SHAKE­SPEARE : DEATH AND IM­MOR­TAL­ITY

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Fiji’s lead­ing writer says the pass­ing of Shake­speare was re­ally about life for so many writ­ers

Last Satur­day af­ter­noon I at­tended a lec­ture at the Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia. The lec­ture was on ‘The Death of Wil­liam

Shake­speare’: the play­wright’s death quar­ter-cen­te­nary fell on April 23, 2016. He had died on April 23, 1616, and qui­etly buried in his birth­place, Strat­ford.

Im­mor­tal­ity of Shake­speare’s verse

Decades later a Shake­spear­ian in­dus­try de­vel­oped that had proved more enduring and en­com­pass­ing than the Bri­tish Em­pire: Not mar­ble, nor gilded mon­u­ments Of princes, shall out­live this pow­er­ful rhyme, he wrote in son­net 55. The im­mor­tal­ity of Shake­speare’s verse is now univer­sal: his writ­ings are full of ‘quo­ta­tions’ as a young stu­dent found out much to his amaze­ment. Among his cre­ative con­tem­po­raries, he lived the long­est: most died be­fore the age of 50; Shake­speare lived un­til the age of 53. The pub­licly un­mourned death of the great­est poet in English was the cen­tral theme of Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor Ian Don­ald­son’s hour-long lec­ture de­liv­ered in the most en­gag­ing tone and with a deep­en­ing sense of hu­mil­ity and ado­ra­tion for he was talk­ing about the world’s most sublime and cel­e­brated writer, sen­si­tively aware of the global moder­nity of his verse and its pro­found res­o­nance for us to­day.

Shake­speare; ‘not for an age but for all time’

More than Shake­speare, on this oc­ca­sion, I was there to lis­ten to an ex­tra­or­di­nary lit­er­ary scholar cur­rently at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne. His book, Ben Jon­son: A Life, is what I’ve been read­ing lately.

The rare Ben Jon­son, (1573-1637) was a gen­er­ous and large-hearted friend of Will Shake­speare who im­mor­talised him in a phrase: ‘He was not for an age but for all time’.

One’s life is in­flu­enced and shaped by many in­di­vid­u­als: for bet­ter or worse, they flow like rivulets in the main­stream of one’s life of the mind and imag­i­na­tion. Pro­fes­sor Ian Don­ald­son, a for­mer Regis Pro­fes­sor at Ed­in­burgh, Ox­ford and Cambridge, has had a lot to do with my des­tiny and present des­ti­na­tion. In the au­tumn of 1974, I’d ar­rived in Can­berra with my young fam­ily to pur­sue my stud­ies and write my doc­toral the­sis on Aus­tralia’s lit­er­ary No­bel lau­re­ate Patrick White’s fic­tion. Patrick White brought about a seachange in my think­ing about Aus­tralia: I’d read only two of his nov­els, The

Tree of Man and Voss, in a Lon­don ho­tel. Both books had been pub­lished in the 1950s when I was study­ing in Nadi for that ubiq­ui­tous ex­am­i­na­tion, Se­nior Cambridge. Aus­tralia was a far­away dark con­ti­nent for me. In­dia was more mean­ing­ful to me in its myths and fa­bles and peo­ples.

Ar­riv­ing in Can­berra

When I ar­rived in Can­berra, I knew noth­ing about Aus­tralia, though we were neigh­bours of sorts: my four Gir­mit grand­par­ents and my par­ents had cul­ti­vated sug­ar­cane for the CSR com­pany . Dur­ing my growing up days White Aus­tralia pol­icy was in full swing: ‘Two Wongs don’t make a White’, was a com­mon and crude def­i­ni­tion of it. The 60,000 In­dian in­den­tured labour­ers didn’t fea­ture in the is­land-con­ti­nent’s con­scious­ness.

It’s sel­dom recog­nised though that In­di­ans were de­fend­ing and con­tribut­ing to the Bri­tish Em­pire long be­fore Aus­tralia was of­fi­cially set­tled in 1788. So my com­ing to the ANU in the mid­dle of au­tumn was a for­tu­itous choice—since then all mem­bers of my im­me­di­ate fam­ily com­pleted their post­grad­u­ate stud­ies at this univer­sity that had be­gun as a col­lege in 1946. One of its first lec­tur­ers in English was A D Hope, the civ­i­lized poet and a dis­tin­guished lit­er­ary critic. In 1975, ANU con­structed a new and el­e­gant build­ing named after pro­fes­sor and poet A D Hope. Alec Der­went Hope be­came one of my favourite poet-friends—he taught me to drink wine and to­gether we trav­elled to Delhi in 1977, much to the de­light of In­dian stu­dents and schol­ars—more the­ses are writ­ten on A D Hope and Patrick White in In­dian uni­ver­si­ties than pos­si­bly any­where else. In 1974 Pro­fes­sor Ian Don­ald­son be­came the foun­da­tion di­rec­tor of the Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Cen­tre(HRC), the first of its kind in Aus­tralia and it at­tracted writ­ers and schol­ars from many parts of the world.

Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture part of our lit­er­ary ex­plo­rations

A group of us also in­tro­duced new writ­ers from the Com­mon­wealth coun­tries to our depart­ment and au­di­ences in Can­berra through Ra­dio 2XX. Those days were, one might say, glo­ri­ous In­dian sum­mer of the hu­man­i­ties at the univer­sity.

Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture and an in­ter­est in ‘Com­mon­wealth lit­er­a­ture’ be­came part of our lit­er­ary ex­plo­rations and the cul­tural cringe of Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties was slowly dis­ap­pear­ing in the bush­land and the surf of the blue ocean waves. It even af­fected Gough Whit­lam’s pol­i­tics. That was a truly ex­cit­ing time to be in Aus­tralia. Pro­fes­sor An­thony Low, whose book on the In­dian Na­tional Congress is the de­fin­i­tive his­tory of the free­dom party of In­dia, was the then vice-chan­cel­lor. He made sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence to many lives; the Pro­fes­sor for Asian Stud­ies was A L Basham, whose book The Won­der that was In­dia, we car­ried in our satchels but didn’t read it with any se­ri­ous­ness. He of­ten in­vited some of us to have In­dian tea with him. Hu­man­i­ties then Down Un­der were given great im­por­tance and there were po­ets like Bob Bris­senden, and Ju­dith Wright, his­to­ri­ans like Man­ning Clark and Os­car Spate, one en­coun­tered on the cam­pus of a very gen­er­ous in­sti­tu­tion. For me Ian Don­ald­son was the no­blest and most learned cre­ative cat­a­lyst. The Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Cen­tre was a haven for most of us and Ian went on to be one of the finest lit­er­ary schol­ars in the world. I got to know him and he used to at­tend our post­grad­u­ate sem­i­nars to en­cour­age us in our pur­suits by his very pres­ence.

Re­turn­ing to Suva

Then I re­turned to Suva in De­cem­ber 1977 and by June 1978 I was in pol­i­tics writ­ing speeches and mes­sages for the Op­po­si­tion. I was sub­se­quently elected to Par­lia­ment in 1982. All this was ex­hil­a­rat­ing at one level but Ian had given me a fel­low­ship at the HRC to come and con­vert my the­sis into a book. I was pleased but couldn’t ac­cept the of­fer. So it re­mained dor­mant. And thereby hangs a sig­nif­i­cant part of my story. In 1987 two coups hap­pened in Fiji – their ef­fects of course were dev­as­tat­ing for many. I’d lost two jobs in two days. The mil­i­tary regime wouldn’t let some of us leave the coun­try or al­low us to re­join our jobs– peo­ple were be­ing off-loaded from flights on Air Pa­cific at Nadi Air­port.

Don­ald­son’s fel­low­ship of­fer after 1987 coup

Six months after the first coup, I re­ceived a let­ter from Ian Don­ald­son invit­ing me to come to the HRC on a fel­low­ship he’d of­fered to me in 1981. He had re­newed the of­fer for the sum­mer. Armed with this let­ter, I went alone to the Queen El­iz­a­beth Bar­racks. I give an ac­count of my visit to the RFMF bar­racks to get per­mis­sion to leave Fiji for a while in my book The

Wounded Sea (1991), launched in Can­berra by the late and deeply-lamented Don Dun­stan. The let­ter from Ian Don­ald­son had had its im­pact. I was given per­mis­sion to leave and was es­corted out of the bar­racks by a kindly of­fi­cer with great cour­tesy. The gates closed be­hind me. But many doors opened be­fore me. I flew to Can­berra in De­cem­ber 1987 and never re­turned to Fiji for five years and three months and eight days.

My lit­tle knowl­edge of Shake­speare gave me courage dur­ing 1987 coup

Why did I re­mem­ber this as I lis­tened to Ian Don­ald­son’s lec­ture? I won­dered who was that of­fi­cer who was so cour­te­ous to me in the mil­i­tary bar­racks? Where did I get the courage to go to the bar­racks when my friends didn’t wish to ac­com­pany me? I now feel it had a lot to do with my small knowl­edge of Shake­speare. Lit­er­a­ture is about courage in life and the free­dom from fear of any kind. And the ca­pac­ity to face the fa­tal re­al­ity called death.

Shake­speare on death

And no one has writ­ten more heart­break­ingly about death than Wil­liam Shake­speare in King Lear: As the old, un­ac­com­mo­dated King holds his mur­dered daugh­ter in his arms, he howls: Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life And thou no breath at all? Never, never, never, never, never. Pray undo this but­ton.

His mighty heart breaks. And he dies.

There’s never an an­swer to this vi­tal, fi­nal ques­tion. But Shake­speare con­veys it with sim­plest of words and the com­mon­est images from our daily life. It’s this qual­ity in Wil­liam Shake­speare that I find most ex­tra­or­di­nary and unique, com­fort­ing to the brain and a com­fort even in death.

I’ve been think­ing a lot re­cently about this: only last week I re­ceived a mes­sage that a young mother we’d known and who had trag­i­cally died at 36; that her 41-year old daugh­ter had sud­denly died in New Delhi.

Shake­speare scrap­book

Years ago, as a stu­dent, I’d com­piled a scrap­book of Shake­speare’s fa­mous speeches - on one page was a pic­ture or a por­trait and on the other page was a quote from my favourite Shakesperean plays and po­ems.

When I left Delhi, I’d given the scrap­book to ‘Anu­pam’ as a gift.

Shake­speare’s death re­ally about life

The lec­ture by Ian Don­ald­son on the death of Shake­speare was re­ally about life for so many of us. Shake­speare il­lu­mi­nated our lives with such ra­di­ance of thought, feel­ing and beauty. That break­ing news from New Delhi, though heart-break­ing, I’d lived many times in my read­ings of Wil­liam Shake­speare. Last Sun­day morn­ing Shake­speare had brought us to­gether-six of us-after sev­eral years, to share a break­fast in a ho­tel not far from a lake in Can­berra. For me that was joy enough.

Wil­liam Shake­speare.

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