As he began telling Raj of his clandestine meetings with Shanta, Raj slipped under the brown blanket and slept a dreamless sleep – a sky without stars. Next morning
31 Mar 2016 09:30
Satendra Nandan


 As he began telling Raj of his clandestine meetings with Shanta, Raj slipped under the brown blanket and slept a dreamless sleep – a sky without stars.

Next morning Raj went to the Nadi Post Office, a wooden building, and bought a two-penny green stamp from a greying Mr Nair with our new Queen’s lovely portrait on it, licked the stamp and posted the card. Then in Taki’s rickety old bus, with Taki driving it himself, Raj went home to his village, little realising that he had made a large gesture in his life.

Raj has mail

One evening in January, his neighbour Nathu, who worked as a watchman at the airport rubbish tip, told Raj that he’d seen a letter addressed to him at Nataly’s shop – the local postal agency. Raj thought perhaps it was a letter from Principal Ratu Reddy telling him of the dreaded results but that wasn’t due for another couple of months from our Queen’s country. Besides, they were always broadcast over the local radio – a great honour if you passed the highest examination of the land especially one set in England. The names of the schools were also given – a clever way of informing the public which were the better schools.

Ratu had remarked, ‘Why not name the principals, too?’

Raj rode his cousin Ramu’s bike to Nataly’s shop near the edge of the airport. Mrs Nataly, a round, smooth-face woman of about forty, got the letter out of a pile and handed it to him with a smile. The writing on the envelope was elegant and stylish. Certainly not Ratu’s scrawl that reflected his meanness and historical ignorance.


‘Love, Mary Karuna’

His heart beat like a fish thrown out of water.

Raj bought a cone of ice-cream and went out of the shop as a gang of airport youths came bouncing in. Raj tore the envelope open and, inside on a sheet of thin blue paper, was the letter written carefully. She told him details of her day’s activities, the books she read and how the holidays were so boring. At the end she mentioned his card, her best gift this holy season. And had signed: ‘Love, Mary Karuna’.

Love: Raj was thrilled; and afraid. What a rash thing he had done. What if the letter was discovered by Ratu Reddy? His whole reputation would be in tatters. Ratu had said in the assembly that Raj was the ‘dark horse’ of the school – an expression he didn’t quite appreciate coming from a darker man until someone explained its idiomatic meaning to him. He may not even get his results if Ratu discovered he was writing and receiving love-letters from his school girls.

Mrs Murtiamma would have a field day in the staff room and then with the senior girls under the avocado tree always telling them to cover their breasts properly while exposing her own darkening cleavage, with a black spot in the middle, in a low cut blouse and a golden fountain pen plunged voluptuously in the centre.


Raj afraid

In short, he was afraid.

And what if Father found the letter? Although he couldn’t read or write English, he was bound to take it to Hardayal Pandit in the town, Gulab’s grandfather, Raj’s father’s educational advisor and the senior clerk in a  corrupt and corrupting law firm.

Hardayal would read, put two and two together and make it twenty-two! Raj’s future would be ruined because Hardayal had a strange hold over Father, much to the annoyance of Birbal, his father’s village advisor.

‘Arre, bhai, listen to me. This boy can’t study no more. Get him married soon, Boss. Otherwise, he will run away with some wild woman!’

That was Hardayal’s final insight. I heard Father repeating it to mother about others’ sons and daughters.

And yet Raj couldn’t tear the letter and scatter the pieces of delicate, blue paper into the wind which cannot read. That would have been an act of treachery to his inner feelings. Besides, this was the first letter he had received from a girl.

Raj arrived home late in the evening. Father enquired where he’d been. ‘Gone to see the results in the Fiji Times,’ he lied, and went into his bure.


Rereading Karuna’s

letter every night

His heart beat faster than the wheels of the old bicycle. He took out the letter hidden in his underpants, with great care, closed the broken door, lit the kerosene lamp and read it again; every word, every comma, every thought. She wrote so well; English was her natural tongue like leaves to a tree. He could feel that words had emanated from her pen, and the paper had a fragrance he’d never experienced before.

Karuna was a Christian, in fact a Catholic, and had completed her primary school at St Mary’s. Her father was a teacher at the Andrews Government School and her mother worked as a school clerk at St Mary’s. One day, she wrote, she’d take Raj to meet the nuns. He got worried as he didn’t have proper clothes or shoes. And, to top it all, she’d concluded her letter with ‘Love’.

Raj pondered over it a long time until his father called him from his bure, ‘Go sleep, beta. Not stooding too much harder!’

Raj hid the letter inside the jacket of A Tale of Two Cities. Maina, Raj’s sister, was a nuisance – she could find anything with her nose and that nose ring that gleamed on it. Every night before sleeping Raj read the letter to dream dreams of such naked beauty, sensuality and sacrifice and thought of Sydney Carton: ‘It far far better thing I do….’

But he never replied to it.

Raj passes exams, got scholarship to study abroad

The results came out after the rice plantation season. Raj had passed; so had Gulab and a few others. Gulab joined Pan Am at the airport and Raj, after some struggle, managed to get admission in Mr Joyce’s school fifteen miles away from Karuna’s classroom. As he travelled by bus, occasionally he’d see her walk across the street towards her home. But they never ever met. Then suddenly Raj was given a scholarship to study abroad.

Raj’s father was rapturous. He invited Hardayal Pandit and a few other old friends from the town. Even Ramasami was there; his main concern was who’d supply him the fresh vegetables for his Lodge. They had a puja in the evening and Raj’s mother prayed to all the gods and goddesses to look after him in India. Kalpu, the village pujari with the help of Birbal, prolonged the ceremony until after midnight; the hour, he said, had to be propitious for the Boyo’s departure.

The flight was early in the morning; Raj was flying to Sydney by Pan Am. Even at that early hour a fairly large crowd had gathered at the airport where a new terminal building had been built by the Airport Authority. As he walked up and down in his suit paid for by his village cousin Kanhaiya Lal, he thought of the cows he had grazed on that very spot a few years ago.


Whole village farewells Raj

And today, this morning, a whole village had turned up to say ‘Goodbye’. Someone from their world was travelling to India, fragments of which they had seen in their forefathers and fathers in Fiji.

And, of course, a ‘gormit scholarsheep’ was a matter of honour and glory for the village and the school. Raj’s name was broadcast three times on the radio in all three languages: English, Hindustani and Fijian. His father had listened to all three much to the annoyance of his mother who had to miss her favourite Hindustani programme about women.

Raj was garlanded thickly: marigolds, hibiscus, jasmines, bright bougainvilleas like blood drops. Someone passed him a white envelope and he thought it was a gift of money from a relative and put it in his oversized coat pocket.

As he walked up the gangway an American tourist, with a red face and false teeth, remarked, ‘You a popular young man. Look at those people. All come to say “Goodbye” to you, eh?’

Raj nodded and went into the plane without waving that final goodbye.


‘Write to me from Bombay, Love, Mary’

Raj had entered another world as the senior air hostess welcomed him in her American accent and a tight dress. He was shown the window seat. He took the envelope from the coat pocket to count the money. Inside it was a note and a rose. It was from Karuna. All she’d written was ‘Write to me from Bombay. Love, Mary’. The hostess showed him how to fasten the seat belt and he felt a thrilling sensation as her mint fresh breath entered his nostrils. The half-asleep businessman sitting next to him was breathing heavily.

He looked out the window. As the plane took off he saw hands waving at him like branches in a storm. His eyes searched for Karuna in the crowd. All he saw were peasant faces, in multi-coloured garments, waving as the silver bird tore into a blue, beautiful, sky until they were indistinguishable, faceless dots no different from other creatures struggling on the flat earth.

From Bombay, and at a distance, Raj wrote to Karuna almost every fortnight. Rarely to his parents or his sister or to Gulab. She had become his one obsession in his loneliness in a difficult land. Every poem he read, every letter of Keats, every phrase that expressed love, became his and he included it in his letters.


Raj’s heart aches for Karuna and Fiji

And her letters came warm, loving, expressing both the sorrow and joy of loving; when one is young and one’s heart is not corroded or corrupted by the ‘real world’. The distance added depth and poignancy to their relationship.

He saw little in Bombay and his mind ached with a girl’s love. But Bombay was taking its revenge; the water began to affect his hair: first dandruff, flakes of it covering the glass on his study desk, and then his hair began to fall. His life became a hell and he wanted to return to Fiji.

His father had no money and the Government of India would pay one’s passage back only ‘at the successful completion of the course’. Raj began having nightmares. Imagine landing at Nadi Airport, Karuna there waiting for him with a garland to put round his neck and his bald head staring at her! He tried wearing a hat but to no avail as someone pointed out, ‘Fiji, you growing bald because of that stupid topi you know!’

He searched for signs of premature balding in other students but all had thick, lustrous hair. How he could have exchanged his head for their hair. But despite the pain and horror of his imagined future, he kept writing to Karuna.

Raj’s letters continued his purest thoughts about love. How important it is that one should never marry one’s first love. Something is left for imagining and when pain, betrayal and sorrow touch your heart as they would, you can lie on the sofa set of your imagination and dream of that unmolested world.

To have quoted from Keats, Dante’s thoughts about Beatrice, changed Wordsworth’s lines appropriately to express his love for Karuna, now appears a dishonest realisation, but at that time, it expressed the fire of his desire. Mr D.D. Gupta, the English lecturer, wanted him to see Hinduism permeated in Wordsworth’s poetry; Raj felt the gaunt poet was expressing his love for a girl he’d never even kissed.

The gap between life and literature didn’t exist for him then.


Gulab and Karuna now man and wife

At Easter, three years later, when he was in the throes of doing eight papers in English for the examination, he got a card from Fiji. The writing looked unmistakably familiar. It was Gulab’s, sent officially in a Pan Am envelope. Inside he had scribbled:

‘With many happy returns of the day!’ Enclosed in the folded card was a brief letter, although on the envelope was clearly printed CARD ONLY.

The letter told him Gulab and Karuna are now man and wife ‘till death do us part’. He had quoted several phrases from the Christian wedding ceremony: ‘What God has put together, let no man put asunder’; (in the Indian English dictionary, the word ‘asunder’ wasn’t even there). Gulab revealed he had now become a Catholic.

‘That is all Karuna asked me to do for her’; and she ‘gave me herself entirely in return’. He converted with joy; his Christian name was George Stevenson, ‘same initials’. (Several exclamation marks here like daggers plunged on a corpse.)

‘He is the Truth and the Light of life and Karuna is my wife’.

Raj’s first reading of the letter was desperate like a man saving himself from being suffocated. Then he read each word carefully almost vivisecting them with his eyeballs. So that’s why she hadn’t written for three months and he hadn’t felt the absence too keenly as he was preparing for his exam in the hope of returning home: crossing the seven seas for his love. Now a card, a letter from her husband, had made him so bereft.


Suicidal thoughts Bereavement and then the thought of suicide.

Raj got up from the table and, in the invading darkness, caught a glimpse of his balding head in the window pane.

And his thoughts changed: Karuna wouldn’t have married me, anyway, he assured himself stubbornly.

The card lay on the glass sheet below which there was a photo of Karuna and the figure of Christ on a Cross in silver and the nails protruding like thorns growing around a multifoliate rose pointed at her unloved bosom.


No sadness, just a twinge of nostalgia

But today, this Easter, there was no sadness in his heart, no sense of betrayal, just an occasional twinge of nostalgia. Now he also had the knowledge – a bit of it anyway—that where there’s no crucifixion, there will be no resurrection.

That Gulab with his pen, the colonel with his gun, are around every corner of our lives. But also that Radha, his little girl, will hear the music of the flute again, in the dew covered blades of grass and in her incandescent heart, and dance and dance again, just outside his glass window, collecting fallen autumn leaves.

 Feedback:  jyotip@fijisun.com.fj


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