Lakhpat's story

I came to Fiji in the year 1911. I was born in Kanpur, Madhya Pradesh, but my parents came from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. I was about 15 when my mother died.       My father sent me back to U.P, to get married but I did not. People told me that if I remained in U.P. my father would leave Kanpur and come back to me. I told my father that I was very young and that in case of his death I would not be able to manage everything. But my father told me that conditions were quite satisfactory in India and that I would be able to do so. Then I heard nothing from my father for twelve months and became concerned. I had intentions of going back to my own village.

Then I met a Brahmin who said that he would be able to take me there. So I joined him. The Brahmin paid for my ticket but knowingly got into a train that was going towards Calcutta. I slept the night in the train.

When we came to a place in Patna, the Brahmin asked me to get off with him because he had a few matters to settle there. We would resume our journey after he had completed his business. The Brahmin took me to a big house and asked me to wait until he returned. But alas he did not come back.

I began crying. This was in fact a depot which belonged to a Muslim. He placated me by saying that the man would return and then we would be able to resume our journey.  In the meantime he gave me cooking utensils and foodstuff and showed me where I could have a wash as well. He told me to cook and eat first  The next day I met a Muslim boy who enquired where I was going. I replied that I had been left there by a person who would return to take me away.The boy replied that this would not be so because we were in a recruiting depot from where people were sent elsewhere. Shortly afterwards about eleven others joined us and  we were taken to a European. But we had been warned that we had been given food at the depot and that if we gave negative answers we would be jailed. When the European asked whether we were going willingly we answered in the affirmative.

Before going to the European I had asked where I would be sent. On being told that it would be Fiji I enquired of its whereabouts. I was told that it was close to Calcutta and I could go there willingly. Since it was not a jail I could return when I wanted to.

The depot at Calcutta was very large, with men and women together.   I was scared lest these people were merely luring us to some place where they might kill us. The European inspector got us to stand in a line and he checked all of us. When he came to me he looked at my hand and touched it and he said to me that I must be the son of a Brahmin. I agreed and he asked me to stand aside in a separate place. I began to cry. He then said that they were not recruiting Brahmins but I replied, that in any case I had already lost my caste by eating with everybody and that if I returned home now I would be thrown out. He put me back in the line.

Sometime after the examination our ship arrived. When we were about to get on board we were given a pair of pyjamas and a shirt, plus two blankets. There was a great deal of weeping. We embarked on the ship. People wept because they were leaving their families or their homes.          Some had been tempted through deception. There were with us some women who were extremely immoral but there were others who were extremely good. Many of the women were upset because they had been lured away either from gatherings or market places where the recruiters had misled them. There were many places in India in those days where great gatherings used to take place.

Occasionally some women got ‘lost’ n the place and they were enticed away by arkatis. I cried because I was leaving everything behind and did not know where I was going to.

Nobody knew where Fiji was. These recruiters had misled us and bluffed its into going.     I, for instance, had quite a good home. There was no need for me to leave.       My father had both land and house in Kasi. From Calcutta we went to Madras and then past Singapore, it took us a month before we reached Fiji.

Life was very painful on board ship. For a fortnight I was well, then I became ill and parts of my body began to swell up. I was given medicine and milk. I was quite unwilling to drink the milk that was given because I did not know what sort of milk it was. I was a Brahmin and therefore inclined to be particular about these things. I refused to drink the milk.

A fortnight later we arrived. in Fiji. We were all herded into a punt like pigs and taken to Nukulau where we stayed for a fortnight. We were given rice that was full of worms. We were kept and fed like animals. Later we were separated into groups for various employers. There was no question of the employers choosing who they wanted, it was a case of government saying these fifteen were going to such and such a place, that fifteen somewhere else, or another thirty or another hundred, whatever the request made earlier.

I was sent off to Tamanua in Navua. We got to Navua and were given a three-legged pot, a large spoon, a bucket and a billy-can, and some rice. We then went to Nakaulevu where we saw the lines. We had been told that we were going on a contract of five years but if we wished to return after five years to India we would have to pay our own fares. But after ten years the government would pay our return passage. And we were told that if we decided to settle in the country we went to we would be given all rights, as well as provided with land. But we were not told. as to whether we would get a specific amount of land, this we were not told. I think it is incorrect reporting on the part of those people who say the government in India promised us a certain number of acres of land in Fiji. In those days it was not difficult to get land.Fijians were willing to lease their land.

In the rooms in the lines, the partition did not reach the ceiling and there were gaps. If one wanted to steal then one could remove the covering and go over.         There were cases where in one room single people stayed and next to them married couples. The first night we went to sleep without any food even though the sardar -told us that we would get some.

It used to rain very heavily in Navua. There were small kitchens in the place but no bathrooms. We had to wash in the river. People in the lines were treated like animals in those days.

In the mornings, the sardar came and asked us to go and collect firewood. Three of us who were single did so, but all the wood we collected was wet because it was pouring with rain. We shed tears, but we managed with some dhall and rice cooked together. There were three of us in a group. There was a Muslim who knew how to cook very well. He was like a brother to me.

He would not eat either fish or meat. The third person was a man whose wife had died on board the ship. He was much older than us but we three became close companions.

We were given a knife and a file and sent off to cut cane. For a week eleven of us learnt how to cut cane and then fill up the trucks with it. We had to work whether there was rain or sun. No matter how heavy the downpour we had to work. Some of our toes began to rot, but who cared about things in those days.

Women were given leave six weeks before child-birth and six weeks after. But they did not get paid for those six weeks But since they were not being paid women sometimes went back to work immediately after child-birth. Then they were given only half a task and permitted to go back at ten o’clock to feed their child.

One of our tasks was to chop down a tree and dig up its roots. For this we received a shilling. If we failed to complete this task then we were given only six pence. If one had to continue on the second day with the same tree the one earned a shilling in two days. On that basis one merely earned 2/6 in a week, that is, if one did not complete one’s task. But in those days things were also cheap. For instance, kerosene cost only three pence.

For another task we had to dig a drain a chain long, three feet wide and eighteen inches deep; for this, too, we received a shilling.   Some people could not finish this task by 5pm and this, considering that sonic had begun work at 5.30am. There was an hour’s break for lunch at mid-day but one did not have to take a full hour. Some people took the full hour, others did not. Some spent fifteen or twenty minutes so that they could then go back to their task and complete it quickly.

There was no stopping for a smoke. If the overseer saw smoke he whipped the person concerned. For the thirsty there was the paniwala. The work of the water-carrier was not easy. He had to carry water in a drum and take it from place to place giving it to various people. In those days one left home at 5.30 a.m. and had to travel over a mile to work and there was only one tap. Sometimes a squabble would develop over that. People with buckets would gather arguing as to who should be the first to fill the bucket.   So to avoid conflict some of us used to fill our buckets before going home at night.

In the evenings after people had washed, those who could read did some reading. Sometimes married men who could not read or write would come with a slate to those who could, asking to be taught to read and write. We were keen to read and write because we wanted to learn to read our religious books like the Ramayana In those days there were frequent recitals of the katha. The jahajis from another estate often sent invitations for such occasions but one had to be back at one’s own estate by 5.30pm on Sunday. If one failed to return in time one could be fined as much as 15/- or in lieu given two weeks’ jail. Then this fortnight was added to one’s contract.

Muslims, too, were keen to learn to read and write. Those who were illiterate among them often learnt to read Hindi. In those days all people were like brothers. My Muslim friend in the end went away to India. He was married by then and took his wife with him though she was a Brahmin woman.

When a ship arrived the manager and the overseer advised those of us who were single to take a wife from among the single women. That three of us were given such advice. Initially, we were told to pick women from our own ship rather than those who had come or. a ship before or after, because if one picked one from one’s own ship the two indentures expired simultaneously rather than before or after,, which caused strife. When we were given that advice my Muslim friend and I ran off into the bush to collect firewood hoping that while we were away the three women would find somebody else. We were worried that if we married them that might be the end of us. We were right, too, by the time we returned from the bush they had found other men.

The advice of the overseer was not always heeded. People did choose mates from other ships. Those Europeans who were good left Indian women alone. The bad ones did interfere with them. But this was not done through coercion but through willingness on the part of both. Habits prevailing in the indenture period were not very good. Yet I do not recollect seeing any children of Indian women by a Whiteman in my line.

When I came here I was in fact 16 years old, though I had officially given my age as 18. Right from my early days Europeans befriended me.        The overseer told the sardar to ask me to work in his house. The sardar told the overseer that since I was a Brahmin I would not be willing. The overseer pointed out that he realised that I perhaps came from a good family and that he had noticed the way mud used to stick to my clothes. The sardar nonetheless approached me, saying that the overseer had asked that I work in his bungalow. I told the sardar that there were eight night soils0men in the line and I would be happier if he sent one of those to work for the overseer and I would replace the night soils-man. I preferred that to working as a cook for the white overseer since he ate meat and fish and I, as a Brahmin, did not want to have anything to do with such things.

Even being a night soils-man was better than being a cook because as the latter I would have to cut meat. Later there was strife between the overseer, the sardar and the people in the lines. There was stone-throwing from one line across to the other. I told the overseer when he came down to go away, otherwise the people would beat him up. He left but, the people chased after him with sticks, knives and axes, but he got into his house. People were throwing stones and breaking the windows of the overseer’s house. The overseer tied a mat across the window and kept firing his gun over their heads. I asked the cook to ring the manager in case the overseer’s shots hit some Indians. The cook was reluctant.        He was frightened to go out lest he was beaten up. He suggested that he take a route by the riverside. He was frightened  and asked me to accompany him. We went together, the cook agreed to telephone the manager but said he would not speak to him. I said I would speak. I told the manager that the overseer had locked himself in his house and the labourers were trying to break into it with axes and that the overseer was firing his gun over their heads. The manager obviously rang the police and soon police, as well as some Europeans, arrived; the police had handcuffs. On their, arrival the labourers ran into the canefields but some were caught and handcuffed.

There was a court case. The court case lasted a fortnight. In the meantime the sardar in charge of women ran away because the women assaulted him as he used to give them excessive tasks. When the sardar returned the overseer ordered me to accompany him to the women. I was reluctant because the women might have attacked me. The sardar then said that they would not. I insisted so the overseer advised me to remain in the line the next day.

The next day the sardar again told me to go and work with the women. I refused him again. I was frightened because I was so young and the women had a tendency to hit their sardars. While I remained unwilling the overseer told me not to go o to work at all. In this way the whole thing dragged on till Friday. The overseer then said either I took the job or he would beat me. So I suggested to him that the present women’s sardar should be transferred to the men. The overseer who was pressing me to take over the job of sardar of the woman, agreed. The first day, Saturday, when I took over as sardarthere were some South Indian women who were not cutting the seedlings well. They were cutting them too small.

I refused to let them off work although they demanded being given leave. In the meantime I had seen the overseer coming and I reported the situation as it stood. The overseer gave me his horse to hold and whipped each woman. He gave them two or three lashes. He told the women that they always wanted to change sardars. He said this was a sardar who was still under girmit and they must co-operate with him.

He would not get any sardars from the time-expired group. Thereafter I remained their sardar for two years. I got on very well with the women. I used to ask them before setting them tasks as to how much they could do, and if they suggested an amount it was that which I conveyed to the overseer as a suitable task. For instance, the women would suggest sixteen chains and I would tell the overseer it was sixteen. But I would tell him quietly that I would add another four which the overseer would know about but the women would not. The strong women were able to do the extras and this made up for the inadequacy of the weaker ones. This enabled both the weak women as well as the strong ones to bet their full week’s pay. I would then get the chain carrier to mark out twenty chains for the task, which was what the whole group of women had to do. After two years the sardarof the men was leaving to go off to India, and I was then transferred to his position.