Just tell them I've gone fishing

A son carrying Sonny Boy's ashes for scattering in the sea. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

A son carrying Sonny Boy's ashes for scattering in the sea. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

Steven Ram Narayan (universally known as ‘Sonny Boy’ or ‘Uncle’) was born in April 1947 to Ram Garib and Marion Bennion of Elevuka, Ba, Fiji. That was both an interfaith and inter-racial marriage, not common at the time, and it was to their great credit that their 11 children were all brought up as hard-working members of the Catholic parish - as well as the soccer clubs and fishing fraternities of Ba.

The cremation of Sonny Boy's body. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

The cremation of Sonny Boy's body. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

After losing his wife, Lila Wati, two years ago, Sonny Boy would regularly soothe his loneliness by sitting in his landlocked boat for hours. There, he would dream of the days his health was good enough to endure the hot days and nights of long-distance fishing.

Sadly, not all of his children could attend his funeral. Many had migrated overseas because of the political difficulties in Fiji and could not travel home due to the COVID-19 closure of the international airport. But those of his family that remained gave him a fitting send-off.

The cremation of Sonny Boy's body. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

Final prayers on the sandbank. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

Funerals in Fiji are always colourful, but Sonny Boy’s association with the sea made his even more special. Having recited prayers at their home, we took his body for cremation - a common practice for Indo-Fijians - and on the following evening, the Hindi-speaking prayer group of Ba parish shared a Rosary with the family online, as government restrictions currently allow gatherings of 10 only.

Two days later, the men of the extended family returned to the outdoor crematorium to gather Sonny Boy’s bones and ashes. From there, we boarded three fishing boats to carry his remains to where he had spent most of his time - on the sea. We followed the Ba River to its estuary with the ocean, past the intra-river island of Delailagi, where the French Catholic mission to Western Fiji began in the 1880s, and past the Catholic villages of Nawaqarua and Votua.

The flotilla eventually came to rest on a favourite sandbank of Sonny Boy’s, about 30 minutes out on the open sea.

We disembarked, and the men removed their shirts and clambered into the water, holding the precious ashes. After final prayers on the sand, they swam him out and returned him to the sea, where the ashes of ten other close family members had previously been scattered. The boys then joined the men for a swim and games. According to Indian custom, no women or girls were present. The radio was turned on. A bottle of whiskey was produced, and after all had a sip, the greater amount was poured into the sea for Uncle to enjoy.

It was an extraordinary experience for me. While I have boarded boats many times on mission in Fiji, I had never before led a cremation service quite like this. People of all races in Ba shared their grief openly and, had not COVID-19 restricted the numbers, I believe the whole town would have turned out in respect for Sonny Boy.

A poster displayed at the house read: “To all who think of me. Be happy that I’ve gone out to sea. If others wonder why I’m missing, just tell them I’ve gone fishing!”

Funeral lunch back home. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

Funeral lunch back home. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

I will end with a poem that I used on the sandbank that I feel sums up the earthy, loving, sometimes irreverent, humour of Sonny Boy:

I pray that I may live to fish until my dying day.
And when it comes to my last cast, I then most humbly pray
When in the Lord's great landing net, and peacefully asleep,
That in His mercy I be judged, big enough to keep!

Columban Fr Pat Colgan lives and works in Fiji.

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