After the end of my aaja (maternal grandfather) Sukhdev’s girmit around 1921, my Dhanus uncle reliably informed me that he settled in Natabua with his wife Gokuldei and their children. My aaja and aaji (maternal grandmother) came to Fiji with their two children, Girdhari and Banwari.
Banwari died soon after their arrival in Fiji, but the girmitya couple had six more children in Fiji. Bans Bahadur was the first-born in Fiji, followed by Dhanus Dhari, Chattar Dhari and Raj Dhari, the youngest of the sons. They also had two daughters who I just know has badki (elder) and chotki (younger) fua (father’s sisters).
Each of my uncles and aunts had an average of eight children each, except Chattar kaka (uncle), who never married and lived with Dhanus uncle all his life. Although he was older then my father Raj, we all called him kaka, a title reserved for the younger brothers of one’s father. This may be because he remained a bachelor all his life.
Although the founders of the Rai dynasty of Natabua had departed by the time I was born, they had left behind a very large and vibrant family behind them. Born the 48th grandson of Sukhdev and Gokuldei, I was perhaps blessed and unfortunate at the same time. Unfortunate in the sense that I did not have the privilege of ever meeting the founders of the Rai dynasty of Natabua. And blessed in the sense that I was born in the only golden era for Indo-Fijians in Fiji. By that time the Rai homestead as well as the Indian community had built up a solid foundation in Fiji as result of the sacrifices and hard work of the girmityas.
The small ten-acre Rai farmstead had been divided into four parts, one each for the four homes that now existed for the extended families of the four sons of aaja and aaji. Dhanus uncle and Chattar kaka shared a slightly bigger piece of land, a judicious foresight on part of my honorable aaja. Four large timber and corrugated iron buildings lined the Natabua road with lay between the houses and the Saru River. All the houses were very close to each other making it very easy for all of us to go in and out of any of the houses at our will.
Luscious sugarcane always stood tall in each of the fields during the season. Located below the raw of houses and in between the road and the river was an orchard, boasting of ten most exotic fruit trees, some of them I have never seen anywhere else in the world. The orchard also acted as the stable for our heard of cows and one or two bulls. On the west of the orchard lay four separate vegetable patches, which we cleared once a year to plant seasonal vegetables. Just south of the vegetable patches lay the Ramlila kuti, the ground that acted as our soccer pitch during soccer season. West of the Ramlila kuti, where formerly Natabua High School existed, was now home of Natabua Primary School. By the time I was ready to start primary school, Natabua High School was relocated in the town and the primary school to the former high school. Soon after that the former Natabua primary school was converted to Fiji’s first Old Peoples Home.
Our childhood days in Natabua was filled with hard work but were very blissful. By the time I became aware of my existence and the environment around me, the Rai clan had become stratified. At the top were the all the sons of aaja and aaji, with Chattar kaka taking a very special role in shaping our moral codes. The oldest of the children were now married of with children of their own, some of them older then me. All of them were in good employment and two or three had to set up homes away from Natabua because of their jobs. The second lot was in the process of either getting married or getting employment or both. The third lot was now in various secondary schools. The last lot consisting of fourteen of us boys, including four sons of our eldest cousins, was in various classes in the primary school; most of who attended Natabua Primary school.
As the youngest lot the fourteen of us, especially the eleven cousins, were allocated to carry out the daily house and field chores. Our day started with cleaning the yards with “bariara” plant broom; milk cows; tie the cows, bulls, goats and horse in the field to graze during the day; feed the chicken; pack our lunches, press our uniform; all before departing for school each day. We would walk up to the school about two miles away together and play soccer for some thirty minutes in the soccer field, before assembling for flag ceremony sharp at 8.30am. The school will break at 3.30pm and we would walk back home for tea and snacks before embarking on another load of chores which included grazing and milking cows again, feeding chickens, working on the vegetable patches and fetching paara grass for night feed for the cows. Each weekday afternoon we would brisk through the chores and gather in the Ramlila kuti for a game of soccer. During the off-season at Ramlila kuti, we would return to the school grounds for our favorite game. After the game we will go straight to the river for a long and refreshing dip in the warm waters of the Saru River. The dip would refresh us to tackle the mandatory and dreaded homework, which we had to complete before retiring for the night.
Out of all the chores, the most important was grazing the cows in the fields, which lay west of the homestead, in between the Old Peoples Home and the Natabua prison compound and the district commissioner’s bungalow in the south.
During the weekday we would graze the cows for just one hour or so, before herding them to the stable for rest.
When bored with the books or chatting with each other, we would go to the Old Peoples Home. Sometimes the cook would give us some leftover food or just some water. We would also prank around with some of the inmates, especially mentally challenged Mungoo and Rajaram. The Home also had some older inmates, who were only too happy to tell us about their stories. I do not remember much about many of them but I recall Bhola, a small old man in dhoti and turban. The reason I recall him was that he could tell us the square root of any number. At first we did not believe him but after checking his answers on a calculator for umpteenth time we were convinced that Bhola had some special skills. He could also multiply, add and subtract any number correctly within seconds.
Apart from amazing us with his skills with numbers, Bhola would also tell us stories about India, the place he left as a young man and never returned. More than thirty years later I can still picture Bhola’s pains when he talked fondly about India. At that time we were more interested in his stories as a pastime for us rather then lending any sympathy to old men’s deep desire to share unbearable grief during his last days in the land far removed from his loved ones in India.
Since I started my quest to seek out my roots in India, I have looked back on the few years during my childhood when I had the audience of knowledgeable Bhola and an opportunity to learn through him many aspects of girmit and about the land and people in India where he lived before he embarked upon his fateful journey to Fiji. At that time and for many years since, I had no idea about girmit and the girmityas. I did not even realize that my own aaja and aaji were girmityas and that at that moment in history they had left my great grandparents home just fifty years earlier. They had arrived in Fiji in 1911 and were their early twenties. The last of the girmityas had arrived in Fiji in 1916 and if they lived to an average age of just 60, most of them must have lived into 1960s; with the children living well into 1970s.
It is was much later that it dawned upon me that even I, being at the tail end of the second generation descendant of the girmityas, was so close to them and had opportunity to talk to atleast one of them. The realization that there were many before me who had much closer and longer contacts with girmityas but did see any wisdom in documenting their histories saddens me for the opportunities lost fore ever.
However my contacts with Bhola must have left some indelible impressions on my fertile young mind. For one he was the first Indian born person I had ever met and his amazing grasp of numbers still confounds me. When later I heard people talk derogatively about the girmityas I always sought comfort from Bhola’s amazing knowledge. This fact also made me challenge, albeit unconsciously, about the stories I was being led to believe by not so knowledgeable as well some more knowledgeable on girmit. Bhola was a very knowledgeable man, atleast in numbers. He must have gained this knowledge somehow in India. But I was being told that only the uneducated and low-castes came to Fiji as girmityas. Recalling Bhola, my young mind must have noted some anomaly here.
The other thing, which intrigued me even as a child was the Rai clan of Natabua itself. I always remember the Rai clan to be fiercely proud people and as a child I had wondered why. And it was not just the fact that it comprised of a large number of closely nit members; the Ali family just stone throw from the eastern border of the farmstead was almost as large as ours. It appeared that there was more emphasis on education amongst us and more priority towards white caller work. I used to feel that the elders of the family were always involved in giving advice to other villages that generally held them at higher status. Although I recall dhobis, mistris and baniyas and some other castes living and coming into the village, the rigid caste system did not exist in the village. I always felt that Rai clan status had something to do with the status held by our aaja and aaji but until very recently I really did not realize why that was so.
In those days for most of Indo-Fijians Fiji was the hub of their world and precious few ever wanted to leave Fiji permanently. We were aware that some Indo-Fijians were going overseas for studies and some even had migrated to Britain and Canada. But these were isolated cases and I remember the whole family packing in the Highland transport bus to see off our cousin who was migrating to Canada in early seventies. Those days even going overseas for a brief working holiday to New Zealand was regarded as a novelty and large number of family and friends would go to the airport to see the fortunate ones off and a similar routine will take place upon his or her return to Nadi airport.
For me the first sign of trouble for the Indo-Fijians in the paradise was in during Diwali celebrations in the University of South Pacific. Many of the Indian students of all faith had worked hard to prepare for Diwali celebrations. During the day the campus was full joy and merriment and in the night several of us decided to walk down to the Suva city center. We had light some decorated diyas lining the entrance to campus. Upon our return fro the city we were horrified to see all the diyas destroyed and scattered on the road. We were told by a fellow students that some Fijian students had done the horrible deed, shouting “kai-Indias (Indians) go back to India’ as they kicked the helpless diyas.
This incident brought to us the soul shattering reality that the Indians in Fiji were not regarded as part of Fiji. I remember being in daze for a long time after this horrific incident. Now the anti-Indian rhetoric, which was beginning to appear in the newspapers and heard on the radio, was beginning to have a new meaning to us. We began to realize for the first time that there was racial distinction between various people living in Fiji. It is not that we did not realize prior to that that Fiji comprised of several races of people; we just accepted that as a fact of life. Now all that was changing very fast. Just eleven years later in 1987 Rabuka staged his first coup against the people of Indian origin living in Fiji.
When the 1987 coups of Fiji happened I was living in London. A dramatic turn around in my personal life had happened during this period. In 1979 I had married an Indo-Fijian girl living in Britain since her parents migrated there in 1960s. Still not wanting to leave Fiji permanently we lived together in Suva for more than a year. But finally in 1980 I made a semi-permanent break with Fiji and migrated to Britain with my wife and unborn daughter. My intention still was to return to Fiji someday.
By the time I learnt about the first Fiji coup in the British TV I had two children, a broken marriage and had just resigned from a very comfortable job as a Metropolitan police officer. Living on the other side of the world from Fiji I missed the lead up to the Fiji coup. The South East of London had only four Indo-Fijian families, which hardly interacted with each other. Most of the several hundred Indo-Fijian families that lived in Britain lived in the west London suburbs near the Heathrow airport. I used to meet up with them once a year for Fiji day celebrations. Eating, drinking and dancing were more popular during these events then discussing Fiji politics.
Therefore the images of Fijians beating Indians that caught my attention on the British TV were soul shattering. For many days the same images appeared on the British TV channels as the events of the coup unfolded before us in Britain. I had hardly anyone to share those experiences. But for some India friends I would have had to deal with the events on my own. The Indian support coming my way during this crucial period was perhaps symbolic of my future affinity towards India. The images on the TV also had a profound image on my mind towards Fijian administration, same as the destruction of the diyas some eleven years ago. I figured some of those Fijian University students must be among those in Fijian administration in Fiji during the 1987 coup period. With many Fijians with similar kind of racist views joining their ranks the Indo-Fijians in Fiji had no chance in Fiji!
However for the next few years as I picked up my own shattered live in the cold and lonely London, both Fiji and India got put on the back burner of priorities. I got involved in several things in order to overcome my personal tragedies and to regroup myself. I joined the British labour party while completing my BA Hons degree in Sociology. I also drove a minicab for several years to bump up my meager scholarship and at the same time became a volunteer at an anti-racist organization.
The politics of the Labour left, the racism I encountered during my police years and the stories of the victims of racism I assisted as a volunteer must have affected my decision to major in Race and Racism for my degree. By 1991 I had accomplished much in my chosen fields: I had completed my Sociology degree with honors, was elected to the London Borough of Greenwich municipal council, was employed by the London Borough of Newham as its principal Anti-Racist Project development officer and was on a part-time scholarship to do my MA degree in Social Policy and Administration. Life was good.
In 1993 I began writing a book on race and racism. A part of my job at Newham Council was to train volunteers about race and racism. I found myself repeating same subject in each of the sessions and decided to document the information in some form so that I did not have to repeat myself each time. Thus began my journey into the field of writing, stage play and eventually film production.
Through my contacts I had met Nayesh Radia, a young actor/director, who suggested that perhaps a play would be appropriate, which can later be made into a training video. We started to write the play but came across difficulties as Nayesh had little clue about what I had in my mind in form of the story. After all I was trying to capture five years of my study on development of racial ideology and racism that captures period from Columbus’s journey to the Americas in 1492 to the present day racism in Britain. In the process I wanted to explain the horrors of slavery and the no less evils of girmit system that followed on the heels of slavery after it was abolished in 1834.
I suggested to Nayesh that it would make it easier for us to write the play after I put down my thoughts on paper. He agreed and thus followed start of my novel ‘Silent Cries-A Journey through four continents’. It took me nearly two years to complete the novel during breaks from my work, politics and post-grad education at University of London. During this period, in 1994 precisely, I made my first journey to India!
A journey to India is a dream for most Indo-Fijian; it is true even today. The reasons for this dream lay in the images in impressed on the Indo-Fijians through images from the Holy Scriptures such as Ramayana and Gita and perhaps to equal degree by the Bollywood movies. But for many of us a visit to India is just a dream, the journey never to be made, perhaps reflection of the unfulfilled dreams of our girmitiya ancestors to someday return to their homeland. Although I had flown over India three times already while going back and forth from Fiji to Britain, it never occurred to me that I could have easily visited India on the way with no extra flight cost.
When that source of labour supply was cut short by abolition of the system, they turned to India, which they were ruling by this time. Apart from looting of India that took place, the British had introduced a system of cash tax (lagaan) that each farmer had to pay the British to bolster their coffers. Now the farmers had to find cash to pay the British on top of the crop payment they had to pay the landlords periodically. This lagaan rather than the any other factors stated by the apologists of girmit drove the ordinary Indian farmers away from their family farms in search of cash. After all these people has been living together for thousands of years before the arrival of the British whose extortionist policies disrupted their set ways of life for ever. The displaced farmers were rich source for new bunch of labors for British and other European colonialists. The British knew this and exploited it to the hilt to satisfy their needs. Thus the indenture system of labour supply replaced the former slavery and the Europeans continued with their global expansion, but for Australia, where the British used their own unwanted prison lot. The British use of their prisoners in Australia clearly demonstrate how cleverly they thought out their expansionist policies; by using their own prisoners they managed to get cheap labour and get rid of the people who they regarded as sub-human in one genius stroke. Kill two birds with one stone. A masterstroke many would say, but a very cruel one as well.
For me the whole girmit saga was very well thought out scheme by the British and not a by-product or isolated incidence in history, as many commentators led me to believe and accept. For me the girmityas were not fleeing from their homeland in search of any paradise or set up new homes from the deprivations in India. For me those who have been espousing these views may be victims of their own agendas or lack of wider understanding of international politics and lateral thinking.
Flying back to Britain from a visit to Australia and Fiji in 1991 I noticed on the flight information screen that we were flying over India. I looked down from the window seat I occupied and could vaguely make out the outlines of India; I was actually flying over my homeland! I felt elated as well as silly. How easily I could have stopped over in India, even during my 1984 visit to Fiji. How easy it is for me to fulfill my greatest dream! Right there and then I decided that my next flight from London would be to India.
However it tool me three years more to take that flight. During that time I thought about how I can trace my ancestral villages in India. I personally had no clue about from which part of India they had come from. The books I read during my research for my novel provided important information about girmityas generally and in particular about those who had gone to Fiji. But it as one thing to know about facts and figure, but a different ball game when trying to find information about tracing my own ancestors. In their wisdom the generations before me did not see it fit to document important information about our ancestors, especially about their homes and relatives back in India. At that time I did not have much clue about availability of the girmitya immigration passes held in the National Archives in Suva, Fiji
The only person who may recall some information about aaja and aaja was Dhanus dada, I though, as aaja and aaja may have talked about their family and home in India. I picked telephone in London and called dada. At first dada was forthcoming with much information and he tried to dissuade me from “digging up the past”. For some reason he was still very angry at his Uma nana. But he eventually he did tell me a bit about his mother’s history. He stated that his mother (my aaji) came from district Gonda and Thana Utraula. He also mentioned Balrampur and that aaja was from somewhere in Faizabad. He mentioned that my aaji’s father’s name (his nana) was Uma Rai and that during the time of girmit they owned much land in India. He mentioned that I would not be able to trace my aaja’s place or relatives in India as the only relative they were in touch with (aaja’s brother) had died soon after aaja and aaji’s girmit had been completed. That was all Dhanus dada was prepared to tell me.
Armed with the above information I finalized my trip for my dream trip to India. A day prior to departure I called my brother Pramodh in Fiji to let him know about my trip, just in case something untoward happened to me while in India. He then told me about our cousin Jayant was in Delhi a study trip with his family. I immediately called Jayant and was very glad to hear his voice from Delhi. The little apprehension I had about my dream trip disappeared immediately and seeing Jayant’s face at the Indira Gandhi International Airport was a joyous occasion. Jayant, who we lovingly called Jenu bhaiya, was not just a cousin but I regarded him as a good buddy as well. Most of my stay was at their rented flat in Haus Khas, in South Delhi. From there I ventured out to Jalandar, Uttar Pradesh and as far as Mumbai, in search of our beloved Bollywood stars.
My quest for girmit also began to take shape from there. Fortunately Jenu had already been touch with his paternal and maternal ancestral homes in Gaziabad and Diwakarpur in Basti. Both his girmitya ancestors had kept in touch with their homes in Uttar Pradesh and the link never got broken. I accompanied Jenu to his paternal ancestral home in Gaziabad and spent two nights in the village. The visit was exceptional one, and I captured some memorable moments with the boys from the village. This was my first interaction with descendants of the girmityas family in India. In fact Jenu’s uncle very much reminded me of Bhola the girmitya who lived last day of his life in Natabua Old Peoples Home.
Jenu could not accompany me on the visit to his maternal village in Diwakarpur in Basti. On this visit I also hoped to look for my aaji’s village in Gonda. But this trip was much longer and tougher. The train journey to Ayodhia was more than twelve hours. From there I was to find my way to Diwakarpur on my own, although Jenu gave me directions.
I managed to find Diwakarpur but by the time I arrived at Jenu’s relatives house I was exhausted. After a short visit I return to Ayodhia, the city of Lord Ram, the hero of Ramayana. After touring temples of Ayodhia, I rested in a hotel in Faizabad, on of the names Dhanus dada had mentioned in relation to aaja and aaji. The next day I began enquiring about my aaji’s village in Gonda.
Ricksha drivers in India are generally great source of information. I told one of them about my quest and he appeared very interested. His attitude towards changed dramatically when I told my great grandfather’s name (aaji’s father) to him. Upon hearing Uma Rai he promptly informed me that I was searching for a Bhumiar Brahmin family. That came as a shock to me because no one had ever talked about our family being Brahmin. He told me that Bhumiar Brahmins were landowning Brahmins as opposed to priestly Brahmins. This information tied up with information provided to me by my Dhanus uncle. I was on the right track, I thought to myself. But the next information from the rickhsa driver stumped me. He told me that Utraula was about one hundred kilometers away and I’ll have many difficulties even getting there. I had already experienced many difficulties in finding Jenu’s relatives in Diwakarpur, even with reliable information in hand. I had to make a decision, make the hazardous journey to Utraula with off chance of finding my aaji’s village or head back to the safety of Jenu’s family in Delhi. All alone in the vast expanse of Uttar Pradesh plains I felt lost and extremely tired. I headed back to Delhi, leaving the quest for my aaji’s village to another time. I promised to be better prepared the next time. I said goodbye to Jenu and his family and headed back to London.
I returned to London and completed the final manuscript of my novel. Nayesh and I then completed the stage play based on the manuscript and I started work on staging the play. I also investigating ways to get my novel printed and in the end I decided to go for novelty printing in India. The cost for printing in India was right and I would get another chance to trace my aaji’s village in UP. On this trip my brother Prakash and bhabi joined me from Fiji. He told me an Indian pundit now on contract in Fiji would accompany them to India and would assist us to trace our aaji’s village in UP. Knowing that the pundit was from UP I made no attempt to get any further information about aaji’s village, relying upon the pundit to help us out. I left rehearsals of the play in the safe hands of Nayesh and flew out to Delhi in January of 1995.
By the time I met up with Prakash and bhabi in Delhi, they have already been to the pundit’s house in UP. But the pundit made no attempt to take them to aaji’s village. In fact throughout our stay in India he made no attempt to take us to UP; he was quite content for us to pay for his accommodation and food. Completely disillusioned by his deceit I concentrated on publication of my novel. Once the novel was printed I returned to London, quite disgusted with the pundit’s selfish behavior. I was no nearer to finding my aaji’s village by the time I said goodbye to Prakash and Bhabi, who returned to Fiji via Sydney.
After the launch of my novel in Sydney and successful tour of the play in theatres of Southeast London, I wrote a paper titled Discover Your Indian Roots. This was based on my two trips to India to search for my aaji’s village and was a plea to the Indian and UP governments to assist me as well as others like me who may wish to search for their roots in India. By this time I had made a decision to migrate to Australia.
Once in Sydney I was caught up with second settlement process in a new country. The second time around the settling process proved much more difficult for. Gone were the expectations of the new life in a new country, the arrival of children and the youth. The were replaced by onset of middle age dilemmas, battered mind and body and memories of those left behind in London. But life must go one and it did for me. I got involved once again in further studies, work and writing.
Four years went by during which time I managed to complete my second post-graduate degree, become a well-known journalist in the local Indo-Fijian community and produced a feature film. While doing all this girmit was put on the back burner. I decided to reacquaint myself with the politics of Fiji and chose ‘the colonial legacy and coups in Fiji’ as the thesis for my MA degree, completing it successfully in 1997. However I kept writing about girmit in the local Indian newspapers, which eventuated in the first girmit celebrations in Australia in 1999.
By now I had bought my own film production equipment and skilled myself with all aspects of film production process. My mind once again switched to India and a desire to capture my next journey to Uttar Pradesh on my camera. I wanted to have a better picture of Uttar Pradesh now so that I could atleast reach Utraula this time. I was lucky that Internet was around this time and I earnestly searched the net for information on UP, Gonda and Utraula, which I luckily found. Amazingly I found a page that read Discover Your Roots Project on UP Tourism’s web page. My first reaction was that my paper Discover Your Indian Roots must have reached the UP government and after making its rounds finally resulted in some action. I contacted the project in UP and I was promised some help in my quest to find my ancestral village and the proposed documentary film. As I was finalizing my trip to India my cousin Asha emailed me from Fiji and stated that she wished to visit her relatives in UP. Asha, a senator in Mahendra Chaudhry’s government at that time, is the sister of Jenu, who had retuned to Fiji after completing his study in Delhi. I welcomed Asha’s decision as her visit to her ancestral homes in UP would provide me excellent footage for my documentary. I was ready to shoot my first documentary.
Asha, my producer Anju and I arrived in UP in January 2001. For seven days we traveled many miles in Uttar Pradesh shooting footage for the documentary. Asha’s emotional pilgrimages to her ancestral villages in Gaziabad and Basti were captured on my camera. We were fortunate to film visits to three other villages from where girmityas had gone to Fiji, Guyana and Mauritius. We also interviewed the person who claimed that he initiated the UP Tourism’s Discover Your Roots Project. I gave him a copy of my proposal and he was shocked to see the similarities in the two projects. But he maintained that his was a original idea and I had no cause to challenge him; the fact that such project now existed in UP was good enough for me.
We were lucky to get acquainted to Dilip Singh, a neighbor of Asha’s relatives in Basti. He became our guide in Basti and after the shoot there, took us to Utraula. Upon learning that I did not have any definite information Dilip suggested that we should get assistance from the local press to trace my aaji’s village.
Back in my studio in the western suburb of Sydney I completed production of my first documentary film Milaap-Discover Your Indian Roots. I was thrilled and was full of excitement for its premier in Sydney. Everyone liked the film but soon I discovered that it took much more than passion and skills to make the film a hit with people. The biggest obstacle was lack of finance to promote, market and screen the film. Most people would like to watch the film or get a copy but precious few would like to spend their money to do so. Milaap-Discover Your India Roots turned out to be a very expensive obsession for me.
By this time film making had become more than a hobby for me and I decided to make my second feature film ‘Flight from a paradise.’ This film started out as a soap opera for the first locally produced Indian pay TV channel Hamara TV. I was the manager of the TV channel as well as the writer/director of the soap opera. However after a few months operation the channel was shut down in January 2002 and I was left with a few episodes of FFAP in hand. All those involved in the project felt it was a good story and should be turned into a film. FFAP was completed in June 2003. We were happy with the end product the film was premiered in my absence at the Fairfield Forum digital cinema in August of that year.
My documentary film Milaap had made an impression on Anil Oraw, the assistant director of Tourism India-Sydney. Anil had also come to know about my work in promoting Discover your Indian Roots project and invited me to join them for the inaugural India Week in Fiji. I decided to leave the premier of FFAP in Sydney in capable hand of my colleagues and went to Fiji to participate in the India Week. The most revealing aspect of this week was the daily information sessions I held with India Tourism at the Civic auditorium in Suva, the capital city of Fiji. Despite little publicity about the seminars hundreds of Indo-Fijians came to the civic center to get information on how to trace their ancestors in India. As the media got more interested in this issue more people thronged the information kiosk in Suva and some of the organizers complained that Milaap had taken over the India week proceedings.
This much of interest in tracing their roots in India from the Indo-Fijians came as shock to us all. Anil and Raj, his colleague from India-Tourism-Sydney, were amazed to see so much interest in Indo-Fijians for their ancestral roots in India. People came from far; clutching whatever information they had about their girmitya ancestors. They were searching for their roots in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Andhara Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Men, women, young, old, house wives, students, cane cutter and office workers all came to enquire about their ancestors. The response from the ordinary Indo-Fijians completely overwhelmed all of us. Towards the end of the week I spent a lot of time in the National Achieves of Fiji, assisting people to look for their ancestors girmit passes, which contained the only definite information about their village, district, estate and next of kin in India. In all we saw some nine hundred people and assisted some one hundred of them to obtain girmit passes.
Impressed with the success of the Milaap Project in Fiji during the India week Anil and Raj recommended to the Government of India Tourist Office in Delhi to sponsor me to shoot my second documentary film on Milaap Project. My trip was planned for January 2004 and I had some time to work on my documentary film on the evicted Indo-Fijian farmers in Fiji.
Earlier that year I had an opportunity to hear Professor Subramani from University of the South Pacific address a meeting in Sydney about poverty among Indo-Fijians in Fiji. I made further research and learnt that one of the main factors influencing the dramatic rise in Indo-Fijian poverty in Fiji was eviction of the Indo-Fijian farmers from their farms since the expiry of Indian held leases began to take place towards the end of 1990s. Since the end of girmit Indians have been settled on farms leased from the Fijian landowners, the Fijian government and in some cases individual landowners such as the Colonial Sugar Refinery Corporation of Australia (CSR), which during the girmit era was the largest and the most influential planters in Fiji. Majority of the Indian farmers were not allowed to buy Fijian land, a situation that still exists today. For most of the thousands of the Indo-Fijian farmers, the thirty odd year leases began to expiry in 1998 and the Fijian administration made a conscious decision not to renew most of the leases. Apart from some financial help from the Chaudhry government till its overthrow in 2000, hardly any of these farmers got any assistance from the Fijian government in their resettlement process. For some, assistance came from friends and relatives, but most began to join the improvised group of Indo-Fijians living in the booming squatter settlements mushrooming in and around the major towns and cities of Fiji.
The footage I obtained during my India week visit to Fiji was very revealing and I went back to Fiji in December 2003 for another shoot. The documentary, ‘Once were farmers’ was completed after my return from India. The 90 mins documentary shows how the descendants of the girmityas are being treated by the Fijian administration after 125 yeas of service to the country. Majority of the farms from where the Indo-Fijians are being unceremoniously evicted today were made inhabitable by the brave and hardworking girmitya ancestors of the present day farmers. Many of those we interviewed felt that their plight today was similar to their ancestors from India and in fact the days of girmit had come a full circle to haunt them again.
With these thoughts fresh in my mind I once again embarked on my trip to the land from where the ancestors of the present day Indo-Fijians originate. After completing my first assignment to shoot footage in Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, Jaipur and Agra for a documentary film on golf in India, I took a train from Agra to Lucknow to start shoot for my second documentary film on Milaap. However after the golf shoot in Jaipur, my government of India sponsored driver had driven me to Karuali to start off the first part of my Milaap shoot. Karuali is approximately half way between Jaipur and Agra and we had to detour south from the main road that connects the two historical cities of India. I regarded the Karuali shoot as a success, having traced a girmitiyas ancestral village within a day. This was a great shot in the arms for the project that lay ahead for me after reaching Lucknow in the cold winter morning.
For this part of my shoot Jainan Rai, a government of India Tourist guide from Varanasi and a driver from UP Tourism, joined me. The four day shoot in UP was fast and full of excitement as well as disappointments. After handing over 60 immigration passes of Fiji girmityas to the Discover Your Roots Project now located in the new offices of Uttar Pradesh Tourist Office, we began our shoot, which covered Gonda, Balrampur, Utraula, Basti and Lucknow.
The Utraula shoot was most important for me as finally I was going to the village where my aaji was born. After some dramas on the way to Utraula I arrived in Shreedut ganj, the town where we met up with my uncle and cousins. The meeting with my 94 year old uncle Dhoke Rai was very emotional and I fought hard within myself from embarrassing myself by crying in front of scores of people who had gathered around to witness this memorable reunion of blood relatives parted by fate some ninety six years ago. The cousins then took us to Galibpur, and to the home where my aaji was born and bred before she was married off in her teens to a Rai Bahadur of Faizabad.
I had seen a picture of my aaji and I felt at home as soon as I saw uncle Dhoke and my cousins. The family resemblance was striking and the tales they told me in the courtyard of my aaji’s childhood home was compelling. My aaji’s ancestors were the Royal poets in the court of the Maharaja of Balrampur for which they were bestowed the title of Rai. They were also given several villages by the maharaja and hence the title Bhumiar Brahmin. The present prince of Balrampur confirmed this in an interview with me at the palace and my uncle Dhoke still gets a small pension from the Royal palace, even after Royalty was abolished many decades ago. The abolition of the Royalty also meant that our family lost most of its land and they now survive mostly through business in Shreedut ganj.
Although I had obtained my aaja’s girmit pass from the National Achieves in Fiji, I could not find his stated village or home in Basti. This reminded me what uncle Dhanus told me about ten years ago during a telephone conversation from London. He was right about my aaja not having any known relatives in India. I was very sad about that; I really wanted to know more about my aaja, who made so many sacrifices to keep my aaji happy. When I heard more about my aaji’s life from my newly found relatives in India, my respect for my aaja grew further. At the end of my search I reconciled with the fact that I may never find his origins in India. But I haven’t given up all my hopes yet.
Back in my aaji’s childhood home in Galibpur my own childhood puzzlement about the Rai family of Natabua began to make sense. I realized that it must have been difficult for my aaji to shake off her hereditary role she must have picked up in Galibpur. Being part of the Royal poet family, education must have been a priority for her children. Uncle Dhanus had told me that my aaja had bought back her indenture from the CSR after she fell pregnant one and a half years into her girmit. That to me indicated the great love and respect my aaja must have had for my aaji; and the sacrifices he must have made to see aaji retain semblance of her way of life similar to that in India; despite the ravages of girmit. That the two succeeded in large part in realizing what they had set out to achieve once they knew that they would perhaps remain in Fiji for rest of their life, is perhaps reflected in the achievements of the Rai clan in Fiji and overseas.
Back in Sydney the documentary films on ‘Milaap-a Royal Discovery’, ‘Indian Dream Golf Holidays’ and ‘Once Were Farmers’ were soon completed. The initial responses to all the films were very positive and now the hard part of marketing them remains.
The trips to India not only answered some of my childhood questions about my own family but also made sense of the world which old girmitya Bhola used to talk about on the lawns of Natabua Old Peoples Home. The trips also revealed many new dimensions to the existing literature available about the girmit and girmityas. The new knowledge I have gained during the last two journeys into the land of the Fiji girmityas has answered many questions and has given rise to many questions as well. I believe much more work needs to be done in order to unravel the truth about the girmit and the girmityas and to make amends to some alarming false claims that have thus far been made by some of the commentators on the subject.
Recently I have decided to give an academic status to my pursuance of research on girmit and my film production efforts by combining the two into a Doctor of Creative Arts degree program. The research is ‘A place called home’, in respect to the Indo-Fijian Diaspora. This research will begin with the girmityas and cover the entire 125 years of the Indo-Fijian history. The end product will result in 120 mins documentary film comprising of four 30mins episodes. My attempt here will hopefully provide as complete a picture about the Fiji girmit and the girmityas and their descendants as possible.