I came from Basti when I was 28 years old. I left India because there was a shortage of work there, so four of us got together and decided that we would go abroad in search of work. We met an arkati who recruited us. We were told that we would get 12 annas a day abroad and this was a lot of money for India. Abroad to us meant another town, probably Calcutta. People used to go and work there and then return home. This is why we regarded it as abroad. We did not ask thearkati where Fiji was, all we knew was that we were going away to work and earn money. We put our faith in the arkati. We did so because we thought that he would provide us with work which would enable us to earn our livelihood as well as accumulate some money.
I took my wife with me and then ran away from home. I had decided to run away at night when everybody was asleep. We met thearkati later and then he took us to the depot. Some of my companions also had wives. We intended to go abroad and earn and then return home.
We regarded Fiji as some place nearby, but when we were on the ship it took us four weeks merely to travel to this place. I only thought of my parents and home when we got into Fiji and found the indenture days difficult. But we all put up with the girmit.
We did not combine and fight Europeans because there was no point in it. Government was on their side. Our view was to enduregirmit, it was for five years, thereafter we would be free.
When we first saw Fijians we were scared. We were worried that we might become like them when we saw their hair. On our estate we were told that these were the natives of the country. Their disposition towards us was quite good. In those days they seemed rather frightened of Indians. When we first came to Fiji all the Fijians wore banana leaves as skirts. They used to keep their money in their mouth and when they got into a shop they used to take it out of their mouths and give it to the shop-keeper. Sometimes Indians used to buy fruits from them. There were some Indians who could converse with them in Fijian.
When I came I used to work where the boats were and on the punt. My wife worked in the field. I used to start work at 7am and finish at 5pm. My wife’s work was very difficult. Some days she could complete her task, other days she could not. I supplemented our income by working on Sundays at the boilers which were used to produce sugar. Otherwise I would not have had enough money.
When I first came to Fiji I was quite a strong man therefore not many people tried to get up to mischief with me or my wife. The work was very difficult. Sometimes we were told to cut down a tree and then to dig up its roots. Once we had started work we used to keep at it until we had completed our task; it was almost four o’clock in the afternoon some days when we had our lunch. If we did not complete our task we did not get our money.
There is no doubt that Europeans used to beat up people who did not do their work. And the sardars used to collaborate with the overseers. There was a sardar who was beaten up in Manoca. Europeans were also assaulted now and then. Indians did gang up and attack Europeans and they did this because Europeans used to hit them when their task was not completed. Some overseers insisted that if one of us was wearing a hat then on meeting them we must take it off for them and say salaam to them. If we did not oblige we were punished. Indians were not permitted to wear hats in the presence of Europeans. They used to call us ‘boy’ and treat us like little children. We did not know what ‘boy’ meant. So we thought ‘boy’ was a term for something good. Some may have known the meaning of ‘boy’ but others, when they were addressed as ‘boy’ used to think this was something great that they had been called.
When Indians behaved as though they were the children, Europeans treated them well but if they asserted themselves and tried to be like them then they found themselves in trouble. Assertion of equality led to a thrashing.
Some women were paid in full even when they had not completed their task, that is if the overseer fancied them. On the other hand, some who finished their tasks sometimes did not get fully compensated. There were some sardars who used to provide overseers with women. These were Indian sardars who were doing this to Indian women but we could do nothing. We were frightened. We spent five years full of fear because if we did not conform we were in trouble.
The sardars had they been reasonable and explained the situation to Europeans, the latter might not have been so ruthless. Once a European saw me all full of sweat cutting steel, he asked me what I was getting. I said, “A shilling.” He then went and saw the overseer and asked him why I was paid a shilling. He was told that was what I was supposed to get during indenture. But he said that I was working like a European below an overseer, so the overseer increased my rate to 1/6. Others used to get 15/- or one pound a week.
There were many hangings and killings over women. Some-times a woman had liaisons with two or three men and this was a source of conflict. The relationship between jhaji bhais was so strong that it seemed better than that between brothers. There was always a case of mutual assistance whenever the need arose.
Hindus and Muslims were all friends. Muslims used to invite Hindus to their Koran readings and Hindus reciprocated when they did likewise. In those days there were no cattle slaughtered. It was only when people became ‘free’ that they resorted to killing cattle. Hindus and Muslims used to live like brothers on the same estate.
Indians who were in the ‘free’ assisted us when we were in difficulty. Hindus and Muslims used to help one another. Those who knew of their religion from India, practised it even though there were neither mosques nor temples. They performed their religious rites in their house or within their own room. Despite the rigours of the indenture system there were some Muslims who fasted. They were able to do so because they had a will for the purpose. Those who knew how to say their namaj used to say it in the field when the time came. If there was no water they used mud to do their ritual preparation before prayer. Having said their prayers they returned to work. Indenture was very harsh but nonetheless Hindus and Muslims retained their religion, without it they ‘would not have survived or retained their identity. It was their religion which enabled both Hindus and Muslims to survive. Even though there were no genuinemaulvis or pundits here at the time, persons became pundits ormaulvis merely because they knew a little about religion, and when the need or occasion arose for someone to perform these duties, they obliged.
But it was much later that many maulvis and pundits began coming into Fiji from India. During girmit those who could read or write could improve their status. People respected anyone, either Muslim or Hindu, who could read and write. There were one or two pundits and maulvis who were rogues but even they received respect from some people. As was traditional, those who performed religious rites as maulvi or pundit received a donation. But there were no pundits or maulyis who made it a profession of going around and performing religious rituals and collecting money.
I had put up with indenture for five years, it would have been foolish to re-indenture myself for another five years. Some used to have a good time and squander everything, so they had no alternative but to re-indenture themselves. There was a brewery in Nausori. Some Indians tried to pinch some liquor from there. They put a match to the tin and there was an explosion and several got burnt. So it was closed down. Europeans took the view that such attempts would kill all the Indians.
There were no schools here and there was no education for anybody except that provided by Christian missionaries. When men became Christian the missionaries often used to find them wives as well.