FOCUS: Old Girmit: A Journey Of New Freedom

Satendra Nandan’s fourth volume of poems, The Loneliness of Islands, was published in 2007.He’s currently writing a book, tentatively titled,  Fijian-Indian Fragments: From Nadi to New Delhi. He’s a member
15 May 2015 08:14
FOCUS: Old Girmit: A Journey Of New Freedom
Wreck of the Syria, the first ship with Indian workers to travel to Fiji.

Satendra Nandan’s fourth volume of poems, The Loneliness of Islands, was published in 2007.He’s currently writing a book, tentatively titled,  Fijian-Indian Fragments: From Nadi to New Delhi. He’s a member of the world’s first International Institute of Poetry Studies.

‘For men like me, you have to measure them not by the rare moments of greatness in their lives, but by the amount of dust they collect on their feet in the course of life’s journey.’


For much of colonial history, we’ve read the indenture as bondage akin to slavery. That it was  all that is obvious.

However, we seldom talk about how a system of semi-slavery led to a new idea of liberty of a people who were no more than mere peasants and serfs in the land-locked, unmarked villages of a vast and ancient subcontinent with the most complicated caste system  and oppressive patriarchal cultural customs.

They suffered greatly at the hands of their own: caste-ridden, superstitious, untouched by the reform movements of the 19th century that was shaping the world order in its Eurocentric and eccentric ways.

It was a period of immense imperial expansion; but, more importantly, it imagined the world of our forefathers in its own mirror. The other side of the mirror remained blank without a human face of the Other.

Feudal chains

Many girmit people were victims of famine and family feuds. Born and bred in feudal chains of injustice and impoverishment that was more than poverty. The elites had designed a system that appeared foolproof in keeping them in their assigned, preordained places.

Their fate was their karma and it was their dharma to fulfill this in this life for a better next life. The sacred scriptures and mantras sanctioned it in fire and rituals.

Otherwise you’ll be born as cockroaches and other creatures crawling on the face of Mother Earth. If lucky as a fish in a river.  All this was written in ‘holy’ scriptures by ‘holy men’ who sat and recited. They came out of their caves only as reincarnations of the gods and goddesses  they had created themselves in their image.

The rajas and maharajas, the nabobs and  emperors lived a life of splendour and luxury—just as it was in Old Europe and the debauched world of Africa and the Middle East and Asia. The world of the poor was defined by these men and not a few women.

India was the fabled country with cities of gold, elephants, tigers, and snake charmers.

Travellers had tales to tell of wondrous happenings. In 1642 Christopher Columbus set out to discover the sea-route to India but landed in the Caribbean sea—hence the Ameri-Indians and Red Indians. A few years later Vasco da Gama finally discovered the sea route to India. Goa became the longest colonial enclave – for 471 years—and was liberated by the Indian Army in 1961 when I was a student in Delhi.

Not a single shot was fired. Goa going… was gone. Today as a state Goa is a fertile ground for Bollywood films. Its ancient churches and ruins hide the brutalities of a colonialism unknown in our part of the world.

Many worlds and people co-existed in the banalities of India—it’s a continent of more people, religions, castes, languages, customs, colors, festivals, faiths, costumes, ceremonies,animals, saints, sinners, movies, stories, rich and poor, gods and goddesses than the whole of the western world—from Britain to New Zealand via Canada and America combined.

Girmit children

And  today Indians are in every society of our known universe. What is more exciting is to think that, in less than 150 years, the girmit children of Fiji are in many of these societies making meritorious contributions. Fiji, I think, gave us all this enriching gift of living together despite the actions of those who tried to destroy the binding, healing fabric of our lives and the bonds by which men and women live even in the most extreme circumstances. That they failed is Fiji’s success.

This, I feel, is the essential gift of the girmit experience of Fiji. In some ways the coming of indentured migrants to Fiji was the longest journey of a people. Ships bring people together—hence nations are often said to be the ‘ships of states’. And by sailing in a new direction sometimes you discover a whole new world.

It’s more incredible when you consider many of our girmit ancestors had never seen a ship or a sea-wave. They couldn’t have travelled more than a few kilometres from the place of their birth.

For generations they had lived and died in their ‘mulk’— in the mudhuts their birth and death. They couldn’t have owned any piece of that earth—it belonged to the village headmen or minor princelings and high-caste bullies. You still encounter them in films and the heart-rending reports in the media of rape and pillage.

Mohandas Gandhi , the hero of this unwritten epic was shaped in the girmit experience, not in the South Pacific, but in South Africa.  In his autobiography , part 2, chapter 12  ‘Seeking Touch with Indians’, he writes how he awakened the merchants to a sense of their duty, which was twofold. ‘Their responsibility to be truthful was the greater in a foreign land, because the conduct of Indians was the measure of that of the millions of their fellow-countrymen.

I had found our people’s habits to be insanitary as  compared with those of the Englishmen around them, and drew their attention to it. I laid stress on the necessity of forgetting all distinctions such as Hindus, Musalmans, Parsis, Christians, Gujaratis, Madrasis, Punjabis, Sindhis,…and so on.’

That he succeeded  spectacularly among these alien Indians is what made him the unique political leader of not only India but of people dispossessed and disenfranchised in any part of  our unfair but only world. On the surface, he of course failed magnificently in India. But he also lit the world of a certain darkness with an extraordinary light—that today is the largest democracy.

Monumental achievement

One of the monumental achievements of Indenture has been the idea of liberty and human dignity. Mohandas Gandhi would not have been the  kind of Indian leader he became if he had not lived among the indentured labourers and small merchants in South Africa for 21 eventful years.

When he set sail from South Africa after the success of his ‘satyagraha’, he wrote,’ I am, as ever, the community’s indentured labourer…I am under indenture with you, for the rest of my life.’

If Black became beautiful, indenture gave Gandhi an idea of freedom.

That night when he’s thrown out of his first-class compartment in Pietermaritzburg in Natal, he learned his lesson.

It was, Gandhi wrote, later the most creative event of my life. He was in his early twenties. On a cold winter’s night to be treated so unceremoniously was quite unbearable for a colonially trained lawyer who believed in the rule of British law and fair-play.

All that changed that night: what was a man to do whose few possessions lay strewn on the lonely railway platform. Gandhi shivered and sat in the cold, dark room of the obscure railway station on the darkest night of June 7, 1892.

As so often happens, it’s in the dark that you begin to see the light.

In 1999, I visited, rather was driven, to the Pietermaritzburg station, by two prominent local people who were also attending CHOGM meeting in Durban.

I, too, was invited as the international Chair of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. I was more keen to see the place of pilgrimage where young Gandhi was debarred from entering the first class compartment. He had a first class ticket in his pocket.

It’s desolate little station when I visited it in 1999—a hundred years later. It was evening—I stood on the platform with two of my companions and wondered.

I was the wondering Indian. It surprised me to think that this young man raised his voice, penned a letter to the authorities at a time when Africa was largely voiceless. The unspeakable courage of this Gujarati lawyer, excommunicated by his own community when, aged 19, he decided to cross the dark waters to study in England, is a marvel of history.

It was in during his stay and struggle among the girmityas that he was given the title of ‘mahatma’.

From South Africa he came to challenge the largest Empire of the world. Gandhi was the great gift of the indentured people to the country of their birth.

Stolen Worlds poem

In 1997  I wrote a poem as an epigraph to a book Stolen Worlds, edited by Kavita Nandan: it expresses my thoughts and may have some resonance even on this girmit occasion:

The Gifts of the Girmityas

You gave us the gift of a journey

And made us friends we knew not

In a single step, a silent knot—

You bound our lives to so many.

So many endless nights at sea

So many dark days on the shore:

What and whom was it all for?

Flung like stars in a blue eternity.

Islands sailed close to our hearts

Strangers became sisters, brothers,

Nanannani, ajiaajwa, fathersmothers

Living together but still worlds apart?

Many gifts of the magi you brought

Shared, sacrificed, blessed and died;

In blood-bondage your fate was tied;

 Smell of the sea still fresh in the net.

We remember you from a distant shore:

 Across the seas you crossed is our flight—

A severed kite falling in a starry night–

Breaking hearts for music heard no more.

That soil of memory haunts our face—

Trembling the green-fields of bitter Cain;

Your pain flows in our landless vein—

As we feel the gift of a people’s grace.

You are our glory, our deepest grief

You are the poems of a living land—

Giving meaning to every grain of sand,

And to every beloved tree, a green leaf.

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