‘WRIT­ING CAN BE A HEAL­ING HOME; IT CAN BE AN AL­TER­NA­TIVE COUN­TRY IN AND OF THE MIND’ ‘My life has been en­riched by pol­i­tics; en­hanced by po­etry; in­ter­twined by re­la­tion­ships. I also now re­alise that writ­ing po­lit­i­cal speeches is a fine train­ing for writin

Fiji Sun - - Big Story - Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan

Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan is Fiji’s lead­ing writer. This is an edited es­say from the forth­com­ing book of es­says, Dis­patches From Dis­tant Shores, by Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan.

Can­berra is an Abo­rig­i­nal word for a meet­ing place : the habi­tus of my writ­ing world is shaped by a lake and a city, nei­ther of which was there a cen­tury ago.

There are a few cor­ners and cir­cles in Can­berra that are now part of my cre­ative, mi­gra­tory con­scious­ness: There’s in Kingston, close to mighty old oak trees, The Book Gro­cer where I buy my books—6 for $50. The roots of the trans­planted oaks go deep and some­times dis­turb the con­crete foundations of new apart­ments.

Not far from it is the Par­lia­ment built on a sheep pas­ture: oc­ca­sion­ally I visit it; then there is the Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia, one of my fa­vorite haunts more for cof­fee and meet­ings friends, while Jy­oti does her re­search.

Then I go to the two uni­ver­si­ties where our chil­dren stud­ied and we stud­ied and taught. In a sense, within that cir­cle of cir­cles I ex­ist. All these are con­nected to Lake Bur­ley Grif­fin, named af­ter the de­signer of Can­berra. His grave is in the city of Lucknow, not far from the villages from which my gir­mit grand­par­ents mi­grated to the is­lands in the South Seas when Can­berra was not on any map and Fiji was miss­ing from many a map.

For them the ar­chi­pel­ago was not a dream of is­lands; for some of us they be­came an un­nec­es­sary night­mare from 1987. Some­where here, in between and be­twixt, is the centre and cir­cum­fer­ence of my writ­ing im­pulses.

The past for us is not a for­eign coun­try: it is our home of revenant me­mories and poignant nar­ra­tives. We of­ten re­turn to re­claim what we’ve lost, never wholly but al­ways par­tially, know­ing what we’ve lost is what we love most. As I drive home we cross a big, busy traf­fic cross­roads—on our left is a road called Mouat, ‘death’ in Hindi; on the right is one named An­till Street, re­mind­ing you how ants till their colonies, car­ry­ing bur­dens big­ger than them­selves, with­out ever aban­don­ing their dead or dy­ing.

It takes about two minutes for the red lights to change to green, from East to West, North to South. One is al­ways at the cross-roads. At this junc­tion there was a man – I never asked him his name. As soon my car stopped, he came and cleaned the win­dow screen. That was his busi­ness.

There are poor and home­less in Can­berra too.

He dressed shab­bily, and kept a lit cig­a­rette stylishly dan­gling from his dark­ened lips; his body needed care. I sus­pected he might have been ad­dicted to drugs and the au­thor­i­ties had given him a chance for some kind of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

I used to dread meet­ing him—per­haps a shock of recog­ni­tion, rem­i­nis­cent of a vil­lage char­ac­ter in my child­hood.

Slowly, how­ever, a mu­tual recog­ni­tion grew. And when­ever we stopped, he’d come to our car first—clean the wind­screen and take a cou­ple of dol­lars and smile. It took him barely a minute or two. Then one day I saw where he used to have his clean­ing equip­ment, there were flow­ers. I felt he was a truly en­tre­pre­neur­ial fel­low now sell­ing flow­ers pre­sum­ably from a neigh­bor’s gar­den, help­ing some­one else. But I couldn’t name those flow­ers, ex­cept a bunch of daf­fodils. I couldn’t ask him as he was nowhere to be seen; the heap of flow­ers be­came big­ger daily.

Look­ing at those flow­ers, I re­alised how im­por­tant it is to know their names. This is a huge lack in some­one who teaches and writes—not to know the names of trees, an­i­mals, grass, flow­ers, birds, in­sects, - the minu­tiae of liv­ing things among which we grow.

Or the mean­ings and ori­gins of the names of your vil­lage or your towns and ci­ties. Or the mean­ing of your name given at birth: your na­tal iden­tity gives more vi­tal­ity, I think, than the na­tional one.

To my loss, I’ve yet not come across a por­trait of the city called Suva. Tourist brochures don’t tell you much. And how many dra­matic things have hap­pened there—per­haps more than in any city in Ocea­nia.

In our school days we’d all read ‘Daf­fodils’ and wan­dered lonely as a cloud… the sad­ness was that no teacher made us look out the win­dow to name the flow­ers we had planted in those school gar­dens, with white­washed stones around them.

They were just flow­ers with­out their frag­ile iden­tity, as we were Indian and Fi­jians - any deeper knowl­edge was su­per­flu­ous and inessen­tial. We were like two pages on the same leaf and the blank­ness in between. But like marigolds and hi­bis­cus we blos­somed in any soil with­out much care or cul­ti­va­tion or com­mu­ni­ca­tion. No­body taught us about our en­vi­ron­ment or the foot­prints of the past on which we walked. The de­tails of soils and stones and streams were ne­glected. The wet, muddy track was just a path – your pathar pan­chali. We spent a lot of time recit­ing mantras and read­ing about the moun­tain ranges in the im­pe­rial Isles and the nu­mer­ous sheep in New Zealand. This was when ‘a’ was for an ap­ple; and a ‘z’ was for a zoo.

I’d never seen an ap­ple nor been to a zoo. I saw my first zoo in Delhi; my first ap­ple in Nadi hos­pi­tal by my mother’s bed.

And all the while the cat sat on the mat, wait­ing, watch­ing.

Now I’m liv­ing in a city that is full of ap­ples, pears, plums, and some peo­ple who look at you with more eyes than in a pineap­ple! Many of us grew up recit­ing Wordsworth’s lovely little poem. It was a gift of a kind and I vis­ited the Lake District only in the 1970s with a writer­friend.

If I hadn’t mem­o­rised ‘Daf­fodils’ in my school days, I doubt if I’d have gone to this most splen­did, beau­teous land­scape. Why am I talk­ing about these things ? Be­cause a writer has many lives in him or her. And ev­ery act of read­ing, writ­ing, trav­el­ling, love, loss, lone­li­ness, goes in the mak­ing of a poem, an es­say, a short story, a trav­el­ogue, a play or a novel. Each piece of writ­ing con­tains bits of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, frag­ments of one’s self, lost and found.

But that self is made of so many selves, spa­ces, ab­sences and pres­ences like a piece of writ­ing with its punc­tu­a­tion marks giv­ing it or­der and mean­ing.

We try to put the pieces of a bro­ken glass into a whole but one never sees in it one’s face wholly, or clearly, or with­out the shad­ows of the shards in the mind and the scars on the heart or the long­ings of the soul.

And then there’s no pain like this body. Writ­ing can be a heal­ing home; it can be an al­ter­na­tive coun­try in and of the mind.

For the past cou­ple of years I write a col­umn vir­tu­ally ev­ery week for the

Fiji Sun. I get con­sid­er­able plea­sure do­ing this: I write pri­mar­ily from my me­mory—Write Me­mory, could be the col­umn’s generic ti­tle. I hope it in­spires a few oth­ers to re­mem­ber and write their sto­ries.

It’s clear from the emails I re­ceive from many read­ers that this is re­ally a de­light­ful priv­i­lege and I’m grate­ful.

But I try to say things with em­pa­thy know­ing that ev­ery­one has not had my good for­tune or mis­for­tunes.

I’ve just fin­ished my book on my first jour­ney from Nadi to New Delhi. I’m now do­ing what I should have done thirty years ago when for ten years, 1978 – 1987, I wrote nu­mer­ous speeches for politi­cians I liked, whose vi­sions and hopes I shared.

My life has been en­riched by pol­i­tics; en­hanced by po­etry; in­ter­twined by re­la­tion­ships.

I also now re­alise that writ­ing po­lit­i­cal speeches is a fine train­ing for writ­ing fic­tion.

Words on a page are the waves you see but it takes a mighty ocean to cre­ate those waves and keep them rip­pling and break­ing on any shore. They grow like the co­ral reef, in­vis­i­ble but pro­tean, shap­ing more than an is­land. In fic­tion you’ve fun and free­dom— the imagination of a writer is not nec­es­sar­ily the imagination of a state. The repub­lic of the state has bor­ders; the Repub­lic of Let­ters is bor­der­less.

And it’s es­pe­cially mean­ing­ful in a so­ci­ety where if you said you were a man of let­ters, many think you worked in a Post Of­fice! But dis­tance has not damp­ened my writ­ing imagination so deeply rooted in my Fi­jian ex­pe­ri­ence. Even now in Nadi or Can­berra

My heart leaps up when I be­hold A rain­bow in the sky: So was it when my life be­gan; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die! The Child is the fa­ther of the Man; And I wish my days to be Bound each to each in nat­u­ral piety. Or For oft when my couch I lie In va­cant or in pen­sive mood, They flash upon the in­ward eye Which is the bliss of soli­tude.

I didn’t see any daf­fodils in Fiji in my child­hood, but Fiji has the same ef­fect on me as those tiny flow­ers had for a very great poet who un­der­stood the af­flic­tions of the hu­man heart dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion in an­other city.

It’s only later, much later, I dis­cov­ered that ‘Scrubby’, the win­dow-cleaner, had sud­denly taken ill and died.

The flow­ers were laid at that spot in his me­mory by his friends and many driv­ers whose car-win­dows he’d cleaned of­ten so they could see clearly and drive safely on a rainy day.

The repub­lic of the state has bor­ders; the Repub­lic of Let­ters is bor­der­less. Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan

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