Monday, May 16, 2016

Remembering girmit days

From a feature article in the Fiji Times about remembering girmit days.

Poems of indenture period

Jogindar Singh Kanwal
Monday, May 16, 2016
During the indenture period (1879-1920), both men and women, worked long hours in the cane fields. The white overseer and his sardar would move around with whips in their hands to see that the Indian labourers completed their allotted tasks before the end of the day.
Out of this experience came the story of Jhinki in verse form. She lived in Kavanagasau in Sigatoka area. Her beauty attracted the attention of her masters who took pleasure in rebuking her and occasionally beating her. One evening, in a complaining tone, she began to tell her experience to other women:
Bipat Jhiniki ki suunay ko dayia
Sahiba hai bara pittaya
Hai apna sadar chuggal khore
Vayrun hai Ramdayia
There is nobody to hear the troubles of Jhinki
The boss is a great beater
Ram dayia is my enemy
And sardar is a backbiter
Many women from India were lured by the recruiting agents, called arkatees, to come to Fiji with false promises of a rosy future. After their bitter experience in the plantations, they would remember the way they were misled by the arkatees who would scold them almost daily. While working in the cane fields, a woman in Rakiraki began to curse the man who recruited and sent her to Fiji.
Bhagg aai mein des se
Peechhay chhoota sambria
Mar ja bharti wale
Meri sooni kar di sajeria
Leaving behind my lover
I ran away from my country
O' recruiter! May death befall you
You have deprived me of my marriage bed
Human beings have unlimited capacity to endure suffering but a stage does come when the cup of patience is full to the brim. It was what happened in Ba. A gang of women workers was harassed and frequently whipped by a kolumber, white overseer.
One day when he insulted a woman, all of them got together and turned on him to beat him. The more aggressive ones who saw the incident started a chant.
Toot marain ham kaam mein, O' Rama!
Fir bhi jhirki lagaye rey bidesia
Khoon paseenay se seechay hum bagia
Baitha baitha hukam chalaye rey bidesia
Tired and half-dead we do the task
Even then we are rebuked and insulted
We irrigate the fields with our sweat and blood
But sitting comfortably, the overseer bosses us around
Sometimes there was nobody to listen to their tales of sufferings. The only witnesses were the sugarcane plants. While working, and hoes in their hands, they would sing:
Chhuri kudaari ke sung
Ab beetay din ratian
Gannay ki hari hari patian
Janey hamri sab batian
Our days and nights are spent with knives and hoes
Green leaves of the sugarcane are aware of our woes
Many Fijians of Indian descent, both men and women in Fiji, have been singing birha, phaguwa, sohar, kajri, bhajans, wedding songs, and hymns from the Ramayana with great enthusiasm but the new generation is taking more interest now in film songs. Bidesia was quite popular among the women a few years ago.
Even some groups sang complete lyrics of baitha baitha hukmam chalay rey bidesia and gannay ki hari hari patiyan over Radio Fiji in the '60s and '70s of the last century. Another woman also expresses her grief through the medium of green leaves of the sugarcane:
Ambua ki daal pe kooke kolia ho
Manua mein aggia laagai rey bidesia
Hari hari patinan pe likh likh haari mein
Dil kaa fulwaa murjhai rey bidesia
On the branch of a mango tree the cuckoo is singing
She is setting fire to my mind
I am tired of writing love messages on green leaves
The flower of my heart is fading out
Bidesia came from Bhojpuri-speaking districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Its burning themes — love, restlessness and deep pains of separation touched the hearts of ordinary people.
Actually conditions of women were more miserable and pathetic than the men.
The colonial government of India of those days thought that at least 40 per cent of labourers had to be women so that the foundation of family life could be laid in Fiji but this ratio could not be maintained in spite of the efforts made by the recruiting agents in India, who on so many occasions used trickery and abduction to send women to Fiji. In the midst of oppression and uncertainties, the women would remember their past experiences.
Dipua ma laaye pakrao kagadua ho
Anguthua lagaye dena haar rey bidesia
Paal ke jahajua ma roy dhoye baithae ho
Kaise hoee kala pani paar rey bidesia
In the depot I was handed a paper
Knowing not the consequences
I put my thumb impression on it.
In the ship of sails, weeping and grumbling
I sat and wondered how kala pani would be crossed over
In India a popular national leader, Saojni Naidu, who was called the Nightingale of India because of her popularity as a poetess, expressed agony in poetry on the subject of degradation of women, and she even addressed public meetings to make people of India aware of the conditions of indentured women in Fiji.
And in Fiji, Hannah Dudley of the Methodist Mission who did remarkable work for the welfare of the Indian women once remarked: "They arrived in the country, timid, fearful, not knowing where they are to be sent. They are allotted to the plantations like so many dumb animals. If they do not perform satisfactorily the work given to them, they are struck or fined or even sent to jail. The life of the plantations alters their demeanour and even their very faces. Some looked crushed and broken-hearted, others sullen, others hard and evil.
"I shall never forget the first time I saw indentured women when they were returning from their day's work. The look on those women's faces haunts me."
And these unfortunate women continued their Bidesia to sing out the pain from their "crushed and broken" hearts.
Kali kothria ma beeti nahi ratia ho
Kis ke batai ham peer rey bidsia
Din raat beeti hamri dukh mein umaria ho
Sookha sab nainnua ke neer rey bidesia
Nights would hardly go by in the dark room
Whom should I disclose my agony?.
Day and night I went through hardships
Even the tears of my eyes have dried up
One of the problems that preoccupied the labourers was the shabby living conditions in the coolie lines. They could do nothing about it except to express resentment which once took the following satirical mode.
Sab sukh khaan CSR ki kothria
Chhe foot chori aath foot lambi
Usi mein dhari hai kamaane ki kudria
Usi mein sil usi mei choolha
Six by eight feet room of CSR
is a source of "all comforts"
In it are kept tools and hoes
In it is our hearth and home
In it is placed the firewood
In it is our sleeping place
Following Fijian traditions, Fijians of Indian descent had developed a taste for yaqona. Sometimes they gathered around a large bowl and continued talanoa — storytelling, and gossiping until midnight. On many occasions, they did it against the wishes of their wives.
In Navua, the following lines were composed by an anonymous songwriter. Addressing his wife, he said he could not leave his habit of drinking yaqona. The song became so popular that people began to sing it whenever they got together in their sangeet manadalees (musical gatherings)
Des chhoota, jaat chhooti
Chhootay baap mahtaari
Nagona hum se chhootay na pyari
Iss tapoo ka bhang nagona
Pee ke raat gujaari
O' my darling
I cannot leave yaqona
I left my country and my caste
I left behind my parents
But now I cannot leave yaqona
The thrilling drug of this island
Drinking it, I spend the whole night
Folk songs are passed by word of mouth from one generation to another. The indentured men and women might have heard these songs when they were still in India.
During their stay in Fiji, they might have changed the words and tunes to suit the environment and situation. Since their modified forms began to be sung and recited in Fiji's cane fields, this kind of poetry drew aside for us the veil that covered different faces of the indenture system.
* Jogindar Singh Kanwal is a former principal of Khalsa College, Ba and author of many Hindi and English books. His email address is

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