Val d’Issoire, France, May 2020
In late February of this year, I moved to a little village in the Haute-Vienne region, deep within the French countryside – right before a flu-like virus began its incursion, causing countries to shut down man-made borders to outsiders. I moved here to work on a novel, Banjara, a fictional re-telling of my indentured labourer ancestors (also outsiders) who travelled from India to Fiji, transported to milk sucrose from sugarcane for the Empire, while the Empire milked their sweat for their own greed. Just like me, they moved to a new land for their work too, although under a duress that still makes me bubble with anger.
For me, the French countryside was meant to be a place where I could be very quiet, to hear vital elements of my ancestors’ story. A place where I could remove myself from the tussle of daily life in Sydney… in essence, to write.
But writing about my ancestors hasn’t come so easy. On March 17th amidst COVID-19’s sweeping aggression over Europe, President Macron ordered us all to retreat inside, and Banjara retreated too, into the distance.
Instead, my pen became a way to document this new living, as a kind of ritual of my days, a solace of sorts. Because writing is about capturing these new ways of looking, and being in a new landscape or being plunged into a new situation you never thought possible allows you to do just that. It’s about noting the changes and commenting on what persists.
What I’ve noticed here, is how much things are passed down – they do persist. Two-hundred-year-old farmhouses still stand, cobbled together with the rock of the region – granite, schist and sandstone – and beams of rough-hewn trees from the local forests give the houses their frames. I live in the attic room of one of these houses. Sometimes I run my hand along the exposed rock in my room, and wonder who it was that forged these walls.
My boyfriend’s mother, who owns the house, is an English teacher who being unable to see the expression of her students in real time, has begun to feel claustrophobic within the confines of our current lockdown, given the command we must only venture out for necessities. When I hear her coming up the the uneven steps of the wooden staircase to the attic, steps carved by a famed Resistance fighter of the region, I think of her (all of us here in this house) as another kind of Resistance fighter – one of our own time.
When you stick your head out of the attic window and look to the right, you see the main road, which borders the village square, where twice a year the village markets are held. It’s where I bought a white, antique lace petticoat to wear in the summer months, when we will cool our toes in the lake down the road, eating wild blackberries growing along the muddied path that leads us there. I hope.
After one month of being here, despite the quarantine, or maybe because of it, I’ve begun to hear and learn the village’s steady breaths: birds chirping in the dark of 3am, so eager to herald the day, the moodiness of its red hot sunrise, the sulky silver of its moon. It’s what I take comfort in. Because despite so much human endeavour shutting down, retreating indoors or being tightly controlled, I still get awakened by roosters that crow alongside the church bells, even on Sundays when congregations are no longer allowed to gather together.
When my boyfriend and I go for one of our only allowed outings – our designated one-kilometre walk – we often get stopped by the same local gendarme who checks our passports and form that states the purpose and whereabouts of our outing. And yet the sheep we visit still stare at us in and crowd close to the fence, overcome with curiosity, just like they did before.
And like with any new place, I’ve learned to harmonise my own rituals within it. When I wake with the crowing and chiming, I tiptoe down the uneven steps to make coffee on the stovetop. And then I wait until the sun hits the porch, exactly at 11am, so I can write amongst the potted gardenias.
In this strange time where everything feels static and yet things spiral on, it’s these rituals of our daily lives that persist even when things get tough.
Just as this town’s has.
A few years ago, when a bypass trampled past this town, it meant that truck drivers and holidaymakers had no more reason to park their trucks or caravans in the village square and stop for a café or a beer, so now, the petit café, the boulangerie, the pizza shop, the bar and a restaurant are merely facades, their rusted signs still swinging when the wind picks up.
You see the rust in people’s backyards too. Wells once bearing fresh water are now barbed with wire, exposing russet crumbling bricks. These are the same colour of the famed Limousin cattle you can see grazing in the area’s fields.
Yet despite the rust, the other notable colour that becomes apparent in this little village is of course all the green. It is the vibrant green of the leaf lit trees, that line the main road. Or the mossy green clinging to the bricks. It is the colour of the lichen that splotches the stone foundation of the plaque that marks the place where a young Jewish man, found hiding in a nearby house, was arrested during the Second World War.
Despite the static memorials frozen in time, despite the tragedies that have lashed this town, the natural world still persists within it.
The people persist in their own way too. The local supermarket, pharmacy and post office are still the only things open since the bypass and the pandemic. At the supermarket where we buy our buttery crisp croissants, setting our alarms early to do so, the shopkeeper still yells at us. Instead of being in the wrong line, she now grumbles at us for not standing directly on the taped Xs that are meant to mark our distance from each other.
People still poke their heads out of shutters as you walk past, staring at you because they’re the first footsteps they’ve heard in a while, quarantine or no quarantine. People still lose their items while driving tractors in the fields, or walking on the side of the road, except this time instead of a glove, it’s a surgical mask. People still hold their breath when an ambulance careens past, with a feeling they may know why the siren’s blaring.
And so, even though Banjara has retreated for a little bit, I know it hasn’t gone far. This time has allowed me to look at what my ancestors went through from a new angle, one tinged by my perspective of being in a new landscape amidst a pandemic.
Since then, I’ve learned that my ancestors were quarantined too. When those who survived stepped off the boat in Fijian waters, already exhausted, already beaten and abused by the waves and their overseers, they were sent to meagre camps amongst palm trees, the fronds being the only thing offering them a glimmer of home. Their rulers worried that the cholera that ate at them in the immigration camps and the voyage over would decimate the local Fijian population, just as the smallpox they themselves had brought.
I will keep writing about how my ancestors left their motherland, a place bound by their identity, their caste and their religion. I will keep writing about how their lives changed dramatically, wavering in uncertainty on swells they were not used to. And how the only thing that kept them sane were their rituals. They still rinsed their mouths with saltwater, they still scraped their tongues, they still murmured mantras to their gods and goddesses, and they still bathed in moonlight, offering up sweets to the moon.
I know this because I practice these rituals too. They are what have been handed down to me and what has persisted, incubated. When my ancestors continued into new lands despite uncertainty, it is what allowed them to adapt, and keep going.
For me writing this here, in complete lockdown deep in the French countryside, and not knowing when the restrictions will lift, practicing their rituals is a testament to that.
A testament to adaptation. And persistence.
Previously published in the NZ Author
Banjara – an excerpt from Chapter One
‘The dangars are always spoken of as more akin to the monkey than the man, they have no religion, no education and in the present case, no wants, between eating, drinking and sleeping and to procure which, are willing to labour…’
Letter to Sir John Gladstone, 1830
Have you ever tried to gouge the bare earth with your hands? It is harder than you think.
Especially –when you feel blue eyes on your skin.
I hear my Nani’s voice:
—Our people are made of the red dust of Rajasthan. Though we roam and we roam, it is this land we are moulded from.
—The desert will come with me too, I whisper back to her.
I slip the cow bell into the dirt cavity I have made and cover it. The dust bleeds out of the cracks in my skin.
My fingers are full.
The first time I see you, you do not look at me. Even though you are there to look at me. Even though it is me who should keep my eyes lowered. But I can’t.. Every time I turn, I see.
Rolled up sleeve. Pink skin smothered with curly hairs. Cheek flushed from fire.
The crooked khejiri tree next to you leans one way then the next, trying to keep its clouds of leaf from drifting away. You and your colleagues’ black horses, so shiny as if they have been polished just as your boots have, are fettered to its bark. They whinny softly tossing sand with their muzzles, trying to find clumps of stray grass to eat. Our drumbeat begins, and the white bunting of your tents start to vibrate.
We have been summoned to dance for you. You get bored at night, you officers in the desert. Your wives are at home in the cities, busy patting their foreheads with silk handkerchiefs.
But I don’t want your ears to know of the bells on our ankles as we spin. You see the world only through your mosquito nets. That is why I buried our cowbell deep into the earth. I want something left untouched by your fingertips.
—They’re pretending to be snakes, says the one with the barren head, his glass chiming with ice. His rifle balances against the arm of his chair, the fire between us spitting its flames.
He does not know that encoded in our dance is the language of each snake of our region – and, faced with one, he would not even know how to escape its bite.
They all laugh.
But not you, you with the blue eyes who doesn’t look.
The second time I see you, I hear your voice first.
—Let me help you with that.
I put my veil over my eyes and shake my head. But you take the copper pot from my hands.
If anyone saw your fingers sweep my skin… But you are not to know. You string the pot to the tethered rope and lower it slowly. It hits the side of the well clanging, its pulses becoming quieter as it goes deeper.
Your back is towards me and I can see the flecks of your sweat seep through your shirt. Little yellow hairs stunned by the heat, cling to the base of your neck. Your black boots form heavy footprints that stay in the sand long after you are gone. My feet, bare, form crescents that melt into nothing.
When you hand me the pot it is so full, drops splash into the dust.
I notice then, that you are not used to savouring every last drop.
—Where have you been? my sister’s voice cracks.
I hand her the pot full of water and try to hide from her questions by sitting down with her daughter to roll flatbread. When she is not looking, I place little bits of dough on Radha’s nose and we giggle, and we giggle more.
At night, as I put my ear to the earth to sleep, I listen to the breath of everyone around me. My sister’s slow and steady. Her daughter’s breath, fast-paced, as if she can’t breathe enough air in one inhale. Her husband’s exhale, strong enough to quiver the curled ends of his moustache.
The fingernail moon shines through the open window of our mud hut. I get up slowly, so the others don’t hear, and dip my index finger into my copper pot. I take one drop of water and slip the wet under my tongue.
Shana Chandra is a New Zealand freelance writer of Fiji-Indian descent, currently based in France, who works within the magazine and digital publishing industries world-wide, engaging with fashion, art, design and culture. Having completed her MA in Creative Writing in Sydney, she is also an accomplished and published fiction writer and is currently working on her debut novel, Banjara, a fictional account of based on her indentured ancestors. http://www.shanachandra.com