A NATION’S NARRATIONS
THE IDEAL UNIVERSITY IS NEITHER IN BOOKS NOR INSIDE THE COMPUTER; THE GREATEST UNIVERSITY, SUBRAMANI CONCLUDES, IS LIFE ITSELF Serious fiction provides fresh, powerful perspectives on the fundamental dilemmas facing today’s managers and executives
D uring the last fortnight I received three books: Free Love (240 pages) from the Samoan writer Sia Figiel; two from Fiji: Churamanie Bissundyal’s Prometheus in Dante’s Hell (221 pages), and Subramani’s Reclaiming the Nation (22 pages). The first two are works of fiction: I’ve met Sia Figiel and know a little about her writing full of brio and bilingualism. In fact the back cover blurb of her book has a comment by me as I had browsed through the volume in its manuscript form. Churamanie Bissundyal I’ve not met but he sent me an email wherein he expressed his passionate commitment to literary creations in Fiji—we give our ‘blood and bones’ to create works of art with such energy and imagination, writes the novelist.
In a couple of powerful images, he told me, how a society can drown itself in materialistic and shipwrecked seas without the ballast and balance of literature -- an essential ingredient in our voyaging across the tumultuous seas of life, if one wants to keep afloat: waving not drowning. Charumanie should know as he’s originally from Guyana—a tragic country that has given us some remarkable writers like David Dabydeen, who has lived in London since his childhood, and Wilson Harris. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting both. Bissundyal concludes his message to me with these words: the metropolitan institutions spend billions on literature, arts, music and (films) because they know their value, meaning and direction—and we (in Fiji) should, despite floods and cyclones, ignite our imagination with creative blessings. Reading Churamanie’s Bissundyal’s note touched me: here’s a man from another country telling us why literature is the vital breath and blood of a
society. We live in our stories which often flow from the wounds inflicted by one’s neighbours or self-inflicted. The afflictions of the heart are many but who would want to live without a heart in a heartless world? Churamanie has travelled to Fiji from Guyana via New York on a writer’s journey working currently on his post-doctoral project: Distinct Craft of
Fijian Creative Writing. That should be a pioneering work of deepest interest. He teaches at the FNU—one feels happy that those students have such a dedicated teacher and artist teaching them, talking with them in many forms including drama. Some years ago I was on Hilo campus of the University of Hawa’ai. The young lady who took us around and looked after us was herself a professor and a writer. I remember her many acts of kindness and exemplary generosity to me and my wife with enduring affection.
We saw the smoking volcanoes, the lava flowing in red-hot streams over dark rocky-slopes, and the red flowers growing like Wordsworth’s daffodils where we strolled after a picnic. Except that the Lake District is very different from the volcanic landscape of the Polynesian islands.
But nature, like literature and life, has a deeper universal unity. And deep down there’s a dearest freshness of things out of which the infinite variety of life takes shape, sequence, form and face. Nothing renews itself like Mother Earth: from a sea-shell to the rainbow.
It’s in nature that one can find the answers to most of our human problems and freedom from man-forged manacles— poets from the Vedas to the versifiers of today have sought answers in the world around them and marveled at its wondrous beauty and blessings.
William Wordsworth, the worshipper of nature, put it more didactically:
One impulse from a vernal wood May teach you more of man Of moral evil and good Than all the sages can.
If only we could teach these poems, half our environmental problems will be understood for there’s a deep connection between science and poetry: both need imagination and profound understanding.
At Hilo I gave a couple of guest lectures and readings. One of my talks was on Gandhi and a rather agitated member of the audience asked why should Gandhi be important to the islanders? I told him gently: for the same reason as Jesus is. He and I had coffee after my lecture and I felt he was converted!
Later while browsing through the bookshelves of the university bookshop I bought a volume titled Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature by Joseph L Badaracco, Jr, a Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School. Joseph Badaracco selects half a dozen familiar texts of literary culture to discuss the deepest questions of character: and argues that literature helps leaders develop personal answers to specific questions. Serious fiction provides fresh, powerful perspectives on the fundamental dilemmas facing today’s managers and executives. And the inward questioning is the finest kind of quest for leadership. What are the impulses that guide our actions for good and ill? Among the texts he chose are: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, ‘The Secret Sharer’ by Joseph Conrad, The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzerald, Robert Bolt’s A Man of All
Seasons and Antigone by Sophocles. The choice is interesting – modern and ancient --and that it should be taught in a course at Harvard Business School is not surprising. Great courses in business deal with issues that the master-minds wrestle within literature, art, religion and in our personal relationships. I’m not sure if any MBA course teaches a single literary text in the three universities in Fiji.
Quality fiction and business cases may seem strange bedfellows but we see how fiction can illuminate issues of leadership and what and how the moral imagination of a person or a nation is enriched and enlightened by works of art for they challenge us not only in our daily decisions, words and actions, but in our moments of solitude and contemplation, in our moments of deepest loneliness:
We dream and die alone.
Most importantly how we judge others; often the fate of nations depend on a single person’s judgment. The question is how does one reach such a judgment?
Some of the issues raised in the discussion are also questioned in our uses and abuses of literacy as practised today in our universities and the curriculum. Professor Subramani, FNU, raises these in his two lectures
‘Reclaiming the Nation’: his two talks on Education. Their salience of healing can be seen in the way Fiji is recovering and regaining her strength through some turbulent national experiences. The slim volume has a foreword by me: I’ve said what I felt after reading the lectures. It was written in January 2015. The little book was published 18 months later. And thereby hangs the sad tale of publishing in Fiji. That it should have taken almost two years to publish these two lectures is to my mind unconscionable. Finally it’s done by Vicas Press in Lautoka. Should it not have been published by his university? Or the Ministry of Education—after all there’s such a dearth of reading material for our students and staff that have direct relevance and significance to our life, especially in the new Fiji in the making: the changing circumstances and the challenging visions need support and sustenance of action and thought in words and deeds.
One is distressed to note that it took two years, from the date the keynote lectures were delivered for students and general readers to be able to read, discuss and express their lines of dissent. After all a good lecture is like a pebble thrown into a placid pond and the ripples it creates can stir pebbles on other shores. My foreword expresses my feelings. I only hope that many students and teachers will read these books and teach them to make us think and write. The ideal university is neither in books nor inside the computer; the greatest university, Subramani concludes, is Life itself.
And what constitutes a person’s life which is a component of Life. That of course is the eternal question and our vulnerable quest? To understand this one journeys into many worlds, near and far, in mind and imagination, in body and being, in love and living, and all the ills that flesh is heir to. It is of course a huge and mighty question echoing like the interminable waves breaking on the shores of islands and continents and returning to the one undivided ocean. We who live on islands know no man or woman is an island. And if our writers give us some idea of this interconnectedness of all our lives, our students are fortunate to be taught by such minds. And anyone who diminishes this idea of what it is to be human ought to be resisted and educated. Illiteracy can be of many kinds, and often without kindness.
And what constitutes a person’s life which is a component of Life. That of course is the eternal question and our vulnerable quest? To understand this one journeys into many worlds, near and far, in mind and imagination, in body and being, in love and living, and all the ills that flesh is heir to.