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As good al­most to kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a rea­son­able crea­ture, God’s image, but he who de­stroys a good book, kills rea­son it­self, kills the image of God it­self, as it were in the eye.

Fiji lead­ing writer Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan’s fourth book of es­says, Dis­patches from Dis­tant Shores, will be pub­lished this year. He’s cur­rently writ­ing his fifth book of po­ems, Be­yond the Fall, to be pub­lished in March 2017.

Re­cently a group of us at the Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Cen­tre, Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity, ini­ti­ated a se­ries ti­tled: Books That Shaped Hu­man­ity. Ev­ery month a book is se­lected and an ‘ex­pert’ on the sub­ject in­tro­duces and leads the dis­cus­sion of the sig­nif­i­cant se­lected text. Par­tic­i­pants are in­vited from the univer­sity com­mu­nity and the gen­eral pub­lic.

The se­ries is free and all are warmly wel­comed with a glass or two of wine and light re­fresh­ments. The dis­cus­sion is sched­uled for two hours, once a month. The five books from Au­gust-De­cem­ber, 2016, are : re­spec­tively The Ra­mayana, The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, The Ori­gin of Species, The Iliad and A Christ­mas Carol. In a small way I’m in­volved in the pro­gramme and sug­gested a few ti­tles. For the first dis­cus­sion, the con­fer­ence room was packed. The text cho­sen was Valmiki’s Ra­mayana, writ­ten in San­skrit.

The scholar was a spe­cial­ist in that sa­cred lan­guage. He had no doubt that the In­dian epic was writ­ten by the poet named Valmiki, al­beit that one is not sure if all the 37 plays of Wil­liam Shake­speare were con­ceived by a sin­gle mind. Shake­speare was born barely 450 years ago; Valmiki’s epic was com­posed 2450 years ago. The facts are lost in the mists of time and time­less be­liefs.

I’m es­pe­cially fond of the Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Cen­tre in the A D Hope build­ing, named af­ter the late po­et­friend of mine, next to the Depart­ment of English where I stud­ied; my wife and a daugh­ter, too, later com­pleted their doc­toral stud­ies al­most in the same room.

For me it’s a place of pil­grim­age full of mem­o­ries of happy days, last­ing friend­ships, read­ing and writ­ing. The Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Cen­tre was es­tab­lished in 1974, the year I went to do my doc­toral stud­ies. I com­pleted my PhD in 1977 and re­turned to Fiji. In De­cem­ber 1987, un­der dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances, I was back at the Hu­man­i­ties Re­search Cen­tre on a brief fel­low­ship but stayed on for many years, thanks to the gen­eros­ity of its foun­da­tion Di­rec­tor, Pro­fes­sor Ian Don­ald­son, one of Aus­tralia’s most dis­tin­guished lit­er­ary schol­ars, now re­tired and at­tached to Mel­bourne Univer­sity. Pro­fes­sor Don­ald­son was re­cently awarded an Hon­orary doc­tor­ate by the ANU –and he was also fe­lic­i­tated at the Cen­tre by the new Di­rec­tor Pro­fes­sor Will Christie who joined from the Univer­sity of Syd­ney this year. Jy­oti and I at­tended the event and the din­ner: Ian Don­ald­son is a ma­jor rea­son for our be­ing here in Can­berra and I was made an Ad­junct Pro­fes­sor of the Cen­tre and wrote two books there, one ded­i­cated to Ian—that’s of­ten a writer’s way of show­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion. Ian Don­ald­son also came to Fiji as the Ex­ter­nal Examiner in English to the Univer­sity of Fiji when Jy­oti and I were teach­ing there: he wrote a most en­cour­ag­ing re­port sug­gest­ing the di­rec­tions our School of Hu­man­i­ties and Arts should take for fu­ture de­vel­op­ments in the teach­ing of lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture. By com­ing to Fiji for a week, he’d shown his sup­port for the young univer­sity and its very wor­thy ob­jec­tives.

So I’ve a par­tic­u­lar af­fec­tion for this Cen­tre and of­ten I at­tend its lec­tures by vis­it­ing writ­ers and schol­ars from many parts of the world.

The Hu­man­i­ties, of course, play a vi­tal role in shap­ing our val­ues by which we live and let live, plant new ideas and grow in our in­sep­a­ra­ble hu­man­ity.

A great deal of ex­pense is in­volved in train­ing peo­ple for a va­ri­ety of pro­fes­sions that the mod­ern com­plex­ity of a na­tion re­quires—the tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion in science, es­pe­cially health science, bi­ol­ogy, en­vi­ron­ment and eco­nom­ics are con­stantly chang­ing our sense of re­al­ity. Ev­ery day we en­ter new realms of re­al­i­ties. And new in­stru­ments are in­vented to help us bear much of these re­al­i­ties, of­ten un­bear­able.

But all this will be dis­as­trous if the acts of ed­u­ca­tion and liv­ing were not un­der-pinned by eth­i­cal con­cerns and con­straints in a so­ci­ety by in­di­vid­ual acts and thought of in­tegrity. A knowl­edge-so­ci­ety without a moral com­pass is like a ship in tur­bu­lent seas and the mind of men and women can get wrecked in the shal­lows. Some of the most ed­u­cated men and women were the Nazis, just to cite one ex­treme ex­am­ple, to show how a whole civil­i­sa­tion can be­come so de­praved and de­graded, and hu­man be­ings de­scend to mon­strous depths. On smaller scales this has hap­pened in so many coun­tries, in­clud­ing ours. This is where the Hu­man­i­ties come in: their es­sen­tial and in­vig­o­rat­ing role in shap­ing our world and our­selves. And giv­ing us warn­ings from the past depre­da­tions. It’s here that books be­come our price­less gifts. As John Milton said: As good al­most to kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a rea­son­able crea­ture, God’s image, but he who de­stroys a good book, kills rea­son it­self, kills the image of God it­self, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a bur­den to the earth; but a good book is the pre­cious life-blood of a mas­ter-spirit, em­balmed and trea­sured up on a pur­pose to a life be­yond life. This was writ­ten in 1644 by the English epi­cal poet who wrote Par­adise

Lost and Par­adise Re­gained. He be­came blind, but saw the world most clearly in his ex­tra­or­di­nary writ­ings on many sub­jects, in­clud­ing hu­man lib­erty. John Milton died in 1674—two hun­dred years be­fore Fiji was ceded to Great Bri­tain. I read Par­adise Lost in 1957 in a li­brary in Nadi run by the Ra­makr­ishna Mis­sion on the first floor of a shop, in the mid­dle of the town. I didn’t un­der­stand much but I ploughed through the epic as I ploughed my fa­ther’s farm. The seed then were planted in the fresh fur­rows. The San­skrit scholar de­liv­ered his eru­dite lec­ture, while red and white wines were served with gu­lab ja­muns and ras­so­goolas. A long and an­i­mated dis­cus­sion en­sued af­ter the talk. How these texts, writ­ten by men, are to be in­ter­preted in our mod­ern con­texts? Ques­tions were raised: Did Raja Das­rath paid the price of polygamy? Was the Ra­mayana a colonis­ing text? Was the poet more sub­tle in his por­trayal than just the bat­tle be­tween good and evil? Is ex­ile a hu­man con­di­tion for our growth of new aware­ness? Was the treat­ment of women and the fi­nal fiery test Sita has to un­dergo to prove her chastity jus­ti­fied? What of men and other crea­tures of our en­vi­ron­ment? What’s one’s dharma in the face of evil?

We were told there are at least 220 ver­sions of this marvel­lous epic. And its im­mense in­flu­ence on the cul­tures of South Asian peo­ples: the Ra­mayana and the Ma­hab­harata are the vow­els and con­so­nants of sev­eral cul­tural tra­di­tions. I, of course, grew up on the two epics—their Hindi ver­sions read by my mother as we lay on her pal­liasse cov­ered by Matalita’s mat from the koro across the river. We en­joyed the sto­ries im­mensely: some­times as we sat out­side star­ing at the starry sky in which flew the black fly­ing-foxes to­wards one-eyed Ram­chan­der mama’s mango-groves, we imag­ined we saw in the cloud for­ma­tions, Hanu­man carrying a moun­tain in one hand and a mighty mace in an­other—and fly­ing to­wards Sri Lanka to fix those rak­shas, demons, mis­be­hav­ing. That image re­mained in­grained in my mind for years un­til I vis­ited Sri Lanka and dis­cov­ered the peo­ple were quite hu­man and ex­tremely hos­pitable de­spite their re­cent tragic his­tory. I also re­mem­bered my days in Ramlila: I’ve writ­ten about it in my book

NADI: Mem­o­ries of a River, pub­lished in 2014, pages 97-103. The Ra­mayana has a spe­cial res­o­nance to the Fi­jian In­dian ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s pri­mar­ily an epic of ex­ile, suf­fer­ing, bat­tles, and re­turn. Ramlila, Diwali, Ram­naumi, gave many il­lit­er­ate gir­mit peo­ple hope and il­lu­mi­na­tion in a dark­ened world, miles away from their mil­len­nial habi­tat. I of­ten won­der how this great poem, in Tul­si­das’s ver­sion ,was sung in my vil­lage ev­ery Satur­day evening for two hours. It gave us a sense of com­mu­nity and com­mon bonds. In the ideals of its epony­mous hero, we saw our own lives mir­rored: no-one could em­u­late the godly-char­ac­ter, but he was there as an ex­am­ple on any dark night. But my favourite char­ac­ter re­ally was Hanu­man, the fly­ing Bri­gadierGen­eral, lead­ing Rama’s army to vic­tory. There have been a few bo­gus Bri­gadier-Gen­er­als but none matches in my imag­i­na­tion the feats of Hanu­man. One of my pri­mary school teach­ers had that name and I of­ten saw him fly­ing in my night­mares be­fore an exam. Like all great texts the Ra­mayana has been used by ruth­less men for evil acts; but its es­sen­tial good­ness has never been de­val­ued in the minds of or­di­nary peo­ple.

As I lis­tened to the talk by the ex­pert, I won­dered how com­pre­hen­sive a vi­sion Valmiki had given the world with men and mon­keys, gods and demons, trees and rivers, phys­i­cal prow­ess and meta­phys­i­cal spec­u­la­tions, Rama’s ex­ile on the eve of his corona­tion, Sita’s lone­li­ness in a for­eign for­est and so much more.

Who hasn’t felt a sense of ex­ile or soli­tude even in one’s bed­room? The twice-blessed can also be twice-ban­ished. The epic mir­rored our lives in all its an­cient moder­nity and hu­mane con­tra­dic­tions. The leg­end has it that Valmiki wrote it when one morn­ing, he saw by the river a bird cry­ing for its mate killed by a hunter. The river could be Sarayu, Ganges, Nadi or Mur­rumbigie?

A great poem was born out of the most com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence of grief and lone­li­ness—much de­pends how our hearts re­spond and how we re-imag­ine and re­mem­ber the agony and ec­stasy called Life in other lives.

Lit­er­ary works - The Iliad, The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo and A Christ­mas Carol.

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