THE DEATH OF A TRUE FRIEND
LIKE ME HE WOULD NEVER HAVE LEFT FIJI BUT FOR THE ACTIONS OF OUR COLONEL RPS didn’t panic but he took his time, sold his business and migrated to Auckland
Satendra Nandan’s new book, Dispatches From Distant Shores, will be published this year.
As I sat down to write this column on an uninspiring Australian Elections, and to attempt to put it in some perspective of Brexit, Trump’s triumph, and their effects on our region, I got a call from a friend. The news, he said, was not good. ‘Your friend, RPS, died two days ago: I heard it on the radio.’ The news was shockingly saddening to me. I’d known RPS from my University of the South Pacific days when I was a lecturer; he was studying for his first degree. In a couple of months I was going to Auckland to see him and attend the 80th birthday of someone close to me since my childhood. But a death changes all. Australian Elections vanished from my mind like an early morning fog in the rising sun. How important are elections, politics, prime ministers in someone’s death? RPS was a decent, hardworking man, born in Lautoka, where his father ran a taxi business.
He literally grew up under cars, repairing them and driving. He became a primary school teacher but was primarily a taxi driver. I’ve never come across a more talented mechanic—one who could fix your car free of charge; and also ruin a perfectly good one for he loved fiddling with tools and wires and tires.
Little had I realised then that we were all, in a sense, fiddlers on the roof.
That there are no certitudes in life and we live in the world of uncertainties. But it must have been always like that? Ruins of many empires tell us that endless epic story of life and death, rise and fall. It’s a joke now to say the British messed up their exit from EU but the Americans still hold a Trump card! Now that our Colonel is jumping in the cauldron of Fijian politics, once again, these thoughts come to my mind with a certain revenant force and resonant regret. Like me, RP would never have left Fiji but for the actions of our Colonel in 1987. I’ve written about it in some detail in my book, Brief Encounters published last year, in a piece ‘Writing to the Colonel’. For the moment that will suffice. And as Macbeth confessed ‘only time will tell which seed will grow and which will not….’
In death even a Colonel has little importance. For death is the final wound beyond the body politic. RPS—he added ‘S’ for Sharma-, and I became friends. Every time my second-hand Toyota needed a mechanic, Ram was there, in his oil-stained overalls with his tool box, fixing it. He would help anyone.
He was the least lethargic person, I’ve had as a friend.
He completed his first degree but didn’t return to teaching. He became a senior warden for the hostels on the Laucala campus and kept a blue Holden taxi parked in an open garage. Every evening he picked up passengers from Suva market and drove them to Lautoka; and next morning from Lautoka to Suva. At 9am red-eyed he’d arrive at his desk, hair oiled in his cream-coloured safari suit. We would have lunch together for he lived on the campus in a house reserved for wardens. His family, wife and a son lived with him. USP was growing and so were we. It was the most important institution in the South Pacific and the life of the mind was often mixed with the cocktail of politics for some of us. USP generated many tall ideas and short politicians. Staring at me sharply, he used to say, ‘Some of you are educated beyond your intelligence!’ Ram himself was not much interested in politics, but he always encouraged me to participate in the political development of Fiji. I did. So from June 1978 I was in the thick of island politics. It was an exhilarating experience of my life—writing speeches, messages, letters: in writing these I learned a lot and met several capable part-time political leaders of now a by-gone generation.
It’s their basic decency that impressed me most; and in my heart there was neither fear nor a sense of insecurity. I lived on one of the most salubrious campuses in the world of universities. The South Pacific world and way had widened for many of us.
Many of those political trees are gone and one now generally confronts the ratoon of racial politics so prevalent in so many islands.
Even here, on this island continent, it’s the fear of asylum seekers that drives the psychology of political contests; in England it was immigration. The media is full of myriad messages, many voices but not a single wholesome vision by which nations survive. One can see what this sort of thinking has done in Great Britain, how easily an imperial power slips into little England.
So in June 1978, I did venture into the political arena. I can’t imagine anyone less prepared, with more fragile economic background. By 1982, I was in the thick of it: I was elected to the House of Representatives.
I’ve given details of this in my book Requiem for A Rainbow: A Fijian-Indian Story, published in 2001. It’s my story, my version of the truth.
I wish in Fiji more people, politicians and pundits, wise and otherwise, would write their innermost thoughts for the benefit of our children and grandchildren. They can add to the sum-total of our wisdom and folly so that we do not repeat history. Let historians repeat themselves. But we seem to hide, like the moon, our darker side.
When I got elected, I discovered I’d no proper parliamentary suit. RPS took me to a tailor in Victoria Parade, into a small, darkened shop, and got me measured for a dark suit. In that garment I took the oath of allegiance among 52 other Members of Parliament.
But I still preferred going into the Parliament in a pair of blue jeans and was warned twice by the Speaker to ‘dress properly, honourable member’.
Frankly I’ve never liked wearing suits, perhaps because Gandhiji, dressed in his loin cloth and shawl, had visited the king in Buckingham Palace as the famous half-naked fakir. When asked why he’d not dressed properly, Gandhi had remarked: “The King Emperor was wearing enough clothes for both of us.” But then, he never became a Member of Parliament; he lived and died as a Mahatma. On my first day in Parliament RPS sat in the gallery, looking proud to see me wrapped in his gift. He continued working at USP and building his big structure in Vatuwaqa on the edge of the Pacific Ocean overlooking the notorious island of Nukulau, on which his grandparents were quarantined a century ago. Often I went to see him: he would be sitting on the shore, relishing the sea-breeze blowing across the rippling waves. But if you looked closely he was always holding a string, he really was a genuine crab-catcher. I think he believed that one day he’d catch a big crab or two. And when the Parliament was in session, he’d be there sitting in the public gallery on the wooden bench, adjacent to the Parliamentary chamber. People and parliament seemed so close together. Five years later from that bench in the public gallery, a Colonel stalked into the Parliament and destroyed what was one of our world’s freest people’s assemblies. Since then life has never been the same for so many.
RPS, like many, left Fiji to seek shelter and build a new home on other islands and other shores. His journey was longer than his girmit grandparents’ and more alluringly deceptive. People of cheated hopes take a long time to recover. And if you are not used to betrayals on this scale, it hurts you more deeply and the wounds multiply; families are broken and children are scattered; homes never regained and hearts remain unhealed. RPS didn’t panic but he took his time, sold his business and migrated to Auckland. Once or twice I talked to him on the phone. But I never met him again. The last I heard was he was doing well and had built up quite a reputation as a teacher of English to non-English students. I was so grieved by the news of the death of my friend that I forgot all about elections and politics. Instead I went to see my grandson, Jesse Arman, who turned two on July 2, blissfully unaware that a marathon Federal Election coming to an end. And if lucky, he may grow up with a future different from his grandparents’ and their friends’.
The news was shockingly saddening to me. I’d known RPS from my USP days when I was a lecturer; he was studying for his first degree. In a couple of months I was going to Auckland to see him and attend the 80th birthday of someone close to me since my childhood. But a death changes all. Australian Elections vanished from my mind like an early morning fog in the rising sun. How important are elections, politics, prime ministers in someone’s death? And if you are not used to betrayals on this scale, it hurts you more deeply and the wounds multiply; families are broken and children are scattered; homes never regained and hearts remain unhealed.