Gandhi-Inspired Writer: Constitution Preamble, Great Prayer of Modern Fiji

Speaking at a panel discussion at the In­ternational Civil Society Week in Suva on Wednesday, Fiji’s leading writer and regular Fiji Sun contributor, Profes­sor Satendra Nandan shared his wealth of
09 Dec 2017 11:00
Gandhi-Inspired Writer: Constitution Preamble, Great Prayer of Modern Fiji
Fiji Sun journalist Sheldon Chanel and Fiji’s leading writer and regular Fiji Sun contributor Professor Satendra Nandan at the International Civil Society Week conference at the Novotel Suva Lami Bay on December 4, 2017. Photo: Sheldon Chanel

Speaking at a panel discussion at the In­ternational Civil Society Week in Suva on Wednesday, Fiji’s leading writer and regular Fiji Sun contributor, Profes­sor Satendra Nandan shared his wealth of knowledge on the legacy of indenture.

On the centenary of the abolition of the indentured labour system, Mr Nandan took the opportunity to represent the Fijian ex­perience of indentured labour and the sac­rifice and resilience that has shaped the na­tion’s cultural fabric.

“It’s a unique fragment of indentured his­tory,” he said.

“At a time when many indigenous people’s lives were being disrupted and decimated all over the world because of colonial im­perialism, here you had a group of people brought 12,000 miles from Kolkata to save the indigenous way of life.

“It is quite unique. Nowhere else will you find that in the history of imperialism.”

The former Fijian cabinet minister, Emeri­tus Professor at the University of Canberra and visiting fellow at the Australian Nation­al University spoke at the Commonwealth Foundation-led discussion about his poem, Gandhi and the Girmitya.

“My poem talks about Gandhi’s effort to abolish indenture – Gandhi was made in South Africa as a young boy and he lived among the indentured people,” he said.

“He met this indentured labourer named Balasundaram, and from that moment he changed his dress. Instead of wearing a three-piece suit, he started dressing like an indentured labourer – that’s why you see him in very simple dress.”

Mr Nandan said his poem further talked about the “deeper sea change” Gandhi expe­rienced after his interaction with the inden­tured labourers.

“The beauty of Gandhi was no matter how great the challenge he fought it peacefully not violently.

“Nobody has killed in Gandhi’s name ever – so I was trying to deliver this message.”

The significance of the word ‘Girmitya’ comes from the agreement which trans­formed slavery into indentured labour in the 1800s – a new system of voluntary slav­ery with an expiry date.

The agreement promised to Indians meant they could serve 10 years of indenture over­seas in exchange for a free passage back to India.

“See, the indentured labourers were mainly illiterate people – they couldn’t pro­nounce their names.

“They had signed an agreement, so they said signed a ‘Girmitya’ – that’s how they heard it, like a pidgin version of agree­ment.”

In interviewing Mr Nandan, the writer passionately pulled out a small book of the 2013 Fiji Constitution from his bag of po­ems.

“For the first time in the constitution we have indentured people mentioned as part of Fiji and to me the preamble is the great prayer of modern Fiji,” he said.

“This constitution now recognises indige­nous people, Rotumans, indentured Indians, Europeans, Solomon Islanders you know – this is a very significant development in Fiji.”

Mr Nandan championed International Civil Society Week and how it had brought international writers to our shores.

“Writers have always been very important for me. In the Fijian Constitution there is a very remarkable phrase which you don’t find in any constitution in the world and that is the ‘freedom of imagination and cre­ativity’,” he said.

“Freedom of imagination is where the great writers come in – the freedom to write with no boundaries.

“But freedom of course always entails re­sponsibility – while writing is a mirror, it is also a warning bell.”

Mr Nandan was humbled with the re­sponse from the audience as he delivered his narrative.

“I was just speaking from my heart,” he said.

“I’m always looking to educate, enlighten, but I’m always looking forward and always realising that your country, your communi­ty is larger than yourself; we are all part of Fiji,” he said.

But Mr Nandan was hoping more Fijian writers would be talking at the interna­tional event at the University of the South Pacific.

“I was very surprised that there weren’t more writers from Fiji there. There were only two voices there and there should have been many more,” he said.

“Because there’s some very good writers in Fiji who can give a perspective both on indenture as well as a national identity for Fiji that we’re all trying to forge.”

Commonwealth Writers programme man­ager, Janet Steel chaired the panel discus­sion which also featured Fijian writer, Mary Rokonadravu and Indo-Caribbean spoken word poet, writer and activist, Gabrielle Jamela Hosein.

In April next year, Mr Nandan and the writers on the panel will have their poems published in a forthcoming anthology by the School of Advanced Study of the Uni­versity of London.

Edited by Jonathan Bryce


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