Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Brij Lal, a son of Labasa

An inspiring man, a writer, an intellectual, Brij Lal is a son of Labasa who lived as a child a few k from the present-day Vatuadova village. Here is an interview from today's Fiji Times with Professor Lal.

Fiji, a home like no otherVERENAISI RAICOLA
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Times: What inspired you to write about issues regarding Fiji Indians?

Professor Lal: I wish I knew; for the creative process is mad, full of inexplicable twists and turns. Mysterious even. I suppose it is a desire to make sense of things. I don't quite know what I think, what I have experienced unless I imagine it in words. I feel unfulfilled if I don't write. I feel something vital is missing from my life if I don't read and write. It is an addiction.

But there is another reason. The world which formed me, the self-contained, self-sufficient rural lifestyle, is slowly disappearing as people leave the village and as modernity laps its outer-edges.

I want to be a witness to that world which was once so important for me but of which I am no longer a part. There is very little written about the village world; the fears and hopes of the rural folks, so you have to recreate that vanishing world through imaginative reconstruction.

We hear a lot about the movers and shakers of the world, the politicians and the bureaucrats, but little about 'little people' who lie beyond the range of official statistics, beyond official recognition: the housewives, the lovers, the workers and primary school teachers; those who have lost out on life. I want to capture some of the inner lived experience of their lives.

Times: What are some of the difficulties faced by Fiji Indians in terms of identity here, in their motherland (India) or when they migrate to other parts of the world?

Prof. Lal: I think you become conscious of your unique identity when you step outside your own cultural world. You realise how Fijian you really are when you live in another culture, among other people. Your language, your sense of humour, your food, as well as habits are different, unique. As the years advance, you suddenly realise how important your place is in your life, how deep childhood memories are. I cannot make sense of my life without my Fijian identity.

Times: How is that a problem?

Prof. Lal: In this country, we are called Indians, but when you meet the real Indians, you suddenly realise how un-Indian you really are in your habits of thought and behaviour. The Indian world of horoscope and hierarchy, the obsession with protocol and ritual, of one's proper place in the order of things, means very little to you.

Self-made that we are, we are impatient with things set in concrete, with restrictive tradition.

I have met Indians from the Caribbean, Mauritius, South Africa, Kenya, Singapore and Malaysia. One thing we all have in common is our unique identity. We have an affinity for the 'cultural India', not the 'political India'. We have more in common with each other than with Indians from India. In fact, there is a kind of tension which animates our relationship.

I don't have any of that with people from the Pacific Islands.

Times: Have attachments to Fiji changed?

Prof. Lal: Our attachment to Fiji is a function of generational change. I was born and educated here. I am a part of its history and culture. Its landscape moves me: the feel of warm rain on freshly mowed lawn, the smell of burning cane, and the swollen brown rivers.

Fiji will always remain my spiritual and emotional home.

I am not sure that it will be so for my children who have been formed by other influences and who have spent virtually all their lives in other cultures. They don't necessarily share my passion or obsession with Fiji though they honour it. They are, in a sense, citizens of the world.

Times: What feelings do Indians have when they are forced to leave because of political upheavals and land lease expiry?

Prof. Lal: People leave Fiji for a variety of reasons. Many feel uprooted and unwanted, trapped and terrorised. Many leave because they are fed up with uncertainty and diminishing opportunities for themselves and their children.

But the emotional bonds linger, especially for the first generation; the umbilical chord is impossible to break. They keep in touch with developments in Fiji through a variety of ways. Travel and technology have revolutionised notions of attachment and citizenship. It is no longer a case of either/or; attachment to a country cannot be measured by a piece of paper. It is a commitment of the heart and the mind that matters.

Times: You grew up in the village but people like you managed to be immensely knowledgeable about the wider world probably more than most children today.

Tell me a little about that life that you exposed in the book Turnings Fiji Factions.

Prof. Lal: The world which formed me has vanished. I grew up without paved roads, and running water, without electricity. Both my parents were illiterate. I was the first one in my family ever to complete high school and go on to university. There was no counselling about careers. There was no television, radio was new, there was no Internet, no iPods, and no mobile phones.

It was, in some ways, the dark ages. Yet, people of my generation from that kind of background have travelled places, made something of themselves. We were from the village but were immensely knowledgeable about the world. There was a hunger to know more. I really am not sure if that is the case today.

We had teachers who took their profession seriously, not as a stepping stone to another career. Our pursuit for excellence was driven by desperation. There was nothing to return to if we failed. There was no safety net, no one to lean on for assistance. So we strove hard and burned the midnight lamp to be successful today.

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