Opinion

Memories Of Shri Vivekananda

Professor Satendra Nandan is a former student of Shri Vivekananda High School on the banks of the Nadi river. After his graduation in Delhi, he returned and taught at his
01 Nov 2015 10:30
Memories Of  Shri Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda, “patron saint” of Shri Vivekananda High School.

Professor Satendra Nandan is a former student of Shri Vivekananda High School on the banks of the Nadi river. After his graduation in Delhi, he returned and taught at his alma mater for three years, before joining USP in 1969.

Shri Vivekananda High School was founded in 1949; I studied there in the 1950s. The school was in two corrugated tin-sheds with floors of rough, uneven concrete. There were thin bamboo partitions between the class-rooms. The singing and teaching in one classroom was heard in the other. The school was on the town-bank of the Nadi river : our green and golden days by the river were spent watching boys and girls from the koro across diving into its pristine waters. When the river flooded, the muddy waters flowed into our classrooms, much to our delight; the school was closed for days.

The wooden Nadi Bridge under the swirling waters was a sight to see with uprooted raintrees entangled in it. But we were often helped by young boys from the koro in their boats to cross the flooded river to the other side to attend the school and prepare for the Senior Cambridge examination.

Mr Bhaskaran Iyer was determined to take his class in chemistry, rain or shine, flood or fire. He was one of our wonderful teachers, well-versed in literature and science. He’d joined the school from Madras.

Next to the tin-sheds was a temple with drawings of multi-coloured peacocks, lotus flowers, gods and goddesses standing on a few prostrate demons. Around midday, the worshippers came  from the one-street town with sweat-meats on copper plates : laddoos, gulab-jamuns, halwa, jelebis. Some of us were lucky enough to get a handful from very pretty hands.

Attached to the  school sheds was a hostel , with concrete floors, on it hard -wooden beds on which slept the hostel boys from Labasa, Tavua, Rakiraki, Sigatoka, Lautoka and Suva had their own secondary schools.

Shri Vivekananda was the first such school created by the remarkable Ramakrishna Mission for the children and grandchildren of indentured Indian workers, small-town shopkeepers, CSR Company’s labourers, and minor luminaries from around the Nadi International Airport.

It was a pioneering institution started by Swami Rudrananda and his companion Mr A D Patel. Both were profoundly political individuals inspired by the freedom movement of India’s struggle for independence. India, though physically distant, was close to Fiji Indians, perhaps more than in any other Indian community of the empires. Free India was a real presence in our lives: we celebrated every festival in the school with music and bhajans, with the speeches of Gandhi and Nehru, although Gandhi was gone before the school began. All the festivals were happy and colourful, full of gaiety and not tragedy—this is quite remarkable when India, one was told, was full of so many sorrows and suffering.

SVHS was, I feel, the jewel in the Nadi Town’s crown. I’ve written about it in some detail in my two books Nadi: Memories of a River and Requiem for a Rainbow. Other schools mushroomed later but none occupied the pioneering position of this school and its Vedantic vision.

Swami Rudrananda was always ready to expound his Vedanta philosophy to rustic Indian kids from many villages and smaller towns of Fiji who were more worried about grazing their cows in the evening sunset and hoeing their vegetable gardens or helping in their parents’ shops. Philosophy didn’t seem to matter much at that time. Nevertheless, Swamiji used to come to the school, harangue us for an endless hour or more and then depart to some other important mission. He seemed to me to be a man of action and words.

My most prominent school mate was Vijendra Kumar, three years senior to me but he was a tall hero for us—the only person to have got a Distinction in English in the Senior Cambridge examination. And it was a truly distinctive achievement when you consider so many bright students fell by the wayside because they failed to get a ‘pass’ in English.

To me now it seems what a blasphemy this was in our education system. Vijendra Kumar was to become the first local editor of the only daily then, The Fiji Times, founded in 1869. For decades the daily had both the monopoly of freedom and power without much responsibility.

The Swami tried to establish The Pacific Review weekly but it never quite took off, albeit it became the training ground for several subsequently prominent journalists of Fiji.

My most well-known classmate was Hari Punja, a well-read person whose favourite author was F J Thwaites. Several Vivekanandans later changed the political landscape of Fiji—the seeds were sown by AD Patel and his companion Swami Rudrananda.

The school also started the Ramakrishna Library in Nadi town. It was in an upstairs building and we used to spend our Saturday afternoons there with the librarian Mr Krishnamurti. He was always immaculately dressed with a starched Gandhi cap on his learned head, and a red mark scrawled on his shining forehead. Mr Krishnamurti introduced many of us to the classics of English Literature.

Every novel of Charles Dickens was in the library; every play of Shakespeare was staring at us from the shelves. Unfortunately we, at least I, didn’t read much. But I did read John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost from cover to cover without understanding even a page. Two decades later I went back to it when I heard a lecture at the University of Leeds  by F R Leavis, the eminent critic who believed in the centrality of humanity in literary texts and who decried the idea of Two Cultures in our modern life—that is, Science and Humanities, as two separate disciplines.

Despite the open policies of the school, however, during the early years there were hardly any iTaukei students. Every class was full of students from a variety of Indian communities. In my form we were 88 of us sitting under the tin-shed , with heat emanating from the sugar-cane fields.

The fees for a term was seven pounds plus an annual building fund fee of ten pounds.

Swamiji collected enough funds to start building a new school at Malolo, away from the Nadi River which flooded with wild and wanton abandon every year.

The land at Malolo was generously donated by the CSR company in recognition of the Swami’s  contribution to the sugar industry and the CSR’s debt to the farmers and their children. It’s now the famous, forward-looking Shri Vivekananda College.

SVHS had some extraordinary principals: the first was Mr K S Reddy, a Fiji-born teacher. K S became a colonial politician and later joined the Alliance Party. I met K S in Melbourne many years later—his memory was phenomenal and I regret none of his children or grandchildren recorded the old man’s stories of Fiji and his role in Fijian politics.

His anecdotal life would have made a fascinating narrative.

The school, I think, was very lucky in its second principal Mr P N D Moosad, MA, LT. He’d come from Kerala and like many genuinely educated people of India, he was, with his Masters degree, better educated than anyone I’d met from nearer home. He was also a very well-read man. It’s through him we learnt to write and read English.

Some of us were also lucky in a new teacher, Mr Ram Harak Mahabir, who had arrived from New Zealand with a degree in English.

This was a rare achievement at the time. Mr Mahabir was always dressed in stiffly starched clothes with a red tie shining in the Nadi sun. He cut a rather colourful, dandy figure walking the main street of Nadi Town with his black umbrella open on his balding head.

Swami Vivekananda, the “patron saint” of the school, was a scholar and an orator. Through his numerous speeches and writings, he attempted to awaken the conscience of Indians and also their common consciousness. He had ‘a tongue of fire’ not to burn or malign but to ignite the imagination of a nation, long suppressed by shallow, superstitious spirituality.

He had come under the revolutionary influence of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a Christian, reminding him of a rich and diverse heritage that was their shared patrimony.

In a people who had developed a deeply damaging complex, he was determined to instill self-respect and self-esteem. The message of the universal civilisation was his message: from Calcutta to Chicago.

He gave to the Indians a new vision, a new voice and a new breath— and a creatively new idea of themselves.

He was profoundly critical of the maze in which Indians had lost their way—the caste system. He said the worst word that the Hindu invented was ‘melicha’—the untouchable, polluted. When India had opened its doors to the winds of the world, it was a civilization worthy of respect, even imitation. But when it closed its mind to new ideas and dialogic encounters with other cultures and peoples, it became a victim of many kinds of colonial subjugation and complexes. And lost its philosophical quintessence of letting ideas blow freely into the great Indian mansion as rivers flow into the ocean.

SVHS school tried to instil this into us. But like all institutions and individuals we, too, were limited by our time and place, distance and difference.

There are individuals and institutions that make permanent and significant impact on our lives.

For me, an individual whose life has been shaped by many individuals, the institution that gave me the first glimpses of a new world and a new reality was Shri Vivekananda. But for this secondary school, the trajectory of my life would have gone in a totally different direction.

My two younger brothers studied there too; my third brother went to Natabua. My deepest regret is that my eldest brother and the two older sisters didn’t have the opportunity to go to a secondary school. There were none for their generation.

It sounds incredible to think I was the first in my family from time immemorial to read the first book in English. And what a difference that has made to my and my children’s lives.

Years later when I sat in a modern café listening to the din and hubbub of Nadi Town, watching the new concrete bridge, people walking on one side as big cars drove over it, and the sludgy river flowing underneath, and the site of the school overgrown with grass, I remembered the lines:

 

My fiftieth year had come and gone

I sat, a solitary man,

In a crowded Nadi shop,

An  open book and empty cup

On a marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed

My body of a sudden blazed;

And twenty minutes more or less

It seemed, so great my happiness,

That I was blessed and could bless.

 

This, too, was a gift from Shri Vivekananda High School.

Feedbackjyotip@fijisun.com.fj

 



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