Brief Encounters: Literature and Beyond



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Satendra Nandan

Literary Stirrings: Reading-Writing

SatendraNandan’s third book of essays, Brief Encounters: Literature and Beyond, was published last year.

My first published essay was called ‘Bharat Milap’: it’s a rendition of the meeting of Ram and his younger brother Bharat as I remembered reading it in the Indian epic the Ramayana. On the eve of his coronation, Ram has been banished for fourteen years from the kingdom of Ayodhya. He was destined to be the king, according to his royal father Dashrath’s wish. Ram was the eldest of five brothers.

The king had three wives and polygamy proved disastrous. His youngest wife, Kekeyi, the mother of Bharat, wanted her son to wear the royal crown. It seems, in a moment of passion, Raja Dashrath had promised his clever consort that she could ask him for any two wishes. And he would grant them with pleasure.

When Ram’s name was announced to be the new king, Kekeyi reminded her doting husband of his promise. Dashrath remembered . She staged her coup and demanded that her son Bharat should be the king of Ayodhya; and that Ram be exiled from the kingdom for 14 years, into the darkest forests of the sub-continent.

In the dharma of the times, the old king had to keep his word:

raghukul reet sada chal yaee,

praan jai par bachan na jaee

in my tradition you may lose your life but you cannot break your word, sang the saddened king. Ram was banished. The fond, foolish king of Ayodhya died, grief-stricken, broken-hearted.

This was in Ram Rajya of which Gandhi dreamed in his postcolonial India and got shot by the high-caste assassins. But it was part of my girmit grandparents’ ethical life when one’s bond was enough, even if sealed by the Left Thumb mark. We grew up reciting this couplet.

Rama goes into the dark woods, accompanied by his princess wife Sita and his loyal brother Laksman. When Bharat hears of this arrangement, he is ashamed and distraught. He rushes to meet Ram on the edges of the kingdom and tries to dissuade him from leaving Ayodhya. Ram is determined to obey the commands of his father; instead of coming back to the kingdom, he gives Bharat his sandals.

The meeting of the two brothers must have moved me as a child. We were five brothers ourselves. Bharat returns to the kingdom and puts on the throne Ram’s sandals—you might say his pair of black shoes!

So I wrote this Hindi essay, won a Fiji-wide ‘gold’ medal, and to my school’s delight, it was published in the leading Hindi weekly Jagriti. Its editor was Fiji’s brilliant satirical poet, K.P. Mishra. He used to write his poems in the weekly under the pseudonym Mulki.

The story of Ram and Bharat wouldn’t have touched my imagination if my mother hadn’t told the stories as we lay around her on her ‘plaas’, covered with a borrowed mat from Matalita. And there were Ramayan mandalis in almost every village. This was a time a few years after India had gained her independence in the bloody and brutal vivisection called Partition in 1947. Every Saturday night the villagers sang a chapter of the epic, translated into Hindi. I’d the role of reading and reciting the meaning of each couplet.

In Fiji there were available Hindi magazines and detective novels and prints of paintings of the leaders of Indian independence with the images of many Hindu gods and goddesses. We bought these prints for a shilling and pasted them on the bamboo and tin walls of our bures and lean-tos. Every morning I prayed to the picture of goddess Saraswati painted most attractively, sitting on the multicoloured petalled lotus. Next to it was the picture of Ram and Sita, on a throne.

I was good at Hindi. Fiji Hindi was my mother-tongue but we were beginning to hear Hindustani of Bombay films – on Saturday nights we walked six miles to see these ‘fillums’ in Harry Braiya’s theatre near Nadi Bridge, next to Swami Rudrananda’s Ramakrishna ashram. Not far from the ashram , on the banks of the Nadi river, was created, under two corrugated iron sheds ,the Shri Vivekananda High school, adjacent to the Sangam temple.

It was the first such school for the grandchildren of indentured labourers, small shopkeepers, mill workers and farmers. Students joined it from many parts of Fiji. Although the first Indian migrants were brought to Fiji in 1879, this school was founded in 1949. At least two generations of children had gone without any form of secondary education; it becomes more telling when you consider there were schools for the children of the more privileged soon after Fiji was ceded to Great Britain in 1874. But in India the subjugation was worse from where my grandparents had ventured into the ‘new’ worlds.

As I look back on the roads I’ve travelled so far in the biblical three score and ten years when I learnt ‘a’ was for an apple (a fruit I’d never seen), my educational luck is nothing short of a miracle. I was the first pupil to pass the entrance exam of SVHS from my primary school. We were 88 in the class under a corrugated tin-shed. Next to it was a field of sweetest sugar-cane flourishing on the riparian banks of the beautiful river Nadi. My childhood and youth are remembered in Nadi: Memories of a River, published in 2014.

Across the river was a koro, full of naked children swimming in its waters. From our unwalled classrooms, we spent a lot of time watching them floating in the pristine waters and shouting in pure joy as the rain fell in sheets. When the river flooded, some of these youths would help us to cross it paddling their canoes. Often the one-street town was submerged and our school remained closed for days, much to our delight.

*

It was here on the banks of River Nadi, under the tin-shed at the SVHS, I read my first book in English. My home had no English books. The primary school days were spent in playing gullidanda, the original version of golf I presume (Vijay Singh used to chase chickens on my brother’s farm). One newly arrived teacher did try to read The Black Arrow, a simplified version, but soon he was transferred as he began writing love-letters to the headmaster’s very pretty wife from Suva.

Every morning around ten I was asked by the teacher to deliver the sealed envelope to the lady teacher. I thought it was a great privilege to do this with complete innocence of the content within. Unfortunately one morning the lady teacher was late and I gave it to the headmaster. That was the end of a romance. Mr M. R. was transferred forthwith.

So The Black Arrow has remained unfinished and unread to this day.

It was in year three in my secondary school that I bought my first English novel, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. It was an unabridged edition, with 426 pages. We ploughed through it with the help of Mr BhaskaranIyer from Madras. Mr Iyer was an educated man and a teacher of both science and literature. Under the leafy avocado trees, he read with passion the story of the French Revolution as imagined by Dickens decades later. He was a bachelor and Sydney Carton appealed to his sensibility on the island of Viti Levu.

Most of it we didn’t understand; so we attempted to memorize the important sections of it: ’It was the best of times…It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I’ve ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known’ as Sydney Carton mounts to his sublime death.

By the end of the year I’d read my first English novel. To think that I was the first person in my ancestral family for millennia who had read the first work of fiction in English is incredible. Even today I can’t quite believe it. But this was a common experience of many of my generation who were born in the wild villages of Fiji where their peasant grandparents had come as labourers from the darker landscapes of India. They were landless and illiterate. But they carried fragments of their epics in their DNA. Story-telling was a means of survival and self-respect. Many lived in those narratives. And exile in the islands to them became bearable, even acceptable as they aged.They had arrived as young men and women across the dark waters of the seven seas. My third book of poems, Lines Across Black Waters (1997), dedicated to Timoci Bavadra, tells that story.

At SVHS I didn’t write anything creative except one rather long poem when I was in Form V. My English teacher read it in the class with great hilarity but declared it wasn’t my work. I didn’t write another poem after that until I met Jyoti in Delhi.

English literary literacy began for me in this extraordinary secondary school. By the time we went into the Senior Cambridge class, we were reading the poems of Tennyson, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and, of course, A Tale of Two Cities. There were seven other subjects taught through English medium but English Literature was my favourite. I completed the Senior Cambridge examination successfully winning the Principal’s Prize and passing in all eight subjects, including a ‘pass’ in English. One of my teachers called me ‘a dark horse’ – I thought he referred to my colour and reported it to the Principal. But a slightly darker Mr Moosad said, ‘But Satendra I think you are quite fair!’

Next year in the NZ university entrance, the UE class, at Suva Grammar School, Indian students were being admitted for the first time. I applied to join it; I was not given admission because my English mark was not up to the mark. I felt quite shattered and began helping my father on the farm at Legalega, next to the airport. My father was not amused as I’d declined the offer to join the Nasinu Teachers College to train as a primary school teacher.

One of my uncles, who had enlisted to serve in the Second World War, was appointed a supervisor at the airport. One evening he came home with a copy of The Fiji Times, the only daily then in Fiji. He read that Natabua High school was introducing the UE class. This was news to me—as Natabua was only 15 miles from my village and within my reach on Uncle Taki Khan’s old, growling bus. I wrote a letter to the Principal Mr F. E. Joyce. His reply was discouraging—this year he was taking students only from Natabua High who had passed the Senior Cambridge in at least second division, with a ‘credit’ in English.

In despair I ploughed my father’s fields with our old Ferguson tractor in great fury. I wrote again and again to Mr Joyce. My peasant persistence paid off—he invited me for an interview and I joined the school in Term 2. I tell the story in a slightly fictionalized narrative in my short story ‘A Teacher’s Story’, published in my collected short stories, Seashells on the Seashore (2012). It’s under Mr Joyce’s guidance that I began reading modern literature and writing – several of my essay-pieces came out in the NatabuaTatler, edited by Mr Joyce.

It was marvellous to see one’s name in English print. And that year I was awarded a ‘Joyce prize’ and a Government of India scholarship to study in Delhi. I think Mr Joyce had a hand in the award being given to a village boy—the few awards then available went to children from well-known families mainly from Suva.

Next year in June I left Nadi for India. Only last month I completed a memoir of my first journey ‘From Nadi to New Delhi’, titled Loving You Eternally. It’s a love story.

*

It’s at Delhi University that I began reading English Literature. There were eight papers for the Honours examination in the BA. My summers were spent reading and writing essay assignments for a couple of my friends: one played cricket; the other had some acting talent and imitated Bollywood’s heroes in his rather melancholy pursuits. Both ended up with Div. 3 passes, the most common division in the colleges of Delhi, where April was always the cruellest month—exams began then.

Then I went to do my BEd and fell in love. Neither reading nor writing had priority then. It’s only when I was separated from my beloved for a year in Fiji that I began writing love-letters. Literature came to my rescue as my letters were full of quotes from Shakespeare, Keats, and other Romantics, and Hindi film songs. Somewhere in Jyoti’s papers, my letters are still lying. I may have begun my literary career through writing love-letters.

After a year teaching at SVHS, I flew back to Delhi. I got a job as a trainee journalist on The Statesman. The newspaper was still the most prestigious, being the first daily in English in India, started in Calcutta under the imperial Raj. But as Malcolm Muggeridge remarked, having been on the staff there, the ‘last of the English were the Indians’.

It’s while on The Statesman that I began reading New Statesman, Encounter and The Guardian. I used to purchase these from a newspaper agency in Connaught Place. My salary was meagre but I stayed at Jyoti’s home and money was no problem. And my wife has never stinged on my buying of books or magazines. Then just before we got married in September, I was offered a job at Doon School, India’s most famous public school. It has produced two outstanding writers, Vikram Seth, who I taught in 1963-64, and Amitav Ghosh. Rajiv Gandhi, an old DOSCO, a pilot, became the prime minister of India after the tragic death of his mother, Indira Gandhi. He, too, was the victim of a suicide-bomber in an obscure place which I visited a few years ago.

Doon school was a revelation. The students were better read than me. But I became a popular teacher, having produced Julius Caesar with a cast of over 100.Jyoti’s sarees made colourful Roman togas. The students were wonderfully wanton in the mob scenes. One night they burnt the bamboo bush behind the open Rose Bowl. The next night the audience praised us for such a stark and brilliant stage set symbolic of a burnt Rome by the rampaging mob: scenes I was to witness later in Suva. I give glimpses of it in my autobiographical book, Requiem for a Rainbow(2001).

I was too much in love to really think of writing or reading. Jyoti and I were on an endless honeymoon. The headmaster, Mr J.A.K.Martyn, recruited from Harrow, was an understanding man, being a foreigner himself. I didn’t do any writing except one essay on my production of Julius Caesar published in the Doon School chronicle.

Then we returned to Delhi. I began teaching senior English classes at Delhi Public school. I was also roped in by my university friends to start a Delhi University magazine, with the terrible title The Student Reflector. I contributed several pieces to it and my brief stint on The Statesman gave me a pre-eminent place and all my pieces, some under a pseudonym, were published in this magazine.

Then my son Rohan was born in September 1963. His birth stirred emotions in me: I composed a poem ‘My Mother’s Memory’,published in that magazine.

*

In December 1965, I was back in Fiji, with Jyoti and Rohan, living in our village Legalega, next to Nadi airport. After two months I got a job in Suva. The first position I was offered was at The Fiji Times by Mr Len Usher, the then Editor. I almost took it when I was offered the Head of English at DAV College, Suva. Being a teacher by training, I accepted the teaching position. After a year, when our daughter Gitanjali was born in CWM hospital, I returned to my alma mater in Nadi as Head of English, with Mr P. N. D.Moosad as Principal. I’ve always wanted to be in Nadi, the place of my birth.

*

USP began rather tentatively in 1968. I wasn’t quite aware of its momentous significance. I was too interested in my young family and playing tennis, which I’d learnt at Doon school. Jyoti also began teaching in Nadi Secondary school, next to our flat, owned by a very kanjoos landlord. I was happy teaching English to Senior forms. My secondary school teaching days were full of joy and laughter of the young.

Then one Saturday, as I was sitting in the shop of my tennis companion, Kantilal Patel, in the middle of the one-street town, he showed me an ad in The Fiji Times.USP was inviting applications for Lecturers in English to teach at USP from the following year. Kanti urged me to apply: ‘Master, your Englis too much good!’ he urged with a Gujarati twang.

I sat in the shop and drafted an application in long hand. Kantibhai’s secretary typed it on an old typewriter. Kanti sent her to post it. And we forgot all about it. I didn’t expect to get a university position with an English degree from India. There were many excellent expatriate and local English teachers in Fiji secondary schools with qualifications from New Zealand, Australia, England and even Canada. After four months, I was called for an interview to USP. There, seated with the new New Zealand Vice-Chancellor, were several prominent educationists including Mr J. G. Rodger from England, the then Director of Education. He asked me a question: ‘What are you reading these days, Mr Nandan?’

By sheer luck I’d just read Malcolm Muggeridge’s Tread Softly You Tread on My Jokes. I’d borrowed it from Lautoka’s Western Regional Library a week before. I mentioned the title of the book. Mr Rodger looked amused. I’d no chance, I felt. The panel had looked formidable, with so many New Zealanders, in shorts and ties and socks pulled up to their knees in the humid heat of Suva.

I returned to my school. Around this time Fiji was moving towards independence and the Public Service advertised several positions for local Administrative Officers. I applied. I was offered a position in Suva. But before I could see one Mr Vishnu Prasad, the Establishment Officer, a letter came from the USP Registrar, Mr S. F. Perrott, offering me a lecturer’s position. I was thrilled—two birds in the hand of a bush boy in the national capital.

I went to Suva to see Mr Prasad and seek his advice; then I went to USP where Mr Hari Ram was the Assistant Registrar. Hari had studied in St Stephens in Delhi and his father-in-law was the founder of DAV College and an eminent Hindi writer, Pundit Ami Chandra, Vidyalankar.

I listened to Hari Ram and joined USP. Jo Nacola, with an MA in English from Waikato, was already on the staff. In 1969, Ms Maggie Smith from London and I were selected to teach English to Preliminary classes. Maggie was a flamboyant lady and added colour to the Department headed by a Kiwi Mr Lincoln Gribble with a lively Maltese wife, three lovely daughters and a pallid-looking son.Lincoln Gribble became a dear colleague. We lived on the Laucala campus with our families: our children swam in the same pool.

*

Browsing through the USP Library one afternoon, I came upon a book donated by the British Council. It had a brown cover with the title in bible black, Commonwealth Literature, edited by John Press: a volume of papers and talks given in 1964 at the University of Leeds at the first conference on Commonwealth Literature. It had names like Chinua Achebe, R. K. Narayan, V. S. Naipaul, Wilson Harris, C. D.Narasimhaiah, Balchandra Rajan, Norman Jeffares in its pages. These names didn’t mean much to me but I was vaguely aware of them through those English magazines I’d read in New Delhi.

I picked up the volume, and sat in a corner and began browsing through it. If any book affected the trajectory of my writing life, it was this. I decided to go to The University of Leeds to further my studies. Lincoln Gribble was most generous in his reference supporting my application for a UK Commonwealth fellowship. In July 1970, I was offered the fellowship to study for a Masters in Linguistics and English Language Teaching at the University of Leeds.

In August I was in London and Leeds while Jyoti with our three children remained in Delhi and joined me in September. I was able to complete my MA in Linguistics in one year. I applied to do a second MA in Commonwealth Literature. My fellowship was extended. I’d lecturers like William Walsh, Arthur Ravenscroft, the editor of the Commonwealth Journal, and C. D. Narasimhaiah, who was invited to Leeds to teach a course in Indian Writing in English.

William Walsh taught me Australian Literature; CDN introduced me to Indian Writing in English; Arthur Ravenscroft was a specialist in African writing. These literatures became my love beyond English Literature to Literatures in English. Today I think of that year that brought about a sea-change in my consciousness: literary and cultural, critical and creative. And, above all, some sense political self-awareness.

*

When I returned, Commonwealth Lit became my favourite area of reading and exploration. And with two Masters, I was soon given scholarships to York Toronto, Austin Texas and ANU Canberra. Patrick White’s writings had affected me most deeply; so I accepted the fellowship in Canberra and spent three delightful years at ANU with Jyoti and my three children. All of us are at the moment in Canberra with our four grandchildren. Canberra is a kind of home now. It is here I’ve experienced the kindness of strangers when things became difficult for some of us in Fiji after 14 May 1987. And both Jyoti and Kavita did their doctoral studies in the A. D. Hope building, almost in the same room where I’d written my thesis in 1977.

Bob Brissenden, who had done his PhD in Leeds, was my enlightened supervisor; A. D. Hope introduced me to the tastes of Aussie wines. Bob used to say to me, after reading my poems, one of them ‘My Father’s Son’ was published in PIM, ‘Tremendous lines, Satendra!’ and take me to the staff club. Bob died young, aged 63. I was one of the pall bearers. I’ve written with affection about these two Canberra poets in Beyond Paradise: Rights of Passage (2010).

It’s at ANU I wrote my first three short stories – ‘A Pair of Black Shoes’, ‘To be a Poet’ and ‘The Guru’. The first two stories were published in Hemisphere, a magazine published by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra. I was paid for them. ‘A Pair of Black Shoes’ and ‘The Guru’ became the two most popular stories read in Fiji’s secondary schools. In Fiji, among teachers and students, as a writer, I’m generally known by these two stories. Many a reader has told me with genuine sorrow, ‘Sir, I thought you’d died a long time ago!’

My first book of poems, Faces in a Village, was also written in the A. D.Hope building. Before coming to ANU, I’d done some research interviewing the few surviving girmityas left in Fiji. My companion was a half-historian; he had no knowledge of Hindi, so while he held the microphone close to the mouths of these decrepit old men, I interviewed them. There were no girmit women we could talk to.

Out of this experience of oral narrations poured forth my poems as I reflected on the lives of the girmityas while my father lay dying in Lautoka hospital after a severe stroke. I flew to see him in September 1974. And then didn’t see him for the next three years as my doctor brother kept him alive. And when I saw him, bed-ridden and reduced to a skeletal existence, I wrote the poem ‘Sidhartha’.

Out of this grief, the first stirrings of my poetry came like leaves in spring on a tree that looked so bare and bleak in winter. My writing life was really born then. Faces in a Village was published by my college friend Deepak Seth in Delhi in 1975 and I read a few on the AIR; in Fiji in 1976. It gave voice to the voiceless and made fragments of a hidden history visible and audible. And a few injustices legible of a people lost in the silence and solitude of one hundred years of servitude.

I believe it is the first book of poems in English published in Fiji. It was republished in 2014 as part of my recent memoir, Nadi: Memories of a River.

I’m now writing a work of historical fiction, tentatively titled Bury My Bones in the Wounded Sea! It begins with a mother’s cremation ceremony on the shores of the Wailoaloa beach, Nadi.

____________________________________________________16 January, 2016, Canberra.


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