OPINION: Promoting Fijian Literary Heritage

Professor Satendra Nandan’s book, Brief Encounters: Literature and Beyond, was published on June 30. It will be launched in Germany on July 27 at an international literary conference. Satendra’s six 
04 Jul 2015 14:02
OPINION: Promoting Fijian Literary Heritage
Fiji’s most famous writer argues efforts need to be doubled to preserve our stories, books, poems for use by the current and future generations.

Professor Satendra Nandan’s book, Brief Encounters: Literature and Beyond, was published on June 30. It will be launched in Germany on July 27 at an international literary conference. Satendra’s six  books were selected last year by a Free Press to be distributed to the libraries in the US universities.


Fiji’s literary heritage, in the making, is precious and precarious. Literacy may have come with the coming of the Bible: its translations and proselytising, but Fiji, like the rest of the South Seas already had a paradisiacal aura in the exploratory European imagination.

In 1768 the French explorer and classical scholar Louis Antione de Bougainville sighted the islands of Polynesia and gave it further romantic colouring — you see it in the colours among the bougainvilleas blooming by the roadside and gardens of numerous homes and hotels. The writings were erotic and exotic, imaginative and mythic, part of the civilising mission.

The South Pacific has been written about by explorers, travellers, writers, evangelists, and those who wanted to escape the grime of their civilisations.


Historical forces

Into this world came the historical forces of conversion, colonialism and capital, with pen and paper. Islands, non-existent on any map, were mapped, financial concessions granted, and places renamed. What for example was the name of Botany Bay before  it was christened Sydney, after Arthur Phillip’s ardent supporter Lord Sydney?

Arthur Phillip anchored his ships on the coast of NSW on January 26, 1788. And a new world was inscribed on the soil and soul of this ancient land and its people. That history is still being written in the national constitution although the native peoples have been part of the country’s  conscience for a century at least.

The rock carvings and oral traditions were lost and now being slowly rediscovered. What was once ‘savage’, ‘brute’, ‘uncivilised’ is today the lure of the Australasian experience. Writing itself was a new invention and was to structure our sense of realities of many kinds, and in many colours.

These are several classic works about the South Pacific by several eminent writers: among them R L Stevenson, Herman Melville, Somerset Maugham, Jack London in English.

Later, in the early twentieth century, indentured Indians experienced Fiji in the coolie lines and the recollections of one were ghost-written in Hindi by one of the most distinguished Indian journalists, Benarsidas Chaturvedi, later to become a member of the Indian Parliament. K L Gillion’s pioneering work Fiji’s Indian Immigrants (1962), is dedicated to him. I was privileged to spend an afternoon with him on my first visit to India, more than 50 years ago. He helped me to join one of the finest colleges of Delhi University. Another classic narrative is Turn North East at the Tombstone, by Walter Gill, a young, sensitive Australian overseer who experienced life and love on the sugar-cane fields of Fiji.


Indigenous, immigrant Fijians

Then there are works by indigenous and immigrant Fijians. They create a colourful tapestry of our precolonial, colonial and postcolonial national experience, including coups and constitutions. They may not all be complimentary but they do show us the road we’ve travelled and the places where we’ve lived and loved. These are journeys through the mindscape of a country, with its grief and gladness.

I was reminded of this notable works for three reasons: I’ve just completed the story of my first journey to India—tentatively titled Fijian-Indian Fragments. For this I’ll be travelling to India and spend a month there  to revisit places and faces that became so much part of my subjectivity and shaped my sensibility. I’ve done this more for my children and grandchildren and their contemporary companions.

But more importantly I’ve just seen a piece by an eminent expatriate Indian writer on how Indians are attempting to uncover and preserve ‘India’s dazzling literary history’.

The impetus comes from a bequest of US$5.2million  from Rohan Murty, the son of the technology billionaire and founder of Infosys, N R Narayana Murthy ( slightly different surnames)—a rare case of Indian philanthropic support for literature on such a scale.


Indian literary heritage

Indian pluralistic literary heritage is of course quite extraordinary and ancient. No single language ever dominated it. There were always different and differing perspectives—India was always plural  in the most singular way. How much older are the oral traditions is anybody’s guess. Writing in our world is a comparatively new phenomenon but it has structured our world’s realities in most protean ways. We constantly enter new worlds through what we read, write and imagine.

Neel Mukherjee, the writer of the piece, concludes:

‘Empires fall; languages decay, dynasties become extinct…India is entering an age of state-supported historical blindness and illiteracy: consider the absurd reference by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, as proof  that transgenic cosmetic surgery was known to ancient Indians. At a time when historians are losing their jobs for refusing to bow to thuggish mythologizing and lies, the Murty Classical Library of India( MCLI) produces  hard evidence for a complex past to counter the falling darkness.’

Neel Mukherjee’s book The Lives of Others was short-listed for Man-Booker Prize 2014. What makes Mukherjee’s insights more worrying is that Ganesh’s cosmetic surgery was said in front of India’s most distinguished surgeons. As a joke, it would be unsurpassable; as a scientific fact a truly worrying and bewildering assertion.


False patriotism

There is a tendency in several emerging narrow nationalisms to give a monolithic version of society under the dubious guise of false patriotism. But most societies are multilingual, multicultural and multi-religious; and increasingly multinational. They’re also multi-vocal because of the democratic nature and belief of many voices but not a single exclusive vision.

There’re many  colours in the Fijian rainbow too. I’ve seen it across the Nadi Bay in absolute perfection, embracing mountains and ocean-waves, and over green fields.

It’s here that the literature, above all art forms, contributes most positively and critically to the emerging values of a society. Writers are at the vanguard of this movement, especially in the postcolonial world. They give us both a sense of the past and reflect the present to light up the  possibilities of the future. They are critical and creative simultaneously.


National Trust

For these and many other reasons, Fiji needs a National Trust for Books and the Arts, to be supported by both the Government and philanthropic donors. There are several remarkable books that need to be edited, introduced and printed and sold cheaply to our students and general readers. An equally important readership is among the thousands of visitors who come to Fiji and return with not only pleasant memories but reading materials for their children and friends.

Those of us who write, and Fiji has a remarkable crop of writers, journalists, scholars, know that our books are bought more by the Fijian diaspora and visitors than by any other groups inside or outside Fiji.One gets emails from readers and students from far-off lands. It makes a writer, no matter how small, happy that someone somewhere is reading his or her work. And there are scholars writing their theses on these writings.

The Fijian experience, through the mist of memories and fog of coups, makes Fiji an unenviable attractive place to visit, read and write about. No country in the South Seas offers one such a variety of experiences—with its heartbreaking history and heart-warming hope.

It may be an idea for one of our institutions to edit and republish some the works by our writers and thinkers for our children and citizens first; and then to our visitors and the children of the diasporan. In our digital world, this could be a great gift for future generations.


Anthology of Fijian writing

I thought of this only because I’m soon embarking on a journey of half a dozen cities where I’d be giving talks and readings. I wanted to take one book on Fiji as a gift to my hosts—An Anthology of Fijian Writings—but none seems to meet my needs.

USP will soon be celebrating its 50th anniversary. Perhaps it’s time to compile a comprehensive anthology of writers’ writings. It should be on the shelf of every home and every library. Or better still if it’s done by the Fiji National University with substantial help from the Ministry of Education where we now have an educated minister.

Feedback: josuat@fijisun.com.fj


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