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  • A Well with No Water
  • Brij V. Lal (bio)

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Meeting of the Fishes

Ink on paper, 2006, 219 cm x 114 cm.

Photo by Oceania Centre staff.

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Ram, my best friend, is unwell. High blood pressure, failing kidneys, and rampant diabetes have all taken their toll on his health. "Not long to go, Bhai," he said to me the other day, managing a characteristically resigned smile. He is living by himself, alone, in a one-bedroom rented apartment in Bureta Street, a working-class suburb of Suva. I visit him most evenings, have a bowl of grog, and talk long into the night about the old days. Both he and I know that the end is near, which makes each visit all the more poignant. As Ram often says, repeating the lines of Surendra's immortal fifties' song, "Hum bhor ke diye hain, bhujte hi ja rahe hain." We are the dawn's candle, slowly going out (one by one).

Ram and I go back a long way. We were fellow students at Labasa Secondary in the late sixties. He was easily the best history and literature student in the school. He knew earlier than anyone of us what Lord of the Flies and Lord Jim were about, the two books we were studying for the exams. I often sought his assistance with my English assignments, and helped him with geography, at which he was curiously hopeless. I still have with me the final-year autograph book in which he had written these lines: "When they hear not thy call, but cower mutely against the wall, O man of evil luck, walk alone." Ekla Chalo, in Mahatma Gandhi's famous words; Walk Alone.

We both went to university on scholarship to prepare for high-school teaching in English and history. I went on to an academic career while Ram, by far the brighter, was content to become and remain a high-school teacher. One day we talked about Malti. "I wonder where she is now?" I asked. "Married and migrated," Ram said. "No contact?" "No. There was no point. It was all too late." Ram and Malti were "an item" at school. Their developing love for each other was a secret we guarded zealously. [End Page 73] We had to. We knew that if they were caught, they would be expelled, just like that, no compassion, and no mercy. Labasa Secondary was not for romantics. It was a factory that prepared students for useful careers, and measured its self-esteem by the number of "A" graders it had in the external exams, and where it ranked in the colonial educational hierarchy with other notable secondary schools such as Marist Brothers, Suva Grammar, and Natabua High.

Malti failed her university entrance exam, and her cane-growing parents were too poor to support her at university. Jobs in Labasa were few, so Malti stayed at home. Ram was distraught, but there was little he could do but go to university. At the end of the first year, he received a sad letter from Malti telling him that she was getting married to an accountant at Morris Hedstrom. After all these years, Ram still had the letter, quoting lines he had once recited to her. "You will always be my light from heaven, a spark from an immortal fire." "Byron, did you know?" "I didn't. You are the poet, man. I am a mere garden-variety academic." Then Ram recited Wordsworth's poem "Lucy": "A violet by a mossy stone, / Half hidden from the eye." Such aching pain, endured through the years.

After completing university, Ram married Geeta. Both were teaching at Laucala Bay Secondary. Geeta came from a well-known Suva merchant family. She married Ram not out of love but convenience, I always thought, after her long love affair with a fellow teacher had come to an abrupt end. Ram was a good catch, a university graduate, well spoken, handsome, employed, and well regarded. Geeta was stylish, opinionated, and ambitious. But Ram was in no hurry to get anywhere soon. As long as he had his books and his music...