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
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
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
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
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
I replied: “None of my ancestors
ever saw Calcutta. I know nobody there, with whom shall I stay
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
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
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 overweighted 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. These 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:
Do not steal, if you do you might be jailed.
Do not gamble.
Do not marry, if you. do then you might not see this place
If you ignore these then that will be
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
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 loin
cloth, 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 he 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, sea water was used, I could not swallow
such food. Those who ate food so cooked vomitted. 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 vomitted. 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
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
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 sardar
there 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.
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.
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
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.