Brief Encounters: Literature And Beyond

Professor Don Aitkin, a former Vice-Chancellor and Chair of the National Capital Authority, foundation Chair of Australian Research Council, a novelist and columnist, launched Satendra Nandan’s book on Wednesday, November
29 Nov 2015 10:34
Brief Encounters:  Literature And Beyond

Professor Don Aitkin, a former Vice-Chancellor and Chair of the National Capital Authority, foundation Chair of Australian Research Council, a novelist and columnist, launched Satendra Nandan’s book on Wednesday, November 25 at the Paperchain Bookshop, Canberra.

I think that this is the second book of Satendra Nandan that I’m launching in the past two years and you could infer correctly from this that he and I are friends, and that I like his books.
Satendra Nandan is a most unusual man, a gifted writer who is at ease in poetry, novels, plays, criticism and essays, the ease not reflecting the fact that English was not his native language.
He is unusual also in that he was born in Fiji, the son of an Indian peasant farmer, a teacher, a PhD from ANU, a Professor at UC, a constitutional commissioner, a visiting academic all round the world, and the winner of many awards. It is an honour for me to launch this book and present its author to you.
Brief Encounters: Literature and Beyond is a book of essays, Satendra’s third such collection, all of them published before, mostly in newspapers and journals. That means they are relatively short, and accessible to all of us. They are very personal.
What flows from them is the perspective of a passionate humanist, interested above all in the life journey of the human being. I learned a lot by reading the book, and I learned more about its author, too. I also picked up some lovely one-liners, some of them his, and some of them from others, often the great ones of my lifetime.
I think my job here is to give you a taste of the book, but not too much of a taste, because all authors are interested in sales as well!
There is an excellent essay on the Indian diaspora. I had not previously thought about the fact that there are Indians everywhere in the world: they are as spread out as Australians, and much more abundant, too. In that essay Satendra remarks that ‘the idea of ‘discovery’ is deeply suspect’.
Bang! I remembered a history lesson when I was about ten years old. The explorer Sturt and his party were seriously short of water, and watched from a distance as an Aboriginal man walked towards a line of trees in the far distance. They followed him and, said, the teacher, Sturt discovered the Darling River! But, I thought at the time, the Aborigine knew it was there all the time. But I didn’t say anything.
Here is a little thought of Pandit Nehru, most apposite to our time: ‘cultured people don’t talk of “culture”; they simply live it.’
One of Satendra’s: ‘A place is never desolate — it’s full of life, visible and invisible, where stones can sing and deserts can bloom. The desolation is really in the landscape of our hearts’.
I was not aware that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had decided against awarding Mahatma Gandhi its award. As so often happens, I simply assumed that he had been awarded it. But when Gandhi was assassinated, no Prize was awarded in that year as a respect for this apostle of peace.
Satendra writes very well on electoral malpractice, a matter that greatly interests me. And at the end of that essay he has a little quatrain that he attributes to journalists, though I think it comes from another profession, that of the weather forecaster:
Among life’s dying embers
These are my regrets:
When I’m right no one remembers.
When I’m wrong no one forgets.
There’s a lovely essay on the making of the film Gandhi, and in it there is this striking remark from the screenwriter: ‘I have tried to show Gandhi’s unsentimental honesty about the complexity of men and his unshakable belief that they are marginally inclined to good rather than evil … on that slight imbalance they can build and achieve and perhaps survive — even in a nuclear age.’
That is my belief also. I hope I am right.
I am someone who sees societies changing slowly, and I fear rapid social change, for the most part. The costs usually outweigh the benefits. And when someone, like a feminist or an Aboriginal spokesperson, says that ‘nothing has changed’, I want to remind them of what it was like fifty years ago, when I was young.
Satendra unearthed a lovely Martin Luther King quote to that end, though it was an old slave preacher whose words he used: ‘We ain’t what we ought to be and we ain’t what we want to be and we ain’t what we’re going to be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.’
On fiction and non-fiction, here is Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel Prize winner, this time for literature: ‘Non-fiction uses fact to help us see the lies. Fiction uses metaphor to help us see the truth.’
Here is Satendra on ‘the four priceless gifts of England to the world I’ve known and lived in — the English language, poetry, parliament and the creation of a book culture’. I’d agree with that. And another one-liner: ‘Human beings cannot bear too much reality.’ Amen to that, too.
There were things I didn’t agree with. I think Satendra undervalues the changes that occurred during the Prime Ministership of Sir Robert Menzies, which included, among other things, the building of the National Capital and the elevation of higher education into a form of intellectual infrastructure from which both Satendra and I have benefitted personally, as has our country.
And I think he is just wrong about ‘climate change’, but I am glad to say that it is not at all an important theme in his book.
I finish with one of the few very funny moments in what is a serious book. Satendra was one of the Constitutional Commissioners in Fiji not so long ago, and that enabled him to visit towns and villages, where, as a dignitary but more, as a published Fijian author, he was held in high regard. I’ll let him speak on:
‘Everywhere I went, unknown people came to me and greeted me with genuine warmth, saying “ Sir, we thought you died a long time ago.”
“But I’m still here, very much alive!’
“Oh. We’re very sorry sir!”

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