I arrived in Fiji in 1910. With others we were sent to Lautoka which we reached on a night when hurricane winds were raging. Our first night there was spent in the Lautoka mill. There, the next day, we were separated and distributed to the various plantations.
I went to Koronubu. There the kitchen was some distance from where the lines were and there was no place for bathing. We had to use the riverside for washing ourselves. On arrival at Koronubu we were given our foodstuffs to cook and on the next day the various tools with which we were going to work.
Those who did their work and completed their task got their full wages. After finishing our work we went home, had a wash and a rest. Those who had not completed their tasks by 4pm sometimes earned only eight pence and some even four pence for that day. Some worked hard but their hands and feet became blistered and the next day they could not hold the hoe or the knife so they stayed home and shed tears. Sardars would ask, ”Is this all you came to do in Fiji?” then beat these people. I saw sardars beating people. On such occasions the overseer would turn up and the sardar would inform him that the labourer was not doing any work. The overseer would usually call him a ‘bloody bastard’ and give him three lashes of the whip. In these circumstances some Indians used to despair and resort to hanging themselves. This I know very well. But to whom could we then tell these sad tales? The big and powerful sardars and the strong and sturdy overseers were all allies. Who would then listen to us? The overseers made sure that these physically powerful men were with them. When we were whipped we cried and were sorrowful but endured it and said nothing to anyone.
They were not very good towards women either. Women being women they were not always able to finish their tasks and therefore they were scolded by the overseers. Even when the task was unfinished we went back by 4 p.m. By the time we had washed, got our bucket of water, cooked, eaten and cleaned up, it was about 9pm.
Then next morning again at three o’clock the water carrier would come calling everybody to wake up and get ready for work. We were awakened at 3am so that we could be able to cook and have something for breakfast.
By 4.30am women with children were expected to take them to their nurse who looked after them during the day. There was an indentured woman who was the nurse and one took one’s children to her and left them with milk (tinned milk usually). Whether the children cried or wanted to come with you, you had to leave him behind and then go back and collect your tools for work. By 5am at the latest we had to leave the line.
We used to be paid on Friday. We would go at about 8pm to collect our money. We often left our children sleeping behind and we were back by about ten o’clock. From mid-day Saturday and all day Sunday we had a break. Some people used to sing and dance or read their kathas and it was in this way that we spent our leisure. We were not educated and did not have very much knowledge about these rituals which when performed made us happy. A katha was usually said by somebody amongst the group who made himself a pundit and was accepted as such. When the katha used to take place everybody would sit quietly and listen and then sweets would be distributed; afterwards everybody would have a meal before returning to their own lines. The man who heard the katha provided the meal. Everybody went to hear the katha whether he was a Hindu or not.
In those days nobody knew who was a Muslim, a Hindu or a Brahmin or anything else. They were all one. For Muslims the big thing was the tazia where everybody made these big edifices and great crowds, gathered. These were occasions of great celebration. The taziawas regarded as a Muslim festival even though Hindus participated fully. Nobody really went and asked the Muslims how they fasted and when they ate and broke their fast.
But they apparently did keep their fast and when the festival ofEid came everybody was involved, everybody ate the vermicelli that they cooked in their place. It was not a question of religion then. Everybody regarded one another as brothers who put shoulder to shoulder together and worked.
In every street there was a small bazaar. Farmers, usually those who had been indentured labourers earlier, brought their various vegetables or commodities and sold them. One could buy everything one needed from these bazaars.