My grandfather (Thatha) and father (Bappa) were Girmitiyas who went to Fiji respectively in 1905 and 1911. They served in Sabeto and Votua Levu, each fulfilling a five-year contract as indentured labourers.
They went through hardships and break-breaking work schedules. Those five years were the roughest in their lives.
They often wondered what they had done to deserve such humiliation- something very hard for high caste Chatris to bear.
At the start of World War II, my family left Navakai, relinquishing our farm to the government to build an airfield for the US Air Force and moved to Kavanagasau.
It was start of a new life for the large family, which included young aunts and uncle (as my grandfather was a widower by then).
I grew up in Kavanagasau. I could not have wished for better people than my father and grandfather to teach me all aspects of farming, growing sugar cane, rice and vegetables and caring for livestock.
Both were illiterate and valued education and at great sacrifice, paid for my secondary schooling and afterwards encouraged me to become a teacher. This was a turning point in my life, which helped me to migrate to New Zealand and pursue a satisfying career.
I remember life at the farm. We would have visitors on Tuesdays and Fridays, most of who were other Girmitiyas, commonly known as ‘Jahajis’ and ‘Mulkis’ of my bappa and thatha. Those were the days when the Colonial Sugar Research (CSR) Company ran a free train operated by ‘Manguru,’ always clad in black shirt and trousers to hide coal dust and soot.
These Girmitiyas normally stayed for a couple of days but during the busy period on the farm, some stayed a little longer to help with extra work. They were given imli (tamarind), lentils and sukhi tambaku (tobacco) for their efforts.
The jahajis and mulkis fostered fraternal relationship and lived like a large family.
In the evenings, they would drink kava, chew tambaku and reminisce on the bad old days of Girmit, working as glorified slaves and living in cramped conditions in coolie lanes.
They would remember some good times too; like religious festivals, weddings and meetings where Vasist Muni, Dr Mani Lal, Sadhu Kuppuswamy would deliver stirring speeches.
My father marveled how Vasist Muni could walk fast everywhere to meet gatherings and provide comfort and motivation.
This baitak would often carry on until late at night and stopped when the rooster crowed at midnight or so. Amazingly, they would rise early before the Sun did and begin work.
The favourite food of the ‘Madrasi’ (that was how South Indians were called) Girmitiyas was sangati (cooked rice and flour blended and shaped into a ball- the size of a rock melon) and fish curry with tamarind sauce.
Some would also ask for chutney made out of red chillies, garlic and coconut, an accompaniment my father relished.
He would complain if the preparation was not spicy.
The Girmitiyas owned half the farms in Kavanagasau.
There was Babu Sahib, a Nepali (who was rumoured to enjoy an occasional puff of ganja- smoking Indian hemp), thin and wiry with a goatie, standing just under five feet but was as strong as a bullock.
His clan was good at singing bhajans and chautal during Holi season, culminating with a Pooja at the temple where we consumed sweets and savories.
Bullur and Girdhari were from Uttar Pradesh, they were samdhi bhais, and we called them mousas. Both sat in the village Panchayat and were known for their wisdom, particularly in settling any boundary disputes.
Family & friends
Kirte Baba was another Nepali who was the village medicine man and could chant special prayers to ward off evil spirits.
We used to see Periappa (paternal uncle) who sold coconut oil, kava and vegetables, on Friday evenings. He would carry a large drum of oil on his head, walking back home after shopping. He wore earrings and long hair and chewed betel nut.
Narsaiya (a Telegu speaking Indian) was commonly referred as “paniwala.”
He carried buckets of water and a file to the cane harvesters during that season.
He was a humourous man and often regaled us with funny stories. At times, he would sing and dance jingling silver bangles on his hands.
Kadir mama, a Telugu Muslim from Hyderabad, was good at telling Akbar and Birbal stories. Whenever he visited us, he was slaughter chickens and goats in the Halal tradition with a white handkerchief on his head and pray towards Mecca.
When India became independent on August 15, 1947, a large number of Indians from Sigatoka gathered in a park at Lawaqa to celebrate. Many Girmitiyas turned up dressed in white, wearing ‘Gandhi’ caps. They sang Vande Matram joyfully, inspiring children.
The Girmitiyas tended to live long because they led very active lives.
My grandfather and father worked until they were in their nineties and I do not recall seeing them sick anytime.
I am indebted to all the Girmitiyas who touched my life.
They taught me self-belief, hard work, honesty and sincerity. They imparted in me the importance of speaking the truth at all times and keeping faith in God.
The contributions of Girmitiyas in building ‘Little India’ in South Pacific can neither be under-stated nor ignored.
David Reddy is an insurance broker and Publicity Officer of the New Zealand Association of Fiji Teachers based in Auckland. The above appeared in our Girmit Special of May 15, 2009.