The walking path up to our settlement has not changed since I was a child. The bus has dropped me by the expansive, spreading mango tree at the beginning of our road. Squinting my eyes against the late afternoon sun, I look up the hills to where my family lives. I set down my pack and rest for a moment on the worn wooden seat. It is cool under the overhanging branches, the vast trunk of the tree casting a strong shadow over the dirt patch where people have scuffed their feet into the browned summer grass. No-one knows how old the tree is. Some people said it was planted when the Indians first came to Fiji but others say it is older than two hundred years.
My great, great grandfather was stolen from a market in India over one hundred and twenty-five years ago and brought to Fiji on a British ship. He was made to work in the sugar cane fields. He was just fourteen when he arrived and he never saw his parents again. His mother had sent him to get some fresh milk from the marketplace and as he was leaving, four, rough seamen kidnapped him and took him to their ship. He was put into chains and it was not until the ship was at sea for two days that these were taken from him. There were many, many boys just like him, some older, a few younger. Bewildered, stolen young men who became the labor force in the cane fields so far from their homes.
I can’t imagine not ever seeing my mother and father again at fourteen. My father has always been my rock. There are three of us and I am the youngest and a girl. My two oldest brothers, who are both married, live in the city. One of my earliest memories is of my father leaving our small hut in the foothills of Sigatoka to go and cut sugar cane. He would walk the three miles from our small settlement to the cane fields which were just by the highway. The highway I am now sitting beside, coming back for my term break from nursing school.
He would say goodbye, standing in our hut door holding his container of lunch; chappatis, a small tin of curry and his water canteen. Dressed in an old cotton shirt and saggy pants with only sandals on his feet. We were always concerned he would be bitten by the snakes that lived in the cane fields. The cane fields are set alight, called ‘burning off ‘, to get rid of the tops, leaves and other dry matter on the stalks to make harvesting easier. The fire would scare many snakes out but there were always some left behind. A disturbed snake is an angry snake and many men would be bitten, sometimes fatally, as the cutters came through with their machetes. My father was fortunate. Because he could read and write he became the main record keeper of how many loads of cane had been loaded and how many trucks left the field. He had to cut cane as well but his chances of being bitten by a snake or a scorpion were lessened. He would run up and down the huge expanse of cane fields as he saw each truck almost full, check it before leaving, mark down the time and the driver of the load and then resume cutting. In the mornings when he was leaving I would run to him and hug his legs as he left our hut and he would touch my cheek with his hand and tell me he would see me in the evening.
I pick up my pack and start walking, along with the flat road, where the remnants of stalks, pieces of cane, leaves, and debris lie strewn over the expanse of land, left behind from the recent harvest. The dry dusty road climbs uphill, turns into a track and then as I get higher and higher into the hills into a mere narrow walking path. There is always a breeze in the hills and I take a swig from my water bottle and plod on. The stream that provides us with water, winds its way through scrub and long grasses, rippling over stones and rocks, sometimes gushing through small openings and then settling into large pools that my father and our neighbors have cut into the clay banks to create small reservoirs.
Image Courtesy: www.traveltroll.info
I can see the tops of our huts in the distance. I pass several other paths leading off into other settlements, small clusters of huts that house people we have lived beside all my life, Fijians and Indians, some Christian, some Hindu some Muslim. In the country, we did not discriminate about what a person was or was not. If we needed help our neighbors helped, if they celebrated we did too. If someone died we all felt sad that we would not see that person again and when a new baby was born, people would come with gifts of food; rourou, (taro leaves in coconut milk), yams, potatoes, sweet buns or burnt sugar pudding. Our life was hard but simple.
I see my mother standing on the hill waiting for me, she looks small against the backdrop of strong brown hills and tall trees darkening in the dusk. This time I have been away for almost a year, studying in New Zealand and living with relations. We hug and she cries and holds me close. I smell her hair, like the earth with sun spun through it. She wears her everyday clothes, a soft cotton blouse, and a well-worn sari. I know she has made special food for me, I can smell the oil in the air from her rotis and the distinct aroma of kofta curry, which means my father has made a special trip to get cream from the neighbor’s milking cow.
My father is home, he has just come in from working and is standing in our yard, bent over the bucket of clean water, washing his face and neck with soap and then splashing the water over himself to wash away the dirt of the day’s toil. Picking up the towel he dries his face and comes to greet me. I reach up to give him a hug and smell the sweet fragrance from the scented soap, the dust from the land, the sweat of him and the brushed grass from the sugar cane. His eyes twinkle when he looks at me, looks at mum and then back to me. He asks about my studies, he is so proud of me I feel like bursting. He has worked hard so that each of his children will not be cane cutters. Taking on extra shifts, working longer at night and leaving earlier in the mornings. Saving money so we can all go on to higher education after school. I was able to help in my own way by winning a scholarship to Auckland University. It was the first time I had been away from home, I was nineteen, not fourteen and for the first six months, I thought of going home every day.
We sit to eat the simple food prepared by my mother, we begin with a prayer, an offering to God before we taste. Every meal in my whole life has started this way, a recognition of someone greater than ourselves, the Supreme Person who is pleased if I take a little time to remember Him first.
I have missed my mother’s cooking for so long and each mouthful I take is delicious and nourishing. They ask me about our relatives in New Zealand, about how good my grades are, whether I have a New Zealand boyfriend, (I haven’t), and what I want to do when I finally finish my degree. I have a year to go. My plan is to come back to Fiji and help people here. To try and get some work close to a rural community, maybe even Sigatoka.
I tell them about the Kirtan and about yoga wisdom that I have been going to all this year. I explain about needing to find a way to concentrate on my studies and a friend suggesting a yoga meditation evening. The first time I went I was unsure if I would go back. My body didn’t want to do the yoga postures and I nearly fell asleep in the breathing exercise. I started to practice the meditation regularly and I know it helped with my tests and with my focus.
My father asks about the Kirtan. I tell him the words, ‘Om Hari Om’. Of course, he knows these sounds. Whenever there is a wedding, the women lead Kirtan for some time before the wedding starts. At festival time this and other sacred sounds are sung by crowds of people all following the lead singer. I explain to them that the Kirtan I am going to is done in a different way. Sometimes using the traditional instruments like the harmonium but sometimes with electric violins and guitars.
They talk to me about the old days, how things are done, and I can see that I am the new generation, bringing other ideas into their lives. During these small lovely conversations, I also try to explain a little bit about the different paths of yoga like karma yoga, bhakti yoga, Jnana yoga, raja yoga etc. So sometimes they keep on asking questions about what I do there and how I spend time, so I tell them about Kirtan gathering, feasts, philosophical classes, heart friends and a lovely friend circle.
Then suddenly, I remember! I have my computer with me. I charged it up before I caught the bus. We don’t have mains electricity in our settlement. The sparse lighting in our huts is from solar panels fitted to the roof many years ago. My mother cooks on a kerosene stove and everything else we have is manual. We don’t have an electric blender for smoothies in the mornings. We don’t have an electric kettle to make cups of tea. I talk to my parents about the differences between modern life and our life and I pull my computer out from its satchel, switch it on and go to You Tube.
I show them videos from an online devotional channel streaming into the night, into our small settlement under the Fijian sky. The three of us sitting there under a single light, high in the hills of Sigatoka, ‘Gopala Govinda Rama Madana Mohana’. They know the words but the tunes are unfamiliar to them. They listen and slowly my father starts tapping his fingers to the beat of one of the mantras. They listen and when I start singing along to these ancient, sacred sounds they too begin to join me. My mother has a sweet voice. I remember her singing to me as a baby, putting me to sleep and waiting until I had fallen into that slow, steady breathing that babies do when they have spent their energy for the day. As we sit chanting together as a family I realize how fortunate I am. My parents love me and I love them. They live in a very different world to the one I have been living in New Zealand but I see the simplicity and straightforward way they live their lives. How uncomplicated it is. How untangled their lives are.
We spend the best part of an hour listening and singing along to the Kirtan. I see the pleasure in their faces, their only daughter is doing well, she is living in a foreign land but she will come home in a year. She has brought with her a gift of spirituality and happiness and shared it with them just as she shares all the other aspects of her life with them. It is late, I turn off the computer and kiss them goodnight. I walk to my bed in my hut, one of four in our compound. My mother has made my bed, the sheets smell of the river, clean and bright. I pull the net over me sinking into familiarity and tiredness.
Tomorrow I will fall into the rhythms and patterns of my mother’s days, interspersing them with my studies, my meditations and with singing Kirtan with my parents. Maybe I can invite some neighbors over to join us. There is a lot to do, I can see it is going to be a wonderful but busy break.
When I went to the city I was surprised that people went to such effort created many problems for themselves over food. I made friends with a girl in my nursing class who would drive across the city just to get a certain type of ice-cream from one particular shop. But I am so fortunate to be associated with simple people who do not overthink about life and appreciate peace and inner happiness. I feel very lucky that I have found the means to real happiness and help others too.