Read time: 20 mins

The Architecture of Disdain: When Freedom Is an Incarceration

by Mary Rokonadravu
11 July 2022

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 19, United Nations Declaration of Human Rights

 

When construction lacks scaffolding

After he had built his wife and daughters a three-bedroom wooden house, so the story in my family goes, my maternal grandfather, Gopal Sami, built what we can call a temple, a home for his Hindu pantheon. He also built a tiny house where the women of his household could place their shoes before they washed their feet and went to worship. He had died by the time I was born. The tiny tin house became a home for dolls I seldom played with because I arrived demanding stories. I was the adopted mixed-blood child who washed her hair on Mondays and Fridays, plucked fresh flowers the goats had not eaten, then washed brass idols with fresh tamarind paste, limes and rain.

By several accounts, some prejudicial, my mother’s choice of husband was an immense disappointment to my grandfather. My father loved the sea, did not bring his sun-scorched Labasa family to his own wedding, loved the cinemas in Suva, and was prone to extended disappearances when he accompanied smoked copra to the mills on Suva’s waterfront. It did not help that the interisland copra boats were irregular and took several months to make return trips. It is ironic, therefore, that this rejected son-in-law became the only one to keep the temple lights burning every evening, and in childhood I was his assistant.

Two things are etched in my memory: the Indian freedom fighter Gandhi’s portrait hung beside Lakshmi and Parvati and was worshipped as a deity, and I never ever heard ill of another religion.

When I arrived home for the annual Christmas holiday from school, a tray of halwa was presented to the gods who had kept all of us safe through the year. The cows on our estate provided milk, good butter and even better ghee. I admit I did not pray as long as I ought to have at the offering of holy prasadam.

I never learned that my family and I were devil worshippers until I entered a church about a decade later. Had I known this was going to be a lifetime journey of learning and unlearning disdain, I would have walked out. But I was a child, new in a school hostel that only recognised Christianity, and I was a heathen in need of a conversion to embracing the one true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Within a year, I wanted to become a medical doctor and missionary—an Albert Schweitzer. It was also the year I learned disdain.

Even today I am unsure about the word ‘learned’ because I cannot say for certain that the practise of disrespecting and considering people unworthy of respect was taught to me. It was quick and subtle. It seemed that overnight I learned shame: of whom I was, but far worse for my childhood soul, I carried more shame for the growing disdain I had for my own parents. I did not want to be a devil worshipper or be called a worshipper of cows, and my parents made it extremely difficult. The more I learned of the Christian God and Jesus, insofar as following the teachings and footsteps of Christ to love all and love unconditionally, the more I realised my parents were true Christians.

This paradox is to me a revelation of the architecture of disdain and how, in its tangled web, it cocoons a growing crop of supposed freedoms and their taking which result in our continuous struggles. The cocoons exist in the aged saliva of time and its browned hues shield from our eyes the reality of the larger, older web that keeps us in place as we are harvested of our lives, lands, waters, forests, seas, mountains and valleys.

We fight the small battles while the bigger war parks its canons and tanks at the border and its cloaked soldiers take as they have done for centuries—religion is our blind spot, and it is fossilised within us. To extract its fossil bones from our being would be the death of us in some quarters. To survive this, demands a mapping of our freedoms, an inventory of threats, a recognition of our fighters and a deep survey of the origin of this growing plague that keeps society preoccupied, so that it blinds us to the grotesque beast we have not returned to time and again to trim the claws of.

Christianity.

 

The Micro Schema

My childhood was a lesson in the fact that we alone create the beasts that maim and destroy us. By the same token, we are also the ones who can extricate ourselves from the claws of the beast.

In the world of the fairy tale or folklore, a hamlet or town has a beast or monstrosity that lives in a forest, lake, river or mountain cave. The beasts range from dragons, serpents, giants and trolls to grotesque composite beasts which the people placate with periodic tributes or gifts. These tributes comprise virgins, cows, children, gold and other trinkets.

The beast is feared and worshipped, and the life and culture of the people are influenced by the reality of the beast, its demands, its posse of pleasers, its cycle of met and unmet expectations, the resulting peace or savagery, the cycles of famine and plenty, until the sacrifices become custom. In the absence of the heroine or hero that frees the people, the descent into the abyss is fast.

When beliefs and rituals settle as sediment in societies, there is the danger of unchallenged acceptance, and more grievously, the progressive creation of various literatures of origin, migration, settlement and rules that fossilise as dogma.

In very simplistic terms, there is the creation of laws to demarcate boundary, hierarchy, class, rights and ascensions to leadership and rule based on bloodlines tracing ancestry to supernatural beings. Naturally, power and the narratives that justify and sustain it are couched in human-designed oral and written literature that seals individuals or families into perpetual rule and others into servitude, and the foreign into faceless beings whose only purpose is to be conquered, dispossessed, killed, colonised and subjugated. The first series of contact and encounter typically begins with massacre, but the most powerful kind is introduced as a tool of peace, usually a new religion or faith. The new god is introduced as bigger, stronger, more powerful—and the introduction of superior tools and weapons proof of the power and superiority of the new god.

Shame and disdain are brothers. It is quite a simple act to convince a people to change the object of their reverence and worship because it is simple to teach a people, particularly its young, the disease of shame which births disdain and disrespect. In only a single generation or two, the old is usurped for the new.

But this is in simple terms. Only a broad sweep of culture and history.

What and whom we venerate and worship, and the required sustenance of oral and written literature we elevate to sacred, predominantly determine our politics, agriculture, fisheries, cuisine, extractive industries, education, health, communications, information systems, commerce, trade, justice system, our morality and our social systems.

They determine how we perceive the natural world and its limits; the creativity, wisdom, skills and learning we build into our education system; how we define food and nutrition and how we produce it; what and how we communicate and inform; and what and how we trade.

Critically, they determine our perceptions and our sense of morality and justice—how we define right and wrong, its accessibility to all, our protection of the vulnerable, including those we deem foreign or stranger to us.

When I became a Christian, I believed my parents and all family who were Hindus to be heathen and in need of the saving grace of Jesus—that they needed to be born again or they would burn in hellfire. The Christian literature—the anthology of poems, laws, regulations, short stories, history, genealogy and marvel constituting the Bible automatically relegated me to being the saved and enlightened one, superior to my own parents and family.

But the paradox is in the lived experience: the full, humble and complete demonstration of the example of Christ and Christian principles of love, compassion, empathy and care for the poor and afflicted—for the orphan, the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the widow, the homeless and those neglected by family and society—rested in my mother and father.

It did not rest with me. Neither did it rest in the churches and congregations I belonged to. It was predominantly the gospel of fear where hell and damnation were standard fare, homosexuals and lesbians were maimed with barbed tongues pronouncing them unclean and widows and the poor largely depended on government social welfare support that monthly covered for some soap, rice and tinned mackerel.

However, when I returned home, I was reluctant to light the temple lamps in the evening. Neither did I wish to carry the tray of halwa, keer and slices of freshly picked bananas, pink guavas and mangoes to the temple.

I sat at the kitchen table and ate a bowl of keer—eating the sweet cardamom milk rice first, then progressing to the raisins I had pushed aside to enjoy at the end. My father took the trays alone. In the slow darkness, I saw the gentle lamps flicker from the temple windows, a gentle breeze blowing from the soursop and neem trees behind the fencing.

When I left our kitchen’s back windows and returned to the table, my mother was placing tea and empty bowls for fresh fruit and halwa for all of us.

‘You forgot to wait for your father.’

I can still feel the lump in my throat as I did that evening.

I did not say that knowing I was impatient and hungry, he had served me keer before going to the temple.

I have not touched keer as an adult.

 

Freedom and its offspring

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 18

 

Our recent history reveals that despite data-supported, evidence-based leaps in education and gains in health, economic and social conditions, for the most part, society is increasingly polarised and atrophying in democracy, media and public institutions. The symptoms of the beast at work include deteriorating media freedoms, freedom of expression and the rising walls threatening the areas of sexual orientation, race, religion, health and the most basic rights to food, nutrition and water, among an inventory of others.

Among the many rights and freedoms articulated in the International Bill of Rights through the UNDHR, freedom of expression holds a figurehead role because its remaining alive guarantees the growth and celebration of all freedoms, and the rapid, necessary and appropriate response to address any which begins to falter or weaken. Without freedom of expression, the monitoring, information, analysis and sharing of the status of other freedoms can be killed by no information, disinformation and/or misinformation. The rise of digital technology and networks and the failure of national and transboundary regulations to adequately address negative impacts further exacerbate the atrophying of institutions and society.

My childhood and subsequent teenage years on two small islands, Koro and Ovalau, in the Lomaiviti province in central Fiji, revealed to me the tentacles of disdain and the false garments of friendship and care it can sometimes arrive in. Today, the countries of the Commonwealth and the world at large continue to fight for freedoms and rights continually desecrated by nations, religions, classes and institutions we progressively build into grotesque faceless monsters.

Our shared histories reveal long and growing lists of fighters who battled for political freedom, the vote, self-rule, education, land, water, forests, seas, health, sexual orientation, property, work conditions, employment, information and media rights—a suite of freedoms and rights that guarantee human dignity. Were it to be mapped each time a right or freedom were threatened or violated overnight and the long years, sometimes generations, it takes to restore these, an interactive map would display constant and increasing explosions and fiery spreads with the passage of time.

At its heart, grief is seldom an explored subject in the conversation about rights and freedoms and our expression of it. Yet, as a writer quite aware of the inspiration and process of my imagination and craft, grief is a constant fuel, a steady fire for the creation and development of stories. We, artists, eat grief to muscle out our stories. Grief comes from anger and writers learn early how to pick up the unprocessed anger that can lead to the abyss. The act of thinking, the act of writing, births forgiveness and power. As a writer largely living internally, my chosen and nurtured ways of quietude do not place me on the street with a placard, but they certainly infuse the telling of stories.

I learned this from my parents; my mother was illiterate, and my father was literate in Hindi, which he studied for about three years at elementary level. His learning continued from religious activities, from poetry and song accessed in the dry sugarcane region of Wavuwavu, out of the township of Labasa in Fiji’s northern island of Vanua Levu. My writing journey did not begin with books. It began with an ocean of oral stories told by an incredible mix of indigenous and Indian indenture-descended folk I was blessed to have around me in my infancy and childhood.

My Tamil South Indian maternal family’s love and grit, my father’s Telugu sensibility, and the grace and openness of the indigenous Fijian iTaukei people around us forged a family that, from infancy, placed on my lips the words of aunt, uncle, grandfather, grandmother across a web that did not share blood. I was even blessed with an openly (yet unpoken) gay indigenous Fijian uncle who babysat my also-adopted younger brother and helped my mother and other women in the kitchen when copra-cutting season brought an influx of workers onto the estate. He wore loose cotton pants and shirts, wore his hair in a huge Afro, spoke with a lilt, baked tea buns and shared a sisterly relationship with my mother. He was prone to bouts of what we now know as depression and would arrive home with a bundle of clothes to spend a few weeks, fish, tell stories and cook with my mother. Like my father, he also had an AM transistor radio. On Sundays, Tata Pita’s voice would ring all day with the choir singing coming across the airwaves as he cooked, ate and picked ripe custard apples and mangoes for everyone at home.

I return to grief.

For me, grief settled in when I first became aware of my disdain for all things that were beautiful up to that point in my life. I was to discover years later that when one gives in to disdain and the disrespect that comes with it, albeit largely unexpressed, it is injurious to the self.

It was providential that I was a voracious reader, curious and a lover of history and life in its multiplicity. It did not take me a year to read and understand that we were victims of the British-designed Indian indenture system, but more than that, the British-led dispossession, loss and plunder that was unleashed on Fijian indigenous peoples with the support of a faction of Fiji’s chiefs, themselves afloat on an uncertain ocean of change and eager to maintain position and power.

When our histories of oppression and monumental losses that we do not acknowledge are not transmuted as anger, then carefully moulded to grief that can be processed into brackets of healing to enable the recovery from intergenerational trauma, we are bound to carry misplaced hate and misplaced loss.

All the freedoms and rights granted us by the United Nations do not guarantee the freedom and rights to truth and restitution—critical to the enabling of historical healing and awakening. Without those, our current freedoms are an incarceration as we spin within the same carnival that grants us occasional wins but never the ultimate awakening to our true selves.

In a world where the binary of truth and untruth is fast being enveloped by the darkness of doubt to render us cynical, disbelieving or even powerless and unwilling to engage in seeking truth at all, hope rests in fiction.

Because fiction drops us into the depths of imaginary worlds sometimes like ours and allows us to eat, walk, sleep and redeem ourselves.

This is why I write.

Fiction offers us possibility—any we can conjure from the ink soaked into dead trees flattened by metal presses and bound.

 

On fabrics

We are told the world is fragmenting and breaking apart—divides in wealth, food, water, opportunity, access and rights are further deepened by ever-isolating moves in digital technology and spaces, voice and ever-diminishing spaces for democracy, feminism, LGBTQI+ peoples, indigenous peoples and children who deserve the best of the previous generations as an inheritance in terms of physical, cultural and spiritual legacies.

We are deceived by the notion of inevitability and the notion of the natural order and progression of history and we breathe through it every minute, hour, day, month, and years.

As the courageous among us stand in the frontlines each time a new beast emerges to potentially maim or destroy us by tearing into our bodies, food, water, land, forests, oceans, and homes in the form of policies, regulations, deals and laws, it is easy to slip into the falsehood of inevitability—that this is all there is to us, that we cannot reverse things, that it is too costly and difficult to change at this point.

Where we feel the textures of the synthetic fabrics of inevitability and natural order and progression, we need to remind ourselves of the natural fabrics of hindsight and foresight—stories do this for us.

Every civilisation is seeded and fuelled by stories—narratives that give it legitimacy, expansion and robust life. We live in an era where our religions and beliefs, grounded on literature that serves origin stories, laws, regulations, good ways of living and narratives, promise us an afterlife.

While religion can be used for good, it is the mass undertaking to use it for historical and new forms of imperialism for the profit of a few that is destructive. In my part of the world, Christianity takes root, and more recently, the gospel type featuring wealth-making televangelists.

Whether one is Christian or not is irrelevant. We live in a world designed, seeded and perpetuated by peoples who exploited and then coerced populations into global economic systems riding on Biblical calls for multiplication and dominion. The Christ voice of love, empathy, compassion and the call for social justice is distorted for disdain of the sick, the poor, the stranger and the weak.

Conversations about gender and sexual diversity remains one of the most difficult issues in many Christian institutions and communities. The freedom to express one’s sexuality and sexual orientation is granted through international conventions, but Christianity’s acceptance of diversity is at the speed of a heavy plod. In spaces where it is accepted, it is largely rationalised through the unconditional nature of Christ’s love, hinting that sexual diversity is an error against nature but that the call to love covers that error. It is seldom a full recognition and acceptance of the fact that human beings have been gender diverse throughout history. It is our cultures and societies that have had huge variances in acceptance and accommodation.

If we are to surmount the challenges we currently face as a species, one of the narratives from Christian texts that we need to question is the command or invitation to ‘multiply and dominate’, a narrative Christianity has progressively sought to tone down with the narrative of stewardship – that we must be good stewards of nature. The problem with the stewardship narrative is that it still places human beings at the apex and gives it the responsibility of care for nature or creation. Indigenous science and now Western science demonstrate that human beings are not superior but are part of the ecosystem of life, and arguably its worst component. A re-reading of Christianity and its role as a driver of Western culture, politics and history is needed within Christianity.

When we sit at the forefront of the climate crisis and adhere to a faith, we are reluctant to examine the imperialistic, capitalist and patriarchal aspect of the situation. In order to glean spirituality and love, the manifestation of which is our sense of social justice, we compromise our ability to address this historical aspect of the world we inhabit.

To question the history of Christianity, and all faiths for that matter, is not an act of a lack of faith, disobedience or arrogance. For over 2,000 years, the world has predominantly been carved and shaped by Christianity. It has brought us to a juncture where it is timely to have the conversation about its toxic and destructive features that sit at the root of the systems that render other human beings unworthy of dignity.

While rights and freedom of expression diminish throughout the world, and our attention spans shrink with too much information, it is imperative we recognise that as long as we do not harness the strength to scrutinise the source of our value systems, our already-diminishing freedom of expression is an incarceration—a prison to keep us locked and looped in a circle of small battles, while the real war remains invisible and continues to take from us, as it was designed to from generations ago.

 

My mother plants fruit trees

The summer months in Fiji are the season of cyclones. Every fruit may burst with sweetness in the plantations and forests, but there is always the knowledge that killer winds will take them all, including human life.

But my mother was a planter of fruit trees—and without ceremony, fanfare or keeping inventory. She just kept seeds and replanted them.

I remember following her deep into our estate one December. She walked off the track into an uncultivated portion and disappeared in the wild botanical growth. I followed, to see she had made a small clearing and planted a mango seed.

‘But this is so far from home,’ I said. ‘Even the men don’t come here to cut copra; see there are no coconut trees here.’

‘It’s for the flying foxes,’ she said, ‘and all other birds. They eat too. And when the mangoes ripen and fall, other animals and insects will eat as well.’

The love that all belief systems profess is found in the everyday and in the ordinary. In the mango. In the bat. In the fat dragon-fly. In the woman at the edge of a coconut plantation. In the halwa. In the cardamom in the keer. In the cow. In the milk. In the laugh of a gay Fijian man in the month of December in the 1980s.

I have never forgotten my mother’s voice and the freedom it granted me that hot December afternoon.

I did not recognise it nor claim it then.

But it is mine now.

About the Author

Mary Rokonadravu

Mary Rokonadravu is a Fijian writer. She ran a prison writing programme in seven correctional facilities in Fiji’s capital, Suva, for four years, and edited the Pacific’s first anthology of prison writing, shedding silences, in 2008. She won the 2015 Regional Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Pacific) and was shortlisted in 2017. Her dream is to contribute to the growth of a vibrant Pacific islands writing and publishing sector – and to Pacific islanders reading and valuing their own stories and voices.
Twitter: @rokonadravu2

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