Historian Brij Lal traces his grandfather’s life as an Indian indentured labourer in Fiji, and struggles to come to terms with his identity as a Fijian. Listen to the episode here.
Mary-Rose Abraham: Hi there! Do you have your headphones on to hear this immersive audio production? It’ll sound so much better…
Gayathri Vaidyanathan: Under a nearly full moon — the Syria crashed against a reef in the South Pacific Ocean… in 18 hundred and 84.
GV: When I close my eyes, I can almost see her… this grey-and-white sailing ship rolling and pitching, surrounded by an angry sea. 5 hundred and 40 souls on board…
Brij Lal: most of the people on the ship couldn’t swim. And some saw land in the distance and started to jump into the water hoping, thinking that they may be able to walk to to the to the shore
MRA: When rescue boats get there a day and half later, the ship looks… dismembered…bits of spars, sails, ropes and debris in wild confusion. The front half of the ship is up on the reef… the back half perching delicately…
MRA: here’s Dr. William MacGregor, head of the rescue..
Sumit Kumar: The scene was simply indescribable, and pictures of it haunt me still like a horrid dream … People falling, fainting, drowning all around one; the cries for instant help, uttered in an unknown tongue, but emphasized by looks of agony and the horror of impending death, depicted on dark faces rendered ashy grey by terror; then again the thundering, irresistible wave breaking on the riven ship, still containing human beings, some crushed to death in the debris, and others wounded and imprisoned therein; … Some sacrificed their lives to save others
GV: 57 people lose their lives… 32 men, 15 women, five girls, three boys and two babies.. and as for the rest…they’re…
Brij Lal: they felt shipwrecked in a place to which they had come by accident, but from which they could not escape.
GV: They’re in Fiji…. Ramnik Dvip…The Island… of Paradise?
GV: Welcome to Scrolls and Leaves, a podcast featuring stories from the margins. We’re in Season 1, Trade Winds, set in the Indian Ocean World…I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan
MRA: And I’m Mary-Rose Abraham. And a small request — we’re an independent podcast and don’t have a studio backing us, so if you like what you hear could you please consider donating? Details on our website, scrollsandleaves.com/support.
MRA: In 1833, England ended African slavery — and then found the former slaves would much rather NOT work on plantations — even for a salary. They have to be replaced. But by whom?
GV: … Between 1833 and 1917 — more than a million Indians traveled on ships to British colonies to fuel the economic engines of Empire. They were called girmitiyas. This is their tale.
MRA: You’ll hear from Brij Lal, a descendent of the girmitiyas.… He’s a historian of the Pacific Islands…and his influence on an entire generation of scholars has been simply enormous….he has so many awards that I can’t list them all! .. he’s a member of the Order of Australia, and an Officer of the Order of Fiji. And in 1997, he literally helped re-write the constitution of Fiji. And then, there was a military coup, the constitution was cancelled and he was expelled for life …
Brij Lal: I suppose the most difficult part is, is not being able to say the final farewell to friends, you know, who were part of my life, family members who’ve gone.
GV: You’ll also hear from Umit Bali — a Indo-Fijian-Australian stand up comedian, whose work draws on his sense of displacement…
Umit Bali: I identify, as…. I don’t know, I don’t know, I I I… identify as someone who’s just trying to frickin take it one day at a time.
GV: This is Episode 6 — My home is in my heart.
GV: Chapter 1: The Search
GV: Brij Lal is early — too early. It’s 5:30 in the morning — someone’s told him the bus will leave on the dot at 6. Ha! But… we’re in India… In 1978! You know that joke about Indian Standard Time?
Brij Lal: when I went to the bus stop, there was not a single soul there. It was like a huge warehouse. And so I thought I might have come to the wrong place!
GV: Brij is a phD student from Fiji. And the bus, wellll, that’ll take him into the countryside in Uttar Pradesh… to find his grandfather’s village… His native place…it’s in a district called…
Brij Lal: Baraich…Ba-raich yeah that’s fine
GV: Brij gets a window seat. AT 7, the bus starts. At 7:15, the bus stops. The driver gets off and eats a leisurely breakfast.
GV: Brij is dressed a bit …formally… for these parts in trousers and a shirt
Brij Lal: everyone was wearing pagdi and dhoti and the older folks chewing betel nut and aiming missiles of spit across the the window, spraying on me. But I was too polite to to say no, because I mean they’d say, arrrey saab, kya hai, kuch ho gaya to kya hai? Chalta hai… So, yeah, you get to get used to that rhythm, to that way of thinking and move on.
GV: The bus rattles past flat green fields of wheat and paddy… mango trees… kids running around bare-foot…
GV: … As Brij gets closer to his village…
Brij Lal: I was anxious, I was anxious. I was anxious because I was the first one in my family ever to go to India. So when I reached, as I was closer to Baraich, I was filled with anxiety as filled with anxiety, what would I encounter?
Brij Lal: as I entered the compound walking on cow dung and all that, word went around that a strange man was coming to the village. And when they saw me, they were curious and very soon, the whole village got together. Yes. Who is this man? Why is he coming here? And I told the purpose of my visit… many years ago, a young man by this name, had gone away to a Tapu …Tapu is an island… and he never came back. Does anyone know who this person was? if he has any relatives here?
MRA: Chapter 2: Drought
MRA: Hey, you lost? We’re still in Baraich [bear-eych], but it’s 70 years earlier… 1907 … here’s Brij’s grandfather or Aja… his name is Mangre Lal… I don’t know precisely what he’s up to at this moment, but let’s imagine him walking on a dusty road into town…
Brij Lal: He was a very tall man. Very, very tall man. well built. And apparently he was a stick fighter. People could throw stones at him from any angle, and he would use the stick to sort of, you know, fend off the stones so…yeah yeah, and apparently he was a very accomplished sarangi player, sarangi is Indian violin.
MRA: The land is so dry — not that long ago, the fields were green, the jungles full of leopards, tigers, wolves, wild hogs, antelope…
GV: But since 1891, the rains have failed… again and again — in 91, 97, 99, 1901, 04, 05, 07…
Sumit: Diaspora and the difficult art of dying
in the end is my memory of the beginning, a mixed brew of history and hyperbole,
the sun’s chakra breaking up the earth of basti into six million jigsaw pieces,
and the bo-tree catching fire at midnight by itself,
and the koels pecking out the eyes of brinda the milch cow, and
pitaji standing among the ruined fields of channa, weeping,
and maji bent over the inflated moons of roti, weeping because he wept,
and the immemorial debt to a greasy man of crisp dhoti and castemark whom we called maibaap,
and my sister nudging the age of dowry,
and i the eldest of three sons, sixteen years old and already corroded by despair,
stealing away from home and village and province,
never once looking at the moon grazing on the thatch of my nostalgia,
walking by night and sleeping by day …
until rivers no longer gave up their names nor roads their destinations,
how many times i yearned to return to my village,
ask me how many times my legs faltered during that terrible flight,
but then i remembered the scorpions crackling in the wells of basti and the mynahs dying in the skies of basti,
and that nightmare drove me towards i knew not where,
maybe i sought work in a modest village,
maybe i desired to fall off the edge of the world,
maybe i was questing for ayodhya, shangri-la, el dorado,>
GV: This poem is by Fijian poet Sudesh Mishra. Millions of people are leaving to escape drought, in search of work — in the jute mills in Calcutta, the tea gardens in Assam, the coal mines of Bihar … and even across the black ocean — the kala pani — to Mauritius, British Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, West Indies, Natal, Surinam, Fiji, Malaya, Sri Lanka, Burma
MRA: So Aja’s reached town – he goes to the district police station…
Brij Lal: He met a recruiter. They asked him questions about, about what he was doing, and whether he would like to make some money, whether he’d like to go to this fabulous place called Fiji – Ramnik Dvip.
MRA: he puts his thumb print on an agreement, a girmit…
MRA: This moment here, it’s important — I think possibly the most important of Aja’s life. He’s transforming…he’s become a girmitiya. He’ll work in British colonies abroad for 5 years.
The authorities examine and certify him…
Sumit Kumar: <Depot Surgeon, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Medical Services Daryaganj> ‘we have examined and passed the above-named man as fit to emigrate; that he is free from all bodily and mental disease; and that he h.as been vaccinated since engaging’
<Fiji’s Emigration Agent in Calcutta, W. J. Bolton> ‘has appeared before me and has been engaged by me on behalf of the Government of Fiji as willing to proceed to that country to work for hire;
MRA: The New Year’s dawned…and it’s now 1908. Aja’s in a depot in Calcutta, waiting… he’s tempted to go back to Baraich, to his family, his plot of land, his language, caste, culture… but he’s eaten the recruiter’s salt… he’s no traitor
Sumit Kumar: Aja: “Hum namak haram nahi hoon … ‘
MRA: he says 5 years will go like 5 minutes… and didn’t Lord Ram spend 14 years in exile?
Sumit Kumar: Aja: “Chaudah baras Ram ban basi … ‘
MRA: On February 18…
MRA: Aja climbs aboard the SS Sangola and finds a tiny space in the cramped quarters…
GV: I get a kick out of the names of these ships .. Leonidas, Pericles, Ganges, the ill-fated Syria, which wrecked off Fiji 24 years before Aja’s trip… .. such beautiful names for vehicles of a perilous voyage — the girmitiyas call them…
Sumit Kumar: chalta jirta, jeeta jagata janaza…
GV: floating funeral processions…
MRA: One day on the ship, a man of a high-caste hides a potato… he doesn’t want his food touched by the lower castes. The ship’s officers find out –and put the potato in his mouth and march him back and forth — to much amusement…
MRA: The old ways can’t survive the kala pani or black waters…
Brij Lal: What Kala Pani meant metaphorically was the rupture of one world from which the migrants had come, there was no going back. All the caste and customs and traditions could not survive in the, in the in the in the cabins of these of these ships and most certainly not on the on the plantations
GV: It is on these ships that the girmitiyas first fall sick… sick with longing … for home. Here’s acclaimed Fijian poet Sudesh Mishra, who wrote the poem you heard before…
Sudesh Mishra: one gets sick at sea, but that sickness never goes away, because you’re displaced forever. From you know, mathrubhumi …your motherland. And the only way to be rid of it, is if you actually die into the vanua, that is the new land, which you have to accept and it has to accept you it works both ways, yeah?
MRA: After three long months, Aja arrives in Fiji.
GV: Chapter 3: Sea-sick
GV: Fiji is a picture-postcard paradise — 330 volcanic islands scattered in the South Pacific Ocean… breathtaking… deep rivers… soaring mountains covered in lush tropical plants… white beaches… and a fierce island people ruled by the White Man…It is the inverse of…the Indians plains…
Brij Lal: A lot of people when they got off ships, they kissed mother earth, glad to be back on land…
GV: The girmitiyas are assigned to sugar plantations run by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company…
MRA: If I say “bonded labour”, you think what?… yeah, it’s worse than that… There’s seemingly a dozen ways to die.
MRA: Women are raped. Children get cholera. People are whipped by their supervisors. Some hang themselves. They drown crossing rivers. They die of heartbreak.
GV: But Aja is lucky…here he is on a plantation with a supervisor who’s a good guy. Aja’s tending to horses because he worked with animals back in India. This is one of the better jobs.
GV: And after 5 years of labour, as promised – he’s free! If he wants, he can go back to India!… but is life ever that simple?…
Brij Lal: My grandfather went to Fiji as a single man. And he became very friendly with a man who was married. And they had three children, and things didn’t work out. And so she left with my grandfather, with the three young children!
Remember we’re talking about the early 20th century… when I look at my grandma, and I knew her when she was… by then she had lost her mind more or less… but she was a very strong woman. In the sense of going and living with my grandfather, bearing him two more children, working in the field, raising a family.
If you look at women during indenture and after indenture, the amount of work they did in the fields, hoeing cane, planting rice, making sure that there was food on the table for, for, for, for children. And I think this is when I talk about how strong willed these women were, I feel this is something that legacy has passed on down the generation.
GV: Aja’s leased some land from the island people. He’s planted peanuts and rice and vegetables… he’s settling into the land, the vanua as the islanders call it…
GV: He has kids who also work the land… and later, grandkids… his favorite is the middle one, Brij. But as life’s pursuits end, his thoughts return to childhood.
GV: In his ‘80s — Aja has a massive handlebar mustache, a long white beard…and he usually hangs out on a stringed bed under a huge mandarin tree..
Brij Lal: And I remember him very well when some other girmitiyas would come around, two or three or four, come home, smoke hookah and talk in a language no one understood — their village dialect. And they would sing bhajans and other folk songs, which we didn’t understand. They also kept themselves culturally alive through through music, the reading or recital of Ramayan, and festivals …for folk people for ordinary peasants, it was Holi, it’s called Pagwa. Pagwa was a time when people let their hair down or whatever is left of it and get drunk and make merry and so on.
GV: And that’s where Aja gets stuck in his old age – in his memories of home. He tells stories about Baraich to his grandson Brij, who is sleeping next to him the morning he passes away in 1962.
MRA: Chapter 4: Displacement
MRA: We’re in a dark room — that hum you hear, it’s a large computer.. It’s 1977 … and that’s Brij over there… he’s 25….he’s going through pages and pages of lists of girmitiyas.. It’s for his history phD … when he was looking for a topic to research, he thought of Aja and the grizzled old girmitiyas back home…
ACT: Brij Lal: Well, I think, to understand, to understand the background of the girmitiyas, one had to understand who they were. And each person who migrated to Fiji and to other places, had his or her emigration pass. And that on that pass was given
the date of migration, the ship on which the person went, the number the person had on the ship. And then the person’s name, the person’s next of kin, the person’s caste name, the person’s sex.
and those sorts of things and a person’s thumb imprint at the bottom… to say that he or she understood the terms of agreement. And those passes are preserved in hard copy in the archives in Fiji.
Sometime in the 1970s, under the Australian Joint Copying Project, all of these things were microfilmed. And microfilm copies of emigration passes, suicide registers, plantation registers and a whole range of other things is available in several places, New Zealand, several libraries in Australia and so on.
So there were 45,439. I remember these figures very well. They had come from North India, right. There they were! There they were on microfilm!
And so I coded all these, you know, variables, not the names, because names don’t matter, but caste, age, sex, district of origin, district registration. The year of migration, the number and so on. And then, in this dimly lit room in the basement of the National Archives of Australia, in Canberra, I, I … all of them. I reduced them to numbers, 45,000 of them, seven days a week, sometimes, for seven months continuous.
It was just, you know, really, really, no one has ever done that. And people would be foolish to try it again. I can tell you that much. But then I did it. And I used I mean, those days, you’re not talking about PCs.There was one huge humming UNIVAC computer in a whole room. Old machinery. And so I then use used a particular program called SPSS– statistical package for social scientists. And I then coded the data and with the help of a person, a graduate student, put that through the system. 1000s of pages came out. So I knew exactly, you know, how many came from which district over how many years… Which caste, which sex? How many married… I mean, the whole detail, right?
And so my thesis was in two volumes. The second volume was just tables and tables and tables, year by year. So I got a very, very fine, fine picture of, of who these people were.
And the interesting thing is, and I look back upon it now, in a way I felt I felt, I felt good that these girmitiyas were not merely in the numbers. They were my people, they were my people. And I was paying homage to them by looking at each and every of their immigration passes. I feel good about it, I feel good about it.
Sometimes there will be a death on the ship. Just tears I mean, what do you do? You see, this person’s life has ended before it began. And they would wrap their bodies in white cloth and then… in the deep, dark of night, throw them overboard into into the sea …or a child was born! And a new life began. And in the end, I mean, the the result of that work was I demonstrated absolutely, you know, irrefutably who these people were, they’re not all riffraff and flotsam and jetsam of humanity that colonial officials made them out to be. These were a representative cross section of Indian community migrating because of deteriorating circumstances in in the 19th century
MRA: After his computer analysis, Brij goes to India for the first time in 1978 … and that’s where we left him, remember? In Baraich ..
Brij Lal: Hindi: yah se kabhi koi bahar gaya tha? Mere aja ji the, who yahan se bahut din pehle bahar gaye the ek tapu… . koi janta hai ki koi uske families vagera hai?
MRA: He’s inquiring about his grandfather…..my Aja left for an island a long time ago….does anyone know him?
ACT: Brij Lal: and nobody knew. Except an old woman was, must have been 200 years old, sitting in a in a hovel in the distance. She saw the village, sort of surrounding me, crowding… and she said — ye ka hungama hoi hai? you know, what is happening?
And somebody said — Oh, this man has come and he is looking for, for for his ancestors or his his Aja.
And then she sort of came to me slowly and we talked. But then she remembered. Han, hum, jahnit hai! I know! In Bhojpuri right? hum janit hai. She said, Yes, there was a young man who had left, and he never came back.
Then, oh, and she mentioned to me that so-and-so is my relative. That so-and-so, as he approached me, he sobbed uncontrollably. And his son who would be my cousin, as you know, he touched my feet in respect. And we cried. I mean, I also cried. It was a very emotional, intensely emotional experience.
When I saw him cry, you know, and I realized that, yep. My journey began here, in a sense.
He said, You should come back. There’s a school here, you can teach our children and we can all live together again, as a as a as one happy family.
And I knew in my heart, I mean, much moved, as I was at that experience, India was not my country, it was my grandfather’s land, not mine.
And that realization tore me apart really. I mean I understood Indian culture. I grew up with Indian culture in Fiji, I loved Hindi music, saw Hindi movies. But I could not, I mean, I could not really, really identify with with the place in a way that was expected, I suppose. And it was there, I realized I was a Fijian.
So I said goodbye to them. Some little girl, apparently, in my extended family was getting married. So I contributed my share in quotes to the expenses of this, and then, and then and then I left.
MRA: Brij can now let India go…. He can now accept he is from Fiji.
GV: But Fiji …cannot be his.
GV: Chapter 5: Displacement, Redux
GV: Now, we need to tell you a backstory about Fiji politics — we’ll be quick, we promise!… When the British leave Fiji in 1970, Indians make up almost half the population on the islands. But they don’t really mix with the islanders.
MRA: You see… a 100 years ago, the British had kept the Indians and islanders in separate racial compartments…. It sort of made sense back then!… they wanted to preserve indigenous culture, which is tied to the idea of land or vanua… Indians can’t own land in Fiji…here’s Sudesh…
Sudesh Mishra: You have a group of peasants, who have been wrenched from the village economies and put into, the plantation agriculture. The moment they were freed from that system, they understood they didn’t have any land. And the country wasn’t theirs so they had to very quickly decide what they’re going to do with their offsprings. And the thing that individuals latched on to was education.
MRA: By the ’80s– the kids and grandkids of the girmitiyas are visibly better off than many islanders. They become doctors, lawyers…and begin to occupy important spots in government
Sudesh Mishra: when I was growing up all the, you know, all the solid houses, you know, the visible wealth seemed to be with Indians was the Fijians were the villages. So at some point, you know, this was going to actually create a problem if you have this kind of imbalance in social progression.
GV: … Then, the unthinkable happens… in elections in 1987, the ruling party supported largely by islanders is voted out of office, and replaced by a coalition supported largely by Indo-Fijians.
MRA: The government lasts for all of a month. Then… there is a coup by the military… the government… is overthrown…
<coup– news reel> Fiji’s coup culture… ethnic Fijian dominance over Indian Fijians Rubuka: I believe it is in the national interest that I carry out the events of this morning, takeover of the government
After monitoring the events of the past few weeks, and with information about planned activities of certain groups in the community, I believe it is in the national interest that I carry out the events of this morning
All that was code for one single event — the accession to power for the first time in 20 years by a labor-dominated coalition led by this man – Timoci Bavandra. When Bavandra won the election and brought 7 Indians into his cabinet, Indigenous Fijians took to the streets
Umit Bali: I was three years old, I was a baby…they were carrying me for shelter because what was happening was a lot of islanders were like, you know, breaking into homes and looking for Indians to bash and …
GV: That’s Umit Bali. He’s a 35-year-old Indo-Fijian-Australian comedian who’s become something of a celeb after being a finalist on Australia’s Got Talent. His mom’s told him about the coup…
Umit Bali: but it was not all violence, because my mom said they got refuge in the home of another Fijian family, you know, there were some Fijians that’d hide Indians and keep them safe or like, you know, protect them.
Umit Bali: It’s like, everyone got along really, really well. But there was like this thing of, like, if a coup happened, you know, the guy that was really nice to you the other day, might want to kill you, or rape your sister or something like that.
I grew up knowing that there are good Fijians. And then there are okay Fijians, and then there are really bad Fijians, and then suddenly, but you always have to be on your guard.
MRA: in 1990, the Fijian constitution is rewritten to strip Indians of all political rights. Umit told us what daily life was like for Indo-Fijians… Picture the capital Suva…a sleepy island city with a live wire running right under it..
Umit Bali: I remember lots of pigeons at the bus stall, you go to the bus stall, and there’s all these buses lined up, you pick the bus that you have to go in, you go in you give the bus driver 40 cents. But if you missed that you have to walk all the way into the city. We call it a city. But really it’s like, over glorified town. Every building was like two stories, three stories, four stories, and that would be the cutoff point. You know, if you find a building with eight storeys. Ooh, what’s that! look at that, oooh!
A lot of cars with smoke coming out of the back of them. You would get behind a bus or a car that has that smoking, all the kids would stick their heads out the window and smell the fumes. You know, it was really nice smell. I’m not kidding it was a really good smell, you know, but then later on we found out you know, it killed you!
GV: Umit’s family, like most Indo-Fijians, was very Indian… you know.. They’d go to the temple,, watch Bollywood movies .. this was all int he ‘90s of course
All the Indian movies we had were pirated copies. So you’d also get like, you get hindi movies that you’d get Hindi ads. If you meet someone that yeah, If you meet someone that’s my age graphics that’s for at least watch Indian movies, if you just say to him, Zandu Balm Zandu Balm <sings>, and then he’ll finish it by saying, <sings> pira hari balm.. . something something something something something….
GV: What a strange sequence of events… families like Umit’s are so Indian and yet, they haven’t set foot in India since their great-grandparents. The girmitiyas suffered on the plantations… and then, they adopted a new homeland where they were considered an inferior race. And then, in a strange reversal of power, their children and grandchildren begin ruling the nation …And then, they’re kicked out.
MRA: Since 1987, almost half the Indians on the island have emigrated… mostly to Australia, New Zealand, US, Canada… places where most everyone’s an immigrant of some vintage… some have gone for studies. Others have relatives who sponsor them. And some have found more troubling routes…
Umit Bali: The goal is to escape poverty 80% of the time, then 20% of it is because sometimes, you know, things would be going really, really well. And then there’s a coup and everything’s screwed up.
Umit Bali: When I was growing up, I had all these cousins, you know, they’d be like turning 18, 19. And all of a sudden these white people would come … I was like 9, 10 years old, but I could tell they were weirdos. I remember this one old dude coming to marry one of the girls in our village and she was like, beautiful, 18 years old, 19 years old. And this guy was like 65, you know, and he he had the shakes. He would not stop shaking. I can remember she was like uhming and ahhing. She was like, I don’t wanna marry him.. and her mom was like, you have to! you might die too next week. It’s like Chris Hanson in How to Catch a predator but ethnic version
GV: when Umit was 13, his family went to Australia on a tourist visa and just ….stayed on! And it was really really tough, hiding from immigration and all that — Umit was working in retail to take care of his family…
Umit Bali: I was working six nights a week, and I was doing it to provide for my family.
And then a moment came where I was just like, you know, my boss was really mean to me. And I had done everything he asked for… me the night before I did everything he had asked me to do for the last three weeks to the tee. And every time I come into work, he would just take a baseball bat, figuratively speaking, and just smash my knees. You know, tell me everything I did wrong. We’re not even talking about one thing I did, right? Just tell me how I stopped this up this ability to do that
but this this this time, it just made me go…there’s gotta be more to life than just surviving like this, you know.
I think it was just, I felt lost, I just needed to know, where I came from, or what I what was the point of all this, And I found the Hare Krishnas…
then the next day when I walked past and he was talking, I stopped and I bought a book and I listened and then I went to an ashram and I hung out with other devotees there and then I went to eat some food at Govidas restaurant and then I went to a couple of kirtans…
GV: As I listened to him, I was reminded of Aja and the girmitiyas — sitting under a tree singing kirtans…longing for home..
MRA: So, that’s the backstory. We’re now in 1995… Brij is a well known scholar and prominent critic of the government. And Fiji’s constitution is up for review. This happens every 7 years… and given Brij’s reputation, the leader of the opposition asks him to help rewrite it
MRA: the result: an 800-page document… that states
ACT: Brij Lal: multiracial societies ought to strive for multi racial governance, that all groups should have, should have the right to share power
GV: But remember that live wire running beneath Suva? In 2006, there’s another coup… and Brij’s constitution is cancelled….
ACT: Brij Lal: I took a very strong stand — as a former constitutional commissioner, as someone who’s spent his entire life studying the history of our people, someone who’d seen so many opportunities missed to take Fiji in a new direction, I took a strong stand, basically saying that coups never solve problems and, and that we should strive for dialogue, discussion. And the military did not like my narrative. But so they banned me for life. In 2009. A couple of months later, they banned my wife. So we have been living, expelled for life all these years in Australia.
GV: How did that make you feel?
Brij Lal: I, I don’t know I don’t think anger is part of it. But a certain sense of sadness, sadness, that this is such a, an archaic way of dealing with legitimate democratic dissent in a world of galloping globalization, of porous national boundaries, this age of, travel and technology that does not respect those boundaries.
GV: Do you miss Fiji?
Brij Lal: I suppose the most difficult part is, is not being able to say the final farewell to friends, you know, who are part of my life, family members who’ve gone.
That is where I was born. That’s where my Parents are buried. That’s where my earliest memories were formed. That ancient urge to connect, you know, at the moment of departure. It’s not going to happen, but there’s nothing that I can do.
GV: That’s similar to what happened with your grandfather.. who longed for India in his old age…
Brij Lal: Well, in some ways, yes. But he could return if he wanted to. He had that right. I don’t I don’t. Such is life, young lady, that if you stand up for certain values, you pay the price. But you ask yourself this question, you know, aren’t there certain things worth defending? Doesn’t there come a time in one’s life when you draw a line in the sand and say this far and no further? A lot of people in Fiji would say to me, do say to me, look, Doc, what is the point? Why are you banging your head against against the wall? You live in Australia. Let these buggers go to wherever they want to go. Don’t bother. Don’t waste your time. But… I hear what they’re saying. But you just can’t turn away from violence and from abuse of human rights. Some people can do it, but I can’t. You see?
GV: Thanks for listening. I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan.
MRA: and I’m Mary-Rose Abraham
GV: Next time on Scrolls & Leaves,
MRA: what does a shipwreck off the coast of Sri Lanka have to do with science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke? Tune in in 2 weeks to find out!
GV: Our sound designer is …
Nikhil Nagaraj: Nikhil Nagaraj
GV: The storyteller is …
Sumit Kumar: Sumit Kumar
MRA: This episode was produced by Gayathri, Mary-Rose, with assistance from Alexa Stranger, Caroline Magavern, Iman Ifthikar and Sasha Semina
GV: You were listening to Scrolls and Leaves, in collaboration with the Archives at the National Centre for Biological Sciences.
MRA: Our thanks to Brij Lal, Padma Lal, Umit Balli, Sudesh Mishra.
GV: And a shout out to listener Tana Trivedi for letting us know of Sudesh’s poetry.
MRA: Thanks to our episode supporters, The Order of Multitudes: Atlas, Encyclopedia, Museum, at Yale University, and Anjana Badrinarayanan of NCBS.
GV: For more information and past episodes, visit to scrollsandleaves.com, or you can follow us on twitter @scrollsleaves or on instagram at @scrollsandleaves, or like us on Facebook and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.