Writing: A Point Of View

This is an edited version of a talk given by Fiji’s leading writer Professor Satendra Nandan at Cumberland Lodge, London; it’s being published next year in a book. Professor Nandan’s
04 Dec 2015 09:20
Writing: A Point Of View
Satendra Nandan

This is an edited version of a talk given by Fiji’s leading writer Professor Satendra Nandan at Cumberland Lodge, London; it’s being published next year in a book. Professor Nandan’s latest book, Brief Encounters, was launched last month in Canberra.

The inheritance of indentured diasporic writers’ narrative is created out of the dislocated psyche of the twice-banished: it’s primarily rooted in the experience of one hundred years of servitude. Indenture was, to many, a new system of slavery with an expiry date. Peasants, who for millennia hadn’t travelled beyond a few miles of their mud-huts, were cozened, recruited and transported across oceans and continents to many parts of empires as girmityas– a word sometimes can contain a thousand pictures.
In Natal, South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi grew up among them; he became a man with a mission and acquired the sobriquet of mahatma. Vidia Naipaul from the island of Trinidad created an unsettling world with words uniquely his own but his perception of this deception in a deracinated destiny lay in the adventure of indenture of his illiterate ancestors.

Going back
The journeys of history take us backwards— a world one cannot change but it’s there like a mountain hidden in fog of the untouchable past. That is why perhaps India has such an appeal for many: its past is deep and dark hymned in mantras that fall like cataracts below Mount Everest and become rivers of life itself.
Going back into one’s self, family, relationships or country; the search for a habitus, history and home, are the multiple themes.
They’re reflected in the minutiae of the realities of our lives that intersect daily. It is only now that many of us are beginning to understand how these intertwine with the destiny and destinations of peoples in other places. Dislocation and dispossession are Siamese-twins of all empires.
Writers’ going back is also contingent on how they were first forced out into the exilic archipelagos of other worlds.
This deepening awareness adds an edge of grief to our daily existence– grief so common that you see it in the trembling of a sugar-cane leaf. It keeps flowing like some subterranean stream.
Then one clings to remembered relationships for support, sustenance, reassurance and resources one does not quite possess in a dispossessed situation.

Surrogate country
The body of the other becomes your surrogate country; a country snatched away under ethnic excuses; more truthfully for brute power and racial politics of the postcolonial kind, without kindness. It is really power without responsibility to other lives.
The writer then clutches at sounds; having lost the sounds of his childhood, he clings to the voices of his children, and their new friends, their songs, goodbyes and quarrels. But their songs are not your songs.
Then when the curtain is drawn and the autumn sunlight fills the room, you see a rose blooming from a twig you had planted last year, a magpie fluttering its wing on the iron balustrade, complaining in a human voice in the cul-de-sac that defines your mortgaged home.
A sense of belonging returns in small fragments, like drops of blood from a drip. And birds sing not because they have any answers but because they have their songs.
Often you’ll be told that you’re in a better place, but how can you explain to well-meaning friends that many people of natal country, now scattered in many parts of the world, are all in search of a home.
Even an exile has a country to be exiled from. Many didn’t have the luxury; they are always on the broken road, traversed by their girmit ancestors.
Their children and grandchildren will build better houses and live more comfortably than Mohun Biswas but how will they carry the dust of burial or the ashes of cremation of their parents or great grandparents?
A house is not the country of one’s birth; it is the garment but not the body of human breath and blood.
All they sometimes carry is their children’s plastic toys in battered and borrowed suitcases; what they cannot regain is the soil that they dug, or the trees they planted, the piece of earth they played on, or the streams they swam in.
The memories are multitudinous and the losses of a place are unnumbered as the waves on the seashore rolling empty seashells, erasing yesterday’s footprints.
For many, this rupture happened in Fiji. The rust of subtle racism had corroded so many nuts and bolts of our societal structures. And more than things fell apart.

Writing-on inner hope
Writing then gives you an inner hope, even when one is writing about despair. Often it is other lives that affirm your existence, whether they are your neighbours or characters from some old narrative.
An occasional thought, a remembered touch, a distant memory, all fall into the sentences and paragraphs: the structures of reality, which we build with the bricks of words.
It is in the act of writing that one really finds the depth of one’s honesty, the limitations of one’s version of truth. Writing can be as lyrical as love-making and equally solitary in its utter nakedness.
I’m personally sceptical of words like ‘identity’ and ‘nationality’ in literature: they are the mammoth monoliths that dominate and dissect our lives and often even displace us.
The writer in my mind must be seen to be nibbling at these like a little mouse making a hole in the hill or a salt-laden wave finally engulfing a morsel of the island.
The loneliness of an island is a writer’s fate. The sea is always there, life-giving, life-taking.
If you stumble upon a seashell of illumination or a driftwood of truth, you are lucky. In one’s writing one tries to be truthful: profoundly personal, but not necessarily autobiographical.
For a writer’s life contains many lives: lives lived, loved, imagined, read, created and even the lost lives of friends and neighbours.
One is constantly writing in the dust of absences watered by tears of remembrances. Dead lives live in lines of poetry, in the touch of vanished things.
One is walking on the seashore picking up these pebbles of memory, and throwing them back into the indifferent waves, but out of the solitude of the sea a memory, like a leaping, shining fish, might trigger a piece of writing about a childhood friend.
A torn piece from a wrecked ship would reveal more crooked timbers from a shattered world.

Writer without a country is painful
Then a writer begins to make sense of the silences, he sees reflected in the ripples of his own life and losses. And in love’s many shapeless forms of loss and longings.
The fate of a writer without a country is particularly painful. We’ve long been aware of the crippling sorrow of displacement, of being cut off from one’s place of birth.
We knew we were damaged, having been banished even from Mother India. We had broken bread with people who betrayed us with the casual brutality of brothers.
There is nothing like a bloodless coup; how much blood do you see in the breaking of a heart or the long goodbye at an airport?
The more one thought of it, the deeper became the wounds and out of that blood I find several writers creating their work, making visible all the pain and persecution in a paradise.
Maybe the corruption of the imagination is essential before someone will produce a magnificent novel or an epic poem or simply an unforgettable lyric. The past for many of us is not a foreign country; it was our only country with left-thumb marks.
All writing finally leads to self-knowledge. Colonial education gave us the twin tyrannies of distance and difference in an alien tongue; we scarcely knew about ourselves and others.

Writing-neccessary for heading
Writing was necessary; the healing had to be first within. The politics of dispossession can paralyse all creativity because it tears out the centre of peace from which writing grows in a tumultuous world.
Language is, of course, a major concern for me. English is my second language: I came to it quite late in life; I learnt it from teachers whose mother tongue was not English.
It didn’t come to me naturally, as leaves to a tree. So I am aware of the difficulties in using it, especially creatively.
English, of course, has a genius of its own, its own dynamics of borrowings and impurities: if only people could appreciate its openness, accommodation, hybridity and diversity. One of the great joys of knowing English is reading books, many in translations; it has opened worlds to me, including an island continent.
Writers ought to use this language as a weapon to create awareness about their people, just as dictators use western weapons to silence their peoples. Writers can liberate their readers with the power of words; free them not only in the political sense but, more importantly, in the personal. Words are slow but sure and certain.
Sentences are the sunlight of life illuminating more than ruins. No matter if a writer is writing about a world we know little about, we feel he or she is making an enduring contribution to our conversation about our world and our lives.
A writer’s work is to go back and regain the lost paradise even if he/she shows us there was no paradise in the first place.
Life and literature should deepen our understanding of each other. That is the gift, to me, of literatures in English. We get a sense of the varied, multiple realities of the world. No other language has such a wide reach as English.
As a small writer from a small country, I am beginning to see its value. One must write to give breath to the words that open the windows of the house one lives in, and draw apart curtains that have been closed too long.
Writing is about opening doors, especially for the Other. And if your luck holds, you’ll discover that Other within yourself.

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