Literature: Ashes And Diamonds
Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. His forthcoming collection of Fijian Stories, Ashes and Waves, will be published next year. This is Part 1 of 2 of the short story. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.
The old man surveyed the ruins of his home: the two bures had crumpled as if they had been made of burnt-out matchsticks: the rough-hewn timbers were exposed like bare bones. And the fragility of flesh of trees strewn all around.
A few trees were leafless but still standing in the bright morning sun. The scattered, torn clothes lay on the ground among leaves, branches, corrugated iron-sheets and a few pots and pans. A cow stood cold and wet behind the one damaged bure, like an old girmitya.
He’d very few possessions so the loss seemed minimal. But that’s what he possessed in his home, among the debris and devastation of a cyclone.
The fierce storm had done this and only one of his bures was strong enough to survive. It was tilted to one side and he’d crawled out of it unhurt.
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.
All trees he’d always felt were brothers and sisters. Like people.
Suddenly the sea had become so eerily calm. Only a stream of muddy water could be seen in the emerald waves flowing in a stream from the hills.
There was no-one fishing, no boats floating on the waves.
Luckily his wife had gone to the town to visit her one surviving sister. There was no way he could contact her.
Beyond the hills lay the village. He must walk to it see if everyone was alive. Often people died in cyclones despite all the warnings on the radio broadcast in the three languages.
He never understood the emergency messages but he listened to them with great interest. It was his government’s voice and he felt he could trust his government more than anyone else.
He walked for a while and sat by the seashore and looked at the endless horizons. Waves were memories playing in the sea, except that his mind was bigger than any ocean.
His educated son had gone overseas and wrote long letters to his sister studying at the local college.
The old father didn’t read much but his memory was sharp – a half-broken sea-shell. Once his son had quoted:
A man’s destination is not his destiny/Every country is home to one man/And exile to another/Where a man dies bravely/At one with his destiny, that soil is his/Let his village remember him…
For quite some time his son’s passions had become quotations.
Every father’s death is a harrowing experience. He had grown old and gaunt caring for his father. The pain of death is for the living. The dead are lucky. There’s nothing like instant death. And life’s longest journey begins after death.
Years ago he remembered when his father was alive and ruining his health with kava – the bane of the village – he wrote a school poem.
Ratu Reddy, the Principal from India, read it, and expressed his ‘deepest condolences and sincere-most sorrows.’
He had protested, ‘Sir, my father is alive.’
‘Oie! I’m wery, wery sorry, Boy,’ he had muttered, folding his palms. ‘I thought the poem was really about the death of your father.’
Four years later, as he stood near the funeral pyre on the Wailoaloa Beach, re-living the scene he had imagined in the poem, he marvelled at the accuracy of his observations, the minutiae of details: the mantras chanted and the mixture of burning camphor and ghee that made the wood in the fire crackled with flames. Dry timber with such hidden fire: Who knew the old man had so much fire in him?
But as the pyre burned the sadness spread on the sea-waves; his grief slowly evaporated in the brilliant sunshine that spread itself on the airport houses.
His grizzled brother had lit the pyre with the Pundit ululating several ‘Oums’ in the wind and hurling incomprehensible shlokas into the ocean. As the sugar and ghee smoke blew towards the native koro, there was no sorrow in his heart… in fact, he was glad the old man was dead, now being cremated, and tomorrow his ashes would be thrown into the sea – the Pacific ocean, part of the Indian ocean, part of the holy Ganga…it was comforting. Thank god for rituals and mantras … and fire.
The sea is one; we in our ignorance call it by different names.
Then he saw Telu, the ‘mad boy’ from the village. He was running towards the cremation ground in his ragged, dusty clothes, shorn hair, feet bleeding and calloused; he must have walked the five miles from the village to the cremation ground.
He remembered a bare tree on a bare hill on a windy day and a cow mooing under it.
‘Ram, Ram, Bhai,’ Telu kept mumbling as he passed a number of people, who had paid their last respects to a dead, old man. They were making their way towards the fish vendors, about a mile away from the cremation grounds. Their timing was uncanny. And as people returned to their offices in Nadi town, they carried a bundle or two of fish or crabs. Feasting, after a funeral, was our local way of life, a kind of life asserting itself after death, with dead, edible creatures.
Telu rushed, faltered, fell towards the flames. The tiri tiri logs crackled, a smell of camphor and ghee rose with the smoke. The pundit distanced himself; Telu stood close and dumb near the flaming pyre. The flesh of his friend’s father was being charred.
He looked at his village companion – his face covered in brown dust – tears were rolling down his scarred cheeks. No one stood near him except Lesu from the koro.
His father was born in Fiji. His father’s father had come from India, from a little, obscure village called Sultanpur near the Taj Mahal, under the indenture system. Slavery was abolished, at least on paper, in 1833; a new system had begun in 1834.His father, who never mentioned the Taj Mahal, had signed his girmit – he couldn’t pronounce ‘agreement’ – for ten years. The ‘coolumber’, the Australian overseer, who called his number every morning as he reported for work, became his mai-baap. No one is really an orphan in the world, he was told by a priest in Mother India.
After serving and surviving ten years of his girmit, he married another girmit woman. His father was their second son. He did not know much about his grandmother except that she had four other sons and had died at birth of her fifth baby.
Baba he called his old grandfather. It never occurred to him that once upon a time he must have been young. The old man never remarried.
Baba looked after his Pandavas as he called them. Father worked on the farm – a ten-acre piece of land rented from a Fijian mataqali and his uncles worked at the airport. Baba lived with Father. He would visit the homes of his other sons but he would always sleep in the special bure built for him by his son with help from the koro.
No matter how late in the night, he would ride his mare back home. And as he arrived, he’d shout before getting off his mare, ‘Arre, everybody sleeping?’
‘Arre, buddou, go to sleep. Food’s in the kitchen.
Don’t wake up the children!’ His son would yell back waking everyone, relieved that the old man was safely home.
Baba would then go through his rituals, rather noisily: he’d feed his mare; wash himself at the well, hum a few couplets from the Ramayan, change into his dhoti, white and clean, caress Kalauti, the bitch, and then come into the bure. Then, after feeding Kalauti, he would eat the long Chinese loaf with herrings in tomato sauce.
Happiness depends on such little things. The dead live on in their acts, insignificant in life, immeasurable in death.
One night Baba didn’t return. The next day his son announced that he had to be taken to Nadi hospital.
‘He’s had appendixing.’
‘A minor operation was needed,’ the doctor declared, with authority.
‘Satyam,’ the doctor had said touching the big ash mark on his forehead. He looked more like Kalpu, the village witch-doctor.
But people were reassured, because he had got his medical degree in Gandhi’s India.
A doctor trained in India; a man of faith, too. No one, of course, knew that the doctor’s diagnosis could defeat divinity.
It was past midnight and he was studying hard for the Senior Cambridge, that curse of the children, that blessing of the British Empire.
Ratu had given several maths problems to solve, especially those he couldn’t do himself.
In the middle of the class, he would look at him and say, ‘Raju, I’ve got to go to the office. I’m expecting a direct call from Mr Bray, the Chief Education Officer, from Suva. It’s about you people future. Continue the work.’
Raju had to solve the problems on the blackboard as Ratu strode out of the classroom purposefully. Of course, Raju knew he’d gone to gossip with Miss Dolly, the one Kiwi woman who taught them English.
That night Raju heard his Father’s tractor come to a screeching halt. A few seconds later, he heard a terrible wail like the hooting of an owl and the baying of a dog together. He came out of the bure. The moon lay its beams on the marigolds. He saw his father weeping. He had never seen him cry before. He was a huge, strong man like a small hillock – his voice could shake the whole village.
Baba had died in the operating theatre. According to the doctor, the operation had been successful but complications had developed due to an overdose of anaesthetics by his Chinese assistant. His Father didn’t understand, nor did he care to know the details. His father from India was dead. He wept like an orphan.
How do you console your own father? One who had never talked of death, or pain, or sorrow.
Just experienced them, as an island experienced cyclones.
Life and death were integral to life in the village on the island. He attended funerals, saw and heard people weeping, wailing; but he had also seen similar scenes at weddings. His interest was in the feast thirteen days after the funeral rites. It was always sumptuous, delicious and vegetarian served on huge dalo leaves from the tei tei across the shallow river.
He had never thought death would, one night, knock on his father’s bure. And make him cry. He went to wake up Telu who had come to spend the night with them.
Telu got up mumbling bhajans mixing film songs with Sanskrit shlokas and came and sat beside his father.
‘Mausa,’ he spoke, ‘don’t cry. You’ll wake up the whole village…’
‘Here,’ he said, taking out a little, soiled, half-torn book from his shirt
Writer is consultant to Fiji tourism Ministry and Austrlian Board on Investments