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OPINION: Fiji Girmit’s Great Legacy

OPINION: Fiji Girmit’s Great Legacy
May 12
08:57 2015

Professor Satendra Nandan’s new book, Brief Encounters: Literature and Beyond, will be published next month and launched in Germany on July 27. He is completing his meditative travelogue: Fijian-Indian Fragments: From Nadi to New Delhi.

The events of the two great Indian epics take place within the confines of the Indian subcontinent: The Ramayana comes down to Sri Lanka; the Mahabharata goes up to the summit of Mount Everest, literally speaking.

The most uncommon epic of the common man and woman really is the adventure of indenture.

It spread to many corners of the world, unknown to the poets and sages of the ancient Indian world.

No-one has written more perceptively about this experience than a descendant of the girmit people, a grandson of the mostly illiterate indentured laborers. Vidyadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, son of Seepersad Naipaul, born on the island of Trinidad, educated in England, became an indefatigable traveller and chronicler of the colonial-postcolonial world littered with transported peoples uprooted from many parts of the world, including Europe.

V.S. Naipaul is a name that evokes a thousand responses—some extremely complimentary; others vicious and unflattering. Some call him names reflecting their mean mentality more than the writer’s manifold genius.

Vidia Naipaul, in my opinion, is the most important writer to come out of the indenture diaspora from the Indian subcontinent which began in the late 1830s, soon after the abolition of slavery in the early 1830s.

A ‘new system of slavery’ was invented almost overnight, but with an expiry date and an ‘agreement’ of sorts. In Fiji it came into being in 1879 and continued until January 1, 1920, when the last girmitya was freed from this inhuman bondage. ‘Girmit’ is the pidginised version of the term ‘agreement’. Most of our illiterate grandparents heard the word ‘agreement’ as ‘girmit’ and signed their ‘girmit’ with their left thumb mark. And girmityas they became, lived and died.

As they had travelled in the 87 ships together, they also became jehajibhais and jehajins—mates in the ship.

It was real mateship for many who had left their ‘mulk’ in ships with sails across the seven seas. More than 60,000 young men and women made their fateful journeys to ‘Phiji’ over forty years.

Sixty thousand Anzacs died in World War 1— today their sacrifices are commemorated-celebrated with great gratitude and glory. Who remembers 60,000 girmityas, not even many of their great-grandchildren?

There’s hardly any monument or museum or library in any of the universities in Fiji. A few faded faces stare at us incomprehensively from the pages of a few unread books. It’s this neglect that is the origin of Vidia Naipaul’s many writings – history’s injustice is his great theme and the thoughtless displacement of peoples is part of the Naipaulian rage –exilic and inexorable. The girmit experience is the centre of his writing; the rest is its circumference.

He’s written about India and the Indians with excoriating sharpness of observation and scathing insight. That a civilisation should so easily let its people become virtual slaves and chattels.

Those in power often spent more time painting caste-marks reflecting the achievement of a people who denied humanity and identity to human beings, their brothers and sisters. Remove the caste-marks and they become empty-headed, chanting meaningless mantras, dreaming of another world.

Naipaul’s great achievement is that he created his own destiny as a creative person. Luck and sheer hard work helped. He began examining his own history at a time the literate world was reading imperial documentation of the falsification of history.

I cannot think of another writer in the past one hundred years, who out of such historical solitude, has created such penetrating portraits of so many peoples with almost Gandhian scrutiny and self-evaluation.

When Gandhi turned the searchlight inwards into the ugliness of his motherland, the high-caste villains shot him dead.

All of Naipaul’s books are inward journeys—from the ghastly Afghanistan to sorrows of Argentina —Naipual saw a new nihilism taking shape—and, in book after book, 30 in all, he portrayed the mimicry and falsehood.

In essay after essay, he wrote about the way men and women allowed others to deceive and destroy them and their world with veils of maya and the violence of deluded demagogues. The tragedy was that it was done with such ease and deception.

India is his one great love and it pained him to see how easily Indians had allowed themselves to be conquered.

A clerk of the East India Company could conquer the whole of Bengal and an obscure mercantile company establish an empire. No institutions of resistance were created by emperors and maharajas to protect them from invasions by minor conquerors and commercial clerks. Just building temples and tombs, singing songs in vast gardens, was enough, sprinkled with supine subjects and outworn myths of a glorious past of tribal wars already mirrored in the myriad myths and epics.

Naipaul has written most movingly about India in his books because he loved the country of his forbears.

He wrote that Gandhi was the only person whose life made him weep. But even this Indian icon is not spared—when he’d a chance of shaping India into a modern nation, he went to the mythical country that never existed.

His book India: A Wounded Civilization (1977) is an exploration of that massive tragedy that continues to threaten the subcontinent in religious garbs with nuclear bombs.

His three books on India are his deepest meditations on his grandparents’ world : An Area of Darkness: An Experience of India(1964), India: A Wounded Civilization(1977), India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990).

And numerous essays from Africa to Latin America—he’s possibly the most brilliant travel writer of the second half of the 20th century. They are meditative pieces on the historical forces that continue to shape and change our world like waves in an ocean.

No imperial power is spared; no society’s ills against its own people remain unexamined. The land is never quiet; the ocean never calm.

His writings on India infuriated many bureaucratic Indians, trained in two of the most colonial universities, Oxford and Cambridge, where many elitist academics and gilded men, mainly men, were trained to be the best civil servants of the British Empire.

How else can one account for a handful of British business clerks and military officers ruling over 300 million Indians for over 200 years?

In Naipaul’s journey to India, via England, he acquired powerful perceptions of the Indian reality. And he wrote uncompromisingly.

Some Indians loved his writings; others loathed his critical observations.

I wouldn’t have remembered Vidia Naipaul if my daughter Kavita Nandan had not mentioned him at the launch of her novel, Home After Dark, last Thursday. It was launched at the ANU to much acclaim and warmth.

She began by mentioning Naipaul’s classic novel A House for Mr Biswas (1961)—one small man’s struggle to be himself in a deeply chaotic and arid world.

The ‘Prologue’ of the book begins with:

Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked….When the doctor advised him to take complete rest, the Trinidad Sentinal had no choice. It gave Mr Biswas three months’ notice and continued, up to the time of his death, to supply him every morning with a free copy of the paper.

Mr Biswas was forty-six, and had four children. His house was mortgaged. He had no money. His wife suggested: ‘Potatoes,’ she said. “We can start selling potatoes. Buy at five cents, sell at seven insisted Shama.”

Biswas was contemptuous: ‘I know the pack of you are financial geniuses. But have a good look around and count the number of people selling potatoes.’

Mr Biswas lay on his bed and continued reading Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, possibly the greatest philosophical Roman emperor as many of us keep reading the Gita missing its most obvious message—it’s in action that you’ll find your salvation.

But Mr Biswas had acquired a house, a flawed structure sold to him by a lawyer’s clerk. It was a double story- structure but the lawyer’s clerk had forgotten to build the stairs to connect the two storeys. And now lying, on his bed, before dying, he remembers: ‘But bigger than them all was the house, his house.

How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating and indifferent family; to have left Shama and the children among them. In one room; worse, to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.’

This fourth novel by Naipaul was written when he was barely 28 years old. Since then he has written over 30 books: essays, travelogues, history, and fiction.

And numerous articles to raise the ire of the religious, caste-ridden, racial bigots and demagogues in a variety of countries and societies: Communities which deny their past and imprison the future of their children in myths and myth-making.

Those who continue to blame history rather than taking responsibilities themselves as men and women who can and must shape their lives and destiny.

In 2001 V.S.Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature– the first progeny ofindentured Indians to receive the honour.

In celebrating the 40th anniversary of the classic novel, his new publisher, Picador, reissued the novel in 2003. Originally it was published in 1961.

It should have caused quite a sensation but who was interested in the life of a coolie’s descendant: it was the story of Naipaul’s father.

‘Yet, as a literary masterpiece, it is in the league with American Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, or Australian Patrick White’s novel The Tree of Man.

It’s Vidia Naipaul who put the indentured Indian on the literary map of the world .

His writings gave these peasants features, voices,   some individual identity. : a name and a place– a recognisable face in a crowd of displaced faces you now see dying on their desperate journeys to Europe where they are called ‘migrants’; in our region they are ‘asylum-seekers’.

Since then he’s crafted several masterly narratives but none excels the theme, power and the imaginative impact of A House for Mr Biswas.

It should be read by every Indian whose roots go back to the girmit experience.

Naipaul has written: ‘A House for Mr Biswas is my most substantial piece of fiction, and it is a book for which I am best known.

The book was written in London.The idea of the book was simple: a dying man has the few physical objects which he has accumulated during his life, and by which he is now surrounded, perhaps mockingly, perhaps comfortably.

He reflects on the history of each object and so his life at the end is reduced to these few physical objects rather than a network of relationships.’

Some years ago Kavita met Sir Vidia Naipaul. She took a hard cover edition of A House for Mr Biswas to be autographed by her favourite writer.

She said to him: This is my favourite novel. Naipaul raised his perceptive eyebrows and enquired: Where are you from? ‘From Fiji.’‘ That’s why you like it so much,’ replied Vidia.

Today ,in Fiji, when there’s equality of citizenship, a common national name, where a people have lived for almost 140 years, it’s a question that should haunt our minds too.

In his best novel after A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul’s first sentence is: The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

The book, A Bend in the River (1979), is a novel of brutal, suffocating corruption set in an African region; it looks squarely at the heart of darkness, not colonial, but of the postcolonial variety : What man has made of man.

V.S. Naipaul never visited Fiji. But he has an enduring message for us all. He should be read widely and deeply: both for greater self-awareness and a deeper self-respect as citizens of Fiji.

Literacy ,then, will become a priceless memorial to our many illiterate girmityas too.

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