A WRITER’S WORLD: DAFFODILS AND MARIGOLDS
‘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
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