“But where are you really from?”
When asked the question “where are you from?”, I had always wished there was a simple answer I could respond with. Especially because it’s usually followed up with “But where are you really from?”. This question is all too familiar for most people of color, and there’s rarely an easy answer. Although it can be tedious trying to divulge one’s family history into a single sentence, these questions are generally innocuous and are spawned out of curiosity –– why wouldn’t someone want to know your story?
Over the last couple years I started asking myself these questions. My heritage, where I was born, where I grew up, and where I live are all disparate. And as I dug deeper into my family history I realized that this was the case for most of us. My mother’s side of the family are from Fiji, by way of India. My great grandfather first arrived in 1922, at which time the indentured labour system was still in effect. From 1879 to 1916 the British transported over 60,000 Indians to Fiji as sugar-cane plantation workers. This system was created to provide cheap workers for British colonies after the abolition of slavery. My family lived and worked there until the 1987 coup which resulted in the removal of the multi-ethnic Labour Party from the government. This included most Indians, who at the time accounted for almost 50 percent of Fiji’s population. With the increasing political instability in Fiji, as well as propagated hostility towards Indo-Fijians campaigned by Colonel Sitiveni Rambuka, many resolved to leave. Our family dispersed between Canada and New Zealand.
It can be daunting to navigate the intricacies of the South Asian diaspora, but I believe it’s important to acknowledge the concept of cross-cultural agency and understand how these hyphenated identities develop. To have a more profound understanding of the “South Asian Identity” one must always take into account subjectivity, experience, cultural practices, politics, and history. These aspects of identity-construction are complex, and can often be fragmented. With this in mind, I decided to interview my grandfather (Aja), his youngest brother Thakor (Nana), and my mother (Mamta) about their cross-generational experiences in Fiji, immigrating to Canada, and what identity means to them.
Through the many photographs I’ve seen and discussions I’ve had during my ongoing research, I was able to comprehend the concept of transnational identity and why it’s so important to embrace every part of yourself. I now relish the question “where are you from?” because deep roots can’t be seen from the surface.
K: Why did our family decide to move from India to Fiji?
Nana: My father came with the understanding that he would have a better life in Fiji, but he didn’t come under the indentured labour term. The labourers were called the ‘Girmit’, and most of them were from Uttar Pradesh and in India. The British promised the labourers good work and to cultivate the fields for only five years. They promised them a land rich of natural resources, where you will come back to your family wealthy and successful. But none of that actually happened. The British created this system which reaped Fiji of all its natural resources using Indian labourers. They just took it all out without replanting, and it became resource-poor. But during this time the news traveled to other parts of India [primarily Gujarat]. People were also venturing to Africa at that time being promised the same thing. While this British propaganda was happening, families who wanted to travel and have a better life took these opportunities. My father and his brother both ventured alone [without their wives] to Fiji to establish a business.
K: What was it like growing up in Fiji?
Nana: It was nothing but playing in the streets with your neighbours, weekends at the wharf, buying bags of peanuts and throwing it at the fishes in the water. It was a lot of fun.
Mamta: I spent the first 20 years of my life there. It was a very care-free childhood, since it was tropical we were always outside –– we learnt to be very independent and resourceful to keep ourselves entertained because we weren’t given toys all the time. I grew up in a Hindu household, our family was very spiritual and we observed all the festivals. But one of the most beautiful parts of growing up in Fiji was that we celebrated all other religious festivals as well.There was no tension [at that time], it didn’t matter what your religious background was. During Diwali our Catholic and Muslim friends would come over, and for Eid and Christmas we would all do the same and celebrate together. I went to a Hindu primary school and then a Catholic high school run by the nuns. There was no animosity. It was a really beautiful and harmonious society.
K: What businesses did our family first set up?
Nana: When my family moved from Ba to the city [Suva] in the early 1930s, my father decided that he was going to open a tobacconist. The store was very successful and in a great part of town.
Aja: My father then opened a tailoring shop in 1945. I went to school until the age of 14. My father couldn’t afford to send me anymore so I started working for him and my uncle, and eventually I took over the family business in 1970.
Mamta: My dad had a really popular tailoring shop called Island Tailors. I used to spend a lot of time in the shop after school. I would wait for the seamstresses to leave and then get on one of the machines and start making clothes or blankets out of discarded fabrics. No one taught or actively encouraged me to do it, the focus was mainly on school but I still really enjoyed it. My aunts were also tailors, it was really a family profession.
K: How was cohabiting with the local Fijians compared the to Indians?
Nana: There was a racial hierarchy at the time. The locals had an “island mentality” and way of life that was very different to the Indians who immigrated from India. Any Indian who owned a business considered themselves to be upper-class, so they didn’t really mix with the locals as harmoniously as they should have. For our family, when it came to socializing on a daily basis, it was never an issue. We younger people did not relate to that [separatist] mentality but we grew up with that around us and in our community.
Mamta: We were very sociable. We all co-existed, and I don’t think I ever had that differentiation in my social experiences. Growing up I never thought about how the role as a “labourer” was passed on. The British brought Indians over to Fiji as workers, but once the Indians established themselves the Fijians fell into that role. Looking back now, most of Fijians had manual labour jobs. We were always very kind to them but in a larger sense they were looked upon as the lower socio-economic class. It’s definitely ironic that this happened but it was through [colonialism] that the Indians developed this socio-economic hierarchy over the indigenous. I always thought this was really unfair.
K: How did living in Fiji inform your outlook on being “Indian”?
Aja: Fiji has always been my home. I am Fijian before I am Indian.
Nana: I always say I’m a Fijian. I have never said I am an Indian because that is not where I’m from. It was only later when I came to Canada that this became confusing for other people. When I moved, the Canadians would always assume I was from Pakistan. This was the arrogance of most Canadians who had no idea geographically where or what Fiji was. [At the time] they had very little knowledge outside their country. It was tough trying to explain who we were and where we were from. When I first moved here they would often ask “Hey you have a funny accent, what accent is this?” And I would always say “born and raised in Fiji Islands my friend”. My accent was not Indian. After cohabiting with the Fijians all of our accents were like theirs. Even though we would often speak Hindi, it wasn’t the Hindi being spoken in India.
Mamta: I feel that I am a Fijian more than I am an Indian. I didn’t grow up in India, my heritage is just Indian. We were Fijian-Indians, “Indian” was always secondary.
K: What is “Fiji-Hindi”?
Nana: The indentured system brought labourers from both the North and South of India to Fiji. During this time there was a mixture of languages and dialects between them and the Fijians – it became almost like a “kitchen language”. On the West side of the Island people spoke a lot of this [hybridized] Hindi. My father didn’t allow this in the house, he only wanted us to speak Gujarati, but we picked it up from socializing. The same thing happened with the Indians from East and Southern Africa. They began mixing Swahili with Hindi and Gujarati. When I first came to Canada and met [my wife] she spoke the African dialect of Gujarati and Hindi which I didn’t understand.
K: How did you feel about leaving Fiji?
Mamta: We left quite suddenly because of the military coup. I didn’t even get a chance to really think about it. But I was very excited to come to Canada. Our family had been here for many years already and I always dreamed about coming to Canada, so at the time I didn’t really realize how much I would miss the Fijian lifestyle. It was all really new coming here to a different climate –– and social climate. It offered us so many opportunities and I’m very grateful for them. But I still have that longing for my roots and I appreciate that a large portion of my life was spent there.
K: What is “home” to you?
Mamta: Home for me is wherever I settle down. The things I associate with “home” in Fiji no longer exist. All of our family and friends have left –– for me, it’s the connection with people in a place which makes it home. So I feel that Canada is now my home, even though my roots lie in Fiji. It has shaped me into the person I am today.