Brij V. Lal; On the Other Side of Midnight: A Fijian Journey; National Book Trust, India, pp 164, Rs 60.00
This book on the Indian diaspora is written by a professor born in Fiji and who is currently working as Research Professor of Pacific and Asian History at the Australian National Academy, Canberra, Australia. The diasporic Indian community, increasing and ever more visible globally, is being courted and feted by the Government of India as never before, particularly to attract their contribution towards developing their native country. An annual Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas is celebrated to laud the achievements of the Indians abroad in business and commerce, creative arts and literature, public service, scholarship and sports alike. While the diasporic Indians share a common ancestral culture, they are not a homogenous group by any means. Products of many crossings over many centuries, they vary in their historical experiences, their social and cultural outlook and in the extent of their closeness to India and things Indian.
The book under review is essentially a biographical narrative presented in the form of a collection of essays on the lived experiences of a diasporic community, the Indo-Fijian, which emerged from indentured migration in the 19th and 20th centuries. The first consignment of Indian indentured labourers went to Fiji in 1879, just five years after the islands had become a British Crown colony. It was Sir Arthur Gordon, the first Governor, who turned to India as he discouraged employment of Fijian labour since he wanted to protect them against commercial exploitation. These Indian immigrants were a part of over a million Indians who were sent to the ?King Sugar Colonies´ in Africa, the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean. Some returned when the girmit (agreement) expired, but most settled in their new homelands. It was their labour in harsh and inhospitable conditions that transformed the economy of many a Third World country. Girmit was in reality a shame and slavery by another name.
The indentured labourers were ?gullible simpletons drawn form impoverished rural backgrounds forced into migrating by arhatis (unscrupulous recruiters) and brutalised by the pace of work on the plantations, their sufferings ignored, their women molested by the overseers and sirdars (Indian foremen), their families separated, their dignity in tatters.?
For many immigrants, despite all the hardships, migration represented an improvement in their condition over that in India where there was little hope for improvement in their life. The same held true for Aja, the author´s grandfather who hailed from Bahraich in India and who sailed aboard a ship confined in overcrowded cabins to serve his indenture in Labasa on a sugarcane plantation before settling down in Tabia, a predominantly Indian settlement. Aja´s grandson, the author, spent a major share of his childhood with his grandfather, hearing stories of ghosts and jinns.
In 1962, when Aja died, the author´s father was witness to the fracture of an enclosed and socially isolated world and as he grew up, the world of his father began to recede. ?The features like join families, proper and periodic observance of rituals and ceremonies, the comforting bonds of cohesive community, family solidarity, respect for age and authority, politeness in the presence of pandits, extreme carefulness in the management of money, healthy fears of the unknown were now becoming things of the past. The gap widened with time in much the same way as it had done when our parents moved away from their parents´ world.? In any case, such a change was inevitable and liberating too; and this continues.
It was at Tabia that the author grew up and acquired knowledge on Hindu customs. It was here that ?I began my journey. It shaped my destiny, but not my destination?.
He then describes the marriage ceremony of Bhola and Sukhraji´s son; his teacher Sita Ram of primary school; the Labasa secondary school (which ?ended our cultural and intellectual isolation. It opened worlds beyond the village horizon, joined us to the broader sweep of historical developments, inculcated a commitment to the pursuit of excellence and reinforced a firm belief in initiative and self-reliance. These values, acquired so long ago, have shaped my life and work?); the visit to Hinduism´s holiest river, the Ganga; and finally his home in Australia in 1990 which ?has been a hospitable home to me and ?has nurtured my talents and nourished my soul? and given ?secure livelihood?. The author ends on a note of nostalgia for ?I know in my heart that I will always be an outsider, both in Australia and Fiji? I inhabit a terrain called existential in-betweenity? Perhaps, it is a metaphor for life itself? That which I love I cannot go to; what I hope for is always divided.?
(National Book Trust, India, A-5 Green Park, New Delhi-110016.)