Organisation, I was presenting issues for decisions by the Heads of State and Government. Later on, he made it a point to acquire a few copies of my first book “Policy Consensus, Strategy Vacuum” launched in 1997, to distribute in the Ministry.
Yes, one could say that Vijay was definitely a class on his own. He was a romantic soul as well, easily emotional and enjoyed socialising. Every so now and again, I recall scenes of our exchanges on topics of common interest be it at La Périgourdine in the vicinity of the French National Assembly in Paris, or at Strikes on Gloucester Road near the Mauritius High Commission, London, or enjoying our favourite musical numbers at my residence in Hoylake Crescent in Ickenham. Vijay would often sing to the tune and initiate a few dance steps and get everybody involved.
I am indeed privileged to have been associated with such a distinguished and accomplished person and very happy to have the opportunity to reminisce about our times together.
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