Thursday 29th May, 2008

Leela Ramdeen
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Celebrating octogenarians

  • Happy Indian Arrival Day.
  • John Roberts and Maya Angelou celebrate 80th birthdays.
  • God’s plan for us.

Birthday celebrations are wonderful occasions. I remember when my father joined the octogenarian “gang.” On July 22 he will be 83 years old. His sister, Doolie Deoraj of Palmyra, is 89 and his maternal uncle, Dookie Singh of Sangre Grande, is 98.

As we prepare to mark the 163rd anniversary of Indian Arrival Day tomorrow, let’s say thanks to members of the Indian community for the contribution they continue to make to build T&T.

Many of our forebears have departed this life leaving no record of their rich history. We should record the experiences of the older members of our families for posterity. May the various ethnic groups in T&T continue to strengthen our culturally diverse society.

I love talking to Pa about the “old” days and learn about his religious beliefs as a Hindu. We cherish the time we have with him. Thank God he is still healthy and sprightly. One of his lifelong wishes has been to visit Cuba. By the time you read this article, my sister and I will be touring Cuba with him.

It’s wonderful to travel with Pa. He just goes with the flow. Years ago he and I spent two months travelling around India. What fun we had. While your parents are alive, make time for them.

Last Saturday I attended the 80th birthday party of Dr John Anthony Roberts, QC, DCL, FCIArb, at Chiswick Town Hall, London. John, a devout Catholic, was born in Sierra Leone and is married to Jamaican-born Eulette.

They have one son, Tony who, together with his wife, Sandra, and their two children, visit John regularly. As John said, some children live only a few miles from their parents yet visit them about twice a year only. He urged families to maintain a close relationship.

John is living life to the fullest. I met him about 30 years ago when my sister, Kamala, joined his chambers in London. John has also been called to the Bar in Jamaica, Sierra Leone, T&T, Bahamas, St Kitts and Nevis. He retired from active practice last year but acts as a consultant in many capacities.

Over the years, many barristers-at-law from black and minority ethnic communities have found difficulty securing a place in chambers for their pupilage and tenancy. Some have been forced to seek para-legal work etc and never realised their dream of practising law.

John opened the doors of his chambers to all. He himself had difficulty in securing a place for his pupilage. This experience led him to assist others who found themselves in a similar position. Tenants at his chambers comprised individuals from various ethnic groups.

As he said on Saturday, “When you stretch out your hand to help others, you don’t lose, you gain.”

Some people just talk about what they would like to do to help others. John backs up his talk with action.

John’s career path is interesting. His mother died when he was young and he helped his father raise his four siblings. He is proud of his years with the RAF in England. He is also a qualified pilot. He studied law part-time while he worked as a civil servant in London.

His career in the legal profession spans many years. He has been a recorder, a puisne judge, and a Supreme Court judge in the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla (appointed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office). One of John’s friends from the BVI told us some wonderful “stories” about John’s work as a Supreme Court judge in that country.

John visited the prison there as “he wanted to see where he was sending people.” Throughout the time that he worked there he “preached” about the poor condition of the court in Tortola. We heard that one day there were 18 cases on the cause list. John told defendants: “If you’re guilty, say you’re guilty. Don’t waste the court’s time.” Within two hours ten defendants had pleaded guilty.

John also scolded some lawyers for taking clients’ money and not representing them effectively. People still talk about him in the BVI today.

John has had a few “firsts” during his long life. For example, he was the first black man of African origin to be appointed Queen’s Counsel in the UK. He was also the first black man to be appointed Master of the Bench at Gray’s Inn.

In his speech he said that he “made strides” for all of us and that he would continue to try to “stamp out” racism until he dies.

Inter alia, John is a Freeman of the City of London, a member of the Race Relations Committee of the Bar, and a member of the Disciplinary Committee of the Inns of Court. He was made an honorary citizen of Atlanta in November 1991. November 15, 1991, was pronounced “John Anthony Roberts Day” in Atlanta.

Thunderous applause echoed in the town hall when it was suggested that for the contribution that John has made to Britain and to the Commonwealth over the years, his knighthood is “long overdue.”

It was good to meet old friends at the party. Alex Pascall, the tireless promoter of Caribbean culture, was present with his wife. Also there were playwright and actor Rudolph Walker, OBE and his wife, Duanne Alexander, OBE. They had just returned from Atlanta where they had attended some of the celebrations to mark Maya Angelou’s 80th birthday. They shared their amazing experiences with my father, sister and me.

Maya Angelou is one of my heroines. She was 80 on April 4. As Bob Minzesheimer states in USA Today, she is a “woman who defies a simple label—Angelou has been a memoirist, poet, civil rights activist, actress, director, professor, singer and dancer…

“Although she never went to college, she has been awarded more than 30 honorary degrees… She’s an American study herself. “

“I created myself,” she says. “I have taught myself so much.”

When asked how it feels to be turning 80, she responded with a broad smile saying: “Exciting! The body knows. The bones don’t let you forget.”

At one of the birthday parties held in her honour in Atlanta, she said: “Getting old is not for sissies. If you have a choice, do so.”

Our life on this Earth is short. I don’t know if I’ll be fortunate enough to live until I am 80. What I do know is that I am here for a purpose.

God had a plan when He made each of us. The challenge for us is to optimise the use of our God-given talents, to pray constantly for His guidance, and to demonstrate our love for our neighbours by reaching out to them and acting as advocates for them when necessary.

n Leela Ramdeen is a lawyer

and education consultant


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