Where it all began …
In the 1800’s there was a lot of civil and political unrest as British Forces attempted to colonise India. Mass immigration from the subcontinent started after British power was consolidated in the Indian Ocean area. Emigration was mainly in the form of contract labourers under the indenture system. They provided the workforce for the sugar, coffee, tea and rubber plantations created to supply Europe with primary tropical products.
The bulk of the indentured labourers went to Mauritius, the Caribbean and Fiji. Under the indenture system or Grimit (agreement), the labourers had a free passage of return to India after their contract expired, although most opted to stay in their new countries after achieving small degree of independence and started their own farming and business. People trying to avoid persecution due to India’s Independence Movement from the advancing British Forces during this era went to extraordinary lengths to get out of India which included lying about their age, caste, background etc. Because of this, many discrepancies exist in the archives today.
My paternal family history begins with Gulab, living in the village of Songroo, in the town of Etah, near Agra in Uttar Pradesh. He was married to Khushaloo (dadi amma). Gulab worked in an army camp cooking and serving food to soldiers. When Gulab died in the war, Birbal, aged 10years and his mother Khushaloo came to Fiji on a half Girmit. Under the Indenture System, the Girmit was for 5 years. Half Girmit was also for a 5year period, but females and young children had light duties and shorter hours than adult males.
Documentation shows Khushaloo leaving Calcutta, India onboard POONAH 1 on 19th June 1882. Her age was listed to be 28 years old and physical features included a scar on her left jaw. Documents show that “child 786’, Birbal, to be travelling with her.
It should be noted that it was not common practice to document female travel during that time and it is believed that Birbal’s two sisters also came to Fiji with Khushaloo and Birbal. Bribal’s brother stayed in India. Family history passed through generations indicate one of Birbal’s sisters drowned and the other married and later returned to India.
During the Girmit, Birbal worked in the sugar cane farms for the Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR) in Nausori. He married Parmeshwari from Korogaga, near Nausori in Fiji. After his Girmit expired, Birbal opened a General Store in a Fijian village (near Naselei Village) in the Rewa Delta. He also acquired land (Nabutu) and started his own farm in Lokia, Rewa. This 5acre farm still exists on the banks of the Rewa river and this is where Khushaloo is buried.
Birbal and Parmeshwari had 14 children in total. 3 died during infancy, and the next generation of Birbal starts with 6 sons and 5 daughters, listed in birth order below:
- Ram Dei
- Kasi Ram
- Ram Kali (aka Chamma)
- Nand Lal
- Hari Prasad (aka Freeman) – Sadhna & Neil’s grandfather Ram Pyari
- Dwarka Prasad (aka Kalappan)
- Harak Wati (aka Babun)
- Rati Ram (aka Bhagat)
- Ram Dhani (aka Mohan Lal)
- Bindra Mati (aka Binda)
The 6 boys later ventured into different professions:
- Kasi Ram – bus driving and truck operations in Suva.
- Nand Lal – shopkeeping in Suva.
- Hari Prasad – maintained the farm in Rewa, operated tug boats and later passenger and cargo ferry and also built boats.
- Dwarka Prasad – operated a farm in Rewa, a ferry and a shop.
- Rati Ram – school teacher
- Ram Dhani – part-time ferry operator, school teacher and later civil service.
The brothers also had a combined ferry service operating from the Rewa Delta to Suva.
So cut to today:
I am of the fourth generation Indian born in Fiji. I left Fiji in my late teens, more than 30 years ago and migrated to Australia. I have travelled far and wide and have spent extensive times in various cities around the world, yet at my core I am defined by those early years growing up in Fiji.
Fiji is a nation that is rich and diverse in Indian culture. It has a fascinating history with Indians from many regional descents of India, all living in a very small country. This has allowed the cuisine to develop its own identity. My mission is to preserve and document the flavours of my childhood.
The combination of flavours in the recipes included in this book belong specifically to my family. Every family in Fiji has their own interpretation of the same flavours so this book belongs to everybody. The flavours and tastes of this book speak the language of our mother tongue. Yet, it has its own dialect. It defines us as Fijian Indians. It gives us our uniqueness.
I cannot describe how blessed I have been with the love bestowed upon me by all of my grandparents. When things get tough, I go to this comfortable space hidden within my treasured memories and count my blessings. I realise that I have had no ordinary life. In fact, the sacrifices Birbal made, from the start of his over 100 days of I what I can only imagine to be a turbulent journey, sailing to Fiji to the lessons that Kushaloo passed to him and he to Birbal and then along the lineage to me has led to have quite an extraordinary life.
I hope my book Tropical Vegetarian and raising awareness and preserving our ancestral food and culture. The preservation of my family recipes is my way of acknowledging my ancestors hard work, sweat, blood and tears, and ensuring that their memories live on.