Peace for the World

Peace for the World
First democratic leader of Justice the Godfather of the Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle: Honourable Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Part 3: Indian Plantation Workers Overseas – Fiji, The Caribbean

Colombo Telegraph
By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan –May 3, 2017
Prof. Charles Sarvan
In Fiji, the racial divide between Indians and Fijians, the suspicion, fear and hostility, led to the military coup of 1987 which prompted many Indians to emigrate. They, like their parents and grandparents, had been born in Fiji; had believed and felt it to be home, but suddenly home was no longer home. This imperial legacy is similar to that experienced by descendants of indentured labour in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. In Satendra Nandan’s The Wounded Sea (1991), Fijian Indians are like Rama in the Indian epic TheRamayana who, on the eve of his coronation, in an abrupt reversal, is sent into exile. But to Rama and his wife there was a triumphant return; to the Indians, a dispersal, insecurity and unease. By law, most of the land is reserved for Fijians, and though the first batch of indentured workers reached Fiji in 1879, their children cannot own land; cannot have the claims and the feelings which flow from such rights. “Coolies” do not make history: they merely suffer it. As Nandan shows, suffering without hope, many degenerate into alcoholism, crudity and violence (77). Satendra Nandan is a contemporary writer (born 1939), and for an account of the earlier experience of indenture in Fiji, one must turn to Totaram Sanadhya’s My Twenty-One Years in the Fiji Islands and The Story of the Haunted Line, both now in one volume. Sanadhya arrived in Fiji in 1893, at the age of seventeen, returned to India in 1914, and published these works which were subsequently translated into several Indian languages. Even as an adult, the remembrance of the poverty his parents endured in India brought “clouds of sorrow” (32) to him. He ran away from his widowed mother (because he was unable to be of help, and didn’t want to be an additional burden on her) and met up with an arkati or recruiter. The arkati trained their victims to answer “Yes” to all questions, and the latter found they had “voluntarily” bound themselves to go to Fiji, a land whose very name they had not heard before. Those recruited were known as grimitiyas because they had signed a grimit, an Indianisation of “agreement.” The trapped grimitiyas, prior to embarkation (Sanadhya’s voyage took three months and twelve days) were forbidden to speak to each other, in case information was exchanged and the true nature of things discovered. The food given was so hard it first had to be soaked in water. On arrival, they were immediately surrounded by police, indicating their captive status. They woke at four in the morning, and were working by five. An impossible amount of work was set, and failure to fulfil the quota meant a fine. This last reduced the grimitya’s pay and set him down the road into inextricable debt. The government inspectors who came round were “White”; they stayed with the planters, were their guests and wrote positive reports. Women suffered the most, getting up at three-thirty in the morning to prepare food for the day; working ten hours, and retuning home to cook for the night and to clean. There was “a corpse-like shading to their faces” (61). A woman desired by a man with power was assigned work in a lonely place so that she could be raped. One woman, forced back to work only three days after giving birth and being unable to cope, was so badly beaten that she ended up mentally deranged. Brij Lal records cases such as an English overseer pouring acid on the penis of a grimitya; of a woman who just after giving birth was put to work breaking stones, and when unable to complete the task, being beaten senseless (41). Since the ratio of women was about thirty to every hundred men, prostitution, infidelity, suspicion and violence were rife. In The Story of the Haunted Line, women lament their fate, comfort each other and resume work (119): work was both destroyer and distraction. The author himself was tempted to commit suicide but was stopped by thoughts of his mother’s love for him, and of his love for, and duty towards, her.
Caribbean. If the ancestors are texts waiting to be written (Dabydeen 1988, 12) then it is the children of those who went West, to the Caribbean and to Guyana – who have done the most to commemorate, to indict, to celebrate: I have already referred to several works from this region. The “coolie” mother in Dabydeen’s work, Coolie Odyssey, has incredible courage; is iron-like in her determination that her son will have a better life, and so, though her feet and hands are cracked, though she’s coughing blood, she continues to labour.