Indo-Fijian Diaspora


P. Shailaja


Fiji was a tropical island ceded to Britain in 1874. Queen Victoria accepted it as a shining seashell in her crown next to Kohinoor. Fiji is a part of South Pacific islands and is a close neighbour of Australia. It was culturally and linguistically dominated by Britain. The “Leonidas,” a labour transport vessel, disembarked at Levuka on 14 May, 1879, with 463 indentured labourers from Calcutta. These were the first of over 61,000 to arrive from South Asia over the following 37 years. More than 70% were from impoverished districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh such as Basti, Gonda and Faizabad. Another quarter came from the districts of South India such as North Arcot, Chingleput and Madras. There were smaller numbers from Punjab, Kashmir, Haryana and other parts of India. In many cases Indians were misled or swindled outright in the information they received about their destinations and the conditions there. They had to co-exist with a highly developed indigenous culture, numerically in the majority but already affected by European imperialism.


The contracts, which they called “girmits” (corruption of the word agreement), required them to work in Fiji for a period of five years. After a further five years of work as a “Kulka”, or free labourer, they would be given the choice of returning to India at the expense of the British government, or remaining in Fiji. The great majority opted to stay. After the expiry of their girmits, many leased small plots from Fijians and developed their own sugarcane fields or cattle farmlets. Others went into business in the towns that were beginning to spring up. These were complemented by the arrival of Gujarati and Punjabi immigrants and Surat’s traders, lured into undertaking a dangerous voyage across the oceans in search of promised but largely elusive prosperity.


These Indians came, on the whole, from a relatively homogeneous part of India and as such they developed a language (a variant of Bhojpuri and Standard Hindi) which quickly became the language of the indentured labourers regardless of their place of origin. Such was the impact of this language that indentured labourers to these plantations from other linguistic groups (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Bengali for instance) quickly adopted this language. Subsequently the migrants too, notably from Gujarat and Punjab, acquired this language with  speed. Another feature which emerged was the vernacular version of the Sanskrit classic Ramayan which acquired the status of the “Book” among the Hindu Fiji Indians. The crucial text that framed their lives was the Ramacharitamanas of Tulasidas (1532-1623), the Awadhi-Hindi re-writing of the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana. “Our fate in Fiji,” writes Nandan “had echoes of the Ramayana: exile; suffering; separation...” (1991, 88). The concept of the “Book” or the single “Holy Text” invested with all moral and spiritual authority is something new though it is clear that peasant North India had in fact given the Tulasidasa Ramayana something of this auratic status.


Living conditions on the sugarcane plantations, on which most of the “girmits” worked, were often squalid. Hovels known as “coolie lines” dotted the landscape. The two-to-one ratio of males to females (the scheme brought in 31,458 males but only 13,696 females) created a social crisis as competition for wives and sexual partners led to occurrences of rape, murder, and suicide. Female “girmits” were exploited not only by male labourers, but also by colonial overseers.


Low wages, poor living conditions, terrible oppression by the overseers, disdain from the managers, and no avenues of redress combined with unhappy future made the plantation a very bleak place. Revolt against this unjust cooliedom was frequent. The colonial legal body sided with the planters, prosecuting indentured labourers on criminal grounds for labour protests. Thus the conditions basic to the everyday life of the people included the brutality of indenture, the monotony of work life on a plantation, the attempt to find solace in religious and spiritual traditions, the difficulty of forming family and other social networks in the midst of the plantation, and the attempt to make the landscape familiar.


The events which occurred from 1910s to 20s in various places made it clear that Indian labourers around the world, from Fiji to British Guyana to Canada, shared a common predicament: their labour was needed, but not their lives. “Come and work, but do not come and live here.” That was the message given to the labourers, who struggled to make sense of their existence in racially charged areas, given the British efforts to divide the local populations in Fiji, between desis and Fijians. Political differences between the two communities, rather than ideological differences, have characterized Fijian politics since independence. The Indo-Fijian diaspora, on its part, had reconstituted an India that could not dynamically respond to the Fijian reality. The military coups of 1987, 2000 and 2002 have seriously affected the Fiji Indian’s perception of power and authority and their understanding of reality. Emigration accelerated following the Fiji coups of 1987 which removed an Indo-Fijian-supported government from power and, for a time, ushered in a constitution that discriminated against them in numerous ways, and the coup of 2000 removed an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister from office.


Literary Profile


Indo-Fijian writing is twenty-five years old, and consists mainly of poetry, short stories and novels. Dislocation and disorientation have predisposed writers to emphasize a sense of dislocation, dereliction, abandonment and towards a treatment of the fragmentation of the psyche. Vijay Mishra advances the theory that “Girmit ideology” informs Fiji Indian Literature, culture and consciousness. It is an ideology shaped by “thwarted millenarian expectations, by nostalgic links with the cultural traditions of the Indian centre, by perceived threats from the indigenous presence, and the political and social apparatuses of control and manipulation installed and implemented by the British colonial administration in Fiji.” (Nelson 1992 XII) Indo-Fijian writers, true to this, have concentrated on the history of Indian indenture itself—on the trickeries of recruiting, the crossing of the black waters, life in the bhut len, (the haunted lines) and the complicated legacy of the indenture period. Two writers, Subramani and Satendra Pratap Nandan stand out, who in addition to the above mentioned themes also write on the present state of Fiji Indians.


Indian populations imported to work on the sugar estates became populations in permanent ancestral exile, suffering dislocation and disruption, inevitably a part of the experience of transplantation. Out of this deracinating experience only two fragments have emerged: both by a girmit man named Totaram Sanadhya. His “My Twenty-one Years in Fiji,” and “The Story of the Haunted Line,” both autobiographical fragments, are priceless pieces. Both narratives were written in Hindi with the help of Benarasi Das Chaturvedi, a journalist. Satendra Nandan rendered the latter into a long poem “Lines Across Black Waters.” The speaker writes,


Homeless I had come in search of paradise

This house of hell was now all mine.           (Paranjape 312)


The poem is barely six pages but filled with the haunting dread and submerged suffering of a very sensitive man. It sums up the essential experience of the diasporic identity of a people forging ahead often against overwhelming odds.


Subramani’s stories in The Fantasy Eaters: Stories from Fiji encompass nostalgia for an imagined homeland, family breakdown, betrayal of the promise offered by indenture and a commitment to their adopted land. His early short stories convey a deep feeling of anguish. The protagonist often seems paralysed by antagonistic forces: he is tom between a wish to take refuge in his Indian home and a desire to get into contact with people outside his own community. “Sautu” directly connects the indenture period to its protagonist’s mental breakdown. Dhanpat, the village’s inhabitant, eventually recognizes that his enclave existence is based on a sub-conscious refusal to accommodate forces, ideas, cultures and histories that engirdle it. After such knowledge, there is the inevitable loss of reason and final entry into madness. In his “Gamalian’s Woman,” the background is the indenture period, and Mrs. Gamalian is mad at the end of the story. But her madness in one sense sustains her and enables her to recoup in dreams her indenture losses. Eating the bizarre soup she concocts of what she thought to be money, Mrs. Gamalian is consuming the false promises of wealth on which indenture depended. In a state of living death, however, she can only adjust to the disruption and psychic fragmentation caused by history through fantasy and madness.


Subramani believes that literature, by emphasizing shared aspirations and symbols, provides a means of healing the rifts in a culture divided along racial lines. Though he depicts Fiji as a psychological wilderness in The Fantasy Eaters, and his short stories speak of Fiji as a land of narcosis where “99.8 percent of the people...are psychosomatic...running from the disorders of temperate wastelands,” (26) his later writing focuses on the need of the hour. His Altering Imagination, a collection of twelve essays and twelve speeches all written and delivered between 1976 to 1992 represent the worst time in the thinking of Fijian people. Fijians were under the influence of the ideology for cultural purity, protection from outside influences and a search for a mythologized past. Though Subramani criticizes both the communities for their insularity, his focus is on Indo-Fijians. He says: “I believe our most glaring failure is that we have not developed a proper sense of values. As a community we have become blind in our pursuit of material things at the expense of spiritual life. We have put the best of our creative energy to accumulating material goods, thus inviting the envy of others.” (167) He kept urging them to “pass from the boundary of family affections into a larger realm of friendship and service of all.” (21) He very tentatively suggests that beyond fantasy and madness there is the possibility, for the imported populations, of real adaptation and growth in a multiracial Fijian present. But it is only a very tentative beginning. The present is depicted in terms of a future potential, growing out of the divisive past toward a fragile contemporary truce.


The first Hindi novel to have emerged from the Indian diaspora is written from Fiji, the Ramcharitmanas country, by Subramani. His Dauka Puraan is a triumph for the Fiji Hindi language which is a mixture of Bhojpuri and Awadhi. It is written in the vernacular the author heard when he was growing up. With a love story, murder and mystery included, it entwines history and village life as told by Fiji Lal. Subramani talks about the book being a sort of the 19th Puraan. The book is written in the style of the Puraanas, 521 pages, but in a humorous way. Puraan being a scared text and where as all the 18 Puraanas have come out of India, Subramani says “lets say that this one had emerged from Indians overseas. But this one is not a religious Puraan. Since it has come out of an ex-colony, things are bound to be a little daukish, slightly up-side-down or even whacky. This is a comic Puraan.” The stories of Fiji Lal (an old villager) as told by him to a visiting scholar to his village is what the book is about. Subramani says of the character of Fiji Lal, “He is a bit of a tramp, a person who had travelled in Fiji, makes things up at times and he tells his stories to this visiting scholar in a three day sitting.” It is, however, more than just Fiji Lal’s own stories. These stories are the ones which colour the history of the little things, the important events and introductions, the humorous history of real people, the unwritten and almost forgotten history of their way of life.


Satendra Pratap Nandan has also been acutely conscious of the weight of the girmit experience, its contradictions and its function as a defining source of indenture consciousness. The girmit experience and its relationship to the creative consciousness is expressed in his writings. Nandan writes,


youth I lost here, and grace

i gave to this island place.

what more than a man’s age

can one give to history’s outrage.


i have lived this exile

more gloriously than rama

and built kingdoms, you may find,

nobler than ajodhya

in my ancient, eternal mind! (1985, 54)


The new kingdoms are nobler but they are fictive. Satendra Nandan was born in a village near Nadi, Fiji and studied at the University of Delhi and Leeds. He taught at the University of South Pacific from 1969-87. He was elected as a member of Fiji’s Parliament (Labour) in 1982 & 87 and served as a minister of Health, Social Welfare and Women’s Affairs in the short lived Dr. Timoci Bavadra’s coalition government. His semi-autobiographical novel The Wounded Sea is framed by his experience of imprisonment, cruelty and humiliation as a minister in Bavadra’ s cabinet, during the Fijian coups in 1987. He moved to Australia following the coup. He is a man of letters with a strong belief in universal human rights and a clear sense of understanding. The novel compares the uncertainties of a Labour politician in post-coup Fiji with the peasant certainties of a childhood spent in a Fijian village. The narrator’s triumph lies in his attempts to find a way out of the morass of personal, communal and national deceit.


The problem of defining the authority of the native and the place of the migrant is a challenge to both the writers and critics. The Indo-Fijians who often gave the impression of taking for granted the institutional order (of ramarajya of Ramayana), and for the sake of cultural cohesion ignored the contesting world-views, began to realize the changed reality. Writers like Nandan write about the precarious condition of the Indo-Fijians, descendants of indentured labourers. His poetry collections deal with a transplanted community straddling two worlds and struggling with an unfamiliar landscape and culture, while hanging on desperately to the remnants of a tradition that was becoming increasingly meaningless. Voices in the River is concerned with the infinities of Life and Death reflected in the minutiae of life. He expresses alienation, racism, prejudice, even death, in “a landscape of little ruins.” The poem “Inward Death” tells us:


The death of a king

A cataclysmic event

The holocaust

Of Auschwitz-Shatila-Sabra

All made by men like you and me

A shipwreck on Nasilai reef

A tempest in a Shakespearean sea


These are not necessary

For a tragedy

Happens anywhere, anytime.


In his novel The Wounded Sea, he claims that “indigenous racism, like local liquor, is worse than the imported kind.” (139) He specifically refers to the unfortunate events of Fiji, where he reminds that native sovereignty comes at the expense of the disfranchisement of Indians. For Nandan the trauma of 1987 lingers in his memory in the image of Fiji as a perpetually “bleeding, unhealing wound.”(168) At the same time his concern is with forgiveness and healing. In a poem “The Village is Burning” he says,


Only the fish will live

Unless we learn to forgive.


His book of essays Fiji: Paradise in Pieces and his memoir Requiem for a Rainbow contribute to the roman fleuve of this grandson of indentured Indian labourers whose rights to a free and fulfilled life in Fiji, like those of many others was flagrantly violated.


One finds in the language of the Indo-Fijian writing—words and phrases like kala pani, narak (hell), bhut len (coolie lines), girmit (agreement). They have become an essential part of the literary vocabulary. Satendra Nandan in “The Old Man and the Scholar” uses Fiji Hindi’s vocabulary and rhythm to create both the journey from India and the new world of the indentured laborer:


bhaiya, rowat-gawat



hum sub ain.

(Brother, crying singing,

shifting swaying,

eating farting,

we all came.)         (1977, 26)


For imaginative writers in Fiji, adjustment to a new world had seemed to involve an escape from colonial history into the potentialities of a racially hybridized present. Until recently, the native Fijian population provided the Indo-Fijian writer with potential access to a “timeless” world where history is transformed into legend, and the journey and indenture become only a remembered dream. But with the increasing interrogation of values naturalized by the dominant discourse, much of this has changed. The constraints on writing since the coup, involving censorship of creative work (and even of literary criticism and book reviews), have drastically curtailed Indo-Fijian publication. When resumed, the perspective of the Indo-Fijian writer may also have altered.