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In Search of Roots - A journey to find oneself

By Thakur Ranjit Singh, Auckland, New Zealand

The date was 14 May, but the year was not 1987, but some seven decades
before then, in 1915, when a strong young man of barely 19 years and rising
just over 5ft 5 inches was picked up by British agents looking to recruit and hoodwink Indians to ship to Fiji as an indentured labourers. He was picked from Rajasthani town of Karauli, from village of Phuta Kot.

He, together with hundreds like him was packed like sardines on S. S. Ganges and they sailed to Fiji. For months they were tossed in open seas until they reached the fateful quarantine center that is now the paradise jailhouse for the bankrupt treasonous nationalist George Speight. After quarantine on Nukulau, he was dispatched to Sigave, in Ba to do his indenture time or girmit, as had been called.

After the finish of his five years indenture time, he chose to settle in Rarawai, Golflinks in Ba, in the shadows of the sugar mill. After the backbreaking indenture when the indigenous community was confined to villages to preserve their way of life, he became a small holder independent
cane farmer that has been the backbone of sugar cane supplies to all the sugar mills. He was a visionary hardworking man who did his best to provide
for his offsprings who have made their names in Fiji.

Ba's veteran lawyer, Mr. G.P. Shankar is his grandson through his eldest daughter, while the current Member of Parliament for Ba East, Honourable Satendra Singh, who was named as Minister for Environment in PM Qarase's
multi Party lineup, is his grandson through his son who now resides in Canada.

I know this old Rajpoot Thakur, descending from the roots of Prithvi Raj
Chauhan, very well. This is because I spent my childhood playing around him, annoying him and loving him. But most of it, he is very much missed now when he is no more, and his grandchildren are in search of themselves. He passed away in 1975 at the age of 80 when I was still at University of the South Pacific (USP). Yes, I am talking about my grandfather, girmitiya Bansi.

When he had gone, it was then that I started wondering who I was and where I had descended from. From a brother who used to work for Government libraries, we were able to get his immigration pass from the National Archives. But that was it. This was some 10 years ago.

There was nobody who could help. Then came Satish Rai (rai2@primus.com.au) from Sydney, as part of Milaap (the reunion) in the recent India Week. He had visited India three times and made a documentary of one of the visits.He surfed the internet and traced my grandfather's district and village.

I had a great desire to discover myself. I was further inspired by Alex Hailey's "Roots" and the TV mini series of the same name that I saw in New
Zealand in 1980s. After seeing the series, I read the book. I thought that if Alex Hailey could trace his roots from USA to Gambia after seven generations, it should be easy for me with only 3 generations afar. You have
to give it to the British for keeping such old records and we are grateful to National Archives for preserving the Immigration Passes of the girmitiyas.

The Milaap has brought a renewed interest in this subject. Together with this and nationalism floating from PM Qarase's government, this has also become a matter of envy and surprise for some.

I note that some Nationalists have jumped the bandwagon to suggest that this is a good way of sending Fiji Indians back to their roots. What they fail to realise is that they are as much descendants of migrants as we Indians are.

The only difference is that their ancestors hit Fiji first. Fiji is as much home to Fijians of Indian origin as it is to the indigenous Fijians. As they had no choice as to who is born a chief or a commoner, certainly I had no choice of where I was to be born. Nobody can choose their forefathers or ancestors, so I cannot understand where these nationalists are coming from.

The irony is that in Fiji we are not Fijians, in India we are not Indians. So who or what are we? Are we lost people? Fiji's official history that is taught in schools does not acknowledge the sweat and blood of our forefathers, and how our people were surrogates for suffering that normally befalls on the natives of the countries that British used to colonise.

With benefit of hindsight, if Australia and New Zealand had the buffer and protection that Fiji's indigenous population had with a migrant race, Aborigines and Maoris respectively would have had greater population, culture and control of their destiny. The unfortunate part of us descendants
from India is that such fact is not acknowledged in Fiji by history or by its indigenous community who were the beneficiaries of suffering of girmitiyas. Instead of being grateful to us for preserving their race and way of life, sections of indigenous community have always accused us of stealing from Fijians, or living off their land which they themselves have not been using productively.

We are also accused of taking over Fiji's economy. What economy and what
take-over? You only take over what is already in existence. There was no economy in Fiji when Indians came to Fiji. If any thing, they did not take over the economy - they in fact CREATED the economy.

It may be because of uncertainty and absence of birthright in their birthplace that there is renewed interest in migration, as well as search of
roots by the descendants of Fiji girmitiyas.

It is for this reason among others that I have left for India in search of my roots and it would be a very satisfying for me to find out where I originated. I hope to celebrate this Diwali with my long parted cousins in India.

As Alex Haley remained American despite searching for his roots in Gambia, I
will still remain a loyal Fiji Islander despite searching for my roots in Karauli, Rajasthan. The only difference is that while Alex Haley of America was classed as an American, Thakur Ranjit Singh of Fiji is still classed as an Indian, while I wish to call myself Indo Fijian. Can you really blame me for having affinity to a country that gave me an identity? This is the dilemma for Fiji-born Indians like me who are still classed as vulagis or visitors after some 126 years and three generations in the country of their birth.

Welcome to Fiji.

(E-mail: thakurji@xtra.co.nz)


(The author of this article, Thakur Ranjit Singh is a former publisher of Fiji's Daily Post and has held senior management positions in Fiji in bank and last at Suva City Council as its Director Administration and Operations. He is a third generation FBI, or Fiji born Indian who went on a pilgrimage to India, in search of his roots in October/November, 2003. This article was written in September 2003. Currently he resides with his family in Auckland.)