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

Fiji Sun - - Big Story - Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan Feed­back: jy­otip@fi­jisun.com.fj

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.

This short story is at­trib­uted to the Gir­mi­tiyas.

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