Against a backdrop of unyielding green, the streetside shopfronts appear and race away. I just have enough time to read the signs painted on them: Sunita’s Service Station, Sharma’s Supermarket, Naidu Grocery Center, Nizam Minimart, Moti Ram Sons & Trading.
I am in Fiji. My partner and I are driving from Nadi, where the airport is, to Pacific Harbour, where we are staying for most of this trip, both located on the country’s biggest island, Viti Levu. It’s only a three-hour drive, not long given the pleasant scenery — it’s all coconut palms and grassy, sun-dappled hills — but after a 10-hour flight and a four-hour time difference, we feel the need to stock up on snacks, maybe something local and traditional, to get into the swing of the place.
Soon, I am looking into the eyes of Mr Bachchan (senior), smiling thoughtfully at me from a bag of fine Basmati rice. Alongside him, I find Roti Flour (“best blend for tasty brown rotis”) and half-a-dozen shelves filled with varieties of dal. In other aisles, there is fried chana and namkeen mix. The health warning on cigarette packs comes in Bauan Fijian and Hindi.
I am surprised, but I shouldn’t be. Fiji, formerly a British colony, has a long history of Indian immigrants who were first brought here under the brutal indenture system, between 1879 and 1916, to work as contract labour on the sugar plantations. As in other sugar colonies like Trinidad and Mauritius, the labourers were so broken by the indenture agreement, compounded by issues of “losing caste”, that many never returned, beginning new lives, and new histories, in the colonies. In Fiji, an extraordinary transformation followed the indenture years. Freed from the girmit — the word for “agreement” on the vernacular tongue — the girmitya emigrants leased land from the sugar companies as independent farmers, organised themselves to provide education to their communities, and set up small businesses, ultimately becoming politically active and the dominant force in the economy. In less than half a century, Indians in Fiji had gone from being viciously exploited to nearly running the country.
Predictably, over time, racial and religious tensions between the indigenous “iTaukei” people and the Indo-Fijians have resulted in political turbulence and more than one coup d’état. Thousands of Indians left Fiji in the aftermath of these, first in 1987 and then in 2000, before things became more stable in 2007. A reformist constitution in 2013 declared all Fiji citizens as “Fijians”, erasing terminology such as “Indo-Fijian”. Many iTaukei are unhappy at this turn of events, but, for the girmitya descendants, this acceptance has been a long time coming. Praveen, an Indian-origin Fijian I meet in Nadi, whose forefathers came from Tamil Nadu, tells me it has never been as good before. “Koi aise humko ab jhapad nahin mar sakega. Police ekdum tight ho gaya hai (Nobody can ill-treat us anymore. The police have tightened their operation).”
This calmer political scene has allowed Fiji to once again inch up the list of favoured destinations to travel to — The New York Times put it on its list of places to visit in 2018 — and tourism contributes the lion’s share of the GDP, far ahead of sugar, the traditional export. Fiji, now, is all about holiday packages and eco tours, traditional wood-and-thatch bures and sprawling resorts that greet visitors with a big smile and a booming bula (hello)!
In Pacific Harbour, billed as the “adventure capital of Fiji”, blue infinities shimmer and dazzle like grand heists. We are here because my partner wants to dive with bull sharks and this is one of the best places in the world to do it. If, like me, you are not fond of sharks, you can snorkel on the house reef, or book a cruise to any of Fiji’s more than 300 islands, which seem to have formed specifically so they could be Instagrammed.
I spend my week rafting on white waters and swimming in green ones, losing whole afternoons to tall waterfalls, and canoeing up the Navua River, where, my boatman tells me, Anaconda was filmed, adding with a cackle “now no more, we ate all of them.” I participate in a traditional kava ceremony, eat food baked on hot stones underground, and watch bare-chested men dance in grass skirts (changing into their usual rugby T-shirts and footie shorts as soon as the performance is over!).
On a day out in Suva, the nation’s capital and once a scene of political crisis, a perfect day wrought from sunshine and sapphire skies is decorated with colourful cocktails on the terraces of the iconic Grand Pacific Hotel. Its heritage 1912-built terraces and luxuriant lawns filled with well-heeled guests, rich Fijians and tourists alike, the memories of abusive planters drinking spiced rum in this very place forgotten for a while.
In all this, India does not feature, and the history that defines this country hangs back, like a fixture unnoticed. The cadences and colours of Fiji’s towns are now drawn from Australia and New Zealand, the countries from where the majority of tourists arrive, and where Fijians, of all ethnic origins, prefer to emigrate to. Fijian culture is presented almost exclusively as iTaukei culture, to the point of fetishisation, a recognisable pattern from the affectations down under, where the aboriginal and Maori traditions have been similarly commercialised.
Yet, the Indians are still here, over 300,000 of them, nearly 40 per cent of the population, their lives marking every fibre of the city. At my sequestered, mostly white resort, every morning of the week, I eat roti-subzi for breakfast — not from any “Indian section” of the buffet (the spread is too spare for “sections”), but its main station. On a village tour, packaged to show off tribal culture, the “traditional lunch” includes a side of dal and a pumpkin dish that I have grown up eating as aloo-kumror chenchki. In Suva, the shiniest shops are of saris and lehngas, their façades merrily hustling “Roop ki Rani” collections. In Nadi, the town’s centrepiece is the colourful gopuram of the Sri Siva Subramaniya Temple, originally built in 1926, now getting ready for a Maha Kumbhabhishekham that takes place once every 12 years. In bookshops, novels of Premchand and classics of Amar Chitra Katha find pride of place. And everywhere you look, Veere di Wedding posters!
It feels odd to encounter so much that is so intensely familiar in a place that occurs to the mind first as very far away. But, in the end, it is a thrill to be able to replace the tired old ideas of what is remote and exotic with the full-bodied flavours of pickled histories that linger that much longer for being a reminder of home.
Abhijit Dutta writes about places and instagrams @nowgowhere