Saturday, June 04, 2005

Chapter 6: Bula!

The scene I beheld from the deck of the President Coolidge was one of the most picturesque I can recall. Suva, with its motly, ramshackled buildings, indecisive streets, and dark-skinned inhabitants, lay out there, just over the side of the ship, and I itched to jump over the rail and dash doen the companionway leading to the eocks. "Exotic" and "fascinating" are two overworked words, and I am not sure that they would apply to Suva, but there was something about that town that would make you want to be down there in its streets, among its people, yet at the same time to be where you can view the entire panorama at once. You get to wonder which way you will miss less: by staying where you are as long as you wish, letting your eye wander where interest takes it; or by going down in those streets, into those shabby buildings, and seeing at close hand what had piqued your curiosity from a distance. I never could decide whether distance or proximity lent the greater enchantment.

The most colorful citizens of Suva were, for my money, the police, yet strange to say, I can't for the life of me recall how they were dressed. I remember a scolloped-bottomed skirt and a shirt as being the commplete uniform, and that somehow the combination in color was red and white or red, white, and blue, but that is as near as I can get. It is exasperating not being able to remember what they looked like, for when I first saw them, I was certain I would never foget their appearance.

Although it was not raining on our ship when we docked, we could look across the low-lying coastal area to the mountains not far away and see gray rain clouds draped like garments over the land. It began to rain shortly after we had debarked, while we were standing around waiting for transportation to our camp area. It was still raining when we reached the camp site, and we had the fun of putting up pyramidal tents in the rain. It was all very reminiscent of Rotorua, except that the Fijian rain was not as cold, but it was many times wetter.

Most of the tents were on a slope, which meant that we had running water - in one side and out the other. Our first job, then, was to provide drainage. The second was to provide light. But as night came on, the urgency of these diminished, for with the night came the mosquitoes, and our primary aim then was to seek protection under our mosquito bars from those pestiferous visitors.

Before then, however, we dug drainag ditches along the four sides of the tent, getting thoroughly muddied up in the process. We hoped that, by doing this, we would keep the mud, already three or four inches deep, from getting deeper in the tent, and we counted on its drying up in a day or two. Until such time, one could stand up at the high side of the tent, give himself a little shove, and slide to the low side, something like a skier.

The second necessity, namely light, was met by going out and purchasing candles and lanterns from the store across the street. The lanterns, which burned kerosene, gave more light than the candles, but were less dependable. They were similar to American lanterns in their general design, but were only about one-third the size, and thy were made in Hong Kong or Shanghai. Nevertheless, they answered the purpose until we were able to get something better. The faulty ones were taken back to Arjun, the Indian proprietor of the store, and he made replacements, I believe. He should have, his business must have flourished in the week or so we were there. His merchandise was nothing if not diverse; papayas and bananas in season, kerosene for the lamps, pineapple juice and ginger beer, cheap jewlry, clothing, watches, and soap. (Lux, no less!) This store, I found out later, was typical of practically all Indian stores, and that emant practically all stores, period, because merchants were just about 100 per cent Indians. The native Fijians seemed to prefer vocations less confining. The striking thing about these stores was their similarity. You could find the same sort of things for sale whether you were in Suva, Lautoka, or any small town in between. Just when I ceased being amazed at such things as Lux and Lifebuoy soap, I saw in a store outside of Sigatoka a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, which was dark with dust. I longed to see the intrepid person who would buy that item, for it looked months, maybe years, old.

Before we left the first area near Suva (we stayed in two), we were introduced to a sample of native music and talent. Into a tent one day wandered a little Indian boy, and with hardly any encouragement at all, he began singing a rather interesting little song either in Hindustani or in Fijian, I am not sure which it was. When he came around to my tent, I persuaded him to come in and sing it again, while I tried to take down the notes. I did not need to bother to do that, however, for as it turned out we heard that song many, many times during our eight months in Fiji. It was a Fijian farewell song entitled, "Isa Lei!" I am not certain that it is a folk tune, however, for one of the men showed me a published copy of the ong with piano accmopaniment, guitar arrangement, and English version of the lyrics. A British Army officer was credited with both the words and music, and his picture, as well as a picture of a Fijian "beauty" appeared on the cover. If the officer had merely written down what had been sung to him as a folk song, and if he had written original English lyrics to the melody, the published work gave no such indication. It probably has no more authenticity as a "folk song" than do many of the "Hawaiian" songs we hear, but it is very tuneful, nevertheless. I am a little surprised that I have not heard it on the radio, for many of the men over there were quick to pick up and spread musical "culture". Just how quick, I learned to my amazement one day when I saw a group of fijian youngsters swinging down the road singing, "Roll out the bar-rell, for the gahng's all he-ah." I had hardly recovered from this when they started in on "You are my sunshine." Apparently the Yank's facility for picking up songs and transplanting them was matched by the Fijians' aptitude for learning those that he brought them. But in all the eight months I was there I never heard any but those two songs from the mouths of the Fijians, and, with the exception of the youngster I already mentioned, no songs at all -- native or American -- from the Indian population. (More about these people later.) I thought it might be that most American popular songs were too complicated, and that these two banal, bucolic ditties were about all their musical abilities could manage. Howevere, I have since read incaroline Mytinger's entertaining and informative book on the Solomons that some of the Fijians' Melanesian brothers in one of those islands to the north of Fiji learned the Cole Porter song, "Night and Day" down to the last sophisticated syllable. So I really don't know why modern American music did not make a larger dent than it did on Viti Levu.

But the two-way flow of our respective "cultures" was unmistakable. Particularly was the "flow" in our direction when it came to drinks, such as the native kava. What kava is, what it is made of, and what it does to you, I have never been able to determine with any assurance of accuracy. Never having tasted it myself, I queried several men who had, and their replies were irritatingly inconsistent, especially on the point of what it does to you. It apparently made some men sick, others slightly intoxicated, others awfully intoxicated, and still others claimed to be afflicted with a temporary paralysis of the legs after an evening spent imbibing the contents of the kava bowl. This much I know. To refer to Caroline Mytinger's book again: she mentions kava drinking a ceremonial custom or practice, but does not, I think, mention any drunkenness resulting from it. This again was in the Solomons where the customs might be different -- but not too different -- from those of the Fijians, members themselves of the Melanesian race. If drunkenness is not on the order of the day with those affairs, and with the Melanesians such sticklers for ceremony, I have a hunch that getting tight would be considered very bad form.

By the time we were ready to ship out to the Solomons, some of the men had learned quite a few words of Fijian, but while we were still on the Suva side of the island, none of us knew very much of the language, although we knew how to greet the natives (if we wanted to). It was such a ridiculous word that I was suspicious of it at first; it made me think of the well-known Yale song. Nevertheless, when I tried it out I received a very warm and courteous reply in Fijian. The greeting is, "Bula," and it means not merely "Hello" or "good morning," but, "To your health," or "Good health to you," or something to that effect. And the reply is, "Bula vinaka." The expression, "Sa vinaka na bula" means about the same thig, I think, but it is probably a more formal greeting.

That was about as far as I got with the Fijian tongue. I got no further with Hindustani, or whatever the language of the Fiji Indians is. "Ram ram" (with rolled R's and broad a's) mant "good morning," and "Sitaram" (I am in doubt about the spelling) meant good afternoon," or else it was the other way around. Althought we got more or less used to "Bula," "Ram ram" never lost its absurd sound, and Bob Grady found great hilarity in saying "Ram ram" to every Indian we passed in the truck. Usually, they would say "Ram ram" right back at him, with a deep bow of the head. Then he would reprat it, with a similar bow. Not to be outdone in this formal, if excessive, exchange of courtesies, they too would repeat their greeting, and this would keep up until the truck left the Indians too far behind for the bows to be anything but wordless gestures.

That combination of three letters must be almost indispensible to the Hindustani tongue, for ita appears often in that language with many other variations. It is also a name. On a street corner in Samambula is a tailor shop, the proprietor of which has his name, Ram Roop, in bold letters on a sign over the door. That alliteration never failed to catch my eye and tickle my risibilities whenever I went past the place.

I had heard so much about "pidgin English" as spoken in th eSouth Pacific islands that I listened with great curiosity whenever I heard any of the Fijians talk. According to books I had read, pidgin English was the only language or patois which white men who knew anything about anything out there would think of when conversing with a native. It was the farthest concession a native would make whenever he found it necessary to talk to an English-speaking white person. In short, it was the only way "to really get along." That may be true with British Malaya, with the Solomons and the Bismarck Archipelago, with New Guinea, or with the British East Indies. I was never in New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the B.E.I., or Malaya, and I never talked wiht any Solomon Islanders, so I wouldn't know. But anyone who says the Fijians speak pidgin English will have to show me. The ones I talked with spoke English with varying degrees of fluency and accent; none of them resorted to the silly "He him fella b'long me falla" sort of nonsense which distinguishes pidgin. I never had to resort to mental acrobatics to dope out any such verbal ideographs. Fijians often omitted definite and indefinite articles, did strange things with verbs, or in other ways fumbled for the mot juste, but I was spared the infantile "talk-talk" which, on other islands, blacks and whites alike are apparently forced to use. Ever since I first read about pidgin English years ago, I have wondered how it got started. I suspect it all started with some early Britesh planters or some other kind of enterprising "colonial" men who were too lazy, to stupid, or too busy to learn the native tongue, and who decided that since they were dealing with primitive, and therefore childish, people, baby talk would be the appropriate middle ground. This is a dim view, I grant, and I may be maligning some worthy Britishers most horribly, but these are my conclusions all the same.

I am reminded of an incident related by Sir Bruce Lockhart in his book, "Return to Malaya." It happened in India. A visiting Englishman expressed to his host a desire to meet an Indian rajah. The host accommodated by pointing one out to him and suggesting that he speak to the young Indian. This rajah, an Oxford graduate, was then a sergeant in a group of Indian troops. With gestures the Englishman began the conversation with, "White man fire big gun -- boom!" Standing at attention and listening politely, the young rajah replied, "Tuan." More motions, more infantile words. Again, at a pause, the Indian repeated his polite, "Tuan." Finally, as the author says, his supply of baby words exhausted, the visitor went away and returned to his host, to whom he said, in effect, "A fine young man, that one, but I don't think he understood anything I said." His host replied that he was sure he did, for the Indian had been "four years at Balliol." Perhaps he mercifully withheld the information that the Indian had also been to Oxford!

Why pidgin English apparently is not spoken in Fiji is something I do not know. Perhpas it was once, but since that time education progressed to a point where the linguistic crutch sould be discarded.

The Fijian Army was remarkably well-equipped and trained, remarkable, that is, when one realized that the not-too-remote ancestors of the men of this army were cannibals, and cannibalism is usually a fair index of the primitiveness of a people. The Fijians drove their own trucks, operated their own phone and wirless communications, and probably had a working knowledge of the servicing as well as the firing of various weapons which included the Enfield rifles. I met one such Fijian on Bougainville. His name was Stephen R. Nasau, and he was a switchboard operator in the First Regiment. He was discontented, however, with that job, he said. It was located too far behind the lines. He wanted to get into a rifle company where he would see some action. We talked for quite a while, and somehow the conversation got around to the song, "Isa Lei." I asked him if he knew all the words, and he said that he did and would be glad to write them down for me. He did. Later I showed them to Bob Grady who wanted to keep them. I am sorry I didn't keep the paper myself now. Stephen wrote slowly and carefully, but I would not say laboriously. When he had finished, the writing was neat, black, and quite readable.

We got along well with the Fijians while we were on Viti Levu. As I have said, they were friendly and generally happy. Physically, they are superior to all the Melanesians I have seen, and they are superior in the same way to the Filipinos as well. They are sturdy, and their average height is at least equal, I would say, to the average height of Americans, both men and women. The picture of a husky Fijian ambling along, scowling in the glare of the bright sun, and generally carrying a bolo in his hand, is a sight that makes you glad that these fellows are on our side. But the Fijians recognized this allyship, and acted accordingly, playing the perfect hosts. Considering the many unfortunate incidents that occurred all over the world in which American service men and civilians of other countries were involved, I am pleased to say that there was practically no violence at all in Fiji while we were there, between the Fijians and us. This means not only that both groups were better behaved, but also that there was more of a disposition towards tolerance and broad-mindedness and mutual respect. It was good to see, for there should have been more of it throughout the world than there was.


Anonymous Asher - Dreams Into Lightning said...

The words to "Isa Lei" can be found here. Dad's skepticism about the tune's origins was understandable but apparently unfounded. A Google search on the title indicates that most sources consider the song a "traditional" Fijian song; this songbook, however, attributes its composition to Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba. (The English lyrics in that collection are attributed to one "Lieut. W A Caten", who may well be the "British Army officer" to whom my father refers.)

Ratu (Chief) Tevita Uluilakeba appears to have been the father of Kaminese Mara, regarded as the founder of the modern Fijian state, according to the Wikipedia entry on Kaminese Mara. Mara studied medicine in New Zealand during the war, but under pressure from his great-uncle traveled to Oxford to study history with an eye to a future leadership position. The birth date for Kaminese Mara is given variously as May 6 or May 13, 1920 - which would have made him the same age, to within a couple of weeks, as my father.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes (v.25, p. 264) that "since World War II, indigenous Fijians have been outnumbered by Indians, most of whom are descendants of indentured labourers brought to work in the sugar industry."

"Isa Lei" did finally make an appearance in the pop music world with Ry Cooder's duet with V. M. Bhatt. Ironically, it is an Indian classical musician who helps to popularize the Fijian tune. Even more ironically, this discography describes it as a "Hawaiian/acoustic folk instrumental".

10:19 AM  

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