Fijian tale: Indentured worker’s family tries to solve a murder mystery
Policenama Online – Fiji Stories, By Praveen Chandra, Carindale Publishing, Brisbane, Australia, 2019.BY SHUBHA SINGH Memories, family histories, forgotten historical events have become matters of research and popular writing. Vaguely remembered events from history such as the devastating plague in Bombay or the detention of Chinese residents in India during the 1962 Sino-Indian war have featured in best-selling books.
In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in one of the largest migrations from India that took place during the 19th and early 20th century. Over a million Indians were taken as indentured workers on a five-year bond to work on agricultural plantations on various British territories.
Indenture was a period of severe hardship that has been called ‘semi-slavery’ because of the restrictions, punitive fines and punishments imposed on the workers. Workers who had completed their indenture contract where reluctant to talk of the difficult times they endured and slowly their stories were lost through the generations.
Fiji-born Praveen Chandra’s book, ‘Voices from the Past: Fiji Stories’, is a riveting account of life in Fiji in the colonial and post colonial era. It covers Chandra’s research into the family history of migration from India and a second migration when Chandra and his family leave for Australia during a spell of political instability in Fiji.
In the book, Chandra relates the twists and turns of his painstaking research. It is a story which is quite similar to the thousands of other families whose ancestors were taken to Fiji as indentured workers. But there was one crucial difference in the Chandra family history: their ancestor Baijnath was hanged for murder.
The family knew little else about the matter except that the author’s great grandfather, Baijnath came to Fiji islands as an indentured worker and that he was hanged to death for the murder of another Indian. With just a few disparate bits of information, Chandra began to research his family history. But the Register of Indentured Workers in the Fiji Archives showed up 44 Indian workers named Baijnath. Forty of the names could be eliminated from the list because they arrived in Fiji after 1900, but that still left four arrivals with little indication of who they were.
A fortuitous meeting with eminent Fiji historian, Dr Ahmed Ali at the Archives gave a clue when Ali suggested examining the Death Registers for indentured workers. Chandra found an entry for March 17, 1913 for Baijnath with the entry “judicial hanging”. A search through old news paper files finally solved the mystery.
Baijnath and two others were convicted for the murder of another villager, Ramsamuj. The Death Register also provided a cross index reference for the case file of the conviction which gave details of the trial and conviction.
The family firmly believed that it was a miscarriage of justice. According to village and family folklore, Ramsamujh was carrying his weekly wages that Friday evening when he was attacked and killed by a local goon, Bhairachi, who used to boast of his misdeeds while drinking.
The family had a high status in Vitogo village and Praveen Chandra describes a carefree childhood in a joint family living in a typical rural Indian homestead in Fiji. Despite their relocation thousands of miles away in the South Pacific, the Indians retained many of the old beliefs and customs. In the following chapters, the author writes about the extended family and its progression through Fijian society.
In 1987, Fiji went through a period of political turmoil when the Fiji army staged an armed coup. Australia was the land of opportunity and there had been a small but steady stream of young Indian professionals migrating to Australia and New Zealand from Fiji.
The early signs of brewing political trouble were visible so the Chandras’ decided to leave; their departure coincided with the first military coup in Fiji. Later in life, the author made the effort to locate his great grandfather’s village in India. With some effort he located the small Indian village of Bhatwari in Uttar Pradesh. And, he made the journey to see the land from which Baijnath began that fateful journey that took him to Fiji Islands and ended in tragedy.
The book speaks of the process of assimilation that migrants undergo, and though the major influences for the following generations come from the environment and land they live in, an enduring link remains with the ancestral homeland.