Words on the Pavement
After my Dad
You asked for two things:
Your toothbrush, Nani’s daily prayer book
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
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
In a small Pacific paradise
Suddenly becoming important.
What did you do?
“Your father’s a hero.”
“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
You were broken but strong.
Finally, you turned
Away from the people
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.
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.