The Hula Hoop
Who gifted you the scarlet hula hoop—
The one which lit up when whirled up and down
The waist? I fancied you were a dark sun
Warping space-time on your hips, an eddy
Of stars grooving you with all their glitter.
I was the paltry wonder-struck astronaut
Who’d sauntered cluelessly into a room
Where everything spun at light-speed and one
Couldn’t help but grow younger. I pleaded, begged
For you to please sister stop, but you kept
Whirling and weaving those enchanted rings
For to cease would have made the universe
Cease. So you spun on and on, and next thing
You were no longer there, and I unborn.
MRA: This poem is by acclaimed Fijian poet and philosopher Sudesh Mishra, it’s something he’s working on at the moment. It captures the magic of childhood discovery and play.
GV: It takes me back to aimless afternoons playing games when I was 4 or 5 years old — pretending to be in an upside down world reflected in an extra-large stainless steel plate I’d hold in my hands. Just having fun, really…
Sudesh Mishra: I know what it’s, it’s like to just go home and not really think about anything, but you know how to actually cook up a good pasta sauce. That’s very, very important to me. those little moments in life. And out of that kind of stuff comes poetry now for me, I’ve just finished my sixth collection under the cover of COVID. They deal with childhood games. The sheer joy of being a child and the loss that one experiences in the memory of those games.
GV: Sudesh’s poetry takes my breath away because it reveals deeper emotional truths. He’s written two critical monographs, five volumes of poetry, two plays and several short stories.
MRA: Today, we’ll talk to him about two aspects of Fijian culture that serve as inspiration for his poetry — folk songs called bidesia, which are an Indo-Fijian version of the blues. Sudesh draws on the motif of bidesia in his poetry, which are filled with longing for a lost homeland.
GV: And we’ll talk to him about age-old indigenous practices that can help us live in better harmony with the planet.
Sudesh: the terrible thing about western modernity is that it erases memory right? Because if you think about it, when I go to a supermarket and pick up a a can of tomatoes, I don’t think about where it came from. The canned tomato convinces us that it produced itself.
GV: This is your bonus episode, Chatroom 12 on Scrolls & Leaves. I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan.
MRA: And I’m Mary-Rose Abraham. And a small request — If you’re liking what you hear, why not consider donating? Details on our website, scrollsandleaves.com slash support. Also, a shout out to our listener Tana Trivedi, who told us of Sudesh’s poetry.
MRA: The bidesia folk songs featured on this episode are from the Bidesia Project, a not for profit initiative of Simit Bhagat studios.
<intro – bidesia>
MRA: Sudesh lives in Suva, Fiji. The Pacific Island nation is just… stupid beautiful… as in, it stupefies you with its beauty. It’s in the South Pacific islands between Hawaii and New Zealand. And the culture of Fiji is a mongrel — half islander and half Indian. Rather like Sudesh’s poetry, too. A lot of people don’t know this, but at the turn of the 20th century, the British took Indians to colonies like Fiji to work on plantations as indentured labourers. Sudesh’s grandparents were among them….
GV: Many labourers came from villages in North India — Uttar Pradesh and Bihar especially. And once on the plantations, they’d be filled with longing for home. And they’d sing their village songs — laments, really, for a lost past…
Sudesh: the bidesia are songs of longing and separation, ah. So imagine that song being sung by a woman in Fiji who was separated not only from India, but from her village, from her family, maybe from a lover, I don’t know. So bidesias became very, very big in the plantations of Fiji. They were sung mostly by women. And you know, they are songs that express longing, due to separation, and bidesia itself means from another place. From bides, from a foreign land.
So, so these, these are these amazing songs, and they’re very, very moving. And, you know, we still sing them.
What happens in Bidesia, would be the singer is singing about how the, the arkati or the recruiters agent, you know, lied to them and took them away from, from their village, and they are now singing about the lost village, and sometimes the village becomes an embodied lover, you know, or lost husband or something of that sort. And how their longing for them is so enormous that they can’t endure.
So the songs are very, very moving. The Bidesia was, I think, as a song form, emerged in North India, in the, in the Hindi belt, in the villages. So it’s a, it’s a, it’s a very distinct form, and the voice is very distinct.
I think the melody probably existed in India. And sometimes they would bring those tunes and then add new lines, new verses. And sometimes they would create the verses here entirely. But it’s very hard to determine where you know, the borrowings and the changes whether some of them were just brought over piecemeal from India and just adopted or created their own bidesias
The analogy that Bidesia is like the blues in the States is a is a, it’s justified, because, you know, the blues emerges out of the slave experience out of suffering, which is why the blues is always about the color blue. Yeah? That’s the mood, the mood of melancholy and mournfulness. And Bidesia captures that as well. It’s quite interesting, because the moment slavery ended, indenture began, because they still needed cheap labor, so the, you know, you can see how the blues is emerging. And then indenture, you know, indenture happens, and then the bidesia emerges in its plantation form. And, you know, so the parallels are, I’m not saying they’re the same experiences, but the parallels are there.
GV: Can you sing something for us?
Sudesh: ahah.. I just need a few glasses of wine before I… haha.. .well …I”ll sing you.
The badra are the dark clouds. The dark clouds of monsoon have gathered Lord Rama, but in which place has the alien one, or the foreigner, ….where is the foreign one. Which place?
So, it begins with that question and the verses start to actually express that sense of loss … for instance …
On the branch of a mango tree, the koel goes kuhke. My heart has been set aflame by the lost one.
MRA: These days, Sudesh is finding the joy in the slower pace of Island life. And as he’s grown older, he’s become critical of the way we humans think of ourselves as something special on the planet…
Sudesh: Because of our consciousness, of ourselves, as in fact, different from animals, we’ve forgotten the connection we have to every aspect of this planet.
And that’s always been a little trick that I think mostly European culture has actually foisted on us. When you know, I mean, if you think about indigenous Fijian culture, that separation is not there. It’s just not there. And I think we have to, this is what I’ve been going on about, I think we have to go back. modernity has misled us.
The terrible thing about Western modernity is it erases memory, right? Because Because if you think about it, when I go to a supermarket, and pick up a can of tomatoes, I don’t think about where it came from, who packed it, who grew it, you know, you lose sight of the, the farmer, the labor power of the farmer, the seed, soil, lose sight of the connections, that, you know, the tomato that you’re going to eat is connected in all kinds of real ways to, to, to land to people to labor power, etc. And I think, you know, that’s, that’s the danger of the commodity. And Marx was right. The fetish makes us forget, fetish makes us forget that there is real labor power behind the, you know, the can of tomato, Because if you think about it, when I go to a supermarket and pick up a can of tomatoes, I don’t think about where it came from. The canned tomato convinces us that it produced itself.
You have to go back to indigenous systems to realize that there are other ways of being doing and knowing.
GV: He says that in contrast to Western knowledge systems, the indigenous cosmologies of Fiji stress that humans are part of the planet…
Sudesh: So every, every time you’re anywhere, you’re always in connection to something else, other than yourself. You know, you’re always, you know, other leaning on a tree, walking barefoot on the beach, you’re connected to the same rainfall to on you you’re connected to the water falling on you. So basically, we are just one element within the planetary assemblage. And I think we have to rethink ourselves as just an element, not a special one, not a unique one, but just another element within an assemblage, and therefore, you know, put ourselves in a position where we have a duty of care to all the non human things that make us what we are.
MRA: In Fiji, people are returning to the old ways of living and relating to the planet, especially now with Covid, Sudesh says.
Sudesh: In Suva, where I live you will find idle land that is not used, but it belongs to, you know, maybe a village, maybe the council and so on. But you will find that the idle land is used by people around there for planting the staples. So they plant taolu, cassava, which is taro, and so on. And, and no one will complain, no one will protest, I do it myself. Outside, my lender is just this vacant land. And I have my roro patch, which is a kind of leaf that grows in Fiji. It’s very tasty, like spinach and my rural pitch there. And next to me, someone else has planted. And next to him, someone else has planted something and the land belongs to none of us.
We have so much vegetables at the moment, because we just went through, you know, the COVID crisis. And our country depends mostly on tourism. So a huge number of people lost their jobs. What they did most of them, they went back to the villages and started growing their own food. And, and started to get to share, share crops, there was a barter system introduced. And it’s incredible what’s going on.
And because of because of climate change, they’ve also gone back to a system called tambou in Fiji, which means for prohibition, where a particular village can impose a five year prohibition on fishing in a particular section of the of the, of the sea, or reef. And this is an old practice, this is a practice that was part of the culture. So that they knew that food resources here were short. So you need to in fact protect that area for a period of time.
What’s happening is a new focus on fending for yourself. Because I think we all understand that if we get hit by five cyclones in a row, and if the ships from Australia and New Zealand don’t come bearing food, we’ll have to rely on the old system of preserving food for the cyclone season. They buried their crops, the root crops, they use fermentation, smoking of fish, all kinds of traditional ways were used to preserve food for about three months of the year. So it’s, it’s important to revisit these practices, because I think if there is a real crisis, we might have to rely on some of these practices. So in this way, in fact, what’s happening around the Pacific is a revival of indigenous practices, which are actually, in my view, more modern than modernity.
GV: You were listening to Sudesh Mishra on Chatroom 12. For more information and other episodes, visit scrollsandleaves.com/chatroom12, or follow us on Twitter at scrollsleaves, or on Instagram at scrolls and leaves, or like us on Facebook. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another chatroom, this time about a horrendous murder in Guatemala. Stay tuned.