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

Fiji Sun - - Big Story - Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan Writer Feed­back: jy­otip@fi­jisun.com.fj

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.

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