When Kavita Nandan offered me her novel to review I was happy to accept because its setting – Fiji, Australia and India – intrigued me. I’ve read several novels set in India, and by Indian writers, but none set in Fiji or by Fijiindian writers. Moreover, as Nandan wrote in her email, and as the back cover blurb says, the novel is “set against the backdrop of the first Fijian coup of 1987”. I certainly hadn’t read any literature about that!
Nandan is, as you have probably gathered, a Fijiindian Australian. She was born in India, grew up in Fiji, and migrated to Australia in her teens after the 1987 coups. She currently lectures in Literature and Creative Writing at Charles Darwin University. This is her first novel, and like many first novels it is told first person and has strong autobiographical elements.
The novel starts with a story about the Colonel’s involvement in saving the main character Kamini’s life from choking, and then jumps 18 years to the coup when that same Colonel places Kamini’s father, a politician in the Fijian parliament, under house arrest along with other Fijiindian ministers. The stage is set then for a story about the fine balance between love/loyalty and betrayal. There’s humour, as well as pain, in Nandan’s description of the coup:
Most of us only had a vague idea of what a coup was and even after it happened, the word sounded foreign in our mouths as we ignorantly clucked out the “p” like chickens on my cousin Ravi’s farm.
Nandan conveys the unreality of the coup (or coups), but it was not a happy situation and, as Wikipedia says, it resulted in a strong wave of migration from Fijiindians. Nandan (and her character) were part of that wave.
The narrative tos-and-fros a little – taking us to her childhood village life in Fiji and her grandmother’s home in India – but it is mostly chronological. In chapter 3, having set the scene with the coup, Nandan jumps the story forward to when Kamini is 35 years old and returning to Suva, with a husband, to work at the University as a lecturer. It becomes quickly clear that her relationship with her husband, Gavin, is fraught. Gavin suffers from depression and hasn’t worked since their marriage three years previously. This, it appears, is not a marriage of mutual support and respect, and most of Kamini’s family do not understand why she had married Gavin in the first place.
It’s an interesting story, though I wondered at times why Nandan had decided to write it as a novel. This is a critical decision, and one I’ve seen several authors discuss and change their minds about. Kate Grenville, famously, started her novel The secret river as a non-fiction work about her ancestor, but felt she had too many gaps in knowledge about the things she wanted to explore, so turned to fiction to explore them. Anna Funder, on the other hand, intended Stasiland to be fiction but, having done her research, felt the best way to honour the stories was to make her book non-fiction. Nandan’s book is strongest in her descriptions of life in India and Fiji, and less so in the story of the relationship between Kamini and Gavin, which I suspect is the main fictional component of the novel. Kamini is negative about Gavin most of the book, while continuing to want to make the marriage work. It didn’t quite gel emotionally for me, so the links Nandan tries to draw between the personal and the political felt tenuous.
Nandan does, however, have some evocative turns of phrase, such as this of the relationship between her Indian grandmother, Nani, and her aunt:
She had always craved better connection with her youngest daughter, but what passed through the gap was mostly cold air.
Or this, about the pull of the past:
I had run my fingernail along those ancient walls of memory and now I was being disturbed by strange echoes.
And she understands the paradox of immigration. Here’s her description of her great-grandfather leaving India on a boat for Fiji:
He felt his back alert and alive. His legs held their ground on a swaying ship. His entire body was seeking a new life.
The act of leaving his parents, his sisters, his brothers, his old grandmother and voyaging to a faraway place changed my grandfather forever. Building upon the memories of the old, he created the foundations of a new home and a new language. His single intent had been a courageous one. He was not to know that the new shore would give not only life but a new kind of death to his children.
Early in the novel, Nandan writes:
My father created a universe of hope through books and reading. But he was careful to remind us that life was always more important than anything read in books.
In Home after dark, the most powerful sections are those that seem to be drawn most closely from life, that is, those detailing the effect of multiple migrations on an extended family. It is in this theme of dislocation and loss, rather than in the story of a relationship, that Nandan’s heart is clearest, her hand surest. I’d like to see her develop it more.
Home after dark
Suva: USP Press, 2014
(Review copy supplied by the author)