OPINION: A complex personality

Api Tora with is signature Cuban cigar with the Sabeto Mountains in the background. Picture: SUPPLIED

Apisai Tora was a complex man whose personality was larger than life.

These brief observations cannot possibly do justice to this enigmatic man who was a dominant figure in Fiji politics for almost half a century.

It is for historians to fully chronicle his life and work as a trade unionist, indigenous rights’ activist and politician, but I wanted to share a little about the personal side.

Mr Tora belonged to a different era in Fiji when politicians would engage in quarrelsome debate in the House, but happily share a bowl of grog outside it.

It was a time of chivalry in Fiji politics. He was a giant of a man with an incisive intellect. The public persona was very different from the private man I knew and loved. To his family and friends, he was a champion of the underdog.

His life was devoted to this singular cause. That cause was to come at a huge personal cost. It meant time away from his family, but they shared him with the nation without complaining.

At home in Natalau, his private time would be punctuated and interspersed with visitors from all walks of life seeking advice or assistance; Indian farmers, Fijian villagers and others. He was as comfortable with princes as he was with paupers.

For many years in the mid 1970s, he was a regular visitor to my family’s home in Lautoka, and a good friend of my parents.

Almost every other Sunday, he visited our home to play poker with my mother and their other friends, Ann Harness, Winnie & Dr Kam Young, Freddie Caine, Anna Khan, Maggie Rounds, Bill Pickering and others.

He loved a good game of poker and could sit playing for hours. I think this provided him a welcome distraction and respite from the stresses of political life and the incessant demands of his constituents and the vanua.

Our house stopped for these poker games as endless cups of tea were served by various family members to the players, followed by dinner prepared by my father who was a wonderful cook.

Images of him puffing on his signature Cuban cigar are still vivid in my mind. I fondly remember his little quips (“Well, I’ll be doggone!”) when the hand he was dealt, was not quite what he expected. He was happiest playing  poker with his friends.

To them he wasn’t the feisty trade unionist and gifted politician.

He was just Apisai, a friend whose humour and company was to be enjoyed. There were no airs and graces.

His brusque manner disguised a kind and generous person. He was not however without his detractors, and was reviled by his political enemies as the devil incarnate.

He attracted great loyalty among his friends and returned it in spades. His life-long friend Siddiq Moidin Koya and many others would have attested to that.

I remember in my first year at law school when I had returned from Adelaide for the summer holidays.

My mother asked me to accompany her to the Lautoka Magistrate’s Court. Apisai was facing a relatively minor charge for some transgression.

Already a national figure of repute, the small courthouse near the old Lautoka hospital was jam-packed with his followers.

When the proceedings began before an aging European magistrate, my mother suddenly stood up in court to protest Apisai’s innocence (and had to be told to resume her seat)!

She was fortunate not to have been cited for contempt, but what this incident showed was that he was a man whose friends would not hesitate to demonstrate their support for him, whatever the price.

He was to pay the ultimate tribute to my family when he requested that my father be buried in his village in January 1988, a gesture that can never be fully repaid.

To Iva, Laisiasa, Livai, Leilani, Lutunasobasoba and the vanua Betoraurau, my siblings and I would like to say thank you for sharing Momo with us and the nation. We mourn his passing. He will be sadly missed.

n Graham Leung is a lawyer and former president of the Fiji Law Society. The views expressed in this article are his and are not necessarily shared by this newspaper.

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