Writing, Writers and Human Rights

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan’s fourth book of essays , Dispatches from Distant Shores, will be published this year. He’s currently working on his fifth book of poems titled Votualevu
06 Aug 2016 09:46
Writing, Writers and  Human Rights
Satendra Nandan

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan’s fourth book of essays , Dispatches from Distant Shores, will be published this year. He’s currently working on his fifth book of poems titled Votualevu Junction.



In his novel American Pastoral, Philip Roth, remarks,

“People think of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing”.

It happened to me, suddenly one summer, in the Fiji Parliament on 14 May 1987. I’d just interjected when the first Fijian coup takes place at precisely 10.10am. I have the last legitimate words recorded in Hansard.

A moment can be eternity depending on what it contains.

Suddenly literature, the kind I’d read, studied, taught, and attempted to create in the fitfully written landscape of Fiji, became for me a struggle not for anti-colonial nationalism, but a shaping of shared hopes and feeling for a country that was so deeply wounded?

I poured my feelings in my book, The Wounded Sea, published in 1991.

And a realisation that the collective liberation of colonially subjugated peoples was not  necessarily about human rights. There was a difference between self-determination for peoples and ideas of freedom for citizens.

Today we can see from Afghanistan to Zimbawe (A-Z) what we can do to our own people once we have the weapons of destruction in our bloody hands.

I began thinking that many writers everywhere have contributed so vitally and valiantly and enduringly  in transforming our sense of ourselves. And how literature—and the acts of writing – can help you survive the grimmest moments of life’s tragedies and its mystery.

After all, the most mysterious moment is the next one, as I discovered, a moment too late, all those years ago in the heart of a Parliament.

Some months ago I received a book from a friend from New York titled Hamlet’s Dream: The Robben Island Shakespeare. It’s an extraordinary story of how Shakespeare became so meaningful to the prisoners on that notorious island.

In the 1970s, Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners secretly circulated and signed a precious copy of the Alexander Complete Works of William Shakespeare: a book now known as the ‘Robben Island Shakespeare’.

From the infamous prison system of apartheid-era South Africa to the prison that is Hamlet’s Denmark, David Schalkwyk examines the experience and representation of imprisonment.

Among the prisoners were Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Communists, Socialists, but they didn’t think in terms of their faith or ideology; rather they read, marked their favourite passages in the plays and shared their deepest humanity as members of a community of prisoners serving sentences as long as 30 years.

Prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam’s book became the Robben Island bible. He was able to circulate it among the prisoners by persuading the warders that the thick volume was a religious Hindu text!

This may seem incredible but remember Black Beauty was banned in South Africa for decades—no censor had read it and the censor board assumed it was about an African-American woman of intolerable beauty and charm.

Reading Hamlet’s ‘bad dreams’ that kept him from being a ‘king of infinite space’ and the dreams of freedom in South African prison memoirs, my friend  David considers how the need for other people becomes paramount with the loss of one’s freedom .

In short the loss of human rights of individuals. And how these rights are inter-connected: if you keep your one foot on someone else’s neck, your own movement is restricted. Moving forward – that long walk to freedom– becomes difficult.

One can talk about the American and French revolutions and the two terrible wars out of which the Human Rights were born. It’s a dramatic journey of the development our common humanity’s morally humane legislative creativity.

Like our concern for climatic catastrophes, it cuts across national borders—the globalisation of human rights is truly the story of our civilisation in the past forty years—although the formal declaration by the UN was in 1948.

It grew out of the ashes of the two World Wars and the failed dreams of revolutionary communism and nationalism—wherein the post-colonial world created its own nefarious nightmares.

At the time of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights by the UN, there were only 57 sovereign states; today we’ve almost 200, that is, within seven decades.

I began rethinking my literary texts differently in my post-colonial, post-coup imagination. I’d read V S Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas in Fiji, Gandhi and Nehru’s autobiographies in Leeds and Patrick White’s The Tree of Man and Voss in London.

Naipaul’s fictive biography of his father is a an individual’s struggle for some semblance of human dignity with the historical backdrop of genocide and slavery, within the indentured, peasant Hindu world transplanted thousands of miles away from Mother India: wherein to  Mr Biswas’s deep distress, a mother-in-law was more dominating than the British Empire.

Nehru’s An Autobiography gave the English some idea of imperial crimes committed in India by the ruling classes and castes. Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth painted a searing portrait of racial subjugation and caste tyrannies in South Africa and India; the tyrannies of imperial law and ancient customs—he tried to decolonise some of the suffocating traditions of an internal colonialism.

These writers, and many who followed them, had given us some sense of human rights in their endeavour to create a common consciousness. They were followed by Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink, among many others from many parts of our terrified and tyrannous world.

In one of his memorable chapters on a coolie—an indentured labourer— named Balasundram, Gandhi wrote:

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.”

This interest in politics and human rights for me arose out of my readings of these writers. So when I was appointed to help draft the new Constitution of Fiji, I accepted it with alacrity: It gave me an opportunity to put in my ideas of human rights and freedom that had seeped into my consciousness through my readings of literature.

This idea of the first right of free expression I had acquired through my readings of these writers and possibly because of this writing capacity, I was appointed a Commissioner to the Fiji Constitution Commission. Somebody in the Fiji Government must have been reading the five books I published for Fiji readers in six years. And numerous articles in the newspapers and magazines.

I felt the pen was lighter than the gun and easier to think with.

The experience of thinking, talking, drafting was exhilarating and travelling to remote islands of the archipelago was a revelation—both of Fiji’s natural beauty and the humanity of the ordinary Fijians many of who had never travelled beyond the circumference of their distant islands or villages.

I felt four things were most important for these people: their sense of a place– that these islanders must never feel dispossessed; that they belonged to a nation; social justice; and human rights. The new constitution of Fiji has these elements in abundance and clearly defined.

The draft document had 18 chapters. But the best chapter in the new constitution,–200 pages, 7188 submissions — was on Human Rights. Despite quiet skepticism from one or two, I managed to insert the expression ‘the freedom of the imagination’, thanks to the support of the Canadian who was employed to help us write the document. Luckily he was also a poet-photographer and an admirer of Alice Munro, one of my favourite short story writers from Canada.

I do not think any nation’s constitution in the world has that phrase so clearly enshrined. Free speech, freedom of expression, yes; but ‘the freedom of the imagination’ is something else.

Despite the many revisions in the final Constitution, the phrase ‘the freedom of the imagination’ remains intact in the Fiji’s new constitution. It has far reaching and potentially profound implications for artists, writers, scientists, academics, journalists and free thinkers.

When I returned to Canberra after we’d presented the Draft Constitution to the President of the Republic of Fiji, the first book I read in a few days was Anton Joseph: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie.

It’s the story of a writer’s struggle to survive the fatwa and its brutal and brutalising effects—the courage and imagination that Rushdie exhibited with his defiant pen is, I think, an epic story of that freedom and a writer’s creative imagination–one who is forced to live in a nutshell but can be the king of infinite space on a blank sheet of paper.

Anton Joseph gives us glimpses of the faith of a writer to step across any line, no matter who draws it. It is an essential gesture towards human rights and toward the light of liberty. It should, I think, be read in every writing programme.

In his book of essays Language and Silence, George Steiner wrote after the experience of the holocaust:

‘I realise the historians are right when they say that barbarism and political savagery are endemic in human affairs, that no age has been innocent of disaster. I know the colonial massacres of the 19th and 20th centuries… are realities of profound evil, a prelude to the final solution… My own consciousness is possessed by the eruption of barbarism in modern Europe…

The blackness of it did not spring in the Gobi desert or the rainforest of the Amazon. It rose from within, and from the core of European civilisation. The cry of the murdered sounded in earshot of the universities; the sadism went on a street away from the theatres and museums . . .’

More importantly to be able to imagine the life of others different from our own; to give through words, power to the powerless, to write the wrongs.


Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj


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