Writing Life: Life-Writing

  A couple of years ago, my daughter, Kavita from Canberra, gave me a book titled Lit­erary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life. There’s no Asian-Pacific-Australian writer on the list.
29 Jul 2017 11:12
Writing Life: Life-Writing
Labasa and Savusavu special administrator Vijay Chand (fourth from the right) with the chief guest Rupan, a businessman and women cut cake during the Girmit Remembrance Day for women celebration at Labasa Civic Centre on May 14, 2017. Photo:SHRATIKA NAIDU


A couple of years ago, my daughter, Kavita from Canberra, gave me a book titled Lit­erary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life.

There’s no Asian-Pacific-Australian writer on the list. Kavita’s inscription in part reads: ‘someone who made that bridge between litera­ture and politics a long time ago!’

The Australia-Fiji tangled relationships have existed for almost two centuries. Every year, on May 15, we commemorate the anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured migrants in Fiji from India via Calcutta to serve primarily British, Australian and indigenous interests. It is a unique fragment of history of both exile and freedom and a lot in between.

Our history

Fiji, through the mischief of many, had become a crown colony by the Deed of Cession in 1874.

All the inhabited islands by then had been evangelised.

In the past three decades Fiji has been through a series of crises, triggered by the first Fijian coup in May 1987.

One would have expected an old friend like Aus­tralia, with so many bonds and human bondages with the people of Fiji, to come to the rescue in the wreck.

Early sea-farers, explorers, beachcombers, missionaries, businessmen and women, overse­ers, experts and consultants, the CSR Company harvesting the profits of a slave crop, indenture and blackbirding victims, tourists and teachers, preachers, professors and profiteers, became part of the Fijian archipelago.

The world is what it is. And we become part of it.

Fiji has remained ‘undiscovered’ without much understanding or knowledge of a small but complex, colonially-created society, perhaps more than any other in the South Pacific, paying the price of brutalities against native peoples on islands and continents, including this one.


Racism in Fiji became acceptable because so much in our largest neighbour was determined by its historical policies based on racial consid­erations.

The indentured and their descendants were children of the lesser gods.

The vast majority of these peasants resisted conversion to Christianity. And the fig leaf of Fijian-styled democracy hid a multitude of sins.

There was a serpent in the heart of paradise: political racism in a communally-oriented garb of a venal democratic structure.

We didn’t even have a common name. A whole community was excluded from the nation’s meaningful imaginary.

Only now, in the new constitution, all the citi­zens of Fiji are called Fijians after the name of the nation: Fiji.

Migrating to Australia

How does one begin to comprehend the Fiji-Australia enigma? For many of us today, Aus­tralia is home – in the past 20 odd years more Fiji people have come to Australia than those transported from India to Fiji in 40 years from 1879-1920.

Our ancestors came in 87 different boats; the journeys took weeks and months; today Fiji­ans come to Sydney in less than four hours. Distances have coalesced; dislocations have deepened; deceptions have multiplied.

Our journeys have become manifold. And the return flights to paradise are now quite cheap. But there’s a deep lack of insight into Fiji’s unique problems.

The waves of significant change are lapping the Fijian shores and we, in landlocked Can­berra, ought to appreciate this.

But it is a personal journey that I wish to talk about.

Patrick White had travelled in the 1940s to London by the P & O liner, Strathmore, but had returned to Sydney at the age of 46 to write fiction.

In April 1958, White published his remarkably personal and passionate essay ‘The Prodigal Son’.

White had written: ‘the reasons why anybody is an expatriate, or why another chooses to return home, are such personal ones that the question can only be answered in a personal way.’

White had returned, with the thought of a full belly, to the scenes of his childhood, to the stim­ulus of time remembered. By 1958 he’d crafted, in Australia, two classic novels: The Tree of Man and Voss.

In December 1987, in my 40s, with Jyoti, I was leaving Fiji for Canberra with two coups behind me, two suitcases in front, and $200 in my pock­et, having lost two jobs in two days!

My two daughters were with me. I was coming to see Rohan, my son, at the ANU. White says he was brought up on the maxim: ‘Only the British can be right’. I grew up on the dictum: Fiji was our one and only home.

Then suddenly to become homeless, in your homeland.

I spent 18 years in Canberra, our often derided national capital.

There was the Great Emptiness in my heart, not in the landscape which White had made me love despite the sometimes sordid and cruel experiences of White Australia written on the bark of the ghostly gum trees and between the silences of the blue waves of the Pacific.

I had two extraordinary advantages: I’d spent my most formative student years in Delhi.

I’d fallen in love and married my college sweet-heart. Two of my children were born in New Delhi. I’d taught in two famous Public schools: the Delhi Public and Doon. Vikram Seth, the novelist, survived my teaching during 1963-64.

A brief stint as a trainee-journalist on The Statesman in New Delhi gave me a life-long de­sire to be a scribe of sorts.

And, of course, I’d been lucky enough to study for my doctoral degree Patrick White’s fiction in Canberra, from May 1974-October 1977.

Because of these two experiences in New Delhi and Canberra, I was able to survive the holo­caust of my heart in May 1987.

The fall of island politicians is rather com­pellingly described in VS Naipaul’s The Mimic Men. I could have gone to New Delhi and be­come, as White says of London, an intellectual, that most sterile of beings, leading a parasitic and pointless existence.

Politics and the extension of its idea of human relationships

The politics of a country can only be an ex­tension of its idea of human relationships, I’d believed, of which Naipaul had written in that splendid work of truthful fiction.

During the Blitz White experienced the first sensations of rootlessness. I was born around the time of the London Blitz.

But I’d no idea of the banality of evil. The two Fijian coups in 1987, almost 50 years later, were, for me, the first signs of ethnic evil. I was deeply, deeply affected by this betrayal by more than Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka of the Royal Fiji Military Forces of Fiji. Even the Queen of Fiji didn’t care for us – she was persuaded not to see the ousted Prime Minister, Dr Timoci Bavadra.

And he had taken his oath of allegiance in Her Majesty’s name. My friend, the Vuniwai-healer, died betrayed and broken. The Colonel, who had destroyed the Fiji Parliament with 10 masked gunmen, got the 21- gun salute in our Federal Parliament and a round of golf with Gareth.

Luckily I came to Canberra. The city gave me a new life – the life of the mind – teaching and travelling, reading and writing, and hoeing my own garden. My family grew up; often I walked by Lake Burley Griffin, thinking: could this be my Walden Pond?

Walter Griffin is buried in Lucknow, the capi­tal of Uttar Pradesh; from the ancient vicinity of that most multicultural city, my maternal and paternal grandparents had migrated to the Fiji Islands.

They had never seen a sea-wave or a ship. Nor white men or a whip. For generations they had not gone beyond a few miles from their habitus of mud and mythology.

They had not known an island, let alone a sea of islands; their bones are enshrined in the larg­est ocean.

Today my son is married to a woman from near Tamworth – her ancestors came in the First Fleet. They have three children: Hannah Maya, Arjun Sebastian, and Kallan Akash. What would their identities be? Their destinations? Their transit visas? What roots will clutch at their hearts? What fragments will they shore against their sorrows?

I wish to explore these themes through the prism of my life. And see its many colours.

But the longing to return to days of adolescence persisted: the nostalgia of seascape, the brood­ing volcanic mountains’ lengthening shadows looming over our little village within the green seas of sugarcane, the swaying palm siblings, the storm-tossed bures and lean-tos; the cows and bullocks, the fishermen fishing on horse­backs, the two rainbows over the ragged, mystic hills; and the lights of Nadi Airport where the drone of small planes is lost in the landing of an Airbus from Sydney every evening around 7pm as farmers graze their cows; the smell of food, the sounds of Fijian Hindi in the streets and on the radio; the Bula smile, and the five-petalled frangipani in the left ear; the greenness of life in grass; the colourful leaves and flowers; the spirit of play in the muddy fields of rugby and soccer, and the soft rain falling across my childhood river.

Beyond the tourists at hotels in the necklace of hotels at Denarau, not far from Wailoaloa cre­mation grounds.

There’s also the mutilated remains of frogs and stray dogs on the roads from the airport to hotels. One’s fate can be mirrored in a myriad images; one’s history refracted in the puddles of a broken road. You’ll not see it in Fiji hotels or Aussie ads for a holiday in Fiji. In fact you’d have scarcely seen any Fiji Indian faces in the ads for a holiday in paradise.

Sense of belonging

Only recently Prime Minister Bainimarama’s Government has given a new sense of belong­ingness to all Fiji citizens without the terrible discrimination of race and religion, colour or communal creed or privileged greed.

There’s a new sense of equality and human dignity in law. It is a season of hope in Fiji after several seasons of anomy and ignominy.

Some years ago I was invited to the NSW Par­liament to a dinner to raise funds for a brutally deposed Government.

That evening I did say that when this Parlia­ment was being built, doubtless with some mon­ey from CSR company’s exploitations in Fiji, the children of the farmers, labourers, many koros, small shopkeepers in Fiji didn’t have a single secondary school in the sugarcane growing ar­eas, nor no representation.

It was only in 1949 – 70 years after the arrival of first Indian workers – that an Indian mission, run by Vedantic monks, started a secondary school named after the most famous of them all: Swami Vivekananda.

I studied in that school under a tin shed, by the Nadi River, across a koro. We were 88 in the class and spent our days playing cards on the backbenches, dressed in a pink shirts and brown khaki shorts.

My autobiography will, I hope, give the ideas of how writing can make injustices visible and audible.

It may suggest ways of creating a sense of home and belonging.

I wrote a few years ago that the noblest epic from India really is this unique diaspora of the twice-banished people found from the South Pacific to South Africa and across the Middle Passage. It is in their diaspora that Gandhi was shaped and sharpened.

Patrick White’s first published novel Happy Valley in 1939 has an epigraph from Gandhi’s essay on suffering. Gandhi was killed in New Delhi in 1948, years before I arrived in that most palimpsest of cities. And how deeply White must have read Gandhi in the 1930s, when Gan­dhi was dismantling the largest empire with his lathi. The astonishing thing was that an Aus­tralian of genius was reading and thinking the thoughts of this half-naked fakir.

Only now I’m beginning to understand the sig­nificance of that first epigraph, not in the por­trayal of the megalomaniac in Voss but in the shadow and understanding of The Tree of Man, the pioneers in the bush.

It is through literature that I went into poli­tics, and it is to literature I’ve come back from politics with some sense of wholeness. I wish to interweave the resistance of literature and its healing power in the many journeys I’ve made: of love, politics and in life generally.

Literature can work; let me give a brief exam­ple: I met, for the first time Colonel Rabuka after 21 years, in my office at the University of Fiji. I gave him four books, three of mine and one by Kavita entitled Stolen Worlds.

A few days later Mr Rabuka wrote a remark­able piece in a daily newspaper asking for the nation’s forgiveness for his unnecessary coups and their tragic consequences.

He said he was affected by three lines in a poem of mine entitled “Easter ’88” and dedicated to Timoci Bavadra. That – a dictator’s extraordi­nary response to an ordinary poem – alone is a compelling reason to write my story.

I know nothing straight was ever made from the crooked branches of The Tree of Man; but I also know that I can continue to write in that tree’s shade.

Fruitfully, I hope.

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