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Travel Stories

Fiji Masala


The bride, eyes downcast, steps gingerly down the aisle

A young girl strikes a pose while eating cinammon rice

A female relative of the bride blesses the groom
by Ian Neubauer

[From Winter 2010] Between 1879 and 1916, more than 60,000 indentured labourers, or Girmityas, were shipped from Bengal and other parts of India to work on Fijian sugar plantations. One in three returned home after their contracts expired but most stayed on, forever changing the social landscape of this dreamy South Pacific nation. According to the Fiji Islands Bureau of Statistics' most recent census, Indo-Fijians account for 37 percent of the population.

But unlike most migrant groups that settle in faraway lands, Indo-Fijians have wholly retained their genetic and cultural identities. Historians attribute it to the legacy of race-based politics and other manifestations of ethnic tension that prevented assimilation between Indo-Fijians and their native Fijian hosts.

But the theory discounts Indo-Fijians' love for all things `Indian' and their ineradicable desire to incorporate these in their day-to-day lives. Most have never been to India, nor do they aspire to, yet they all speak Hindi. Many Indo-Fijian women still dress only in saris, while Hindu temples and shrines pockmark the land. And they're absolutely fanatical about curries - one of the few cultural elements they've passed on to their hosts.

But the real buffer to assimilation is their taboo against intermarriage. It took root in the colonial era when the practice was forbidden and has been flamed over the decades by Hindu notions of racial purity. Today, 95 percent of Indo-Fijians marry their own.

To get a true measure of what it means to be Indo-Fijian, one must attend a wedding ceremony. Wrangling your way into one isn't overly difficult. They usually take place under canopies on roadside locations, and a polite enquiry may earn you an impromptu invite.

My crash-landing at a Indo-Fijian wedding was less deliberate. I was hitchhiking in the Sabeto Valley - a velvet-green basin 15km north of Nadi - when I heard a hullabaloo of horns. A cavalcade of cars and buses came speeding down the road, the lead vehicle adorned with a mesh of pink garlands. I stood aside and took in the spectacle until one of the last cars pulled over and an Indian gent stuck his head out the window. "Where you going?" he asked.

"To the next village," I answered.

"Jump in, I'll give you a lift."

His name was Dev Mishrada and he was born in the Sabeto Valley. After studying diesel engineering in Auckland he migrated to Sydney where he now lives with his family, not far from my home. "When I left in 1980 things were not very good," he said. "The people were oppressed. There was lots of discrimination. But now the new government is doing everything for the people; you can see how happy and content they are."

Mishra's support for the government of acting Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama - the military headman who seized power in a bloodless 2006 coup and who is considered a pariah by the international community - is not rare among Indo-Fijians. Better said, they positively adore him, crediting his administration for dismantling much of the institutionalised racism that hamstrung racial harmony between Fijians and Indo-Fijians for more than 120 years. They also laud him for improving the lot of the nation's poorest, a disproportionate number of whom are of Indian descent.

"It's the first time in history things have been like this," Dev enthused. "Crime has fallen to next to nothing; if someone hurts a tourist or messes with a kid, they will be arrested in half an hour. All the children are going to school because it's free. I promise you, everything you hear about Fiji and the bad government is total rubbish. The army is doing a terrific job - ask anyone, they'll agree."

By the time we reached the village, Dev had invited me to join the wedding. An introduction to the father of the groom made it official and I was welcomed into the fold. The ceremony began on strip of grass outside the canopy where, one by one, the bride's mother, grandmother, sisters and aunties applied a spice, kumkum, to the groom's temple and threw flowers over his head to drive away any impure thoughts. The participation of relatives is dead important here, for a Hindu wedding is more than the marriage of two people. It's the marriage and merger of two families.

It was followed by a private blessing by the Hindu priest in Sanskrit that went on for the best part of an hour. All the while the groom remained tight-lipped with a deeply solemn look on his face, as did the bride when she was finally walked down the isle. Her dour outward appearance did not waiver when she reached the alter - a psychedelically decorated marriage canopy resembling a Jewish chuppah but with a Christmas tree-looking agni, the representation of the sacred fire, bunged in the middle of it. Later in the ceremony, the bride and groom would circle the agni seven times, reciting seven promises encapsulating love, loyalty and commitment - the building blocks of their new relationship.

The ceremony was lengthy and elaborate and involved a colourful array of props the priest used to teach the couple about the duties of marriage. Family members sat behind them in rows, cross-legged on the floor, while the guests, about 200 of them, sat on thin wooden benches - women on one side and men opposite.

After an hour or so I lost the ability to concentrate and sauntered around to the back for a chat with some of the other guests. I learnt how the caste system that so cruelly subdivides people in India along socio-economic lines is nonexistent in Fiji, and that Hindu and Muslim Indians, who have long been at loggerheads in the Sub-continent - get along famously here. "When my great, great grandfather was brought here with Muslims and Punjabis, they all had to do the same work so they had to compromise and treat each other as equals," said Salanda Kumar, an uncle of the groom who now lives in San Francisco.

I also learnt how the official story about how the Girmityas arrived in Fiji - after signing an agreement, or girmit in Pidgin English, to work for five years at one shilling per day - is a revisionist version of history. "They were tricked," explained Vinesh Chand, a local cassava farmer. "They were told they were going to a tropical island a few days sail away and that there were many riches there, but as soon as they walked onto the ships the doors closed behind them. Some of them had to spend months waiting at port for the ship to fill up."

"When they arrived in this country," added his neighbour Vinod Prakasha, "they were whipped and put to work on sugar farms. They were not used to the conditions and life was very difficult."

At the two-hour mark in the ceremony, the children and elderly moved to the dining area to eat. The food was strictly vegetarian but in no way bland: cinnamon fried rice, curried potato and eggplant, mango chutney, cucumber salad, coleslaw and roti baked fresh in a clay oven. The ceremony concluded with the kanyadaan, the giving away of the virgin. The bride's father put his daughter's right hand into the groom's while reciting sacred verses and with that, the couple were officially wed. And while the proceedings would continue for several more days, the brief but colourful interlude gave me a thorough appreciation of the strength and vitality of the Indo-Fijian community.

Traveling to Fiji:
Air Pacific is Fiji's international carrier, with direct flights from Los Angeles, Honolulu, Vancouver, Auckland, Christchurch, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Narita (Japan). Other airlines that fly into Fiji include Qantas, Air New Zealand, Korean Air, V Australia and Pacific Blue.
For U.S. travelers, visit U.S. State Department - Fiji for more information.

Photographs by Ian Neubauer