Lotan tells his story

I came from Basti when I was 28 years old. I left India because there was a shortage of work there, so four of us got together and decided that we would go abroad in search of work. We met an arkati who recruited us. We were told that we would get 12 annas a day abroad and this was a lot of money for India. Abroad to us meant another town, probably Calcutta. People used to go and work there and then return home. This is why we regarded it as abroad. We did not ask thearkati where Fiji was, all we knew was that we were going away to work and earn money. We put our faith in the arkati. We did so because we thought that he would provide us with work which would enable us to earn our livelihood as well as accumulate some money.

I took my wife with me and then ran away from home. I had decided to run away at night when everybody was asleep. We met thearkati later and then he took us to the depot. Some of my companions also had wives. We intended to go abroad and earn and then return home.

We regarded Fiji as some place nearby, but when we were on the ship it took us four weeks merely to travel to this place. I only thought of my parents and home when we got into Fiji and found the indenture days difficult. But we all put up with the girmit.

We did not combine and fight Europeans because there was no point in it. Government was on their side. Our view was to endure girmit, it was for five years, thereafter we would be free.

When we first saw Fijians we were scared. We were worried that we might become like them when we saw their hair. On our estate we were told that these were the natives of the country. Their disposition towards us was quite good. In those days they seemed rather frightened of Indians. When we first came to Fiji all the Fijians wore banana leaves as skirts. They used to keep their money in their mouth and when they got into a shop they used to take it out of their mouths and give it to the shop-keeper. Sometimes Indians used to buy fruits from them. There were some Indians who could converse with them in Fijian.

When I came I used to work where the boats were and on the punt. My wife worked in the field. I used to start work at 7am and finish at 5pm. My wife’s work was very difficult. Some days she could complete her task, other days she could not. I supplemented our income by working on Sundays at the boilers which were used to produce sugar. Otherwise I would not have had enough money.

When I first came to Fiji I was quite a strong man therefore not many people tried to get up to mischief with me or my wife. The work was very difficult. Sometimes we were told to cut down a tree and then to dig up its roots. Once we had started work we used to keep at it until we had completed our task; it was almost four o’clock in the afternoon some days when we had our lunch. If we did not complete our task we did not get our money.

There is no doubt that Europeans used to beat up people who did not do their work.         And the sardars used to collaborate with the overseers. There was a sardar who was beaten up in Manoca. Europeans were also assaulted now and then. Indians did gang up and attack Europeans and they did this because Europeans used to hit them when their task was not completed. Some overseers insisted that if one of us was wearing a hat then on meeting them we must take it off for them and say salaam to them. If we did not oblige we were punished. Indians were not permitted to wear hats in the presence of Europeans. They used to call us ‘boy’ and treat us like little children. We did not know what ‘boy’ meant. So we thought ‘boy’ was a term for something good. Some may have known the meaning of ‘boy’  but others, when they were addressed as ‘boy’ used to think this was something great that they had been called.

When Indians behaved as though they were the children, Europeans treated them well but if they asserted themselves and tried to be like them then they found themselves in trouble. Assertion of equality led to a thrashing.

Some women were paid in full even when they had not completed their task, that is if the overseer fancied them. On the other hand, some who finished their tasks sometimes did not get fully compensated. There were some sardars who used to provide overseers with women. These were Indian sardars who were doing this to Indian women but we could do nothing. We were frightened. We spent five years full of fear because if we did not conform we were in trouble.

The sardars had they been reasonable and explained the situation to Europeans, the latter might not have been so ruthless. Once a European saw me all full of sweat cutting steel, he asked me what I was getting. I said, “A shilling.” He then went and saw the overseer and asked him why I was paid a shilling. He was told that was what I was supposed to get during indenture. But he said that I was working like a European below an overseer, so the overseer increased my rate to 1/6. Others used to get 15/- or one pound a week.

There were many hangings and killings over women. Some-times a woman had liaisons with two or three men and this was a source of conflict. The relationship between jhaji bhais was so strong that it seemed better than that between brothers. There was always a case of mutual assistance whenever the need arose.

Hindus and Muslims were all friends. Muslims used to invite Hindus to their Koran readings and Hindus reciprocated when they did likewise. In those days there were no cattle slaughtered. It was only when people became ‘free’ that they resorted to killing cattle.     Hindus and Muslims used to live like brothers on the same estate.

Indians who were in the ‘free’ assisted us when we were in difficulty. Hindus and Muslims used to help one another. Those who knew of their religion from India, practised it even though there were neither mosques nor temples. They performed their religious rites in their house or within their own room. Despite the rigours of the indenture system there were some Muslims who fasted. They were able to do so because they had a will for the purpose. Those who knew how to say their namaj used to say it in the field when the time came. If there was no water they used mud to do their ritual preparation before prayer. Having said their prayers they returned to work. Indenture was very harsh but nonetheless Hindus and Muslims retained their religion, without it they ‘would not have survived or retained their identity.  It was their religion which enabled both Hindus and Muslims to survive. Even though there were no genuinemaulvis or pundits here at the time, persons became pundits ormaulvis merely because they knew a little about religion, and when the need or occasion arose for someone to perform these duties, they obliged.

But it was much later that many maulvis and pundits began coming into Fiji from India. During girmit those who could read or write could improve their status.         People respected anyone, either Muslim or Hindu, who could read and write. There were one or two pundits and maulvis who were rogues but even they received respect from some people.   As was traditional, those who performed religious rites as maulvi or pundit received a donation. But there were no pundits or maulyis who made it a profession of going around and performing religious rituals and collecting money.

I had put up with indenture for five years, it would have been foolish to re-indenture myself for another five years. Some used to have a good time and squander everything, so they had no alternative but to re-indenture themselves. There was a brewery in Nausori. Some Indians tried to pinch some liquor from there. They put a match to the tin and there was an explosion and several got burnt. So it was closed down. Europeans took the view that such attempts would kill all the Indians.

There were no schools here and there was no education for anybody except that provided by Christian missionaries. When men became Christian the missionaries often used to find them wives as well.

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.