Achieving the impossible


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Category: Profiles Date: 21 Jul 02

I had no idea, on that Sunday afternoon when our small group drove past cane fields, past neat houses on stilts, verandahs splashed with the creamy, fuchsia white bougainvillea, past fading jhandis, past pine-lined roads, grazing cows, and finally stopped with an intake of breath at our destination in Waterloo, we were looking at the embodiment of the spirit of an extraordinary man.


We stopped at the bottom of a long, narrow pathway, widening to what appeared to be a round peninsula.  From there rose a white temple, rounded and then narrowing up towards a gray-blue sky daubed with candy pink and a sea that disappeared into the horizon.


A hundred years ago, in 1904, an ordinary couple in India, Boodhram and Bissondayia, gave birth to an extraordinary child, their first-born son, Sewdass.


Sewdass was only four when he came aboard the SS Mutlah with his parents and two brothers to eventually toil under the indentureship scheme at the Waterloo estates.


The family lived in Brickfield, then known as Barrancore.  At the end of his indentureship, by which time his parents had died, he visited India four times.  Somewhere in this period, moved perhaps by the sight of temples in Benaras on the banks of the Ganges, or a peaceful ashram temple in the Himalayas, Sewdass promised a 120 year old sadhu to build a temple in the New World. 


On his return from India, this labourer who had served his time, settled in Waterloo Village in Central Trinidad managing a grocery from home.


By 1947, when Sewdass was able to afford to buy land from Caroni at the edge of Waterloo Bay to construct a temple, the villagers, perhaps recognizing his rare qualities of simplicity, selfness, and strong religious convictions, had already begun addressing him as Sadhu or holy man.


Sewdass cleared the land, and largely single handedly, constructed a mandir (temple) installing murtis (icons).  For four years, people in Waterloo and surrounding villages performed poojas at the mandir.  An immigrant people who were fast losing their language were able, through ritual, to hold on to something of their sense of self.


Then came the order of Caroni (1975) Ltd to demolish the temple.  Sewdass Sadhu’s refusal to comply landed him in jail for 14 days and a fine of $400.00 for trespassing on State lands.  By the time he was freed, the temple had been demolished.


The villagers reported he did not cave in to his sinking heart, or pay any heed to his tears.  Instead, he is said to have declared, “You broke the mandir on the land.  Then I will build a mandir on nobody’s land.  I will build a mandir in the sea.”


For the next 17 years, Sewdass Sadhu built his temple some 500 feet off the shore into the sea at Waterloo Bay when the tide was low.  His tools were simple: A bicycle on which he balanced two buckets piled high with rocks, sand, gravel and cement. Steel oil drums filled with concrete formed the foundation.  Bit by bit, year after year, he built with his own hands, on 1,200 square feet, a prayer area, a kitchen and living quarters that were unfinished at his death in 1971.  Without his care the temple fell into neglect.  The ravages of sea blasts took its toll on the fragile structure, paint peeled, walls began to collapse, murtis were broken.


The Government of this country recognized his efforts, and by 1997, a new temple was constructed, fulfilling Sewdass Sadhu’s dreams.


On reading the biography of Sewdass Sadhu, one is immediately struck by the superhuman life and work of this slightly-built man who was able, out of the pit of poverty, illiteracy, hostility, humiliation, destruction, to draw out of himself the purest essence of the human spirit, tenacity, the art of the possible.


If you sit at the temple’s steps on a moonlight night, perhaps hearing the strains of a sitar, looking out at a starry sky above, the eternal rolling waves below, feeling the cool sea breeze on your face, one can’t help believe that perhaps Sewdass Sadhu gave more than an edifice.


He passed something of his indomitable spirit, his reaching outward to build with determined tenacity not for himself, but for us all.  He shows us we all have vast, untapped reserves, he teaches us to dream big and believe in the vastness of our souls.


If the four year old child of indentured labourers can retain, then revive a memory of his country’s temples, build a temple in his village, go to jail, and pay a fine for refusing to destroy it, and on its destruction resolve to do what must have felt impossible at the time, to build another, in the sea.


If a man could spend the last 17 years of his life, with only two buckets and a bicycle with a carrier as his tools to achieve the impossible, then what right has any of us to give up hope under any circumstances in our lives?


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur