Deenbandhu Charlie: Girmit And Gandhi

Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. He is currently working on an historical novel, tentatively titled ‘Bury My Bones in the Wounded Sea’, set during the Indenture, as
26 Jan 2017 11:29
Deenbandhu Charlie:  Girmit And Gandhi

Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. He is currently working on an historical novel, tentatively titled ‘Bury My Bones in the Wounded Sea’, set during the Indenture, as a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, ANU. His fourth book of essays, Dispatches From Distant Shores, and fifth book of poems, Across the Seven Seas, will be published in March.


Note: This is part four of a series on The Abolition of Girmit and the noble role played by Rev CF Andrews—a most remarkable man and his deep friendship with Gandhi and Tagore.

Part one of this series was published on Sunday, January 15.

Part two of the series was published on Monday January 23.

Part three of the series was published in yesterday’s edition.


In the Shadows of a Tree

Winter breaks your mind,

Summer harrows your heart,

Memories float in the wind

Till death may make us part.

Some evenings I sit on a bench

In a city’s neat and tidy park

Trimmed like my moustache:

A dry wind whistles in the dark.

The pale moon floats – a withered leaf,

Memories, too, have become brief.

In front of me is a gnarled tree

Swaying with scars of its own;

It’s a ghostly gum: where birds fly,

Its branches almost touch the sky

Or so it always to me seems

And reach for my lost dreams.

Its bark is peeling, its boughs,

Are like arteries and veins

In a body: now mainly of bones.

Below are lines and lines of ants

Burdened with their wounded and the dead.

On distant hills sheep, cattle graze

My mind, a pouch, is a kangaroo maze;

It falters: a friend has dementia

His distressed wife writes to me:

He cannot recognize his own home:

Lucky if he died in his bed.

The tree like every tree tells many stories:

You can cut it down:

Make firewood; use it as timber

To build your big house.

But memory, that little mouse,

Keeps nibbling at everything;

As silverfish ruin your new clothes

And cockroaches ruin the kitchen food

Fireflies glow in the corners of your room:

Is there nothing wholesome and good?

The tree is really my grandfather:

I often think of him

Among the old, he looked the oldest:

Was he ever as young as my son?

Born an unnumbered waves away

Where his ancestors lived and died

In mud-huts, with no ifs and buts,

Uncounted but not unaccommodated.

Generations must have passed:

Unmourned, unremembered

But a kind of life they had

And it wasn’t all that bad;

When things began to die

Hope alone remained

In the corners of their hearts.

Then they walked:

Cozened, conned, canned into ships

What did their inarticulate lips say:

One simple, single word distorted:

‘Girmit’ I have signed

With my Left Thumb Mark

Before on this journey I did embark

With this bond of trust

To work in rain and shine

The life of heat and dust was mine.

Who did they kiss and curse?

To which gods did they pray?

Now you who write the verse

What can you honestly say?

But my grandfather was alone:

I never saw a woman in his life

She died young? His wife

When he was away from home?

All I knew was when he was old

The same story was always told:

We lived by a well of croaking frogs,

With a cat, a mare, two black dogs.

How he brought the crabs in a keti

They wouldn’t let one escape its fate.

We sat in the dimly lit bure

Pounded the shells and ate

Fed ourselves till our stomachs ached

And slept like logs lined in a pyre

Waiting for the mantras and fire.

Storms always brew on distant shores

And slowly travelled to our islands

A visitor sent by a god because

He still kept herrings in tomato sauce.

Then nothing else really mattered:

What god destroyed could easily be mended

It’s man’s karma that needed to be amended.

So they built again little homes shattered

In the sun’s shadow and the kindness of rain.

He never returned to his little village

Where ancient customs and pillage

Had driven him away:

I wonder if his mother waited by the river

Or the little well near the mango grove

Where her son was lost, a song of a dove,

And the evening became so terribly long.

How long can life be

From here to eternity?

In a moment or two

When breath and death become one.

Miles away from the place of birth;

And on this unaccustomed earth

You now move like the apparitions

In new civilizations

How deep was the ocean

When they crossed the seven seas

Thrown into storm-tossed waves

They haven’t left behind any graves.

I sit in the park on a wooden bench

Where my grandson plays

And many a giant he slays,

While I think of an old man

In an elephant land.

And when he calls me ‘Grandpa’

In him I see my grandfather’s face

Full of a stranger’s transfigured grace.

Then the tree reaches out to me

Like a ship lost in some cruel sea,

Thro’ the mists of place and time

In the tree’s shadows of life sublime

Had finally reached its safest haven

With many men: and a few women.

Then my ageing heart quietly grieves

While my grandson collects fallen leaves.

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj 

Got A News Tip

Get updates from the Fiji Sun, handpicked and delivered to your inbox.

By entering your email address you're giving us permission to send you news and offers. You can opt-out at any time.

For All Fiji Sun Advertising
Fijisun E-edition