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Satendra Nandan: The Wounded Sea
Nandan was (and still is) a politician in Fiji. This novel, while called a novel, is a not very fictionalised account of his life in Fiji. It is divided into four parts. The first three parts tell of his early life, before he became a politician. They tell of a relative paradise in Fiji, after the indentured Indians had become free and before the 1987 coup. The fourth part tells of the coup and its aftermath. The young Nandan (he is not named in the book, till the final section) came from a family of Indians. His grandfather – called Baba by Nandan – came as an indentured servant to Fiji. He married and had children, before his wife left him for a younger man. He never remarried. Nandan’s father is a tough, strong man – he once breaks up a clash between rival gangs in the village – but has a weakness for alcohol and eventually drinks himself to death. He has been the first Indian to get a job at the nearby airport. Young Nandan does well at school. He is one of only two in his school to pass the Senior Cambridge examination and gets a scholarship to study in Delhi.
However, the charm of the novel is Nandan’s story about the characters in the village. There is Birbal, the English teacher, who does not really speak English but manages to fool the school inspector by somehow finding out the questions he is going to ask prior to his visit and having the class prepared. He will later become the local pundit. There is Nani who worships a monkey god and grows”cocknuts” and Zhaman who lives nearby and is a little crazy. A young boy is drowned in a well and she rescues him, though there is suspicion she may have pushed him in. When her lover – Nandan has caught them in the act – is found hanging from a tree, the boys keep well away from her. Nandan’s father and Pritu, the local milk vendor, provide a sort of local court for a small fee, which usually involves alcohol and a goat for their favourite goat curry. One case they deal with is the case of the nightwatchman Jaddu who is envious of Sakhu, the taxi driver, both for his better job but also for his voluptuous wife. When Sakhu goes out on a job one night, Jaddu seizes his chance and goes into the house and assaults Chanchai, Sakhu’s wife, in the dark. However Sakhu returns unexpectedly and Jaddu has to flee. He is recognised and his punishment is to be hit on the head five times publicly by Chanchai. Only the young Nandan realises that Chanchai was not entirely disappointed by Jaddu’s attentions. We also see the rise of Gautam Gounder, who was at school with the young Nandan. When he first runs for office, the radio announcer pronounces his name as Goonda, which means crook, but he soon becomes all powerful (and corrupt), becoming Chief Executive and getting a CBE. The highlight of his career is meeting Mrs. Gandhi. But Nandan goes off to Delhi. He leaves behind Karuna, the girl he loves. He is devastated when his best friend, Nandu, announces that he has married Karuna.
The final part tells of Nanda becoming an MP in the first mixed race government. He is given the position of Minister of Health. He is, understandably, full of praise for this government, maintaining that it did much good during its short existence, particularly for the native Fijians. One day, Nandan is attending Parliament. An opposition MP is making his maiden speech, a poor one in Nandan’s view. Nandan criticises him Address the Chair, you larrikin. These will be the last words of that parliament, as, immediately afterwards, armed soldiers enter the building, staging a coup. The government and Indian MPs are held captive for some time and fear for their lives. Nandan’s account of these events is presumably historically accurate. He and his family are eventually allowed to leave the country and they emigrate to Australia, where he wrote this book. (He later returns.)
While the events concerning the coup are certainly fascinating, it is the early parts – the tales of the Indian community in Fiji and Nandan’s growing up – that make this novel interesting. His descriptions are colourful and amusing and show a side of life that presumably mirrors India, albeit with a slight Fijian flavour. But politics, inevitably, enters the picture and Nandan skilfully shows us both sides of the coin.
First published in 1991 by New Endeavour Press/Simon & Schuster