I came on Chenab, from Babalpur and was 19 or 20 years old when I arrived in Fiji. Two or three of us were wandering around the town when we met a man who asked whether we were interested in work. We replied. that if we could get work we would do it. He said that he knew where we could get 12 annas per day for a good job with keep and housing provided by the employer. He asked us to accompany him to the depot and we did.
When we got there he told us that we would be sent to Fiji which was an island, and the work there would be very good. We would be given work relating to sugar cane cultivation and we would be asked to sieve sugar.
We stayed ten days in the depot and then from there we went to Calcutta. My mother was already dead. None of us made any effort to get in touch with our families. Whether those who recruited us did we never knew, but it is unlikely that they did. When we got to Calcutta we were told to have a wash and then we were given a new set of clothes which we were told came from the government. We had brought some money with us from home. Some people used to bring things some others did not. Food was provided there for us. In the depot we all sat together and ate, irrespective of caste or religion even though we did not do these things in our own homes. We were only four days at Calcutta when the ship came and we were put on board. We were medically examined before embarking.
The food on board the ship was not very good, but then what else could you do? You had to eat. We used to get meat once a week. For breakfast we used to get biscuit and tea and the biscuits used to be as hard as stone. For lunch we had rice, dhall and tamarind chutney. We used to get roti twice a week. I did not feel seasick on the ship but others who did were often given sour things. Women were adequately guarded on board the shin so that nobody would get up to mischief.
When we got to Nukulau various Europeans who were going to hire labourers came with their boats and took us away. I worked for Burns Philp. For six months we were given a ration from our wages, 2/6 used to be deducted, for our rations. We normally received 5/6 each week. In Calcutta we were promised 12 annas a day, or about 1/6, but when we received 5/6 here for a week, that was not the same.
We had to get up at about 3am and then leave for work by 4am. My work began at six in the morning and I finished by half past four pm in the afternoon. As for task work you got paid according to the amount of work you did. If it was incomplete then there was a deduction made.
On Saturdays, after we had been paid, we met the sardar and after an exchange of greetings we had to slip a shilling quietly into his pocket. If we did not then on Monday he made certain that we were given a task that did not allow us to earn a full day’s wage. Those who worked with -the horses, or those who worked in the house of the overseer, did not have to bribe the sardar but others had to do so.
Overseers used to pre-arrange with the sardar for him to send a particular woman to work in a particular place at a certain time. Women so ordered had no choice but to comply. Their husbands often could do nothing, they themselves were in bondage and liable to punishment. There was a sardar who was beaten for being involved in such a venture. He got such a thrashing that lie finished up in hospital.
We could not see European overseers directly but had to approach them through the sardar. If we went to a European overseer he would immediately send us off, saying that lie did not want to talk to us and that we should go and speak to the sardar. In the evenings when we sat together we did not discuss these things; we did not want to meddle with them unless we were directly involved, because it could lead to trouble.
We celebrated the Holi festival but Muslims did not take part inHoli. They made it clear that it was not their festival. We, however, used to meet socially. In their festivals we did not get involved either. In the girmit days there was no fasting. There was only Holi that we knew. We used to try to seek a holiday from the European overseer but he would merely refer us to the sardar who would often say that we were in girmit and there were no occasions for festivity. Sardarswere rogues who robbed people. Just imagine: there were three hundred people on my estate and sardars there extorted 300/- per week from labourers. Imagine how much money they made on that basis.
I used to send letters home. In reply I was even told that I could return and be forgiven. I answered that India was far away and I did not, have enough money to come back.
There were some Europeans who were very good. Some very bad. But it was the sardars who spoilt these Europeans.
There was a chap called Badri who apparently could not do any work; both the sardar and overseer colluded and took him and pushed him into the swamp and drowned him there. But we managed to rescue him. Thereafter he was not given very heavy work.
The sardars gave people a very hard time. There was a case where the sardar took a man’s wife and sold her to another man. Her husband then committed suicide. The sardar sold her for ten pounds. There was a court case over the whole thing. We, as witness; were given four days leave, without pay of course.
In the end the sardar was fined fifty pounds. But sardars were clever. If you were a very strong and powerful man then they gave you an easy job to keep you quiet. You did your piece and did not worry about others.
By taking money from people the sardars became rich and were able to buy good land. A sardar who had lent money to a man claimed it when the man could not pay. He then took his land over and evicted him. There were sardars who got beaten up. There was hardly a season in Nausori or Naitasiri which went by without a sardar being assaulted. It was not just on one estate that they were taking a shilling, which practice prevailed in several places.
After childbirth women stayed home for fifteen or sixteen days. Then they had to go to work. If they were weak they often worked as nurses looking after children.
In those days we did not have much to do with Fijians at all. If they came we used to tell them to go away. No doubt life in India had been better. The conditions were pleasanter for us there. But we had come here to earn money and then to return after we had earned the money. And the customs we adhered to in India were different from those which we followed here.