Fragments from Memory
By Moses V. Nagamootoo
On Friday, February 14, 1997 (Valentine’s Day), Cheddi Jagan suffered a fatal heart attack. He battled heroically in hospital for twenty-one days, but succumbed on March 6.
The late Cheddi Jagan gave over fifty years of his glorious life to his country and people. At 79, he had reached the pinnacle of service. He died at his post as the Republic’s first democratically-elected President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. He had earned the stature of a Mahatma and, indisputably, the Father of the Nation.
Many assessments have already been made of his life, and more would be made. But without accounts from those who shared the experiences of his life and struggles, much could remain unsaid, and lost.
Much would be said about his politics and ideology. But the Cheddi Jagan I knew during the three decades I had worked alongside him was essentially a patriot wrapped up in a set of attitudes. Those, for me, better explained his personality, his world outlook and his convictions.
He was, as he himself had admitted, a workaholic. During his unenviable stint as Opposition Leader (1964-92), when he was not attending a party or public meeting, he devoted time to reading, researching and writing. He was a patient listener who constantly learned from the views of others.
Because of those multiple tasks, which he executed continuously and almost simultaneously, he was forced to convert his small office at Freedom House into a study, a guest lounge as well as a rest house. He would enjoy an hour’s after-lunch siesta in his Amerindian hammock inside that office.
I cannot say when he was first diagnosed as being unwell, and I never really knew until I was informed that he had suffered a “mild cardiac episode”. I knew though that when he became President of the Republic a regimen of rest away from office was implemented on Wednesdays, when he would either remain at State House or retire to his Bel Air residence.
At home Dr. Jagan worked informally on statements, speeches, articles and research papers. I would invariably assist him in those tasks. But the only time when I went to State House to review a speech, it was evident from his swollen, dark eye-sockets that he had had a hard, long night of work.
His after-lunch rest-hour then was a necessity for Dr. Jagan who would have started his day long before sunrise. However, when he came to the Office of the President, his siesta became irregular. His rest-time was constantly pushed to later in the afternoon, then at times not at all.
I believe that that was the reason for the imposition of a day-off on Wednesdays. But if frugality for him meant that time should not be squandered, it was his thoughtfulness about what his colleagues should do with their time that added novelty to his day-off.
One day our late President announced casually at Cabinet that he had started routine exercise in the National Park. Rather than using up precious office hours for scheduled monthly meetings with each of his Ministers, he thought out an innovative plan: He would invite Ministers, one at a time, to accompany him on his walk around the Park. In that way, he had explained, the Ministers would do two things simultaneously: keep their monthly appointment with him and exercise.
Like work, exercise for him, was both fun and tonic. He told us often that he exercised while reading his newspapers, or listening to the radio – his favourite pastime.
The President’s Engagement Diary had me down for a walk on Wednesday, February 12 at 5 p.m.
In preparation I took my dark-blue sweat suit to my Ministry, which was on the ground floor of the Office of the President. It was the first time that I was going to the National Park for a jog. I didn’t know what to expect. I was slightly overweight, and I didn’t think I could run.
What if Dr. Jagan decided to trot around the Park?
But there I was, filled with mystery and expectation, on my first outing in the Park with my “Comrade Leader”. I parked my car at the northern entrance and waited. I allowed my eyes to roam around the Park in a mental survey of the distance I would have to do. Just then I saw Central Bank official, Dr. Gobind Ganga, who had served on the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the University of Guyana and, more recently, on an advisory team for the privatisation of the Guyana Electricity Corporation.
Ganga approached me. He said that the President wanted to have a talk with him, and that he was asked to meet him here at the Park. Poor Ganga, he didn’t know that he would have to trek and talk. I glanced at his white shirt-jac, black office pants and hard, leather shoes. I knew that he was not prepared for a walk.
When I told him what to expect, he sauntered to his vehicle, and was back in a jiffy. His shirt-jac was tucked into his pants, and he was ready for any action. By then, the president’s car appeared.
If Ganga wasn’t prepared for the Park, Dr. Jagan didn’t dress for the sleek presidential car from which he had emerged. He wore the off-cream pants I had seen him wear many, many years before. Those Hungarian pants! We had bought them in the summer of 1978 when we went together on a political mission to Budapest.
I believe that our nation’s father couldn’t throw away anything, and he kept those pants together with some stitches here and there. I bet that he did the stitching himself, as he had learned tailoring in jail when he gave up wood-working after accidentally slicing off a piece of his finger.
His jailing, of course, was another matter. It was a symbolism of the conversion of Guyana into a colonial prison from which our dreams couldn’t escape for an entire generation.
But it was the Hungarian pants that survived to that unforgettable day when I joined Ganga for Comrade Cheddi’s last lap around the National Park.
He wore a white T-shirt with some markings on it, and a white baseball cap. I think it was from a local rice company. His track boots were unmistakably small for an aged warrior.
“Hi there!” he greeted us with those familiar two words.
“Well, how many laps are we going for?” I asked as he held my shoulder.
“Sometimes I do two, sometimes more.”
I was worried about the “more”. I didn’t want to walk by his side and let him hear my heavy breathing.
He shook Ganga’s hand and he placed himself between us. I was on his right, on the outer side. We started off leisurely on the narrow, pitched track along an avenue bordered by trees. It was “Comrade Cheddi”, as we addressed him endearingly, who freed this Park up for popular recreation during a previous government, which he then headed as Premier.
The sprawling, green landscape had been an exclusive golf club for the privileged and elite.
As we walked, Dr. Jagan concluded his business with me in two words: “Everything alright?”
I also answered dismissively, “Yes”.
I knew that that day I was to listen. It was my turn to learn.
The discussion was about privatisation in general and, more particularly, about the Guyana Electricity Corporation.
Comrade Cheddi spoke about the national interest, the risk in building monopolies, the impact of privatisation on the working people and on the poor. It was a lecture in classical political economy, but his tone was hushed, and he sounded conspiratorial.
Just then Mike Brassington, the head of the Privatisation Unit, passed us. He was walking with his wife in an opposite direction. He raised his hand, and Comrade Cheddi simply nodded.
The GEC was in shambles when the PPP/Civic government took over, he reminded us. GEC has made significant progress and it must be set right before the next  elections. GEC was an example of the stubbornness of the government to set things right. Therefore a privatisation model must not lose sight of the gains so far.
He wanted publicity on what improvements have been made, and the new assets that were bought with government’s own money to stop the endemic blackout, and stabilise power supply.
As we were nearing the National Park stadium, my colleague Bert Wilkinson, the local AP correspondent, hailed at us. He was playing softball, and he pointed at my bulging tummy and must have said something like “Cheddi looks far fitter than you!” We laughed and continued around the bend.
It was an afternoon of respect. Couples said “good afternoon”, children hailed “President Jagan!” and persons unbeknown to him giggled and shyly said “hello”. We passed David De Caires, the editor-in-chief of Stabroek News, walking with, I believed, a lanky PNC Parliamentarian, John De Freitas. They passed us on the right, outer edge of the track. Comrade Cheddi did not notice them.
De Caries lifted his eyes, but went past us silently. He was to look at the living face of the Guyanese leader he had cruelly criticised with predictable regularity just one more time.
That was on the second and final lap.
The conversation became more intense. Comrade Cheddi was concerned about the implications for the big and powerful industrialised states of the divestment process in Guyana. While he drew a distinction between the Canadian “social” approach and the American’s “profit bottom-line” approach to foreign investment, he held an open attitude towards privatisation.
His principle on privatisation was simple: “If we have to, we would; if we don’t, we won’t”.
He wanted care to be taken at every stage of the process, and that it must not appear that there had been any preference for companies or any notion of a raw deal for any of them. Above all, he wanted that with regards to GEC two things should be clear. Firstly, the assets of the corporation should be fairly assessed; and secondly, that any post-privatisation agreement must protect the consumers from high or arbitrary charges.
As we finished the second and final lap, the rains started to drizzle. We continued a while in the drizzle, but the drivers were bringing out umbrellas. The Guyanese leader noticed that others were walking in the rain, including a young niece, Dionne. He didn’t want to appear indiscreet. So he waved the umbrellas away and beckoned us into his car. I dived into the front seat and he and Ganga huddled in the back.
The conversation was switched to finance, and Ganga, now wearing his Bank of Guyana hat, was doing much of the talking. Comrade Cheddi was listening with deep intensity. He was asking many questions. And Ganga was explaining how excess liquidity was being mopped up, the impact on inflation of lower interest on treasury bills, and the role of the Central Bank in fiscal management.
It was a conversation that could have gone on and on, but the guards signaled to Comrade Cheddi that it was time to leave. Little did I know then that that was my last lap with our Mahatma, who was to fall mortally ill two days later.
Dr. Jagan knew that he had another appointment that afternoon, and he drove off into the hazy evening.
We had lost the sun and darkness was about to engulf us.
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