ASHES AND DIAMONDS
The village had been battered, trees mutilated right up to the shore where blue waves broke in their white foam. A few palm stems stood without fronds like shaved heads
Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. His forthcoming collection of Fijian Stories, Ashes and Waves, will be published next year. This is Part 2 of 2 of the short story.
pocket, ‘I’ll sing you some bhajans.’ Father whimpered. Telu held his hand for a while then sang - Gita
bhajans he called them. He didn’t understand a word then but now as he was cruising at 30,000 feet, a little higher than Shiva’s snowcapped mountain, he’s reading it in an English translation, words rising like bubbles in his champagne glass:
Thou grievest where no grief should be! For the wise in the heart Mourn not for those that live, Nor those that die. Nor I, nor thou, nor any one of these, Ever was not, nor ever will not be, For ever and ever afterwards.
All that doth live, lives always. That which is can never cease to be. The Life is spreading life through all...
So he sang, bits from many songs. Then he pounded some kava and made grog. First, Raju poured a bowl of grog, as was the custom, for the
iTaukei, the Fijian spirit of the land. Father would never touch kava unless the taukei was served first. As Raju was about to give a bowl to Father, Telu whispered, ‘One for Baba.’ He poured out some from the enamel bowl in the corner of the bure: a frog leapt in the darkness. Telu got up and served Father. Raju went into his bure, closed the maths book and lay down, knowing tomorrow he had a good reason to miss the ‘sakool’ as Telu called it.
His father and Telu sat together into the dawn.
Father cried a second time – the day Raju left Nadi Airport for Bombay. Telu said he had looked very sad; his son was going to Bombay to study, even become an actor. As his other relatives left the airport, Father sat on the corrugated iron bench and wept.
A broken father, like the brokenhearted Raja Dasharath, when Rama was banished into exile for fourteen years. But Raju was going away only for four, to study, on a scholarship. Something to be proud of. But why did he cry?
Was it because his father, almost his son’s age, had made an earlier journey from that Kalicity Calcutta to Fiji? And never returned, unlike Rama. Something, as a father, he was now beginning to understand. Perhaps. Or was it because he could never make the journey to his father’s village? He always said that the CSR Company owed him a free passage back to India – a passage really owed to Baba. As the girmitiya didn’t go, it was his son’s. Who would he have seen in Sultanpur? Baba, being illiterate, never wrote to his family. Maybe he had escaped from the subcontinent? Just as Raju was escaping from an island? Was this his father’s first death? Raju’s father was a big and a brave man, too. His face had power, the solidity of a boulder on a farm. As a schoolboy, one afternoon, he had witnessed his act of bravery. Two factions in the village were threatening to burn and rape for a month. That afternoon they wanted to kill, one gang attacked another, men chasing another group down the hill – ten grown men being pursued by five men with cane knives and iron bars.
One fell injured, a spear had pierced his left leg. He screamed, ‘Mausa,
bachao! They’re killing us!’ Father emerged from the bure, rushed down hill and, lifting both hands above his head, yelled loudly, ‘What’s this Mahabharat?’
‘Stop! Look!! Listen!!!’ He must have picked that up from the sign at the railway crossings. The murderous men stopped at the foot of the hill confronting father’s shadow in the evening sun. Raju stood between his legs.
‘Mausa,’ one pleaded. ‘Get out of the way. We have to kill someone today before the sun goes down.’ Father moved. The gang-leader clutched his cane knife. His four bloodied companions looked ferocious. Father pleaded.
Suddenly one of the men said something rude to Father.
In one leap, his father snatched his cane knife. Raju was knocked to the ground. As he raised his head, he saw the poor man prostrate before his father and the gang-leader begging Raju’s father to let him get up. Father relented, very reluctantly. He turned back towards Raju and winked.
A revolution, Raju read later, began with a wink. Since then he had never been afraid. The other gang by this time had disappeared into the sugarcane fields.
Father, I knew, had saved Telu’s uncle Ramphal’s life that day. Raju returned home and his father sat on the tin drum (full of kerosene) without a shirt, looking larger than life, under the stringy, gnarled tamarind tree. He looked, to Raju, a beautiful man with plenty of hair on his bare Bhimsen chest. And the setting sun added an exalted radiance to his greying hair.
Telu said when Raju was to return from India after four years, Father would go to Lalji – the manager of Air India at the airport. On every Tuesday at 4pm an Air India flight would arrive from Sydney. It was a special flight to Nandi.
They had advertised it: Nandin, Shiva’s Bull with a garland of hibiscus round its neck, a saffron tikka on its forehead, an Air India hostess performing arti.
People didn’t see the bull with any special interest, but the airhostess – her silk saree, moon face, big eyes, her shawl draped delicately on her Kamasutra bosom, haunted many for a long after the flights ceased to operate. It was Raju’s first awakening to sexual beauty – from an air hostess’s picture next to a holy bull.
His father liked looking at Air India. He had never been to India but India must have been like a grain of sand in the oyster of his mind. It must have troubled him, then crystallised into a pearl in his imagination. To him Air India was the idea of India itself. Telu accompanied Father to the airport every Tuesday – both on the aging Ferguson tractor. And as the flight landed – always at 4pm – they watched every passenger, then the air hostesses and the pilots. Raju was not there. They waited till the door closed and then both Father and Telu would drive back home, sit outside drinking grog, staring at the unnumbered stars.
Raju’s father is burnt to ashes except for a handful of bones to be thrown into the ocean. To be collected tomorrow from this cold, cremation spot:
What are the roots that clutch? What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?... And now it is only Telu who is really weeping. As the sun caught the scar on his left cheek, in the silence between two waves, in that moment as the logs collapsed under the insupportable weight of embers, ashes, bones, flowers, Raju thought, just for a moment, if Telu was his father’s son? And did he confuse his father with his grandfather? Were the two one and the same...?
The city of Sydney looked like an overturned box of jewels as Raju’s flight was making its descent through the darkness: the red light on the right wing of the plane glowed – glowed like a burning pyre seen from another shore.