Upon arrival in Viti Levu, we found Nadi airport overloaded.
It's full of Oceanian families eager to land on the sunbeds of the offshore resorts, but also relaxed and unhurried backpackers.
Nadi clashes with the imagery that most western visitors have in their minds. Cement and asphalt predominate, broken only by small clearings of tropical vegetation fought over by flocks of corvids from the tropics.
Newcomers to this urban environment, we are amazed to see how Fiji's modernized Indo-Fijian community thrives. Countless rent-a-cars, hotels and inns, shops and restaurants are in the hands of families with forgotten relatives in the subcontinent.
They have names that leave no doubt: Singh Motel, Narwhal Tours or Shandilya Flowers.
“We understand that it's fascinating for you that we've ended up here so far away, but it was fate…” Sharmila assures us, as she passes the mop by the dashboard of the vehicle that is unprepared for the muddy country roads, which she was about to hand over. “We have had a new reality for a long time.
And every time things around here get more shaky, our minds turn to Australia or New Zealand, not exactly India. We have family members both Aussies and Kiwis. I personally didn't mind moving at all.”
Indigenous Melanesian Fijians and British Recruited Indians
Today, the coexistence of Indo-Fijians with the more commercially low-key Melanesians is often challenged by the political and economic interests of the country's leaders.
Indo-Fijians, more skilled in the art of lobbying, win election after election, sometimes in coalition with Fijian representatives. But all too often, the predominantly Fijian military rejects submission to the “invaders” and carries out corrective coups d'état.
From 1987 to date, there have been three. The first caused the expulsion – temporary but long – of Fiji from the Commonwealth. The following almost gave rise to civil wars and new expulsions from the English-speaking community.
And yet, the political coexistence of both ethnicities is both living and changing testimony to Fiji's colonial past.
In the middle of the XNUMXth century, English settlers were already infiltrating important sections of the main islands of the archipelago. Little by little, they covered them with plantations of sugar cane, cotton and tobacco, in which they enslaved indigenous people who had been kidnapped in the present-day Solomon and Vanuatu Islands.
Sugar cane, in particular, expanded immeasurably and required more and more cutters which the settlers could no longer obtain on the surrounding islands as slave labor had meanwhile been banned in Britain.
Contracts That Expatriate Indian Workers Forever
As an alternative, the British resorted to the inexhaustible labor of the Crown Jewel. Between 1879 and 1916, more than 60.000 Indians were legally brought to Fiji.
The five-year contracts signed were initially seen by the signatories as divine blessings but that perception changed at a glance in the face of the cruelty of work and the miserable living conditions in general, aggravated by long non-payments and overcrowded accommodation, shared by members of different castes and religions.
After the deadlines, most of the girmityas (girmit means agreement) decided or were forced to remain in Fiji. Many families came from India to join them.
The sequel to this forced immigration forever altered the country's ethnic landscape. Today, with nearly a million inhabitants, Fiji is home to more than 40% Indo-Fijians.
As we drive around Viti Levu, we see how, as a social counterpoint to the Indo-Fijian city dwellers of Nadi and Lautoka, small nuclei remain in the rural interior.
They till the lands that still exist, faithful to their original existence and to the culture of the mother country, which is around 11.000 km away.
India Far from India by Viti Levu
As is the case in certain parts of India, in order to spread their faith and avoid confusion, also in Viti Levu, Hindu families make their mark. your houses with small red flags, while Muslim women paint them preferentially with the green and white of Islam.
In markets, women wrapped in gaudy saris sell fruits and vegetables while Muslim men continue to wear their salwaar-kameez dresses.
The cuisine has changed little, sustained by an unavoidable passion for rotis served directly from the homemade ovens, for spicy curries accompanied by rice and followed by traditional Mithai sweets.
Leisure times, too, continue to follow the fashions of Mumbai and New Delhi, which new technologies now allow to follow with relative ease.
Almost without exception, Hindu cinemas in the main towns regularly show Bollywood classics and new hits and, in their fans' homes, DVD's repeat them over and over again as well as the strident soundtracks.
These and other habits of the Indo-Fijian community coexisted over time with the island's original way of life. But not everyone recognizes or approves of the nation's partition.
And the Melanesian Fijians Who Have Been Forced to Welcome the Indians
A visibly Melanesian young couple invites us to their humble home north of Suva. There, conversation starts, we ask him if Indo-Fijians do not live in the village. To which they respond with a smile on their lips but with determination: “In Suva, Nadi and Lautoka, that even happens but, in villages, it is rare.
As a rule, we live among Fijians, they live among Indo-Fijians. Even between them there would be problems if they mixed in an unthought-of way. They can be Indo-Fijian Hindus or Muslims.
then are calcutta (from north India) or madrassis (from south India). And to top it off, Hindus still belong to different castes. The truth is, it's a miracle there's no more confusion between them and between them and us.”
In addition to watching together some sports, cultural events and other special occasions for a long time, the two groups interacted very little. Their educational, social and economic priorities have always been different.
As a result, a large proportion of Fijians continue to consider Indo-Fijians vulagi, which is how to say, mere intruders. Occasionally, tempers heat up, but the most common conflicts are political-military ones.
It is clear that, as modernity takes over the country, integration becomes stronger and, even if only in the form of exceptions, it shuffles all the rules.
Fijian women began wearing sari patterned jewelry and fabrics. Some of their families are also caught up in Bollywood fever to the point where certain recent “Indian” hits have been recorded by indigenous artists.
These, in turn, can hear us in bars where Fijian servants serve drinks from curry bowls, just as the Indo-Fijian community does in their homes.
And, as we followed, in the meantime from the edge of Kings Road, on a rainy afternoon, young Indo-Fijians are also joining rugby, until recently a colonial heritage exclusive to the natives.