09 August 2010

Coming of Age in Tonga, Part 2

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

Next on our social agenda was a wedding. There is some perversity in human nature that makes adversity and absurdity more interesting to write, and probably also to read, and I have certainly filled many of these pages with such tales, but I would be remiss were I to allow 'Ilaisa Helu's wedding go by without comment simply because it was neither a fiasco nor a festival of the bizarre. It was, in fact, a splendid affair. Well, yes, 'Uta did indeed nod off in the church, but that is quintessentially Tongan.

After the ceremony, I got to meet my doppelganger at last. Back in February, Sisi'uno Helu had walked beside me in her father's funeral procession for several blocks, then she had done a double take and exclaimed, "I thought you were the Prime Minister!" I had been combing my white hair straight back at that time, it having been several months since my last haircut, having been in the kingdom less than two weeks, I had no idea who the Prime Minister, much less what he looked like. Now, outside the church nearest the Helu home, I was shaking Dr. Feleti Sevele's hand. After introducing myself as a doctoral student and an instructor at 'Atenisi, I said, "I'm told that people have mistaken me for you, so if in future you face going into a tough situation, I could stand in for you." Anything for a paesano. After all, perhaps his family's name was Tonganized from Savelli, the name of a Calabrese comune a few kilometres from my paternal grandfather's village. It would account for the uncanny resemblance.

As it happened, I had dressed like a Calabrese for 'Ilaisa's wedding; 'Uta and Tai expected me to be the Godfather and the look the part: a charcoal grey suit, black shirt, white tie, and of course, black wing tips. Years earlier, dressed thus, someone had asked me if I were a priest. "You could say that my work brings people closer to God." Once I had even visited a cousin in the county lockup in my "native dress." The sheriff's deputy had asked if I were his lawyer. "No, I'm a rocket scientist." I had in my wallet my current membership cards from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and from the British Interplanetary Society in case the deputy cared to pursue his line of inquiry.

But I digress. It was only a few blocks from the church to the 'Atenisi campus, where a large tent had been set up, and underneath it four rows of tables and benches. Here we had a traditional Tongan feast: more chicken, pork, manioke (a.k.a. tapioca or cassava), kumara, and breadfruit than anyone could possibly eat. Up in front many mats were placed on the ground, where sat the bride and groom surrounded with their wedding presents and facing the King's niece, who sat alone and silent at a small table with a bottle of wine that remained unopened throughout the feast. Being royalty surely must have its perquisites, but at times the job must be only slightly more interesting and less interesting than being a night watchman, whilst requiring the extraordinary discipline to appear genuinely interested in one ceremony after another. Everyone around her had a fabulous time eating and drinking and talking. I hope that the young princess enjoyed the traditional Tongan singing and dancing, although perhaps not as much as Meleline and I did, for it was all a new experience to us. There were lines of dancers in traditional dress, men and women performing separately. A few people extemporised; 'Atolomake the opera diva, dressed in her grass mat tavala, boogied her way down to the little waterway that bordered the university's grassy and danced for a minute or so in ankle-deep water.

At the end of the day, a few members of the Helu dogs pack volunteered their services on the cleanup crew, deftly disposing of stray scraps of food as they policed the grounds. When I greeted Lesi with my usual enthusiasm, he curled his lip at me. It might have been that he was edgy from all the activity in his usually serene domain, or it might have been his astonishment at discovering that his best friend was the Godfather. In any case, when I saw him again the following day, he was happy to receive a breakfast cracker.

Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga