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A tribute to Dr James Burty David, the teacher

Dr James Burty David

On 13 December is exactly ten years since Dr James Burty David passed away. His untimely demise shook the nation and glowing tributes were paid to him by friends, fellow politicians and acquaintances. However, James Burty David was over and above all a teacher par excellence and as one of his former students, I wish to say a few words about this great educator.

At a certain point in time, the life of my fellow classmates and myself telescoped with that hors pair scholar and erudite. That was when we were doing our HSC classes at Bhujoharry College. It was in the early seventies. With our « chemises a fleur and pattes d’éléphant », we belonged to the first cohort of adolescents of post-independence Mauritius. Most of us were idealists and we had lofty dreams and aspirations for our newly independent country.

During recess time, our conversations unswervingly revolved around exciting topics such as capitalism and communism, Marx and Lenin, third worldism and non-alignment, neo-colonialism and imperialism, the Vietnam war and the My Lai massacre. We debated hotly on the need for a post-colonial indigenous culture, on mauritianism and the sense of belonging to the nation.

In all these discussions and debates, there loomed like a compass the guiding hand of Burty Davd, our literature teacher. He was barely older than us but he opened our minds, expanded our horizons and developed our thinking. It was he who introduced us to the delightful intricacies of the « Nouvelle Vague » in French literature. He expatiated on the philosophy of existentialism, on Sartre, Anouilh and Simone de Beauvoir and immersed us in the theatre of the absurd with Beckett and Ionesco. Some of the phrases that he used to quote still reverberate in my mind - « Le drame de l’incomunicabilite », « L’enfer c’est les autres » or «On est comdamné à etre libre ».

In the same way, Burty demystified the French cinema for us. During his classes, he enchantingly digressed on Godard, Chabrol and Lelouch. I remember at that time the cult film « Un homme et Une femme » with the mythical Jean Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimee and the no less mythical musician Francis Lai, was being shown in different cinema halls that dotted our island. It was Burty who told us that there was no pre-written dialogue for the film. The actors were given a particular situation and they were asked to improvise the dialogue. This film had a huge impact on members of my generation, together with the other contemporaneous classic « Love story » with the same mythical musician, Francis Lai.

Tiens ! It was through Burty that I became an ardent fan of Edith Piaff. I remember we were discussing about French songs, Jean Ferrat, Jacques Brel and others. Then I mentioned Mireille Matthieu whom I admired a lot at that time. He replied : « C’est la nouvelle Edith Piaff ». This made me curious about Piaff and I ended falling in love with her songs and her enchantingly inimitable voice till today : Non, je ne regrette rien.

I am not going to comment on the political career of Burty David. This is another « paire de manche». But I cannot equally obviate the political landscape of that time. Here was a bunch of young adults inflaming our imagination with ideals of meritocracy, equality, classless society, human brotherhood, workers’ struggles, social justice and a better future. Among them was a towering figure, a « soixante-huitard ». With his long hair, moustache and leather jacket, he was the Mauritian Che Guevarra. In today ‘s language he would be called a rock star. I remember somebody in our class asked Burty what he thought of this man, Paul Bérenger. He replied : « Very intelligent fellow ». Then he related to us an anecdote. He said that he attended a meeting of the new party, the MMM. He was standing just behind Paul Bérenger who was looking at a paper in his hand and rousing the public with his fiery speech. Burty added that he had the opportunity to cast a glance on the paper and behold there was nothing written on it except a few diagrams.

Almost all my friends in my erstwhile class have completed their careers. Some have become famous and occupied high posts, others have been in strategic positions where they have played important roles, others still have contributed in anonymity, but all of us have undoubtedly added our brick to the wall of Mauritius. 
I do not have any doubt that the lessons taught to us in our class by James Burty David were like a shining star for us.

Azize Bankur 

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