Fiji Indian Girmitiya poetry
Indian indenture migration to Fiji began relatively later than the trade to the Caribbean, South Africa, and elsewhere, starting in 1879 and ending in 1920, according to Sudesh Mishra’s article “Time and Girmit.” Coolies in Fiji suffered the same deception that laborers suffered at the hands of the arkotiya — the passage to plantation bound them to five-year renewable contracts. Yet the situation in Fiji was different specifically because of the indigenous Fijian presence in the governmental affairs. There were indigenous people present in Surinam and Guyana but their representation in governmental affairs was marginal, unlike the situation of the colonies in Fiji.Miriam Pirbhai states of the diaspora in Fiji in 1987, the coup that ousted the first multicultural government created another feeling of exile for the Fiji Indians. She states,
For the Indo-Fijian … diasporic experience is prefigured as a series of multiple displacements, or exile-as-continuum, rather than as a completed pattern of transplantation and resettlement … and the continuing emigration outward of Indo-Fijians since the 1987 coup also underscores the volatile position of diasporic populations in the process of nation building. (Pirbhai 10)
The kinds of political instability in Fiji are not exactly the same as those of an eruptive murderous racism alive in Guyana and the Caribbean. The coups, the militarized state, and South Asian and Fijian relationships are articulated differently in terms of belonging and land ownership. In fact, most comparative work between the Caribbean and Fiji, such as the film Coolies: How the British Reinvented Slavery, narrated by Guyanese British poet David Dabydeen, tends to focus on the land rights in Fiji, where the government adopted the British law in which Indians are not allowed to own land, but may lease it for ninety-nine years.
The first poet that I consider in articulating the vocabularies of indenture and Coolitude orientation is Sudesh Mishra. The two poems are “Confessions of a Would-Be Brahmin” from Mishra’s 1982 book Rahu and title poem from his 2002 book Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying. In these two poems Mishra addresses the South Asian diaspora in its entirety making a comparatist claim that includes Mauritius, Trinidad, Guyana, and Fiji as well as showing the cultural distance between where Mishra’s speaker is now and what is expected of him, as his name is a “Brahmin” name, a name that shows one of his ancestors is from the highest Hindu caste.
In “Confessions of a Would-be Brahmin” Mishra invokes the Hindu gods to ask for forgiveness of being born elsewhere, mispracticing religion, mixing the profane with the sacred, and performing other “sins,” He also invokes vocabularies of indenture,
O Shiva O Parvati O Durga
Though I have crossed the kala pani
And lost caste
Forgive me my trespass.
Mishra recognized that crossing the kalapani caused him to lose caste identity, and that the expectations of him as a diasporic subject should be lessened or understood as different. But the thing that makes him “Indian” despite this fall from grace is “Some things never change / The left hand still cleans my arse.” He concludes his poem with humor.
In “Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying,” Mishra’s epic poem that is a cultural cognate to David Dabydeen’s “Coolie Odyssey” in its transnational scope, the speaker ruminates on his ancestors’ voyage from India to Fiji. He makes special mention of Mauritius, Trinidad, Surinam, and Guyana as well and posits the vocabularies of indenture. He begins the poem with the speaker ruminating on a person called “maibaap,” his mother’s father who represents a repository for things Indian. Mishra uses the words jahajibhai, arkathi, girmitiya, and other Hindi words that shade the ecology of this poem. In a move that mirrors Vijay Mishra’s “passage to plantation” he writes of Fiji girmitiyas,
like silk it slipped through
the fingers of three thousand seven hundred and forty eight girmitiyas
and many things were lost during that nautical passage, family, caste and
This kind of list of losses through indenture establishes an ethos of girmit ideology with a turn toward the inclusive mode of coolitude. Sudesh Misra does not end his poem’s consideration with this loss, rather he looks to things that were “found” by the girmitiyas.
… yet many things were also found, chamars found brahmins,
muslims found hindus, biharis found marathis, so that by the end of the
voyage we were a nation of jahajibhais, rowat gawat heelat dholat adat
padat, all for one and one for all
In this poem the speaker moves through the history of broken identities being opened to new possibilities for the indentured. Yes, India was lost, but a new kind of identity was found: an oceanic identity, one of syncretism and change. His use of Hindi in these lines show the reader the connections are through lament (rowat, “crying”), joy (gawat, “singing”), fear (heelat, “rocking”), traveling/playing the drum (dholna), and forming new habits (adat padat).
A significant move that this poem makes is to refuse an atavistic, unchanged cultural identity. The speaker states that he is forever changed by the vanua, the land of Fiji, that his interactions with indigenous Fijians is an element (a dyadic diasporic paradigm) that challenges him to think about his right to any kind of land claims in the island chain. He recognizes his conflicted status as an arrivant or settler and points to the “conflicted misunderstandings” as a colonial inheritance where the British pitted the Indians against the Fijians in order to establish rule. The reader is privy to the speaker’s sea change through vocabulary. Mishra shows how this cultural evolution happens by writing,
… so it was that little by little i went through another sea-change as my
discovery of an oceanic present leaked into my memory of an indian past,
until a time came when i could no longer think of machli, for instance,
without thinking of ika, it was as if machli as word and idea and culture
had never existed prior to ika, prior to my life in the archipelago …
This move is to posit another kind of vocabulary of indenture that is specific to Fiji Indians: that amalgamation, substitution, and borrowing from one language into another. Vocabularies of indenture borrow from English, Portuguese, and local indigenous languages. This specific example of fish exists in various ways in other diasporic Indian communities (in Guyana words like hassa, huri,and gilbaka represent versions of machli/machhi).
A queer visual artist and poet in Fiji, Sangeeta Singh published three poems in the collection called Vasu: Pacific Women of Power: Fiji’s First All Women Exhibit in 2008. This anthology features over forty women from Fiji who are in diaspora in Aotearoa and Solomon Islands. It highlights the connections of women throughout the Pacific as a mutliethnic space, and according to the news release in Fiji Times,
Inspired to make commentary on the current situation in Fiji, the five women artists have developed experimental works in canvas, paper, tapa and cloth that tackle issues of leadership, faith and religion, censorship and militarism, propaganda, love, land and diaspora. (Fiji Times 7 October 2009)
Singh’s three poems that appear in the collection challenge notions of cultural stasis and rather expand the possible identity categories available to Fiji Indian women to include the indigenous allied and the queer. She achieves this through her linguistic play in her poem “Sa-weet Jalebi.” Singh writes this poem in Fiji Hindi written in Latin script that shows the koinization process of regularization of linguistic features and borrowing of vocabularies available in the speech community. By using Fiji Hindi, she mobilizes the vocabularies of indenture to posit her critique. The lines discussed are my own original translations.
Employing this linguistic play, much like Mishra alludes to in his poem, Singh upturns gender expectations in Fiji Indian communities by positing a same-sex female sexual desire that threatens the enthonationalist leanings of Indian indentured diasporic subjects. The patriarchs in her family object to her portraying her lover’s taste as a “sweet jalebi” and asks,
Grandfather asks; “eh You a boy or a girl?
I say: eh Dada, right now
just like a boy,
Singh’s grandfather cannot understand the relationship but the speaker does not relent her insistence that her girlfriend tastes sweet. What she achieves is queer and female jouissance, a joy that is female and completely alien to a male subject. Singh continues,
Aji asks … eh daughter, tell me again ... how
does your girlfriend taste?
I say ... oh Aji ... rosy pink
just like sa-weet jalebi!
The words borrowed from English in this poem are “taste,” “sweet,” “lesbian,” and “girlfriend.” What this says about diasporic communities is not that these concepts are not available but it shows the transformation available through female homosocial space. The grandfather can only understand female sexuality through the lens of marriage — a cisgender heterosexist union that mirrors the nation state and thus replicates ethnonational boundaries, as Gayatri Gopinath explains in her book Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures.
A queer diasporic framework brings together the homo/hetero division as mapped on women’s bodies (10). Gopinath finds this to be an important — though not necessarily an automatic connection — in order to do more than render the queer female subject visible, but to examine hegemonies of the nation. In this way Gopinath’s project of combining “queerness” and “diaspora” sets us an analogy: “queerness is to heterosexuality as diaspora is to nation” (11). She says, “A queer diasporic formation works in contradistinction to the globalization of ‘gay’ identity that replicates a colonial narrative of development and progress that judges all ‘other’ sexual cultures, communities, and practices against a model of Euro-American sexual identity” (11), therefore there is no primacy to an “authentic” nation lacking queerness in present day discourses of modernity.
Sudesh Mishra and Sangeeta Singh allow for Coolitude’s transformative nature to permeate their own identity categories that refuse atavism and allow them, as diasporic subjects, to position their writing to illustrate moments of connection and semiotic shifts in the vocabularies of indenture. These two poets expand the vocabularies of indenture to include previously unfathomed subjectivities like “lesbian” or of semiotic shift of the word “machli” and “ika.” Much like in the Caribbean, this type of diasporic situation inherits disdain for the Other from British colonial rule but works to transform hatred into moments of intersection and assemblage of identity categories that destabilize any kind of ontological claim or “wholeness” without colonial rupture.
Mishra, Sudesh. Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying. Dunedin, NZ: University of Otago, 2002. Print.
Mishra, Sudesh. Rahu. Suva, Fiji: Vision International, 1987. Print.
Pirbhai, Miriam. Mythologies of Migration, Vocabularies of Indenture: Novels of South Asian Diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2009. Print.
Vasu: Pacific Women of Power : Fiji's First All Woman Exhibition. Suva, Fiji: Vasu Collective, 2008. Print.