Tragedies of life often nest within our soul and create ripples that often do not find the shore. Life ebbs and flows with the tides of hope and despair. In this regard, it is my desire to unburden myself with the inner grief that taunts and also haunts me endlessly.
Separation from Fiji, following the infamous military coup of May 14, 1987, is like an injury that cannot and will not heal. However, when it did happen I had absolutely no hesitation in deciding to migrate overseas. Two things guided me into this decision. Firstly, I had seen one country after another in Africa, falling prey to military rule after their independence. Secondly, the haunted looks of fear and anxiety in my children, challenged me to act with courage, wisdom and vision. It was a heart-breaking experience that I relive from time to time. I remember, one Sunday my 14-year old son, with his cousins, was picked up by the soldiers for catching prawns on a Sunday. They were admonished for breaking the Sabbath! Surprisingly, it seemed okay for the soldiers to break the Sabbath, though I have not seen any exemption of it in the Holy Bible! Fear through such experience on young and innocent hearts often leaves indelible memories. I do not know how fear has affected my son after this frightening experience.
First coup and my journey
I was the Town Clerk at Ba and a target for questioning or humiliation by the military. I did want to migrate but I did not know where to go. I did not want to go to the US or Canada for inexplicable reasons. However, out of nowhere, I received an unexpected telegram from the Town Clerk of Gisborne City Council. It changed my life forever. I had met this gentleman for a fleeting moment at a conference of Society of NZ Town Clerks in Palmerston North two weeks before the coup in Fiji. It simply said, “We are concerned about your safety and your family. Come to NZ. Stay with us. We will help.” I held the note in my hand like a drowning man clutching at a straw.
I travelled to NZ, got a position as Administration Officer with the then Ellerslie Borough Council. I will never forget what I told the interviewing panel that included the Mayor and some councillors when asked to make a final statement. I said with consuming emotion, “Spare me and my family the indignity of being made refugees, or being killed or separated from each other. I assure you that if granted the opportunity, I will serve the Council with dedication, commitment and sacrifice.” Emotion in the room was palpable. Did I get the job because of this? I don’t care! I got the job and opportunity to get out of Fiji.
Departure from Nadi Airport
I will also not forget the day when we travelled to Nadi Airport and felt the final rip of the umbilical cord from Fiji forever. Nadi Airport was heaving with people, mostly Indo-Fijians, who had come to farewell their friends and family members. Everywhere there was sorrow, grief and tears.
Since the first coup of May 14, 1987 Nadi Airport had become the Indo-Fijian shrine for their tears. A despised race had no one outside to share their pain, grief and sorrow. On this day, we had our own troupe, saturated with grief and what hurt me most was the separation from my aging mother. Fortunately, she turned out to be brave and gave me courage. My heart pounded for her like that of a calf being separated from the mother. I realized then that age did not diminish the relationship between a mother and her child.
As we left the point where families separated we raised our arms in final salute before entering the custom area. A sea of sad and tear-filled eyes greeted us. . It was not the end. They had gone up to the viewing deck to have another glimpse, like other families, as we headed to the aircraft. We saw them, raised our arms, and thanked God for giving us yet another opportunity to see our loved ones.
We took our seats and as the Air New Zealand jet revved its engines for take-off, it reminded me of my grandfather’s laceration from his motherland by ship as an indentured labourer in May 1908. There was wailing and chest-beating as they had boarded the ships. I felt that pain, leaving Fiji but my mode of expression was to clip my lips and contain my tears for the sake of my children.
As the Air New Zealand jet lifted, I saw the silent sugarcane fields below and the vast Pacific Ocean beyond. An era of my life’s journey had ended; the future, as always, looked uncertain and daunting in a foreign land. Soon visual Fiji disappeared in the distant. Only memories remained. But I want to allude to another event that is best shared and not withheld.
Adios to my chief
Few days before leaving, I decided to go to Tui Ba, Ratu Sakiusa Naisau. I knew him closely and I wanted to make a traditional offering and inform him of my decision to migrate and seek his blessings. Ratu Sakiusa was informed of my desire and he waited upon me. My family went with me and I saw Ratu Sakiusa in his chiefly bure. His eyes were moistened with sadness. Vilisoni Cagimaivei, Council’s Health Inspector (later Minister for Urban Development and Housing in the Rabuka Government) made the traditional offering on my behalf as we set solemnly.
One of the saddest things about such occasions is that one has to finally say goodbye. My wife had met Ratu Sakiusa before but not my children. The moment to part came and we all wept. I knew that I would never see Ratu Sakiusa again. It was true. But I have often thought about this event.
Why did I do such a thing when his people had made us homeless? I knew his sympathy and support, though unjustified, was with his people. But there is something in humanity that transcends racial prejudices in such moments. I experienced it. Ratu Sakiusa was not only iTaukei chief but also a human being. We met at that level and our hearts melted at the grief of our separation.
For that moment, race, religion and culture that divided us endlessly in Fiji vanished and we experienced an outpouring of love, compassion and affection that rarely transcends the cultural boundaries. It is my personal experience that Indo-Fijians do not hate the iTaukei but the iTaukei do; mostly at the urging of their leaders to serve their interests.
Inter communal relationships
How did I feel about communal relationship in Fiji at that time? Interestingly, it differed from district to district. In Ba the relationship between the iTaukei and Indo-Fijians was generally good but one could always feel that invisible wall that divided us. It had created a mind-set among the common citizenry that this how it had to be and it fitted into the credo of the political leaders. While the iTaukei leaders tried to strengthen the political divide, as it facilitated their political dominance, the Indo-Fijian leaders showed utter bankruptcy in promoting inter-communal relationships.
For example, we were not encouraged to foster good relations with the iTaukei, in our day-to-day relationships, leaving the racial wound to fester. Yet, we had festivals like Holi and Diwali where we could have shared the gulgula, barra and other sweets with the iTaukei. It would have promoted a greater understanding, awareness and appreciation of each other’s traditional and cultural values. But we did not.
Indeed, the failure of Fijian democracy is attributed to failure of leadership at the national level. The Fijian democracy was led by the incoherent and the incomprehensible because they operated with hidden agendas to secure their place of eminence and political dominance. The interests of the nation and its peoples became secondary to their self-interest. Consequently, decades have vanished before our eyes. A majority of people were born in poverty, lived in poverty and died in poverty. They lived their lives in hope and craved for prosperity. It was an elusive dream for the majority but lived by a chosen few.
The longing and the lament for Fiji
I have left Fiji but Fiji in me is like part of my biological body. Inseparable. My longing and lament for it has become part of my daily life. I have no feeling of hatred against those who separated me from the land of my birth. When I was born she received me in her vast and comforting arms. She did not sniff or look at me with disappointment that I was a child of Indian parents. She gave me a place to grow and a place to build my family nest. I did.
But then my nest was destroyed. I was told that I did not belong here. I was a vulagi with an undetermined visa. If my thick head did not get the message before, the military coup clarified it. My choice was either to live at the pleasure of the indigenes or clear the deck.
We took the parents’ view of the issues before us. We lived for our children and our future and, for this; no sacrifice was too great for us. We had almost cleared our mortgage over our new house. Brick by brick we had built it. It wasn’t worth even a quarter of its value.
We had no savings but we had the most valuable inheritance of courage, fortitude and resilience to rebuild from the ruins of our misfortunes like our Girmitiya grandparents. I felt sorry for them and the sacrifices they had made in the belief that they had paid the price for their karma and their children would escape the tragedy of their lives.
We were now making a similar journey from Fiji to New Zealand with same nostalgic feelings of separation, longing and lament. They did not know their destination; I knew mine. We were reminded by the advocates of indigenous ethno-nationalism that equality was the folly of our imagination, implying that constitutional provisions granting equality to all did not apply when political power shifted.
Nature’s wrath borne together
I noted that, as children of Fiji, we enjoyed and celebrated together many things many times. Nature endorsed our oneness in times of great pain and suffering through His wrathful cyclones, hurricanes and droughts. We suffered them and in places sheltered together. In the aftermath, generally, we were excluded from relief supplies because we were the despised race. But we did not complain. We gathered the twigs and the battered corrugated iron sheets to shelter our families and restore our lives.
From those small shacks and shanties many of us worked hard and built our lives only to be envied, disliked and hated. It aggravated and some of our kin got kicked out of their homes and farms not because the landowners needed the land for their own use but because of our ethnicity.
Consequently, the sugar industry that provided livelihood to over 200,000 people teetered on the verge of collapse but it did not matter. In Fiji’s race-based politics, economic considerations did not matter; marginalization and dispossession of Indo-Fijians did.
The iTaukei leaders, in particular, made the iTaukei see us through the prism of their racial prejudices, ignoring many things that gave us a sense of affinity, unity and commonality. In their 135-year history (1879-2014) only in the last eight years (2006-2014) they had the privilege to experience equality and dignity.
Even this is now under threat as merchants of ethno-nationalism have threatened to revoke it, if they came into power in the next election. Their dislike and hatred for Indo-Fijians is palpable. Insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety continue to hound their lives.
But let us be hopeful. After the long darkness of the night, the dawn of hope has broken over Fiji.
The choice is upon the people of Fiji to elect a government that best serves the interests of all the peoples of Fiji. I hope and pray that Fiji will find its true inner soul and re-chart a path where the basic precepts of the Bible are not only preached but practised and that malice, hatred and jealousy – the weapons of the devil are replaced with the love of Christ where love, tolerance and forgiveness nourish the hearts and minds of all the peoples of Fiji. God Bless Fiji!
(Rajendra Prasad is the author of Tears in Paradise – Suffering and Struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879-2004)