Opinion

Faces in a Village: Satendra Nandan’s First Book

As far as I’m aware, Faces in a Village, a volume of barely sixty untidy pages, was the first book of poetry in English, by a local writer, that was
19 Sep 2017 10:46
Faces in a Village: Satendra Nandan’s First Book
Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan is a writer-academic and a former parliamentarian and cabinet minister. He is a lecturer at the University of Canberra in Australia and is regarded as Fiji’s leading writer.

As far as I’m aware, Faces in a Village, a volume of barely sixty untidy pages, was the first book of poetry in English, by a local writer, that was published in Fiji. It was published in 1976, by Viti Press, in Suva.

In fact, the volume was first published in December 1975 in New Delhi by my college-mate Deepak Seth.

Deepak’s father was a proprietor of a small printing press in Daryaganj, Old Delhi.

It published Hindi books. After his father’s demise, Deepak changed its name to Printsman Publishers. My book was published under the imprint of Printsman.

Another close friend from our college days, Ramesh Rao, liked the poems – their simplicity and originality, and sometimes startling images and metaphors.

The fact that someone had attempted to write poems about the indentured Indians in the distant islands of the South Seas was unusual when Indian students were obsessed with English and American literatures.

Ramesh’s and Deepak’s homes were my homes in Delhi when I was an honours student. Ramesh is now dead; I hope to meet Deepak in Delhi in July 2018. Both were a few years older than me.

Fiji is far from India, both in distance and in consciousness. Few students in Delhi, in the 1960s, had any idea of the South Pacific.

Often they confused Fiji with Fuji; the latter was more famous.

Besides, we didn’t play cricket, and rugby was alien to the Indians who were more used to kabaddi.

Deepak decided to publish my poems with a remarkably powerful black and white portrait of an old, wrinkled woman with folded palms.

It was a moving picture and the photograph was taken by a famous photographer-journalist in New Delhi. A few of the poems were read on air in English.

I received the first printed copies at Christmas 1975 in Canberra: a friend from the ANU had carried around forty copies from Delhi for me.

The first copies thrilled me when I saw them and handled them as if it was my first-born.

The copies were given here and there; a poem of mine ‘My Father’s Son’ had earlier appeared in the PIM monthly, edited by Majorie Crocombe.

Another subsequently in Poetry from Fiji, selected by Albert Wendt.

My poem was singled out by a critic from the University of Queensland for a special mention in a magazine article.

Next year the volume was published in Fiji by Viti Press run by a  Christian priest from Labasa living in Nasinu, a  friend of Subramani, then a lecturer at USP.

This was someone I’d persuaded to join USP from the Ministry of Education when I left to do my doctorate at the ANU in May 1974.

Subramani filled the vacancy and developed his own remarkable literary career as a critic and writer.

I think 400 copies were printed, but hardly any copies were sold.

Buying books in Fiji is not a fashion, or a passion, except text books. Who cared for a book of poetry by an obscure village poet from a place called Votualevu. ‘Votualevu style’ of soccer was more widely applauded.

But with the publication of my first book, with its numerous flaws, poetry has remained the heart of my soul.

I’m now compiling my sixth volume of poems after Faces in a Village, Voices in the River, Lines Across Black Waters, The Loneliness of Islands, Across the Seven Seas.

It’s been a truly wondrous journey: my poetry has taken me to many parts of the world.

Only last month I saw one of my poems published in a journal with a wonderful introduction.

Poetry, I feel, expresses the spiritual growth of one’s life and may even reflect and refract the moral compass of one’s society, amidst its other concerns of life and love, loss and loneliness: ‘My soul is another country’ and often poetry gives expression to that intangible spirit.

Of course, for none of these I’ve ever been paid, just as I’ve not been ever paid for my two short stories read by thousands of young students in Fiji for the past 40 years. ‘A Pair of Black Shoes’ and ‘The Guru’ have become ‘classics’ of Fijian literary culture.

I’m generally known as the author of ‘A Pair of Black Shoes’ rather than any other of my score of books.

But there has been abundant recompense in other ways. I’ve continued my writing missions, cultivating my own garden, in my own style.

While doing the new Fiji constitution in the islands, I met a number of people who had read my stories and thought I’d died a long time ago. Dead authors acquire an immortality of a kind, not without kindness.

Let me return to my first book, Faces in a Village. Before coming to the Australia National University (ANU) in May, 1974, I’d done some interviews with a few girmityas in a project with a USP academic.

I’ll not name him as he’s dead and I do not wish to do him any injustice, but he was not a just man though his wife was a lovely person.

Together we interviewed around a score of surviving girmityas. My then friend had caught onto something quite significant.

He’d returned to USP after completing his PhD in Fiji’s colonial history in Canberra.

He’d rewrite the dissertation and this didn’t please him, so he became obsessed with doing this research project.

He didn’t know much Hindi – one fine evening he drove up to my home in Lega Lega, met my father and the family, had his meal and roped me in his project to help with interviews in Hindi.

We must have interviewed a score of surviving girmityas, mainly in Suva and Nasinu areas. And a couple from Nadi.

Around April-May 1975 I was offered three postgraduate scholarships to do my doctorate in Literature, having returned two years earlier with two Masters  from the University of Leeds and a certificate from the Institute of Education, London.

I chose the ANU for its closeness to Fiji and my family. Toronto and Texas were too far away and I’d no historical or literary links with North America. Fortunately I’d read a couple of marvellous novels by the Australian author Patrick White in London.

Canberra seemed between Nadi and New Delhi – two places most vital to me where our – Jyoti’s and mine – two families lived. And the fellowship was most generously endowed.

So I came to Canberra in the winter of 1975 with Jyoti and my three children: Rohan, Gitanjali and Kavita.

My poem, ‘My Father’s Son’, had appeared in PIM. It was read by a few people at the ANU.

I began writing more poems and my delightful supervisor, Bob Brissenden, himself a poet of distinction and generous to a fault, who had done his PhD at Leeds, always praised the ‘tremendous lines’ I was writing.

I used to show them to Bob over lunch with a glass of red wine; it was an excuse for not really working on my thesis.

For more than two years, I hardly wrote a page of my thesis, but did read quite widely with Bob and Alec Hope and my fellow postgraduates in the Department.

I’d little knowledge of modern literary genres. In Delhi I’d studied English, eight papers, in my Honours class from the selected plays of Shakespeare to the selected poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Shakespeare and Wordsworth became my favourite writers. In Leeds my first Masters was in Linguistics; my second was in ‘Commonwealth Literature’.

It was Commonwealth Literature that changed the direction of my life and the destiny of my writing.

Today three of us have PhDs in English in my immediate family and all three in Commonwealth Literature, or what now is called Post-colonial Literatures or World Literatures in English.

This enduring interest may have germinated from my first book of poetry.

Only my wife Jyoti said I’m a better poet than I thought. So I kept on scribbling, having had my first kiss with a poem I’d written on a saree she wore in the B Ed class at Delhi university where we sat next to each other in the last row in  a large lecture hall.

And when our son Rohan was born in Delhi, I wrote a poem ‘My Mother’s Memory’ and published it in a university magazine.

Again that is another story and I’ve narrated it briefly in my autobiographical volume Requiem for a Rainbow.

The important thing is that neither Jyoti’s love, nor her faith in my poetry, has lessened as years have rippled by like the waters of a river and time’s dusty chariot has rolled on among the caravans and coups of life.

So here I was at the ANU, in May 1975, settling down to study for my doctorate in English. Before I could pursue my scholarly activities, in a new home in the suburb of Hughes, with fifty other University homes for visiting scholars and professors, and where I could see from my study my children playing with children from many parts of the world, I got the news that my father had a severe stroke.

I rushed back to Fiji to see him lying in Lautoka Hospital.

It was the saddest sight in my life. My father was a powerful man, the village chief or zamindar or boss, as he was fondly called by the villagers, young and old.

His voice was truly stupendous and could be heard in the sugar-cane fields and teiteis across the riparian banks where we grazed our cows  and bullocks, horses and goats.

He was also a wrestler in his youth and was over six-foot tall, with a handsome face, and looked strong like the trunk of a rain-tree.

When the Nadi river flooded, he’d swim across it and take my older sister and me, clinging to his shoulders, and swim across the river with ease and knowledge of the flow of the current.

We always landed safely on the banks and ran home to have hot, hot food in my mother’s smoke-filled kitchen.

Often we prayed for heavy rains in the Sabalau mountains, so that Mr Sanju let two of us leave the school, after lunch before the Nadi swelled up with its brown, muddy waters, ‘fully flooded’.

My sister, who is now in Auckland, and I were the only two children from Maigania attending Votualevu Government school: my sister in Class six, I in Class three. And we crossed the Nadi river almost daily.

My father, though a visionary and a reformer, had one tragic weakness: he drank a lot of kava.

That ruined his life and I’ve mentioned it in the opening lines of my first short story published and read by students in the Fiji Junior classes all over Fiji.

So I rushed back to Nadi Airport and then to Lautoka Hospital where my father lay on crumpled white sheets on a hospital steel bed.

A man of the strongest vocal chords couldn’t utter a single word as he saw me. That for me  has been the most unspeakable moment in my life. I returned to Canberra after a fortnight of desperate helplessness.

It’s out of that silence that my poetry in Faces in a Village flowed like a bursting dam of submerged grief.

As if I’d to give voice to the voiceless. The faces of the girmit people I’d known in my childhood suddenly resurrected in my father’s being and broken body. Nothing has affected me more deeply than that moment of recognition of mortality.

My younger brother, Davendra returned as a doctor; he and his wife, Saras, cared for him. My mother was with them. I  didn’t see my dying father until the end of 1977; and when I saw him in an incredible condition, I wrote ‘Siddharth’–the poem reissued just last month in an Indian literary journal.

I returned to the ANU and within a few weeks wrote the poems that were printed in my first volume, Faces in a Village. Perhaps the title came from ‘ Faces in a Crowd’ –  I’d vaguely remembered it from my eclectic readings.

Our South Pacific’s most erudite literary theorist, Vijay Mishra, put the works of several writers from Fiji on the map through his cleverly thoughtful essay ‘The Girmit Ideology’.

Poems from Faces in the Village have been translated into Hindi and French, and I’m told, in Vietnamese and Chinese. Critics and scholars have written on it from Fiji, India, England, Canada, the USA, the Caribbean, Malayasia, Singapore, and nearer home in Australasia. I get  an occasional letter from young scholars writing their theses on some of the themes embodied in the poems.

The Hindi version of one of the poems, ‘The Ghost’, translated as ‘Pret ki Awaz’, I read in the presence of two prime-ministers when Shrimati Indira Gandhi visited Fiji in 1982 and opened the Girmit Centre at Lautoka. I was reading the Hindi translation to a large audience of several thousand people. My great joy was that my mother, on whose lap I learnt Hindi, my mother-tongue, was sitting in the front row and listening. My father had died in 1978.

A few of my selected poems were elegantly translated through the efforts of a remarkable Indian writer, Daya Prakash Sinha who liked them and published them in a magazine run by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in New Delhi. ‘D P’ was the Director of the Indian Cultural Centre in Fiji and had lost his wife suddenly in Suva. I do not think he ever recovered from this personal tragedy. And returned home a sadder and a wiser man.

Years later I met him in Delhi but again lost contact. That has been a deep sadness of my peripatetic life and now I miss so many friends –  when there’s no time even to express one’s appreciation for so many acts of affections. No time to measure one’s life with coffee spoons!

My poetry might have inspired other talented poets from Fiji: Sudesh Mishra and Mohit Prasad come easily to mind. Both have dedicated poems to me. It certainly made my daughter Kavita, until last month in Canberra, now in Sydney, to write her own works of creative writing.

Looking at her work, I feel what a gift Vidia Surajprasad Naipaul’s  father, Seepersad Naipaul, left for his son by writing the slim volume, The Adventures of Gurudeva and Other Stories.

Faces in a Village also got me, in 1978, an Australian Literary grant of $15,000 to write. I should have  written more.

But I spent my time writing political speeches for a couple of very decent politicians and forgot about my literary calling. However, I continued intermittently to write papers, short stories and poems and publishedVoices in the River with that grant.

Politics, however, gave me a sense of a  widening world as poetry has deepened my inner universe. My experience of politics and poetry as a small writer is, I think, unique for few poets have been politicians and gone through so many coups and heartaches and known so much love. All’s grist to the mill: the grief and glory, the guilt and greed.

And in writing nothing is wasted: words are our common good, our most human bonds.

In 2014, a tattered volume of Faces in a Village was discovered by an electrical engineer living in Brisbane. He had studied in London. He wrote to me that how much he was moved by these pieces; that no-one in Fiji had written about the girmit people and their descendants as I’d done: the language, the stories, the faces, the life, the humour, the small cheatings in a small world, a few extraordinary moments seen in the most ordinary lives. He designed a new book of my poems and posted it to me.

I’d just completed a book of childhood remembered. I decided that perhaps they could be included in my book , NADI: Memories of River . Praveen Chandra redesigned the volume and it was published, sponsored by an old student of mine from SVHS days. Suresh has become my closest friend through our mutual interest in writing. The cover was designed by a talented artist from Canberra, a friend of Kavita.

So Faces in a  Village can be read in its new incarnation as part of Nadi: Memories of a River. Occasionally I get emails from people, now living far away from Fiji, in other cities, other countries. On their return flights, they buy the volume from the bookshop at Nadi airport and drop me generous emails on their return to their new homes. The poems seem to touch a cord or two of memory of their old homes and people: their nana-nani, aaja-aaji.

That is joy enough for me.

A month ago I received a journal from overseas with a piece by me as the first article taken from my latest book of poems, Across the Seven Seas, launched at USP by Sudesh, another Nadi poet, in March 2017. The editor of the journal has written warmly:

Indian by ancestry, a native  of Fiji by birth, and now living in Canberra, SatendraNandan is a poet, professor, and parliamentarian who has brought Fijian-Indian experience in its varied hues on the global scene with his rich corpus of creative writing. His girmit grandparents arrived in Fiji  around the 1890s.He was elected to Fiji Parliament in 1982 and again in 1987 and was a cabinet minister till the coup in May 1987.

After that he joined the University of Canberra. In 2005 he returned to Fiji to help establish the second university in Fiji and was back in Canberra in 2013 as Emeritus Professor.

A winner of several awards, fellowships and grants, he has held many prestigious positions in Fiji, in Australia and internationally as well….Lyricism, history, and philosophy blend with an uncanny ease as his verses move across time and space. Even his fictional and non-fictional works are virtually melodies of memory enriched with wit and fun, passion and contemplation. Emotion and expression blend beautifully in Satendra Nandan’s writing as he captures the magic of life with a serenity and tenderness that make his writing such a delight to read.

Now at my age I’m not easily flattered unless someone appreciates my writing. Everyone has his or her Achilles’ heel. It’s a healing thought.

That is reason enough for me to keep writing my pieces  even if life often is about putting the shattered pieces together. Often when I look at Jyoti, I feel blessed and can even bless.

I  feel, in my heart of hearts, that my best book is still in me. I must write it soon; in the light of the Fijian-faced moon:

Chandamama ao ao, mere gale abhi lag jao!

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

Fijisun E-edition
Total Excellium
Subscribe-to-Newspaper
Fiji Sun Instagram
Subscribe-to-Newspaper