Opinion

Faces In A Village: Satendra Nandan’s First Book

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan  is an Adjunct Research Professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, CSU, where he’s composing Gandhianjali, and a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities
21 Sep 2017 15:19

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan  is an Adjunct Research Professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, CSU, where he’s composing Gandhianjali, and a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre , ANU, where he’s researching his historical novel set in Fiji, India and Australia. He has authored and edited more than twenty books.

This article is written from memory of the writer as a tribute to those who helped him in publishing his FIRST book. This is Part 2 and the section of the article.

CONTINUED FROM YESTERDAY:

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 published Voices 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 of 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 Swami Vivekananda College (SVC) 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 chord 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, Satendra Nandan 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! (Oh moon, come and embrace me!)

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj




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