Writing

Kavita Nandan

Australia

Kavita Nandan was born in New Delhi, grew up in Suva and migrated to Australia in 1987 after the military coups. She completed a PhD in Literature on the postcolonial narratives of Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul at the Australian National University. In 2017, she moved from Canberra to Sydney where she lives with her husband and child. Her first novel Home after Dark is a story about the search for home in the aftermath of a military coup and failed marriage. The story is set in three worlds: Fiji, India and Australia. It was published by the University of the South Pacific Press in 2014. She is also the editor of a book of memoirs, Stolen Worlds: Fiji-Indian Fragments and co-editor of a book of essays, Unfinished Journeys: India File From Canberra and a book of poetry and short fiction, Writing the Pacific. Her writing is published in Not Very Quiet, Mascara Literary Review, Transnational Literature, Landfall, The Island Review and Asiatic. Currently, she is writing a second novel, The Smallest Hands.

Words on the Pavement

After my Dad

 

You asked for two things:

Your toothbrush, Nani’s daily prayer book

A photocopy

We had carried from Delhi

An original home.

 

While Mum’s palm trembled on your inner thigh

The masked soldier

Adjusted his gun, fingers twitching

 “Bloody Kai-Indians! Go now!”

F  i  v  e  minutes too long for him

When they kept you for six days and nights

“The book?” You ask, urgently

I place it in your open palms

A loose page falls in the wind

Escaping

The barbed wire fence

While you – shoved to a backroom

Another detainee brought in your place –

Remain trapped inside.

 

The media stalked the compound

Lunging at the visiting wife

Her face full of defeat, heart aquiver

With notebooks and pens

No digital technology back then

It was 1987 after all

Time to tell the world

What just happened?

My mother walked past in a trance:

I spilled the beans

My 17-year-old-life

In a small Pacific paradise

Suddenly becoming important.

 

What did you do?

“Your father’s a hero.”

“A fool.”

“I told him not to get into politics.”

What did they do to you?

You never revealed

They gave you chicken for dinner, you said –

The Pacific way

Did you say that to make me laugh?

You made me cry

When I saw the bruises on your back

The ones you tried to hide

Then forgot to

As you washed yourself

Concealing the barest bits of you

Did it happen when

They separated the ministers?

Fijians on one side, Indians on the other

While you held on tight

A Labour man in a colonial chiefdom

Is that all they had against you?

 

When they let you go

And you stumbled on the pavement

Into the arms of strangers

Did you see me?

I was waiting in the corner

In the shadow of a coconut palm

A ghoulish crown upon my head

Yet so unimportant was I

Just one in the crowd

Who looked for guidance

And you told us

How you read a daily prayer

To lift the spirits of the others

A Hindu, reading a Christian text –

Morphing from politician to priest

I thought you used to kid around

When Nani read the Bible

In five minutes, you were asleep

But I saw in that moment

Something indefinable:

 

You were broken but strong.

 

Finally, you turned

Away from the people

Towards me

Giving me a wad of paper

The daily prayer book; sullied, bent

With an unreadable script – yours

That day you became a poet, so did I

Thirty years later

The same age you were, when

They got you

Then let you go stumbling on the pavement

With only words in your hand.

Reflection

In 1987, the Labour Party won the Fiji elections for the first time after seventeen years of conservative Alliance rule since independence. On 14 May at 10am, Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, third in command of the Royal Fiji Military Forces, stormed into Parliament with armed soldiers to overthrow the elected government. The Prime Minister and the Ministers were taken hostage. My father, Minister of Health, Social Welfare and Women’s Affairs, was among them.

 

That morning, I was waiting for my mother to get dressed and drive me to the University in Suva. In those days, we kept the radio on continuously. Radio Fiji’s usual program was interrupted by the announcement that ten masked men had entered Parliament House and forced the Prime Minister and his Ministers into military trucks at gunpoint. For what purpose? The possibility that my father would be shot, killed, murdered was too terrible a thought, although I knew it was in my mother’s mind. Members of the deposed government were hidden away from the world for six days and nights but there was that brief moment when the wives were allowed to visit them. I went with my mother. I was seventeen at the time.

 

Until then we had been living ordinary lives but this event suddenly plunged us into extraordinary circumstances. Afterwards, it was as if the world had divided into two distinct periods: pre-coup and post-coup.

 

I have found myself recreating my experience of the first Fijian coup in my writing repeatedly. My first attempt – a feature article, ‘Painful Journey from Paradise’ was published by The Fiji Times on the tenth anniversary of the Fijian coups. I wrote it from Canberra as we had migrated to Australia post-coup. Several years later, I wrote my first novel, Home after Dark, which is about a marriage unravelling in the shadow of a coup. Clearly autobiographical, it was published in December 2014 by the University of the South Pacific, the same university I failed to attend that morning. Initially, I wrote ‘Words on the Pavement’ for a competition: Freedom from Torture. As I sat writing in Sydney, my home for the last three years, I was painfully aware of the suffering that COVID-19 had already caused the world. I was looking for hope and I discovered it in the courageous stories of people who had lost family members to this wretched virus or they themselves had been close to death and survived. I do not know whether all of the details in my poem are true or even if the memories are accurate anymore, but perhaps I have managed to capture the essence of the experience which is one of much loss but also hope.

 

Something about that time keeps recurring in my brain . . . as if I can't quite make sense of it but I am compelled to try by recasting my experience in various guises (a news story, a novel, a poem). I have also felt some degree of shame, a sense of ‘being stuck’, of failing intellectually. There have been academics who suggested I find a new subject. I shared my poem with my friend Sarah St Vincent Welsh who is a wonderfully evocative poet. Her response resonated with me profoundly: “I find that about certain things in my life too, and I think writing over and over is actually good. I worried about ‘ploughing the same furrow’, but I actually think it is good; it is our patch of earth or the one we are on and we seek to understand it deeply and intuitively, intellectually and emotionally, in all ways”. Some of the writers I admire the most, such as VS Naipaul and Toni Morrison explore the notion of writing as a way to heal wounds that are rooted in the past but hover over us in the present like ghosts.

 

As for my father, his heart broke quickly the day of the coup and more slowly in the months and years afterwards. But he has continued to write; essays, opinion pieces, poetry and I believe the purpose and the practice of writing does possibly lift him.

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