A Season For Glittering Prizes

Professor Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. His latest book, Brief Encounters, was launched last week in Canberra. His contact is One of the joys of browsing through the
30 Nov 2015 09:51
A Season For Glittering Prizes
Satendra Nandan

Professor Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. His latest book, Brief Encounters, was launched last week in Canberra. His contact is

One of the joys of browsing through the Fiji Sun online of the last few weeks has been to see the bright faces of many young students with their prizes from their schools and colleges.
The pride of their parents and relatives is equally inspiring. It’s wonderful to see the brightening pages in the media filled these students and their shared achievements.
There are of course many others who don’t get any prizes but they are no less important to their family; they, like most of us, go on to make their mark wherever they live. Adolescence is just one phase of life and all achievements are ephemeral, except that lived life.
The students’ accomplishments are valued both in the schools and among their family and friends. In my primary school days every student was given a prize, usually a book, a pencil and a packet of lollies. I often got more than most and shared with a couple of my primary school friends, one now living in Melbourne, the other in Auckland, both, in a sense, richer than me.
But when I joined a secondary school I was totally lost between them. The first year went playing cards under the rain-trees; it’s only in the second year that I began studying and the competition was stiff. Somehow in my final year at the SVHS I did rather well and got half a dozen prizes including the Principal’s Prize, donated by the Desai Bookshop.
One of my teachers called me a ‘dark horse’; he was a fair man named Shantilal Patel and I thought he was referring to my rustic colour!
This pattern followed in Form VI at Natabua and until I completed my Honours degree at Delhi. Since then there have been so many other rewards and awards. Like any parent I also share in the joy of our children’s achievements. A prize is a shared reward among parents, teachers, siblings, relatives, friends, classmates and the school. It also about memories.
One memorable prize I won was the Best Director’s for producing a scene from a Shakespearean play. It was the ‘Quarrel Scene’ from Julius Caesar. My friends and professors were all astonished that someone from Fiji could produce a play and win the Best Director’s prize in a Delhi University college. The prize was small but it led to life-long friendships and interests in reading and films.
But none of these exceed the joy of receiving the prizes during my Senior Cambridge class. I remember the evening vividly and with an aching nostalgia. The ache is not for the days gone by—or that my parents and auntie are all gone. It’s in the natural order of human existence that the old go and new ones come into being—the old order changeth yielding place to new.
What saddened me is that when I was living in Nadi for six years from 2006-12, I’d only one classmate left in that progressive town. All others had migrated or transmigrated. And we were 88 of us in that first year under that tin-shed near the temple across the broken wooden Nadi bridge.
1956 is almost 60 years ago. But that Prizegiving ceremony at SVHS was the limelight of our lives. Parents came from the town and villages dressed in the most colourful clothes as if it was a festival .And there was always a Guest Speaker, usually an officer of from the colony’s Ministry of Education or a District Officer from Nadi or Lautoka.
The programme began around 4 pm with ‘God Save the Queen’ and a bhajan.The principal Mr P N D Moosad gave his Principal’s report, in considerable detail and in flawless English. Many parents didn’t understand the language but no matter: the Principal was speaking and they listened to him with rapt attention as if a priest was chanting incomprehensible mantras at a ceremony. It all sounded so official and true.
Thus I remember that evening on the banks of the Nadi river which ended three hours later. Every class got its three prizes, mainly books bought at Desai Bookshop in the one-street town. Most of these were donated by townspeople and former students.
It’s a great and grateful wonder how SVHS was supported by the business community, a few Nadi professionals, and the farmers and labourers from the many villages in the vicinity of a generous place.
My parents had travelled with me from Legalega village with my mausi-auntie accompanying us. I’d won around half a dozen prizes including a medal for a Hindi essay, published in Jagriti.
Mr Tikambhai enconsed at his Votualevu shop had that week bought several copies of the bi-weekly and every time I visited his shop with his son Shannu, he gave me a lolly and scolded his son to go and read. Mr Tikambhai sometimes paid for my textbooks and loaned money to my father to pay the school fees. When the ‘Bank-day’ for farmers arrived, all the accumulated debts were paid in full.
Mr Tikambhai wrote everything in his neat Gujarati hand and showed pages of it to my father who knew only a few words of Hindi but seemingly scrutinized every page with keen interest. The trust between the shopkeeper and the customer was absolute. One’s word was one’s word.
After my father paid the debt accumulated over a whole year for foodstuffs and fees, Mrs Tikambhai would make us a cup of tea and offer us some sweetmeats which my father and I relished, sitting on the wooden shutters laid out on the shop’s verandah.
In my book, Nadi: Memories of a River, I’ve written a couple of pages on that evening at SVHS on the banks of that beloved river:
After I completed the Senior Cambridge examination, we’d our School’s prizegiving ceremony.I remember the evening vividly. Father, Mother and one of my maternal aunties, mausi, had taken the bus from near the airport after trudging two miles in the dust and afternoon sun to the main road to catch Taki’s bus to the town.
Father was dressed in grey trousers, blue shirt, with a thick brown leather belt given to him by Lallu, the shoemaker, who had his shoe-shop next to the airport. Lallu and Father had two things in common: confronting bellies of substantial dimensions and their taste in belts. The brotherhood of bellies was not uncommon among our people: often when people greeted one another at weddings, their bellies met first.
My auntie was dressed in white, a thin lady with the wiry strength of a tamarind tree. Mother, her younger sister, was dressed in a green saree, white blouse and dusty sandals with a nose ring gleaming in the evening sun. The two sisters were as close as rainbows to rain.
The prizegiving ceremony was the most important annual ceremony in the town, I think. The colourfully decorated hall was full of parents and students. My tall father sat among the town’s people with his solar hat on his head.
Swamiji was the main speaker and he spoke after the principal’s report. He always had philosophical things to say, quoting lines from the Gita, and the crowd clapped loudly after he finished his rather long speech. I think the clapping was more an appreciation that the speech had ended, rather than for the content which I suspect few understood.
We, as students, were more interested in the prizes—and as each student received his or her prize, we clapped and clapped under the martinet supervision of Mr Moosad. As I was in the senior-most form, my name was called last by Mr V D Sharma, one of our kindest teachers. To my embarrassment my Father stood up, took off his hat, and stared at Swamiji.
My Mother said ‘Tum Sit’ and he suddenly sat down. I stepped on to the dais and received my handful of prizes.
That evening my father decided we will go home in a taxi. Pritu, his friend, had arranged one. It was the first time I was travelling in a taxi with my parents.
Out of that experience and later buying my first pair of shoes at Lallu’s came my short story A Pair of Black Shoes written when I was reading for my doctoral degree, eighteen years later.
The books I received as my prizes are no longer with me. Nor are my friends who were my companions for four years. Affter my first two degrees in Delhi, I returned and joined SVHS. Mr Moosad was still the principal and I taught one of his two sons.
Two of my students, of the class of ’63, brothers both, remain my closest friends in Fiji. One of them is a writer.
Seeing the young students’ pictures in the daily Fiji Sun brought back many memories of my school days. I hope the many prizes being given to these students, a country’s pride and future, include books by Fijian writers also.
But the most moving thing is to see how these students dedicate their prizes to their parents and members of their family, some standing with them, some gone forever.
And to think the media is giving so much importance and space to these students is to appreciate the creative freedom of the press in a most positive way.

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