December 29, 1993

New Voices for Fiji

Murray Bramwell interviews Sudesh Mishra about his play Ferringhi performed recently in Suva.

In late December the newly revived University of South Pacific Drama Society presented Ferringhi, a play by Sudesh Mishra. Coming originally from Persian and found in the Urdu and Hindi languages as well as Malay, Ferringhi means foreigner or outsider.

“It is usually a perjorative, which is why I use it,” notes Mishra, “but my character Ferringhi is an outsider-insider. He has local experience as well as experience abroad. When he comes in he can change registers. He can be very poetic at times and then shifts to street language whenever he wants to.”

The playwright could also be describing himself. Sudesh Mishra, a thirty-one year old Indo-Fijian, has close links with the cultural and political life of Suva while also spending extended periods of study in Australia. He lectures in English at the University of South Pacific and is currently a post-doctoral scholar at Flinders University in Adelaide. A poet of distinction, he has published two volumes, the most recent Tandava, published by Meanjin in Melbourne, has been widely praised.

The decision to write for the stage marks a change in direction for Mishra but it is a quite deliberate one.
“I felt if I was going to think seriously about addressing a wider Fijian audience I had to get into drama, into theatre. My poetry is read by only a very small group of people in Fiji. It’s read more widely abroad. I’ve seen plays produced in Fiji by Larry Thomas and Vilsoni Hereniko and they seem to attract a lot more people.”

Not only has Sudesh Mishra sought a more accessible medium he has chosen as his theatrical focus one of the most commonplace activities in Fijian culture- the kava drinking ceremony. His play, Ferringhi, embraces the diversity of contemporary Fiji- ethnic Fijians, Indo-Fijians and those of mixed race. Characters like Seru, Aslam and Chan are immediately recognisable to a Suva audience as is their patois of dialect and street slang. Even more notable is the candour with which Mishra approaches the racial, political and economic tensions that continue to jangle in post-coup Fiji.

In Ferringhi the characters listen to, and tell, stories – their own histories and the new and transforming stories of the larger view, the perspective offered by Ferringhi and the emergent writing talent represented by Sudesh Mishra himself.

Of kava , the strong home brew made from the kava plant, Mishra comments- “The kava board is such a strong image in Fiji, not only of social interaction but social problems as well. Kava drinking takes a lot of time. People sit up all night drinking and it does terrible things to the work performance the next day. It has been isolated as a problem. Some of the bigger companies have banned kava from their premises. Also, kava is a soporific and has associations of forgetfulness and being benumbed. This play is all about forgetting and remembering in another way later on.”

As Ferringhi tells his rich, exotic, magic realist stories the other kava drinkers get drawn in. As Mishra explains-
“They start to listen and make connections- and they remember parts of their lives they’ve forgotten. At the beginning Seru has forgotten that he took part in the 1987 riots. A story reminds him and he gets very upset. Aslam has forgotten his wife in the garment factory. He’s drinking and his wife is working to get income to support the family. Ferringhi tells the story of a worker who has to prostitute herself in her spare time to raise money for her family. Aslam’s realisation comes from this. Mooves, another character, is a slave to the kava board and is ordered around by the others.

Then Ferringhi tells a story about indenture. He finds that it relates to his own situation and he breaks the bilo, the kava bowl. Chan can only tell stories about servicing chicks- his experience is very one-dimensional. Ferringhi tells a story that makes him realise that to be a storyteller he must experience life. For him chasing a dragonfly becomes associated with his uncle and a dragonfly he followed down the Yangtze as part of his journey, eventually, to Fiji.”

Getting the play to production was no easy task. Mishra began the play in July last year and passed it on to a colleague at USP, John O’Carroll, who suggested that Pat Craddock, based in the university’s media unit and who had extensive stage experience in New Zealand, might be interested. Impressed by the play Craddock agreed to direct.

“Then,” recalls Mishra, “we started to look for money. This is Fiji. We don’t have a theatre company or resources. I found a director, then I had to find a cast, find money and a theatre to perform in. It was a long process.”

Resuscitating the defunct USP Drama Society meant that some funds were forthcoming. Then Mishra and Craddock assembled a cast. Seona Smiles, a colleague at USP was recruited to play the crazy visionary Puglu, as were actors who had worked previously with Mishra’s friend and fellow playwright Larry Thomas. In fact Thomas was scheduled to play the title role but was unavailable. Instead, Sudesh Mishra, veteran of only a few productions as an undergraduate, undertook the part of Ferringhi himself.

“I tried to have a mixed cast,” the playwright observes,”It worked well because the majority of the cast were ethnic Fijians which was important for the political implications of the play. It shouldn’t matter- but it does matter in Fiji. It is a very politically charged play. It attacks the regime, it attacks Fijian extremism, it attacks Fijian racism. It also makes comment on multinational corporations.”

But even the cast had misgivings at times. Certain actions depicted in the play -such as when Hen Crusher, the multinational capitalist, runs his wheelbarrow into the kava tanoa were seen as culturally insensitive. Sometimes rehearsals were cancelled while the director and writer took time to discuss the text and its meanings, Mishra explaining that his play was intended to expose social and racial issues not condone or exploit them. In the charged atmosphere of Fijian public life the primacy and potency of theatre is evident in ways that are rare in Australia or New Zealand.

Sudesh Mishra is full of admiration for the cast and their commitment to the production. The play performed three nights to appreciative audiences. But even opening night brought unexpected tensions. That day, the President of Fiji, not exempt from criticism in the play, died- and some were apprehensive that there might be repercussions.

Far from it. Mishra reports only enthusiastic responses. “When I first took the play to Fiji people said- `this play has too many swear words, it’s unrealistic.’ It moves from realism to magic realism constantly. People were worried that it would offend the audience. Extraordinarily that didn’t happen. People were initially taken aback by the language but as the play progressed saw it in terms of the world of the play. Whenever we had a local audience it was brilliant because they got all the in-jokes, they appreciated the street language and references to songs by Bob Marley and Boney M.”

Mishra describes an influential ethnic Fijian who came up and shook his hand after the production. He went away and returned to congratulate him a second time- moved, clearly, by the directness and commitment in the writing. The playwright recalls the incident still with some surprise- “I realised he liked the bloody thing ! That’s an impact I haven’t been able to achieve with my poetry.”

But with the production run at an end after an intensive ten weeks preparation, Mishra describes the playwright’s sense of loss-

“I had been going to the playhouse three hours before the performance and just absorbing things. This old Suva theatre is full of lots of stuff, props from old productions and so on. It’s pretty run-down but full of atmosphere. At the end a member of the cast came up to me and said-`Do you know what I’m going to
do ? I’m going to go home, relax on my sofa and forget all my lines.'”

Fortunately, Sudesh Mishra is already at work on a new play- with new lines to learn, and new and urgent voices not only for a Fijian- but we hope- a wider audience.

Publication unknown.


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