Pancham's story

I had no intention of coming to Fiji, or going away to any other island. It was the season of cheat, a time of extreme heat, and the time to harvest channa. I was a farmer, all the channa in the village had been harvested except mine which for various reasons had been delayed; my channa became over-ripe and began falling off of its own accord. A Brahmin’s son from the village came to me and suggested that I should have a rest-break so I went under a tree with him.

He said: “This is very hard work. I think we ought to go abroad and seek some other type of work there.”

I replied: “What is the use of going abroad and working there. If there were no work at home then it would be necessary to go abroad to earn money to send home. But we have our own work so why should we go off to work for someone else.”

I think this man had been abroad, he was about thirty-five. I was then 16 or 17 years old. In the village we knew only our own home or that of our close blood relations and were totally ignorant of the world outside.

This man asked what I thought of this suggestion. I retorted: “I have no intention of going abroad to work, I have enough at home. If you suggest that we should go abroad to Kasi or elsewhere for the purpose of education then I am willing to accompany you but not for employment.”

He answered: “Let us then go for education.”

We had a discussion and decided to leave and made secret preparations for the purpose.   I suggested to my friend that if we were going for education we would need money. He agreed. I asked how much money he had. lie answered that he had 25 rupees. I had no money because young people had none. Who could I ask? If I sought money at home my plans would be revealed and there would be the question: “Why do you need money? Where will you go with it and what will you do with it?”

I thought of the old woman who lived in our house. Her dwelling quarters were separate from ours but she lived right next to us. Frequently I used to sleep at her home at nights. She lived by herself and I was very well acquainted with her affairs, particularly as to where she kept her things. I planned that when this woman went out to work in the field I would steal some of her money. I knew where she kept her money, buried in a large earthenware pot. From it I took a handful which proved to be 50 rupees. I thought this was plenty. I hid this money.

We then planned how to leave the village. One night we quietly slipped away from home and came to a town, Bhind, where we bought something to eat from a sweet seller or halwaii. We were still in Gwalior but there was no recruiting for labour done there, it occurred only in British-held territory. From Bhind we went off to Etawah; after that to Agra. I asked my companion where would we sleep for the night. He was prepared and he said we could sleep in a guest house, it would cost us 2/- for a night in comfort. And we could buy food as well. Thus we spent the night planning that in the morning we would take the train to Kasi. We went to a rest house for travellers. In that place there were recruiters who were sharp-eyed persons able to detect individuals who were running away from somewhere.

A Muslim, with a fez cap, and a ‘caste mark’ on his forehead, came to us and enquired where we had come from. My companion stated that we were from Gwalior. He then wanted to know our destination. I replied we were on our way to Kasi for education. This Muslim then took my companion about a chain away and left me sitting where I was. I could see both conversing, then they came towards me. The arkati then repeated his earlier questions about my destination and the purpose of my journey. I repeated my original answers. He then told me: “My boy, you have not been very sensible?”

l asked, “Why?”

He responded: “You are no longer of the educatable age; you are of working age. You should now get a job.”

I countered: “I would not have come here if I had a job in mind because I had plenty of work at home.”

“That’s all very well but one also needs to work abroad.”

“Where shall I work then?”

“There is plenty of work in Calcutta.”

I replied: “None of my ancestors ever saw Calcutta. I know nobody there, with whom shall I stay there?”

He consoled: “I work there, you can stay with me. We have now met and you can get a job in the same place as I work. After you have worked a fortnight or a month you will be able -to strike a friendship with others working there. There is nothing to fear; you can earn money easily and send it to your parents at home. At the same time you will be able to have a regular job and to enjoy yourself.”

I repeated: “I don’t want to work.”

My companion, however, differed. He thought that the man was giving us good advice and that we should seek employment. Our time for education had gone.

I accepted this suggestion. The arkati then asked us to accompany him. He called a closed carriage and took us to his depot. It was a large house. I saw some women cooking there. And there were men there too, some cooking, some eating, some others loitering. We were asked if either of us could cook; we could not. He then took us to a halwaii and told him to feed us at meal time. He left after giving us a place to stay and sleep. We went to the halwaii to eat: I told him that I wanted puree, curry and other things but not rice to eat. We got what we wanted.          The next day, we were told we would have to go to a white man’s office at 10. am. The arkati told us that the sahib would ask: “Where have you come from? Who brought you here? What did the man say to bring you here? Did he coerce you into coming here with -the intention of sending you to Demerara? You should answer that no one coerced you and that you of your free will want to go to Demerara.”

We went to the sahib who asked the arkati to leave. He asked us: “Where do you intend to go?”

We replied: “Demerara.”

Sahib: “What will you do in Demerara?”

We: “Work.”

Sahib: “Who brought you here?”

We: “The man who accompanied us.”

Sahib: “Did he coerce you or deceive you, or are you going of your own free will?”

We had already been coached to give the right answers. We said, of our own choice. He noted it all and called the arkati in and asked him to take us. The arkati took us back to the house and told us that the train for Calcutta would arrive at midnight and we should be ready to leave then. We obtained food for the journey from the halwaii and remained awake. I began thinking of home. I could have returned but I lacked the knowledge and wisdom to do so. The carriage came to take us and we disembarked at the waiting-house. The journey was nocturnal because if someone had come from my house the arkati could not have prevented him from taking me back. Hence the night journey was a precaution on his part. We were altogether about thirty men and women. We were all put into one carriage which was locked to stop outsiders from entering. Apparently the arkati had paid for all the seats in this carriage, hence it was all for his use.

We travelled all night and arrived at Howrah about 4pm. When we got off we had to walk to the edge of the River Hoogly, its waters appeared like that of an ocean. A boatman brought a large boat and all thirty of us were made to sit in the boat and told to remain in our places. The boat seemed to sink and we were close to the water. We had never previously been in a boat so we were afraid. We were warned not to fear that the boat might be sinking and in panic to move to one side. If we did this then one side would become overweight and the boat would, in fact, sink. We were told to sit where we were, and not to fear. We were scared and felt like moving but we had been warned to keep to our places. We travelled what seemed a mile to me when we disembarked near a depot.

From the boat, we were taken to the depot. The first thing that was done there was that we were all bathed. There was a man there who washed us; first he soaped our bodies completely. They took away our clothes and gave us all new clothes. The aim of the cleansing was to wash away any disease. Our clothes were taken away. After that, a fat Bengali doctor examined each one of us in turn. He made us run a short distance and called us back for a re-examination. The doctor asked us to clasp his hand hard, to test our strength it seems. After my medical examination, he said that I was weak and could not be permitted to leave until I had gained strength. My companion passed the test. I felt depressed; I had left home and now also lost my friend. I was all alone and helpless. I was fed and given medicine and exercises to improve my weak physique.

Meanwhile, I was attached to the chemist, a Bengali, who chewed paan day and night. His task was not only to provide medicine to the sick but also to dress cuts and sores, he treated a very large number of people. I used to accompany him and watch his work. I used to eat in the chemist shop. Once I saw two policemen going from place to place asking each person his place of origin. This police were from Gwalior, their aim was to see if people were emigrating from that province. Their task was to prevent their own people from migrating abroad and to take them home.

The chemist advised me that if the police questioned me I was to tell them that I came from Bahraich.  If I told them Gwalior then they would take me away. The police came and asked me about my zilla and I replied that I came from Gonda. They left me and I continued to stay with the chemist. I learnt the work without wages for a month, then in the next month the chemist promised to give me 8 rupees per month, plus food. He asked me to look after his shop.    I worked there for six months. He was very satisfied with my work, no other person had worked as well as I had done and he had no intention of permitting me to go abroad. He wanted to keep me there. It was my task to give medicine to people at various times, including at night. I held the keys.

By then recruiting for Demerara was closed; Fiji was now open. I pondered because my companion had gone to Demerara and now I could not join him.

We were not told how far places like Fiji were from Calcutta. I did not ask. I knew I was going to an island and so concluded that it would be some distance away but not as far as I actually found it to be in the end. Nonetheless, I would have come even if I had known the correct distance. I took the view that what had happened had happened and I must go on.

The boat for Fiji arrived. Those going had to take their belongings in a suitcase and deposit them in a customs shed for transit. I bought a tin trunk, which I still have, though it is broken, for the purpose of taking tobacco.   I bought 300 packets for the journey, I do not remember how much I paid for it.

The man from the chemist came and tried to dissuade me. He said Fiji was not a good place, if I went there I would have to undergo much suffering. I replied that I was going. He took me and showed me a book about sugar cane cultivation and warned me that if I did not work well I would be punished by Europeans and even convicted and jailed. There, he told me, I would have to carry human excreta, hence I ought not to go to Fiji.

I was determined and would not listen. He said that I had worked very satisfactorily for him for six months and he had been pleased.      Hence he would leave me with three axioms which I ought to follow if I wished to return to India in the end. If I adhered to them I would be able to return to the land of my birth and see my kinsmen again. He advised:

“(1)       Do not steal, if you do you might be jailed.

 (2)       Do not gamble.

 (3)       Do not marry, if you. do then you might not see this place again.

If you ignore these then that will be the end.”

I took my suitcases to the customs; there their contents were examined. I was told. that I could not take so much tobacco. I replied that if the tobacco did not go I would not go. I picked up my cases to return.

The European doctor saw this and sent for me. He enquired what had happened. I related my encounter with the customs officer. The doctor sent the police to call the man who kept the keys to the custom shed. He made out two tickets for my two suitcases and told the key-keeper to deposit my bags in the customs shed.

Next morning with the others I boarded the ship.     We were told to go below to the cabins and not to stay on deck. While we were below thinking the ship was still docked it had already left. The idea of sending us below was to prevent our becoming homesick when the boat began to sail away. It was only when it was about 20 miles out to sea that we were permitted to come on deck, by then we could see nothing but water around us.

There were about 450 of us on this ship, Indus I. Some cried some sang, depending on how one felt.  We came to Madras. When our ship berthed, Madrasis, totally naked except for a very scanty loincloth, came in their little boats alongside to sell us bananas. We could throw a rope and money to them and they would tie the bananas on it and we would haul it in. We were put on one side when the time came for the Madrasis to come aboard. We could not understand their language. When they were taken aboard we were told not to fight one another. The Madras wharf was packed with people when these people were taken on. From there we moved to Singapore.

The company did not recruit people over 30. Most people taken were between 20 to 30 years. I was actually 17 years old but had to say I was 20, as I had been advised, in order to be permitted to leave. The crew of the boat were Bengalis. On board, I ate only when roti was cooked. When dhall, curry and rice were cooked, seawater was used, I could not swallow much food. Those who ate food so cooked vomited. Since I had tobacco with me I used to sell it at 1/- per packet and with that money I used to buy a thick roti from the crewmen. This roti of theirs was so good that I was not only filled but also enjoyed it. But, as the ship went on the crewman decided to put up the price of his roti to 1/6. So I used to sell 2 packets of tobacco. By the time we got near Australia the price of roti had gone up to 2/-.

We used to sleep in a long cabin in rows. We were fed in a dining room. I had made no friends on the ship. I used to sell cigarettes, but this was a business transaction, not for making friends. During the day some felt dizzy, some vomited. To avoid dizziness I used to go up and wander about there. I thus avoided seeing others getting sick and this cut down my own dizziness. This is how my day used to pass.

I brought money with me but nobody molested me. I kept my money in a suitcase. I slept near it at night, and there was always someone about in the day-time, hence there was no stealing. There was no caste or religion on the ship. In Calcutta, I had enquired about caste during meals and refrained from eating near chamars. On board the ship there were married people, some with children. These were quartered separately from the single persons. I heard of a person who died on board the ship. He was thrown overboard tied to a weight. I made friends with just one man, called Varma. During the day we used to think about having left our family behind us and of what awaited us. Any man who forgot his parents and village stopped being human; my heart used to ache for home.

There was some strife on the ship, I heard.    Sometimes I saw trouble and was told that it was caused by people trespassing in others’ place. But I was never involved in these myself. After about a month our ship reached Fiji, we berthed at Suva. Big punts came to take us to Nukulau. When I landed there I felt terribly cold, this I could not bear. We were allocated sleeping places and given food.

The sardar there had had an addition to his family and was celebrating the sixth day of birth of his child. He enquired if there were any singers or dancers among us. There was a boy who said he could dance and someone who claimed he could sing; another stated he could beat the drums; a group was thus formed. Our dancer came from a very rich family but had been ruined by bad company and was forced to come to Fiji. I went to the party and the whole night was spent in singing and dancing. The host provided us with refreshments. There I bought a tin of tobacco and was told to buy some paper with it. A person showed me how to roll a cigarette, I learnt quickly though the first couple of instances were not successful.

I do not remember how long we stayed at Nukulau. The sardarthere treated us very well. Before reaching that island

I had never seen a coconut or pawpaw tree.

I first saw Fijians when our ship arrived in Suva. They had long hair, unlike today. I thought Fijians were rachas who, according to Indian tradition, were cannibals. Neither we nor Fijians knew each other’s language.

I went to Navua and there worked for the Vancouver Fiji Sugar Company. We were given rations for six months but had to get our firewood from the bush. The morning after our arrival we were allocated our work by the sardar who gave us our implements and advised us to look after them and to clean them after use. We were required to weed grass in the cane fields and I was given a task of 20 chains. After completion of the task we were free to return to the lines to wash, cook, eat and then perhaps to roam about if we wished. My task of 20 chains I usually finished by 2pm or 3pm with hard work; the lazy ones worked until 5pm. No one helped because one had a lot to do for one’s own self and it was not possible to go to the aid of others.       Sometimes sardars seeing sturdy workers finish by noon or 1pm considered 20 chains too little. The sahib and sardar would discuss this and the former would say 20 chains was too light a task and so decide to increase it to 25 chains. Some days the sardar would announce that the sahib had ordered a 25-chain task. We could do nothing about it. We could not complain or object. We therefore finished later. If we agreed to work slowly so as not to get larger tasks then we got into trouble and were given a beating by the overseer. Those who had not worked hard before had a torrid time, and wondered what trouble they had landed in; some even shed tears.

We were told in India that in Fiji we would receive 1/6 per day. In those days in India you were paid 6d per day for work. Here, in fact, we received a shilling.

At three o’clock in the morning the paniwala would go about calling out to us to wake up and begin preparations for breakfast. Those who were married had their wives to cook for them; the single ones had to do it themselves. We had to take some lunch with us as well. In those days it rained so often and so heavily that it was rare for us to have a day when we saw the sun. We used to get soaked but had to continue working wet. I got into a great deal of strife; had I listened to the advice of the Bengali I would not have found myself in this predicament. In those days had I had the opportunity I would have returned to India. In fact had the opportunity been available nearly everybody would have returned. Weeding grass was extremely difficult. When I was given drain-digging things eased a little for me. I became very good at this work and continued performing this task. I worked well without fighting or getting into strife or resorting to dishonesty. I remembered the three axioms which my friend had told me to follow.

Then I was made to cut cane. And in Navua it rained. You were wet all day through. The only time a person was dry was when lie left the lines for work with his umbrella over his head. The moment one put down one ‘ s umbrella one began to get wet and one continued in this way all day long working. Some did become sick as a result, but I did not. When one became sick one was sent by the sardar to wait by the roadside for the white overseer. For treatment in the hospital one had to have a letter from him.

If one were given the task of loading a truck with cane, one had to do so until one had completed it, even if it meant working into the evening. If the truck fell because of bad loading then one had to re-start and complete the task. Once I loaded and loaded the truck thinking that the more I put in it the better remunerated I would be, but I was warned that this would wreck the truck and made to distribute the load into other trucks.

By the time I had completed my work- it was nearly 1am and when I got home and had cooked and eaten, it was 4am. And at 5am I was to go back to work for another day. That day I felt bad. And by the time I went to bed it was morning again.  I locked my room and went off to sleep. I slept until four that afternoon. But when I woke up I was frightened. I thought I would be punished because I had stayed away without permission. Next day, although there was nothing wrong with me, I pretended that I was very sick. I went to the sardar with whom I got on well, to say that I was exhausted and not well at all. He asked me to go and wait by the roadside for the overseer who would give me a letter to the hospital. I waited and waited for the overseer but he did not come. So I went up to his house.

There the cook asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to see the overseer. He said the man was at breakfast. The overseer heard me and told the cook to tell me to go and wait by the roadside and not come to his house. When he came I told him that I had a splitting headache.

The overseer suspected that I was trying to get out of work. He got off the horse, grabbed my hand and he tried to kick me; each time he tried I moved; he was a fattish man and we went around in circles, he trying to kick me and my moving out of his range. The horse, seeing this circus, bolted. In the end the overseer also got tired of his unsuccessful- efforts to kick me and went back to his bungalow. He then came back with a letter for me to take to the doctor telling me that if the doctor found me well and merely pretending illness then he would beat me up. I took the letter to the doctor. He looked at me and read the letter. He had a stick near him and came down the steps to hit me. I realised what he was going to do. So I ran away and he ran after me. He threw the stick at me but it missed. Apparently the overseer, after returning to his bungalow, must have phoned the doctor telling him to beat me up when I arrived. But I ran away from the doctor and came on the road, the way I had gone to the hospital.

Once the overseer gave us a task of 24 chains and he told us that we had to finish this otherwise he would whip us and that he would come and check at three to see how much of the work we had done. When he returned at three o’clock and found that some people had not completed the task, he whipped them as he had promised. Except for three of us in our gang everyone was beaten. Although there were many of us, we could not combine to retaliate against him. We were frightened because the government would be on his side.

The sardars were never with us. They sided with Europeans. Unmarried sardars and overseers got up to mischief – with women. I did not see any but knew of it. The sardar would say something like this: “You tell the woman when to go where and we will advise her that it would be in her interest to go and see the overseer who would then, perhaps, give her a lighter task and not deduct money from her wages.” He would also warn her that if she failed to respond, the overseer would take her by force then everybody would know and she would have no self-respect left. I did not see these things happening but I used to hear in the lines that such and such women were so involved or had been requested to oblige in this manner.

Every plantation or estate had some mischief-makers. In ours there was such a man who knew that a certain woman used to visit the overseer. So one day he asked her not to leave the house at all. Instead he dressed a boy and made him appear like the woman and then got him to wait in a particular place. He sent someone to the overseer to tell him that the woman was sitting there and frightened to come to his place. So the overseer decided to come down himself to fetch her. When he arrived there several men jumped on him and gave him a thrashing. The overseer did not report this incident, he was in the wrong.

To continue about beating, had the overseers not beaten the labourers they would not have done much work. So the beating of labourers was beneficial as far as the Company was concerned because it got the work done. The Australian overseers, who used to come, knew how to herd cattle or to drive animals and this is how they behaved towards human beings as well. They brought their methods which they had practised on animals and used them in dealing with the labourers. These were bad Europeans.

There was a chap by the name of Lal. He was a first-rate rogue but he was also an extremely hard worker. He beat up a European on his estate. Lest his habit of beating an overseer spread to others, it was decided to transfer him to our plantation where the overseer was known to be a very tough man. He was assigned to work with me, and was -told to assist me in digging drains. This man used to finish his task quickly and then go and help his wife.      Once this was done they would return home; he would eat, have a rest and then in the evening go out to gamble with the time-expired migrants.

It was just as well that indenture lasted only five years. Had it been for six years I would have preferred to be dead, even perhaps by my own hands. During the five years I counted the days each day to find out how many were left. The five years were five years of hell.