What motivated you to write a book on Dr Idrice Goumany?
Initially, my effort was simply an advocacy role to get the contributions of Dr Idrice Goumany recognised at national level. I found it very sad that this young doctor who sacrificed his life while saving the lives of patients infected by deadly disease of small pox, particularly the Indian indentured labourers, was flatly ignored in all the national celebrations relating to the arrival of Indian immigrants. This made me write several articles in local newspapers, namely in Star and le Mauricien, with the aim of sensitizing public opinion. I had no idea of writing a book. It was Mr Carrim Currimjee who requested me to write a book on this illustrious personality so that the present and coming generations will be proud of the heroic and patriotic actions of this eminent son of a humble lascar. For the last three years, this idea of writing a book had been dominating my mind. I was always asking myself whether there would be enough materials to write a book on ha person who died very young and who had exercised his profession for three years? When I started interviewing people and compiling information for the book, I realized that there was a deficit of information about the doctor. Many young persons were under the impression that Dr Goumany could be a recent figure associated with treatment of drug addicts. They had little idea that this enigmatic personality was among the first Muslim doctors. Dr Goumany was the sole Indo-Mauritian in the list of doctors in the list of doctors published by colonial gazette of 1887.
Are you satisfied with the book?
I leave it for appreciation of the readers. But I must point out that by going through the lifetime of Dr Goumany, I have tried to widen the history of Muslim diaspora in Mauritius. The story of the Goumanys is also the saga of several lascar families who once prevailed all over the Indian Ocean. In those days, the job of lascar (seaman in a very large sense) was a noble one and was highly demanded. It was hard to imagine how a ship could sail without the lascars. The lascars, in their livelihood, were confronted by the spirit of sail or perish and, hence, they were motivated by the instinct of survival. The grandfather of Dr Goumany, who settled in Mauritius around 1790, hailed from the port of Cochin in Kerala. It is here that the sahaba of Prophet Muhammad (s.aw), Malik ibn Dinar, built the first mosque of India as far back as 629 A.D. It is known as Cheramun Jummah Masjid. Kerala forms part of the Malabar coast on south-west India which was frequently visited by Arab traders and Arab sailors. Their interaction with Indian people and through their marriages with local women, they contributed to the emergence of a community of Indo-Arab blood who became specialised in sailing, ship-building and maritime trade. In fact, all the seaports on Malabar coast were handled and policed by them. The term ‘lascar’ would be given to them by the Portuguese who discovered India following the first naval expedition of Vasco da Gama to the port of Calicut inn1498. Given the fact that European ships were being frequently decimated by death of their crew and sailors of their national origin in their east-bound trips due to malaria and other tropical diseases, the Europeans started employing the lascars who were very skilful and agile as seamen. Mahe de Labourdonais, who had stayed for almost a decade on the Malabar coast before being nominated as Governor of ile de France (Mauritius), was aware of the potentials of the lascars. That’s why when he started with his gigantic project of building the new harbour of Port Louis, he had recourse to the expertise of the lascars. I have also tried to draw a cohesive canvas of the maritime history of the Indian Ocean by making quick incursions to the Arab geographer al idrissi who had mentioned Mascarene islands in his world map of 1154, to the Arab traveller Ibn Batuta who visited this part of the world in 14th century, the transit of the Mughal diplomat Mirza Itesa Modeen at Port Louis harbour in 1765 and the visit of Tipu Sultan’s envoys in 1798.
Your book speaks of the history of Indian diaspora in Mauritius starting as far back as 1735. Almost 283 years! Whereas the Aapravasi limits itself to 1834 or rather a period of 183 years. Why a big chunk of our immigration history has been ignored?
Mauritius is an island of immigrants. It will be unfortunate to have our history fractured among different components of our society. It would have been ideal if all immigrants, irrespective of whether they are descendants of French, Lascars, Tamils, Coolies, Gujratis, Merchants, Chinese or slaves, join hands to celebrate one single national event on immigration saga. All of them climbed the same staircase of the Immigration depot. It must also be pointed out that the geographical coverage of the origin of the Indian diaspora is much larger than the frontiers of the Indian sub-continent.
How would you summarize the personality of Dr Goumany?
He was a very intelligent and brilliant person. He was always among the top at primary school and secondary college. He persevered with his educational pursuit at a time when there were prejudices against non-whites. Education was then believed to be a monopoly and privilege of the Franco oligarchy. With his impressive results at college, Idrice ought to have benefitted from a British scholarship. But he would not get it, perhaps because of his ethnic profile. His parents had to contract huge loans to send him abroad. They took that risk because they were confident that they would be able to repay back when Dr Goumany start working after getting qualified as doctor. Just imagine the pressure and tension under which the young Idrice had to pursue his university education in a foreign land. There was no air connection, no phone facilities. The only means of communication with his family was letters which took several months to reach their destination. Despite this financial burden, the acute homesickness and death of his father while he was still at university, he was able to complete his education. This explains to what extent he was a man of self-discipline, determination and iron character. He was a very smart and elegant gentleman. This is evident from the photo which appears on the cover of my book. This photo was taken in 1886 in Edinburg. He looks very Turkish in his attire and outlook, especially with the red fez. Despite being away from his homeland and having lived for six years in Scotland, he retained the attributes of his culture in a foreign land. In those days, a person who got qualified as doctor was indeed a big leap forward both in terms of status and money. All the comforts of life were awaiting the young and handsome doctor Idrice. He could have married to his French fiancée and settled in France for a comfortable life. Or, he had the opportunity to opt for a local life partner as many beautiful and cultured girls from the bourgeoisie were aspiring to marry him. But the young doctor was committed to his profession and sense of humanism. He positively responded to the call of the colonial government to deal with the health emergency and take charge of the quarantine of Pointe aux Cannoniers. All the other doctors refused to so. If you consider the geographical remoteness and inaccessibility of Pointe aux Cannoniers in those days, you would imagine that Dr Idrice Goumany was, as if, working in an open prison. The tragedy is that when became sick after catching small pox from his patients, there was no doctor available to treat him. He was abandoned to his fate. His untimely death was a financial ruin to his family as they were unable to settle the huge debt which they had contracted to finance his overseas studies.
Your book has a sub-title ‘A short-lived blossom of an emerging society’. Would you elaborate on it?
The ‘emerging society’ makes reference to the community life of the lascars who were newly installed on the island. Within a matter of two generations, they were able to organize themselves into ’congregations’, exercise their influence over the French governors and get permission to build the first mosque. Through their hard work, they were able to make some savings, buy properties and finance the education of their children. In fact, a Muslim elite was in making. The ‘short-lived blossom’ evidently refers to Dr Idrice Goumany. He bloomed hardly for three years as doctor. Had he lived longer, he would have definitely played a leadership role in the Muslim community. This is evidenced from his various moves made after his return from Scotland. He was instrumental in addressing petitions to the British imperial authorities. He was very much concerned with the cultural, economic and political conditions of his people. In one of the petitions addressed to Sir George Campbell of the Scottish Liberal Party in 1888, he drew his attention to the fact that the Indo-Mauritian traders contributed a very large share to the treasury of the colony of Mauritius and that they must be treated in just and equitable manner. In another petition sent in 1888 to H.E Francis Flemming, the Secretary of State of the Colonies, the petitioners of Camp des Lascars demanded that two religious festivals be entitled for public holidays, that the Mohammedan schools be given government grants just like Catholic schools and that the Muslim community be represented in the Council of Government and the Council of Education, respectively, by at least two Muslim members.
How would the examples of Dr Idrice Goumany be relevant in today’s context?
There are some universal values, which are the bedrock of Islamic culture, can be drawn from the life of Dr Idrice Goumany. These are hard work and sacrifice (Qurbani), self-disciple (Adab), travelling to foreign land in search of knowledge (Hadith), commitment to duty and services to others (Insaniyat). The life story of Dr Goumany shows the dynamism and energy of a people who want to forge ahead. Anyone who aspires to play leadership role either at religious, or social or political level must have a deep insight in the evolution of the community since the outset. Otherwise, he would fail to grasp the ethos of his constituency.