A labourer's masterpiece turns ash

Guyana Chronicle
May 17, 2001

- `The House of 99 Windows' was one of the greatest accomplishments of the early offspring of indentured labourers to Guyana

"It looked like Unity was lighting up" - villager of nearby Unity

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BEFORE: `The House of 99 Windows'. THE recent destruction by fire of the famous historic masterpiece - the Rajnarine family property at Plantation Orange Nassau, East Coast Demerara - came as an anticlimax to observances by citizens to mark the 163rd anniversary of the coming of Indian indentured labourers to Guyana.

The property, the prized possession of Mr. Dennis Rajnarine and family, and known as "The house of 99 Windows", was the initial pride of the Indians in Guyana.

The owners are still in a state of shock, finding it difficult to come to terms with their loss.

It did not deal only them a devastating blow, but the entire Indian community as it was built by the grandson of an indentured labourer, Mr. Bekham Persaud Rajnarine, popularly known as B.P. He was about the first known Indo-Guyanese to have constructed such a massive building in colonial Guiana with wealth amassed through tilling the soil.

Construction of the building began in 1947 and was completed in 1949, the same year that Dennis was born.

He spent his boyhood and early adult life, living and working there until he married and set up another home, in addition to the estate property, which the family never gave up altogether.

The only boy among seven siblings, he continued to work the coconut estate from the days when it was a lucrative business, never abandoning it even as the coconut industry continues to take a 'licking'.

The building was constructed on land bought more than 100 years ago by B.P's grandfather, the first of the Rajnarines ever to set foot on Guyana's soil. And throughout the 100 odd years, the estate continued to be the property of that family, spanning about three generations and handed down in a line of ancestry.

Mrs. Dennis Rajnarine recalls that her husband's great-great grandfather married another indentured labourer, "Tilkie", who arrived in Guyana one year ahead of him.

Together they worked assiduously on the 219-acre coconut plantation, cultivating it from scratch with minimal hands to assist. Mrs. Rajnarine recalls that all the trenches throughout the estate were hand-dug and all other input into the industry provided by labour intensive means.

The main crop was coconut, with a small number of fruit trees planted around the estate building and in the backlands (backdam).

At the time that the building was constructed, the Rajnarines recall, citizens were still feeling the effects of the great World War and the attendant economic depression. Prices were "sky high" and almost every item was black-marketed. Such were the conditions under which materials were acquired to construct the building.

The completion of the magnificent three-storeyed eight-bedroom building in 1949 was, therefore, no small accomplishment for a single family, and did the Indian community proud.

May 6 last marked the 163rd anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured labourers to Guiana and ironically, the following day, May 7, one of the greatest accomplishments of the early offspring of indentured labourers, which would have aptly served to perpetuate their memory, was reduced to rubble.

Eyewitnesses said the fire started shortly after 23:00 hrs and lasted for several hours. They said the fire could have been seen from several villages away.

A villager in Unity said: "It looked like Unity was lighting up."

It had come to be such a showpiece and landmark, the family's ranger/gardener, 76-year-old Jailal, recalled that scores of tourists and other interested persons would visit Orange Nassau to view the building and take a privileged walk around the lawns.

Mrs. Rajnarine told of the precious and invaluable collection of books, documents, antiques, family portraits, artifacts and furniture destroyed in the inferno.

The pain was evident in her voice as she recalled the beauty of the sprawling and lavishly-adorned living area on the third floor.

The entire third floor was taken up by the kitchen, dining room and living area.

"It was an enormous living area," she said, savouring the memory, but with a sense of loss.

On the lower floor were two garages, a store room and offices in which the estate's business was conducted.

But today, only the columns are standing. The destruction was not confined to the building, but several cherished fruit trees and a wide variety of uncommon flowering plants were destroyed.

Even the PVC gutters and pipes on the neighbouring building had begun melting.

And though the family signalled their intention to continue the coconut business, initially they will be severely handicapped since all of the canoes (boats) used to transport the nuts from the backlands to the yard were destroyed in the blaze and new ones will have to be acquired.

Jailal said that most of the boats were newly built. He pointed to large heaps of nuts, peeled and unpeeled, waiting to be collected by purchasers.

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AFTER: All that remains after the fire on May 6. (Quacy Sampson photos). Family members recalled that during the period that the Pink Mealy bug threatened crops in some Caribbean countries, persons bought wholesale quantities of coconuts and shipped them to those territories.

The workforce currently employed on the estate is about 20. The Orange Nassau estate cultivates coconuts for wholesaling and was never involved in the copra business.

Mrs. Rajnarine said her husband is now producing the crop as a tradition and not as the family's main business.

And also terribly shaken by the tragedy, is another of the Rajnarines, Harold, who lives next door. He is trying desperately to come to terms with the loss.

The masterpiece, known for its 99 windows through which the building was ventilated, in fact had 129. However, there was a story being circulated about the owners only being allowed to open 99, so as not to surpass the local governor's home, which had only 100.

Mrs. Rajnarine said that as far as she is aware, that was never the case. She is unable to say just where that logic emanated.

For days after the building was razed earlier this month, the embers continued smoking, but to date, the origin of the fire remains a mystery. The Fire Department has not yet made known its cause.

The only thing that lay intact at the end of the destruction were the tombs in the family cemetery at a far end of the front of the lot.