The line separating coup from revolution and survival in Fiji.
During the coups in Fiji, few people died naturally. It was usually the innocent, caught in the crossfire of blazing guns between opposing forces, who died. As the poor ate the delicacy of roast pork at these funerals, they were sometimes embarrassed because it reminded them of their otherwise impoverished situations.
Jiuta Romisiweini had eaten pork at a funeral. Absentmindedly he had used his hands, with sharp finger nails, to remove bits of pork fat from the gaps in his teeth and in the process had scratched his gums. They bled but he did not take notice. After a week he began to feel pain. Toothbrushes and toothpaste were luxuries to the very poor. It would have helped at the initial stages had he regularly cleaned his teeth.
Jiuta lived in Veidogo, an inner city slum, where people were so poor that many ate very few nutritious meals. The slum people had come from the various outlying islands to look for better opportunities they thought existed in the city. They inevitably ended up in places like Veidogo. All the shacks were built on high mangrove posts. When the tide came in, the garbage, made up of shiny empty packages, plastic and empty mackerel cans with their garish labels moved languidly in the brackish waters. The people had grown used to the nauseating smell of the filth the City Council refused to collect since the people could not afford to pay city rates.
This was one of the paradoxes of life. Jiuta realised, that in the islands, food from the sea was so abundant that no one ever went hungry. Even for the idle, fruits and yams grew wildly and succulent sea shells could be collected on the shores at low tide. But in irrational moments, they left paradise and streamed into these overcrowded shanty towns surrounded by filth as they starved slowly. It was as if they had received telepathic messages that the ‘white man’s cargo’ would reach them so that even in the squalor of poverty, they waited expectantly for that glorious day when they would become affluent.
It was only during traditional functions like funerals that people here had opportunities to eat roast pork, rare delicacies they could never eat in normal times. Jiuta felt it ironic that they only ate it when people died. (The pigs that were roasted subsisted mainly on a diet of garbage and dead rodents and even when consumed had the faint smell of the filth of the city.) It made him uneasy at times, feeling that the happiness he longed for in the crowded city might be achieved only in heaven. At such times, he felt at peace with the deceased.
The pain grew worse by the day. Jiuta’s face swelled into gargoyle-like proportions. Because of his abject poverty, he could not afford the ten dollars the private dentist would charge. That was the amount of money his wife made working twelve hours a day in a garment factory making designer clothes that sold at very inflated prices in metropolitan cities. The moment he went to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital at 8:30 a.m., he realised that it would be an extremely long painful wait. It was true that the health service there was provided free but the doctors and nurses were so overworked and underpaid that they often did their work mechanically. They just did not have the strength to care for the countless people who came in a steady stream throughout the days and nights.
The Outpatient Ward was packed to capacity. It was a surreal scene of people clearly in abject poverty attired in the latest designer clothes.
Two days earlier, there had been a civilian coup – complete with tumultuous days of mass anarchy. In the hysteria, people abandoned their civic pride and went into the city to take goods. Thousands looted, pushing supermarket carts packed with stolen goods to their homes. Jiuta and all slum dwellers took full advantage of this opportunity. Later the slum dwellings looked surreal, the shacks of wobbly mangrove posts and rotting timber sporting the various symbols of affluence.
Here and there amongst the poor, people wore Rolex watches and expensive designer clothes. Some young men sported Nike footwear. A men clutching his Bible and massaging his left ear wore an expensively cut Italian suit. Now and then he winced and cradled his left ear. A young lady with a cherubic face wore a white v-necked top with yellow cord pants. In her prayerful demeanour she looked as if she had come from a nunnery. She had gold earrings and a Cartier watch. She massaged her thighs at short intervals. Her only sign of poverty was the dirty flip-flops she wore. Near her, looking blankly into space, was the young Polynesian-looking young man Jiuta had seen so often around Sukuna Park staring forlornly at the fountain as if expecting it to rejuvenate him. Jiuta noticed that he dyed his hair every week. Today it was pink.
Although everyone sitting there had acquired their designer clothes from the looted city, there was an air of bewilderment in their deportment. They had left their serene islands in search of the elusive “white man’s cargo.” In the decaying city that even now carried the acrid smell from the smoldering fires of looted shops, they had claimed their cargo. These were people who subsisted on dreams of being affluent. Yet when in a strange moment their dreams were realised, they became lost in the labyrinth of the concrete jungle. They had confronted their destinies and had been disillusioned by its fickleness.
From where Jiuta stood at the back, he noticed that everyone was in some degree of pain. For a moment it seemed to him that the pain was caused by the expensive attire they had got through dubious means. Jiuta looked at his own expensive Reebok rugby jumper and Puma cargo pants he had taken from Tapoos and the Sports World shop and tried to erase this disturbing thought.
The moment he went up to take his number from the bored looking receptionist, he knew it would be a very long wait. The receptionist chewed noisily on a blue bubble gum. Whenever she felt exasperated, she blew it into a very delicate balloon just visible under her dry purple lips. He had drawn number 380. The numbers being called had reached 18.
He made a quick calculation and realised that he would be seen by a doctor at about 2:00 a.m. This would mean having to sit there in pain for about 18 hours.
It could even be longer because the Chinese and Filipino expatriate doctors were too frightened to come to work. Most of the other local doctors were lining up at the British, New Zealand or Australian High Commissions applying for visas to get out of the country. The US Embassy had suggested politely that people enter the lottery for green cards. People realised that the Embassy was tired of refugees of any sort. As the hours passed, the pain increased to unbearable levels. Each new pain was like a sharp drill being imbedded into his head. He drifted in and out of consciousness.
At one point, he could no longer bear the pain and asked the man in the expensive suit, who was clutching the Bible and massaging his left ear if he had any aspirins.
The man shook his head and whispered that he kept hearing voices in his left ear. “If you hear the voice, you won’t feel the pain,” he said unhelpfully. The man looked up again raising his right hand, “The angels are now singing. Oh, it’s beautiful. The pure innocent voices singing Alleluia! Amen! Amen!” His eyes glistened as he added, “Please go. Don’t disturb me.” He looked irritated that Jiuta had disturbed his feeling of material affluence acquired from the looted city, that surreal world where he felt he came to terms with his life.
Jiuta drank water and walked around the reception room to ease the pain but this only made it grow afresh in strength. It attacked him from different angles in his head.
For aspirins, he approached the young lady with the cherubic face attired in the designer white v-necked top and yellow cord pants. It was only when she looked up with her piercing eyes and love bites ranged strategically around her neck that Jiuta realised her cherubic face was an illusion. There was no innocence in her eyes. Jiuta was momentarily so preoccupied with the young lady’s face that she misunderstood his approach as an advance. “I can’t go out with you now. I think I have syphilis. That’s why I’m here. Also I don’t like the rotten smell,” she whispered coyly. “It spoils the effect when one is aroused. You should know that.”
“You misunderstand me,” Jiuta said feeling very irritated. “I just came to ask if you have any aspirin.”
“Honey would I be here if I could afford aspirins?” she asked him cynically. “It’s hard during coups. All those curfews. People laid off with no money. And when people have little to do, they think of death and babies and women in that order. Business is bad. I take away their fear but they can’t afford to pay.” She shrugged as if this was her destiny.
“Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t come for what you were thinking of.”
“They all say that,” she sighed. “But in the dark you can feel their fear pumping away.” She looked abruptly away bringing the discussions to a close.
He went back to his seat. He decided against approaching the young man with the pink dyed hair. He seemed to read Jiuta’s thoughts.
“You’re not going to ask me for aspirins?” he asked delicately, pronouncing each word slowly in a low voice.
Jiuta grimaced remaining silent.
“You didn’t really expect them to have aspirins, did you?” he whispered in a conspiratorial voice.
“What do you mean?”
“You wanted assurance that we, you, all of us, are all in pain and that no aspirin can cure it. This is local pain, man, that the white man’s medicine can’t cure.”
“I’ve seen you a lot at Sukuna Park,” Jiuta said for want of something to say. He didn’t say that he had observed him staring at the fountain expecting to be rejuvenated by the powerful jets of water shooting upwards to the heavens.
“You’re like me. You feel the pain but it’s inside,” he pointed to his head, “and no white man’s aspirin can take it away. We’re all here because we are confused.”
Jiuta didn’t hear the rest of this monologue. The pain and his weakness overwhelmed him.
When next he looked up, he was lying in a hospital bed.
They had carried him to this bed and forgotten him. The hospital was like a frail body in the throes of death. As people were deliberately shot or caught in the crossfire of rebels and government soldiers they were rushed in. Some people had walked around dazed and were run down by nervous drivers too frightened to swerve. Few doctors were left. Many remained in their barricaded homes. People were brought in wounded and some were wheeled out dead. It was an endless process. Meanwhile those in the various wards were often neglected. There were simply few doctors to attend to them.
The pain came and went. All around him, sick people lay too exhausted to move or groan. Next to him a middle aged man with a pot-belly breathed with difficulty.
Because Jiuta lapsed into unconsciousness at odd times he missed meals. He woke up at nights only to be confronted by orderlies walking by the beds checking to find lifeless bodies for the morgue. Once he felt cold, hard hands hold him. He slapped the hands crying, “I’m still alive. Don’t take me.”
“We are not that dumb,” they told him. “We will only take you when you are cold and lifeless. We were just checking.”
“How come your hands are cold? Are you sure you’re not ghosts?” He was so exhausted that he was not even sure whether all this was happening in reality or in his dreams.
It got to the stage where he was frightened to go to sleep. He would wake up suddenly and imagine orderlies creeping up on him to take him to the morgue. “I’m still alive. I’m not dead. Don’t bury me,” he would scream in his sleep. It got worse when once he woke up and saw that the middle-aged man next to him was no longer breathing. There was a look of relief on his exhausted face.
It occurred to him in his blurred mind that his pain was caused by the clothes he had taken from the looted city. Suddenly it made sense. He had claimed the “white man’s cargo” and in the process had inherited its convoluted spirit. He needed to exorcise himself of its consuming dynamism.
Abruptly he took off his Reebok rugby jumper and Puma cargo pants. He seemed to feel better.
One morning he was taken to the dentist. The Filipino dentist looked kindly at him. He pulled out Jiuta’s rotting teeth smelling of pus and gave him some tablets.
Still weak from not eating well and from sleeplessness, he wrapped himself in one of the hospital bed sheets and staggered out of the hospital.
He felt relieved that he had taken off everything he had stolen. He was now left with his underwear and vest. He resolved to return the hospital bed sheet afterwards.
Out on the pavement he staggered on to the bus stand. There was a puddle of water by a pothole. He rushed over and searched frantically for his reflection. He had imagined that in his pain, his reflection had been taken away as his punishment.
He was anxious to see the fire burning in his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief.