Song for a stolen land: Silence of the Chagos by Shenaz Patel

The Chagos. An archipelago with a name silken as a caress, fervid as regret, brutal as death . . .

The prologue that opens Shenaz Patel’s Silence of the Chagos presents a sharp juxtaposition: A boy in war-torn Afghanistan looks up as a B-52 bomber soars in, dropping a bomb that will tear his mother’s body apart before returning to its base far to the south on the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos archipelago that rises in the Indian Ocean. Further south again, off the east coast of Africa on the island nation of Mauritius, another boy, another mother. Her eyes are fixed on the vast blue horizon, and although she stands intact, she too has been torn apart on the inside. Two scenes, bound by emptiness, confusion and pain.

What follows is a spare, unflinching fictionalized account of a piece of recent history little known to many. In the late 1960s, when Mauritius negotiated their autonomy from Britain, they agreed to  relinquish control of the Chagos Islands unaware that the US wanted it for a military base. In strategic terms the location was  perfect save for one small fact—the islands were not uninhabited. The population, primarily descendants of slaves brought to work on coconut plantations some three hundred years earlier had, after slavery was abolished, enjoyed a simple but secure, comfortable existence with guaranteed employment, a rich culture and cuisine, and a strong community life. However, once a deal was made between the British and the Americans, they were suddenly expendable. Between 1968 and 1973, all of the residents were forcibly relocated, mostly to Mauritius.

Devastated and heartbroken by this abrupt upheaval, the Chagossians have long sought to right the injustice done to them, taking their claim up to the highest levels of the International Courts but after fifty years, and several rulings in their favour, they remain in exile. Silence of the Chagos, first published in French in 2005 and now available in English in a translation by Jeffrey Zuckerman, is an attempt to give these displaced people a voice, to tell their stories. Author Shenaz Patel, herself a native of Mauritius, found that the Chagossians she had come to know and care about were openly willing to trust their tales to her. In turn, her words honour their spirit while the retention of elements of Kreol in this translated text reinforces a sense of existential loss and longing.

Employing a third person narrative with an unadorned yet passionate energy, the account unfolds through the thoughts and experiences of three primary characters as they attempt to cope with and understand their circumstances. Along the way, several cameo appearances fill in some of the missing perspectives—even the boat that carried the final load of confused residents away is granted a personified dream sequence within which one of the most horrifying moments—the brutal destruction of the islander’s pet dogs—is recounted. The result is a tale that rides on a rolling wave of sorrow and bitter nostalgia, a persistent soul deep melancholia—“lasagrin”—that claimed the lives of many transplanted Chagos Islanders and has carried on into a generation denied any actual experience of their ancestral land.

The novel begins with the 1968 Independence Day celebrations on Mauritius. We meet Charlesia who, with her family, were brought to stay in a slum in Port Louis on the pretext that her husband would receive the medical care he needed there, but now, with his health restored she cannot understand why a boat has not come to carry them back to Diego. The place she has found herself in is strange, unnatural, alien.

Nothing was right here. Streets with tight curves, cul-de-sacs, stopping people in their tracks as they headed downhill. Walking here made no sense. Back there, she had glided down the natural slope of the sand with her eyes shut, the sea before her, the sea behind her, calm and beautiful, caressing and stroking their land like a languid body held close by its lover.

Her memories will fuel her stubbornness and ultimately her activism. In the following chapter we learn why. It takes us back a few years, to 1963 on Diego Garcia, when life was normal and Charlesia was where she belonged. Her life sounds a little odd on first encounter—every morning, the adults of the community would rise and head down to be assigned their tasks for the day, either in the administrator’s quarters or on the coconut plantation. But the workday ends early; Charlesia is able to go home, spend the afternoon fishing while the children are still at school, and lovingly prepare a coconut curry for supper. On Saturday evenings community groups would gather to sing and dance and celebrate well into the night before hurrying church on Sunday morning. All of that is lost, when she lands on Mauritius.

Midway through the novel, the narrative shifts away from Charlesia’s story. When we meet Désiré, a young man completely unaware of his origins; Mauritius is the only home he has known. But there is something odd. Something missing. Confused by a strange nickname he is often given, Nordver, or Nord, he finally confronts his mother, Raymonde. After having long protected her youngest child from the truth of his origins, she confesses that the name refers to the Nordvaer, the boat on which he was born. But who was she protecting? Him or herself? She hardly knows where to start:

His birth, the boat, the land, the other land. The real one. The one that spreads outward in her mind and her heart, in her belly and her guts, every night. The land before.

Before fear, incomprehension.

Before loneliness and the sea’s wild anguish.

Before the thieving boat that had turned what ought to have been great pleasure into pain.

Before this land of high, indifferent mountains, of sneering, distant inhabitants.

With her family, Raymonde had been among the last boatload of Chagossians to be removed from Diego Garcia in 1973—they were given no explanation and no more than an hour’s warning to gather all they could carry. Heavily pregnant with her fourth child she is not fit to travel but clearance is given after a cursory exam. Out on the high seas, she frets about her shack back home, wondering if she turned the stove off, regretting that she hadn’t had time to tidy up. Unable to imagine she’d never return. And then her water breaks and she goes into labour.

Raymonde’s vivid account, and the agonizing details of her son’s unconventional birth hold the narrative connection—the metaphorical umbilical cord—between the Chagossian’s homeland and their exile. Yet, for Désiré, life on Mauritius is not easy, even for his (almost) having been born there. His heritage makes it very difficult for him to secure work. It is used against him at every turn.  And the peculiar circumstances of his birth and the homeland he has never known haunt him. He truly feels like he belongs nowhere. Getting to know Charlesia years later will begin to bring the cycle of longing full circle. But to what end?

As a novel, Silence of the Chagos raises more questions than it is able to answer. The story is, as yet, unfinished, even now fifteen years after it was originally published. The historical course of events is not directly dissected in the text, at least not until the end, in the final chapter, and in the author’s afterword. Rather, the narrative form which allows hints to arise both in conversation and in the agony of the main characters, effectively captures the lack of understanding, the absence of words, and the inability to express  loss—a loss that displaced peoples continue to face in a postcolonial reality that fails to take them into account.

Silence of the Chagos by Shenaz Patel is translated by Jeffery Zuckerman and published by Restless Books.