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My most well-known classmate was Hari Punja, a well-read person whose favourite author was F J Thwaites. Several Vivekanandans later changed the political landscape of Fiji—the seeds were sown by AD Patel and his companion Swami Rudrananda.
The school also started the Ramakrishna Library in Nadi town. It was in an upstairs building and we used to spend our Saturday afternoons there with the librarian Mr Krishnamurti. He was always immaculately dressed with a starched Gandhi cap on his learned head, and a red mark scrawled on his shining forehead. Mr Krishnamurti introduced many of us to the classics of English Literature.
Every novel of Charles Dickens was in the library; every play of Shakespeare was staring at us from the shelves. Unfortunately we, at least I, didn’t read much. But I did read John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost from cover to cover without understanding even a page. Two decades later I went back to it when I heard a lecture at the University of Leeds by F R Leavis, the eminent critic who believed in the centrality of humanity in literary texts and who decried the idea of Two Cultures in our modern life—that is, Science and Humanities, as two separate disciplines.
Despite the open policies of the school, however, during the early years there were hardly any iTaukei students. Every class was full of students from a variety of Indian communities. In my form we were 88 of us sitting under the tin-shed , with heat emanating from the sugar-cane fields.
The fees for a term was seven pounds plus an annual building fund fee of ten pounds.
Swamiji collected enough funds to start building a new school at Malolo, away from the Nadi River which flooded with wild and wanton abandon every year.
The land at Malolo was generously donated by the CSR company in recognition of the Swami’s contribution to the sugar industry and the CSR’s debt to the farmers and their children. It’s now the famous, forward-looking Shri Vivekananda College.
SVHS had some extraordinary principals: the first was Mr K S Reddy, a Fiji-born teacher. K S became a colonial politician and later joined the Alliance Party. I met K S in Melbourne many years later—his memory was phenomenal and I regret none of his children or grandchildren recorded the old man’s stories of Fiji and his role in Fijian politics.
His anecdotal life would have made a fascinating narrative.
The school, I think, was very lucky in its second principal Mr P N D Moosad, MA, LT. He’d come from Kerala and like many genuinely educated people of India, he was, with his Masters degree, better educated than anyone I’d met from nearer home. He was also a very well-read man. It’s through him we learnt to write and read English.
Some of us were also lucky in a new teacher, Mr Ram Harak Mahabir, who had arrived from New Zealand with a degree in English.
This was a rare achievement at the time. Mr Mahabir was always dressed in stiffly starched clothes with a red tie shining in the Nadi sun. He cut a rather colourful, dandy figure walking the main street of Nadi Town with his black umbrella open on his balding head.
Swami Vivekananda, the “patron saint” of the school, was a scholar and an orator. Through his numerous speeches and writings, he attempted to awaken the conscience of Indians and also their common consciousness. He had ‘a tongue of fire’ not to burn or malign but to ignite the imagination of a nation, long suppressed by shallow, superstitious spirituality.
He had come under the revolutionary influence of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a Christian, reminding him of a rich and diverse heritage that was their shared patrimony.
In a people who had developed a deeply damaging complex, he was determined to instill self-respect and self-esteem. The message of the universal civilisation was his message: from Calcutta to Chicago.
He gave to the Indians a new vision, a new voice and a new breath— and a creatively new idea of themselves.
He was profoundly critical of the maze in which Indians had lost their way—the caste system. He said the worst word that the Hindu invented was ‘melicha’—the untouchable, polluted. When India had opened its doors to the winds of the world, it was a civilization worthy of respect, even imitation. But when it closed its mind to new ideas and dialogic encounters with other cultures and peoples, it became a victim of many kinds of colonial subjugation and complexes. And lost its philosophical quintessence of letting ideas blow freely into the great Indian mansion as rivers flow into the ocean.
SVHS school tried to instil this into us. But like all institutions and individuals we, too, were limited by our time and place, distance and difference.
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There are individuals and institutions that make permanent and significant impact on our lives.
For me, an individual whose life has been shaped by many individuals, the institution that gave me the first glimpses of a new world and a new reality was Shri Vivekananda. But for this secondary school, the trajectory of my life would have gone in a totally different direction.
My two younger brothers studied there too; my third brother went to Natabua. My deepest regret is that my eldest brother and the two older sisters didnât have the opportunity to go to a secondary school. There were none for their generation.
It sounds incredible to think I was the first in my family from time immemorial to read the first book in English. And what a difference that has made to my and my childrenâs lives.
Years later when I sat in a modern café listening to the din and hubbub of Nadi Town, watching the new concrete bridge, people walking on one side as big cars drove over it, and the sludgy river flowing underneath, and the site of the school overgrown with grass, I remembered the lines:
My fiftieth year had come and gone
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded Nadi shop,
An open book and empty cup
On a marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
This, too, was a gift from Shri Vivekananda High School.