Opinion

Satendra Nandan

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan’s new book, ‘Loving you Eternally: From Nadi to New Delhi’, will be published later this year. Ours is an age of images. Never before in
26 Mar 2016 13:11
Satendra Nandan
fijisun.com.fj

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan’s new book, ‘Loving you Eternally: From Nadi to New Delhi’, will be published later this year.

Ours is an age of images. Never before in human history, the human consciousness has been bombarded, so mercilessly with so many images.

Indeed the image is so powerful and pervasive that we’ve a poor grasp of the realities around us.

We create and live in fantasies – Star Wars, Mad Max, Superman, Spiderman; the web of Hollywood and Bollywood mistaken for the clash of civilisations –  and fantastic fictions of all kinds including myths of religion and race. As if magic realism is essential for us to grasp the basics of some horrifying happenings.

We’re no longer mere spectators: we become participants and our lives are affected as the tides are by the moon.

We cling to them tenaciously, mendaciously. Image is the message and imaging reveals the body’s ailments and ruptures too.

From satellites to social media – ‘my world is in my Applephone’, the world is no longer an oyster, – we’re beamed much that happens to our planet, even while it’s happening. There’s just no escape from these instant news requiring instantaneous responses, even as we sip instant coffee, mug after mug.

Wars, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, displacements, and dispossessions are common in a world of over seven billion people and still counting.

But the image that remains eternally in the deepest recesses of my mind is that of a baby in the manger. In that one single and singular image is summarised, so much of our naked history. And it continues to challenge our deepest humanity.

It has been drummed into us through arts and sciences, music and sculpture, archeology and architecture.

European imagination has been most protean for almost 2000 years generated by that one unforgettable, indefinable image of a baby born in the manger, because there was no room in the inn. It’s transfigured later into the ubiquity and uniqueness of the Cross.

Innocence is infectious – why else would Europe be so spectacularly scandalised by Alan Kurdi’s photo –  that three-year-old drowned child’s body washed up on a sandy shore, and so tenderly lifted by a coast guard. Thousands had perished in those waters before that child in the insatiable Aegean Sea.

But it did touch something in us like that naked Vietnamese girl, years ago, running from the burning napalm bombs. Then some of us were students and we thought like students. Now we see the world darkly through our dark glasses.

European Union has around 600 million people in its 28 countries. It is the most significant development in a world torn by so many homicidal conflicts for centuries. It has survived some difficult economic times in its generally peaceful  co-existence for over three scores and 10 years.

The current refugee exodus is perhaps Europe’s biggest challenge since the Second World War and after the Cold War. Most contemporary Europeans haven’t experienced living in war-torn nations created after the Second World War. Wars for them now happens in other places and to other peoples.

The abandoned rubber dinghies lie on the rocky seashores, but the ceaseless sea of humanity keeps flowing relentlessly.

All the stashed monies of dictators in Swiss banks and secret accounts is now a heavy price to pay and nothing can stem the tide of migration. But with globalisation and internet, even ordinary people know where the good life is like money is always in the banks.

The current refugee crisis in Europe has shaken some of the inclusive values of several societies.

Partially European reaction is one of xenophobia and partly it is religious prejudice, that have created these displaced peoples and dislocated communities. They now challenge the very definitions of human rights, asylum seekers, refugees, and displaced human beings. And how the rich world must care for the poor : prosperity and  peace are profoundly interlinked.

The consequences of knee-jerk reactions to terrorism have been disastrous. It gave birth to some of the most monstrous  jihadists like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It has led tragically to the radicalisation of many who touch the shores of every country like cyclonic winds in an archipelago. From Ankara to New York,  London to Paris, Jakarta to Madrid,  New Delhi to Brussels , the narrative of this vile violence is the same.

And yet it would be our myopic understanding to conflate and confuse the terrible terrorists with the helpless refugees.

The immediate consequence is the desperate journeys of the refugees  and ‘migrants’ across borders from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Pakistan. And certain parts of North Africa. The streams are endless and the suffering deepens daily.

The response from European Union, barring a couple of honourable exceptions, has been disturbingly disappointing: the images of walls of barbed wires, guards with dogs and guns, commandos, pirates, smugglers, parents with little children, young men and women pushing the carts of their old and disabled. And on the dark, rocky shores  the abandoned boats and plastic detritus left by the fleeing refugees on the edges  of one of the  world’s most powerful civilisations .

Yet, no civilisation knows more about refugees and migrants than the European. It gave us Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin, and Generalissimo Franco  who inspired fascists as far as South America and Africa. The list is long and unremitting.

And yet the most moving answer has come out of Germany. As if its national guilt of the past found  redemption in the grief-stricken people of the present. The world was once burnt due to anti-Semitism;  today it’s bombed primarily against anti-Muslimism. A handful of militants have hijacked the thinking of  more than half the world. But Chancellor Angela Merkel is undeterred.

Decent nations seem worried about the cultural impact of the arrival of refugees more than the bombs dropped on the countries from which the refugees, are fleeing with their paltry belongings to safe refuge of more civilised places.

Are these refugees too many to be accommodated with decency, dignity and understanding of which European culture boasts and incessantly proselytises? European population is in decline – they need labour; they need people who’ll do their work in an ageing  citizenry and grow the economy. Europe went all over the world, once it discovered the world was round. Its prosperity was achieved through conquests and the ‘ civilising missions’.

Europe sent its poor and neglected to many parts of the world through conquests and quests for a better life for them. In the flotsam of imperialism, 60,000 indentured came to Fiji; 160,000 ‘convicts’ were imprisoned in Australia.

I recall in the early 1970s when the East Pakistan crisis was reaching the genocidal boiling point, India accommodated almost 10million refugees across its borders. No-one, who sought shelter from a murderous army, was refused a place. The government of India and its people raised the price of postage stamps to pay for the huge expenditures involved.

I was a student then in the UK and we watched on our black and white TV screens the brutalities of a rapacious army. Finally India intervened: Indira Gandhi prepared the ground for that intervention so methodically and compellingly that when the 90,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered, there was a sense of relief.

The Indian army freed a nation of 80 million people in less than a month – quite a feat when you consider we’ve been in Iraq for almost 15 years with world powers and their weaponry.

This Easter is our time for contemplation of compassion.

We’ve been blessed, so far. Only a few weeks ago, a thoughtful friend of mine in Suva was suggesting that Fiji is the safest place in the world. I was inclined to agree. Then came Tropical Cyclone Winston.

It’s sad that in the South Pacific, refugees are confined to Manus Island and Nauru. Many have been there for years : the South Pacific has become vulnerable to this kind of greed-for-dollars arrangements.

The more humane solutions  to the refugee exodus are there, both in Europe and in Australasia. They needn’t be detained in exotic locations – out of sight, out of mind.

We need to think harder than we bomb the cities from where they take their flight to unknown destinations, with courage and hope, parents and children.

On Palm Sunday, every major city showed that Australia had a place for the refugees: it was an inspiring day of hope and compassion and fellow-feeling.

There’s, I believe, plenty of room in the Inn.

As a postscript, I might add: the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote a poem ‘Easter 1916’: its centenary is being marked this year. I ,too, wrote one titled ‘Easter ’88’. It was written soon after the coups of ’87 in memory of Timoci Bavadra.

When I met Mr Sitiveni Rabuka, 20 years later, I gave him a copy of my book of poetry, The Loneliness of Islands. Mr Rabuka wrote a redemptive response to the poem. I give details of that encounter in my book of essays Brief Encounters in an essay titled ‘Writing to the Colonel’.

When the Easter sun rises, things do brighten up and the radiant image and reality become One, albeit  too briefly.  The Yeats poem’s haunting refrain is:

All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

 

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